Review: Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements

Divana Olivas

Devon G. Peña, Luz Calvo, Pancho McFarland, and Gabriel R. Valle. Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements: Decolonial Perspectives. University of Arkansas Press, 2017. xiii, 364 pp.

Corn’s transformation from a cosmologically sacred food source to high fructose corn syrup demonstrates the far-reaching and multi-layered impact of today’s neocapitalist food economy. This is the arc traced by Devon Peña, Luz Calvo, Pancho McFarland, and Gabriel Valle in Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements, a volume of essays, testimonios, autoethnographies, and case studies. Their volume joins other texts in the University of Arkansas Press’s Food and Foodways series, edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach and Michael Wise. Similar to other volumes in the series, this collection combines scholarship from a breadth of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, history, Chicanx studies, and food studies. One of its most impressive contributions is its commitment to decolonial perspectives—on which there remains a dearth of literature within food studies. Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements received the Association for the Study of Food and Society’s 2018 Book Award for Edited Volumes, evidence of its valuable addition to a thin, but growing, canon of research.

This edited volume is a sharp critique of food systems grounded in decolonial theory that moves beyond inherited paradigms of settler capitalist societies towards transformative practices. Intentionally genre-bending, it demonstrates how various analytic foci and methodologies of research, however varied, aim toward the common goal of rethinking autonomous relationships to land and food.

This ethos undergirds the entirety of the anthology’s oeuvre, which is structured in three parts. Part I, “Theorizing,” features a piece from Rufina Juárez, a grassroots organizer in Los Angeles whose testimonio shares lessons learned from the 2006 displacement of the South Central Farm, the largest urban farm in the U.S. at the time. One of the volume editors, Gabriel Valle, reads urban kitchen gardens as material manifestations of decolonial foodways, demonstrating how cultivating these often-ignored sites serves as a liberating activity for the gardeners who are not growing to produce, but to be creative. The standout piece in this section, however, comes from another one of the volume’s editors, Devon Peña, who boldly critiques La Via Campesina (LVC) and their deployment of food sovereignty. This critique is a departure from most food studies scholars’ embrace of La Via Campesina’s notion of food sovereignty. Peña departs from La Via Campesina’s notion of food sovereignty through a critique of their anthropocentric framework, arguing that it elides food sovereignty’s potential as a praxis alongside nonhuman life. He adds that their discourse establishes an essentialist peasant rural subject that ignores the different strategies and lived experiences of an urban core population.

Part II, “Witnessing,” foregrounds testimonio as a decolonial approach to scholarship that highlights lived experiences and feelings as legitimate venues of knowledge production. This section begins with the lauded authors, Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel of the widely known “Decolonize Your Diet” cookbook, who share testimonios in relation to food in order to elaborate the meanings food takes within a queer, feminist framework. In doing so, they identify a Chican@ decolonial food politics that acknowledges and supports the work of American Indian food activists, while recognizing that “food connects us [queer Chicanx people] to our ancestors, the land, and our bodies” (125). Julia Curry Rodríguez follows with a reflection of her experience as a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies for over thirty years. Her piece stands out as one that directly deals with pedagogical strategies, specifically her idea of “using food as a way to encourage students to examine stories of class, culture, and familial relations” (191). She explains how food becomes a window to the study of the family, as students complete experiential oral history projects that involve the preparation of a favorite dish with a family member. Rodríguez’s insights are useful for educators thinking of innovative ways to use food in the classroom, as well as sociologists interested in insights on gender, the domestic sphere, or quotidian venues for cultural production.

Part III, “Organizing,” covers grassroots social movement organizing efforts that center around food and foodways. This section of the edited volume most directly speaks to broader food justice and food sovereignty literature, building from scholars such as Alison Alkon and Garrett Broad. It begins with a poem by community activist, Tezozomoc, who frames corn silk as a somber symbol of the loss of place-based knowledge that results in a deteriorating food system. Most notable in this section is Tomás Madrigal’s analysis of the Bellingham, Washington-based organization, “Familias Unidas Por la Justicia,” and the “unique contributions of Triqui- and Mixteco-speaking migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero” (251). He succinctly clarifies the differences between food justice and food sovereignty approaches: “While food justice functions as the glue holding the movements together, food sovereignty is the goal that these movements are working toward” (253). Similarly, Pancho McFarland’s work with Chicago-based organizations makes clear the productive tensions between Indigenous Heritage Knowledge and African Heritage Knowledge. Food is the nexus that connects hip hop artists to urban gardeners, who together are “[replacing] capitalist values [with] cooperation, shared labor, conviviality and hospitality” (299).

The only recommendation I have for this volume is that it move beyond centering only Mexican or Mexican-descended communities, in order to further its commitment to broadening the decolonial perspectives of food scholarship. For example, there is potential to trace the foodways of Haitian immigrants through a decolonial framework that accounts for their unique position as the first free Black republic in Latin America. Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements builds upon other food studies scholarship with an explicit focus on Latinx populations, such as Rethinking Chicana/o Literature Through Food (2013) and Latin@s’ Presence in the Food Industry (2016). These edited volumes are primarily concerned with centering Latinx populations and their social, political, economic, and cultural relationships to food. Peña, Calvo, McFarland, and Valle’s collection is a valuable addition to the field and a necessary read for scholars interested in food movements, Latinx/Chicanx studies, decolonial theory, and interdisciplinary research methodologies. The pieces in this volume highlight the centrality of land and the political self-determination of communities to decide how best to mobilize it—be it through urban farms or kitchen gardens. Contributors to the volume demonstrate how personal testimony is a way to address both the personal and political through food—both as a site for pleasure and for political self-awareness.


Divana Olivas is a PhD student in American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Her experience as a daughter of Mexican immigrant parents in central New Mexico informs the questions and research she pursues. Currently, her work centers the lives and experiences of Chicana and Latina women in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to further understand the limits of the modern/colonial food system.