Q & A is an on-going articles series where we ask Latinx creators about different topics. This month, we are focusing on heritage and cultural roots.
Like we stated before: “Although we are all forged from the same flame, we are made from different steel. The heritage of every place, belief, and tribe we come from deserves to be honored as well. Our diversity is our heritage and our legacy.”
This year, to talk about heritage and its influence in our daily life, we asked world known Chef Grace Ramirez, Maggie Unzueta from Mama Maggie’s Kitchen and Masterchef’s and El Sabor de Aarón’s participant Chef Javier Seañez.
Javier (@chefjavierseanez) is a Mexican chef, currently living in El Paso, Texas. He taught himself to cook by taking several culinary courses and (of course!) learned from his mother, an amazing cook who was very meticulous when food was involved, which turned Javier into a perfectionist chef. Javier’s dream is to have his own book and TV show in the future, to show the world his cooking and teach all those who want to learn.
When asked about how he would define his cultural heritage and its influence in his cooking skills, Javier told us: “My cultural heritage is completely defined by my country, Mexico, which is rich in flavors, textures in typical foods, authentic ingredients, and great diversity. Above all, it is strongly defined by the dishes of the women in my family. They are my biggest source of inspiration.”
Maggie Unzueta (@mamamaggieskitchen) is the cook, writer, taste tester, photographer, and videographer behind Mama Maggie’s Kitchen. In her website, you’ll find detailed step-by-step instructions, photos, and in several cases, instructional videos that will ensure you success in your own kitchen.
Born in the US, the daughter of Mexican parents, she speaks Spanish as her native language, but learned English as a kid growing up in LA. Currently, she lives in San Diego and goes back and forth to Baja California, Mexico.
For Maggie, Mexico is also a big part of her heritage: “I define myself as Mexican. I come from a strong and vibrant community filled with traditions passed down from generation to generation. Food memories are always present with me. Each time I cook, I want to feel like I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen. Those food memories are what help to recreate our traditional dishes.”
Last but not least, we reached out to the amazing Grace Ramirez (@chefgraceramirez) . Grace is a chef, author, dedicated humanitarian, and TV personality.
Born in Miami at the heart of a Venezuelan family, she grew up among influences from a diverse array of Latin countries. She expanded her horizons in New York City, where she received her professional training at the French Culinary Institute.
Currently, Chef Grace shares her love for cooking on Hogar de HGTV. As host of the hit series Destino con Sabor, the show De Chuparse Los Dedos and as a judge at Chef a Domicilio.Most recently, Grace worked with Aramark to develop and launch their La Latina Cocina.
Grace thinks that cultural heritage is a complicated concept to define. “I’ve been very privileged to have been brought up in a very multicultural environment. I was born in Miami, but have lived in New York for almost 20 years. Therefore, I consider myself a New Yorker, whose family is from Venezuela, but my heart is a quarter Mexican. My mother is a Mexican resident, who lives between the state of Jalisco and Uruguay, and my step-father, who raised me, is from Peru. I love being able to experience all those mixed cultures in my everyday life.”
She likes to refer to herself as the “New American Girl”. Chef Grace feels that she is a mix of many cultures, and she really appreciates that about herself: “It has not been easy to find a place and sense of belonging, it’s actually been very difficult, because most people want to just label you. But I have worked really hard on myself internally, so I don’t need to be labeled externally as one thing. I truly love being Latina, I honor it, I celebrate it every day, but we must not let the stereotypes get to us, because everybody has a path, we are who we are, and no labels should define us.”
And her cookbook, La Latina, reflects those thoughts: “Food in Latin culture is so important, it’s at the center of everything we do. I grew up tasting all these different flavors and learning about all these different cultures. I, of course, could not put all of the Latin dishes into a 300 page cookbook, nor into one concept, but the book reflects Latin dishes I’ve personally experienced and crave when I visit certain countries/regions.”
Just like food is at the center of Latin culture, we could argue the same for families.
So, what memories in their family kitchens do they most fondly remember? Did they “inherit” any tips (and recipes) from the older generations?
For Javier, the best memories in the kitchen are always cooking a lot of food, because in Mexico and all Latin America any family gathering, however simple it may be, is the reason for an impromptu party where there is always a lot to eat. “More than inheriting recipes, I have inherited advice from my aunts and my grandmothers, on how to increase those amazing flavors, colors, and tips that have helped me a lot in my short career as a chef.”
Maggie remembered about her family’s Holidays’ gatherings. “My fondest food memories are of being in my grandmother’s kitchen in Durango, Mexico during Christmas time. My aunts and my cousins in the kitchen smearing corn husks, telling stories, and assembling tamales. One of my cousins came in with a bag of buñuelos. My tio walked in and took off his hat to help with the assembling.” As for kitchen tips? “I have many tips from my grandmother. My favorite tip is probably the simplest: ‘Pruébalo. Si te gusta, ya está listo’ (‘Taste it. If you like it, then is ready to eat’).”
For Grace, the best memory is Sunday’s with her family in Venezuela. “50+ cousins, ex husbands, boyfriends and friends of friends all together at aunt Morela’s house. The table being filled with so many different dishes, it looked and felt as if it was bending in the middle. Now that I’m a cook myself, I know what a labor of love it was to do this every Sunday.”
Actually, La Latina Cocina, her new food concept in partnership with Aramark is a way to help students that, like her, moved out from their countries and came alone to the USA and misses these family gatherings so much. “With this program, many students from different universities will get a chance to try my grandmother’s black beans, my grandfather’s platanos con queso, my step father’s famous choripan, and some of my favorite dishes and recipes I collected along the way”
For Grace, the biggest tip she learned is to be generous and always give back. “My grandparents were so generous. There was not one day in my house that they would not feed at least 12 of us including someone else who will come over. My grandmother will always ask: ‘¿Comiste? ¿Tienes hambre? ¿Te puedo ofrecer algo de comer?’ (‘Are you hungry? Can I offer you anything to eat?’) It was always the more, the merrier. And if any of my family members dared to say: ‘I don’t think there will be enough’, my grandparents would very quickly say ‘Ponle mas agua a la sopa’ (‘add more water into the soup’) because there was no way you will leave my house without a full tummy and with a full heart.”
And what about paying homage to their heritage in their everyday life in the US? Do they find it difficult?
For Maggie, it happened at first. “I used to feel a very strong sense of nostalgia. I missed Mexico, my culture, my language, my food. Then, I hired my team to help with Mama Maggie’s Kitchen. They are all in Mexico. We speak Spanish everyday and I also live next to the border and go back and forth. These two things have REALLY helped me stay connected to Mexico, to my culture, to identify food and cultural trends.” She likes to say that she has a foot in Mexico and another in the United States. The closer she gets to her culture, the easier it is to pay homage to her roots in the US.
Javier doesn’t find it particularly hard. For him, the cultural diversity that the United States has is wonderfully wide, and he thinks that for all of the people who work in the kitchen, it allows them to find most of their ingredients without a problem.
For Chef Grace, systematic racism and its consequences are real, but she believes that neither of us should let the stereotypes define us. Just like Jennifer Lopez once said to her: “I don’t let that chip on my shoulder get to me. And If you keep pushing boundaries and keep working hard enough something always happens, a door always opens”. Yes, she talked to Jennifer Lopez, how cool is that?
So, how do they plan to keep honoring their roots, heritage and culture in their line of work?
For Javier, it is all about trying to keep our culinary traditions alive, so that young people in the Latinx community know the value and importance of carrying our Hispanic culture and heritage from generation to generation.
Maggie is always working to preserve her Mexican culture through food. “I am reminded everyday from my readers and followers how important it is to feel connected to our roots. There is power in knowing who you are and where you come from.”
Grace has been working hard because she has been the only financial support to her family back home. But her purpose as a chef was deeply defined by her experiences working in the kitchens of New York. “I realized how few women would be in higher ranks. I was the only one who spoke Spanish & English. My executive chef would communicate to the line cooks and prep cooks through me. That was a turning point, I had a responsibility to my people, and I needed to tell our stories. I felt as if my people needed a voice and I needed to be the bridge between them and the US. I was fortunate to understand the cultural subtleties and I knew that we had one language in common: our food.”
We love finding people that keep honoring their large history and rich heritage, even when they are away from their home countries, and Javier, Maggie and Grace are incredible examples of this. Thank you for kindly sharing your remarkable thoughts with us!
(Editor’s note: opinions and statements have been edited and condensed for length and clarity).