When Spanish conquistador Gregorio de Villalobos arrived in Mexico in 1521, he brought a small group of passengers, their exact number disputed, who would transform Mexican cuisine.
Six heifers and one bull stepped off that ship. The rise of the cattle industry was set in motion.
European colonists brought other livestock to present-day Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries, domestic pigs and sheep and goats. Now, 500 years later, some of the most iconic Mexican dishes center around meat. Cooks simmer carnitas in pots of lard in Michoacán. Families bury heads of borrego in underground fire pits in South Texas. Vaqueros and street vendors roll machaca, dried and pounded, into burros in Sonora.
But as Mexican cuisine continues to evolve, some longtime omnivores are exploring what Mexican food can taste like without meat, inspired by the desire to improve personal health, fight the climate crisis, advocate for animal welfare, reconnect with their Indigenous heritage — or a combination of those reasons.
Nopales and jackfruit birria:Where to try vegan Mexican food in Phoenix
The popularity of plant-based Mexican food is growing
“As Mexicans, if you talk about diet, it’s a particularly sensitive topic,” said Melissa Lopez-Pentecost, a dietician and doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona.
“Food is so much related to our culture and how we live. In major events in our life, food is a main component. When you talk about diet, there’s a notion of ‘I don’t want to stop eating the foods we like.’”
At vegan restaurants around the Valley, people are finding that they don’t have to.
In 2014, Wendy Garcia opened Tumerico, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in Tucson known for its plant-forward, scratch cooking. Tumerico’s tacos de nopal with cashew sauce once caught the attention of celebrity chef Guy Fieri in his TV series “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
In 2015, José and Leticia Gamiz started Mi Vegana Madre food truck, which later turned into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Glendale. It was one of the first exclusively vegan Mexican restaurants in the Valley before the pandemic led to its closure.
But the pandemic hasn’t squashed all the vegan options in Phoenix. Instead, the variety seems to be growing, from mushroom carnitas at Earth Plant Based Cuisine to red jackfruit tamales at Raul’s Cocina to tacos de papa at Pachamama. And for many chefs, their paths to plant-based cooking have many influences.
‘We want to empower Black people’:How a Somali refugee feeds Phoenix families
For some, it’s about a ‘connection to the land’
For some in the Mexican American community, the decision to emphasize more plants in their diet is also a way to reconnect with their Indigenous roots.
While fish and wild game were a part of the pre-Hispanic diet, plants formed the foundation of Indigenous food culture. Maria Parra Cano, a Xicana and Indigenous chef in Phoenix, prefers the term plant-based over vegan when describing the food she’s prepared at Sana Sana, her online food pantry and former food truck.
“It’s up to an open interpretation right?” Parra Cano said. “People think differently, but the way I identify as an Indigenous person is everything we do revolves around being plant-based and our connection to the land, whether it be food or our spiritual connection to things.”
Parra Cano was born in Phoenix and traces her lineage to the Mexica people in Texcoco and Rarámuri people in Cuauhtémoc. Her parents, tailors who sewed charros for mariachi performers, moved to Arizona in the 1980s. Parra Cano said she became more conscious of her Indigenous identity in high school when she became active with MEChA, a student organization formed during the rise of the Chicano Movement.
“So I think that’s the difference,” she continued. “For veganism, it could be advocating for the animals or your health. As an Indigenous person, we identify differently with animals from a spiritual sense.”
‘Things their ancestors passed to me’:Clam digging in Arizona runs deep
While Parra Cano follows a mostly vegetarian diet, she does eat meat occasionally, such as food hunted by her husband and buffalo jerky prepared by an Indigenous food company.
When people ate meat in pre-Hispanic times, people mostly ate what they could hunt, and did not eat meat for every meal, said Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz, a Xicana and Tewa author and Indigenous foods activist in Phoenix. She is also a curandera, a traditional folk healer in Latin American communities. She described her diet at mostly plant-forward with an emphasis on legumes for protein.
In the current times, many people toss meat into their grocery store cart without knowing where it came from. The portions in the modern diet center meat as the entree, and plants as the side or afterthought. There is a disconnect between people and the animals they consume, she said.
Doctors and scientists have long linked a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to a decreased risk in chronic diseases. Fermented foods can also help maintain gut health, she added.
When helping people diversify their diets, Ruiz often asks them to name every edible plant they can think of. Typically, they can only name 20, she said.
“They’re not including so many things that are available,” Ruiz said.
“Everyone is pretty much eating the exact same thing,” she said. “The broader your fruit and vegetable intake it, the healthier your gut biome is”.
Reclaiming an ‘ancestral diet’ for better health and environment
Parra Cano grew up eating and cooking traditional Mexican foods, but her most intimate relationship with food began after experiencing difficult pregnancies.
Parra Cano developed gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with her first child. After her last pregnancy, she was bedridden for nearly two months with postpartum preeclampsia, a rare condition that occurs when a person has high blood pressure and excess protein in their urine after childbirth.
The Cihuapactli Collective supported her family while she was bedridden. The collective of women is a health advocacy group based in Phoenix that connects parents with Indigenous birth workers.
Her supporters prepared plant-based foods for her, such as quinoa and amaranth, along with dandelion tea to help stabilize her blood pressure.
Many of the foods she has cooked or offers online through Sana Sana are medicinal foods her own mother prepared during Parra Cano’s pregnancies, foods she ate while recovering from postpartum preeclampsia, and then what she describes as ancient foods: Cholla buds, blue corn pinole, pumpkin atole, beans, granola with popped amaranth and sunflower seeds.
She and and others have recently started the Food Forest Cooperative, with the goal of making culturally appropriate and medicinal foods more accessible in south Phoenix.
“For us, as Indigenous people, it’s really reclaiming the seeds, the greens, the staples in our ancestral diet that were taken away from us through colonization and slowly trying to reintroduce them,” Parra Cano said. “It’s not just the superfoods at Whole Foods.”
‘Culture can survive for hundreds of years on these basic crops’
Many Mexican foods are Indigenous and vegan to begin with, said Patrisia Gonzales, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who specializes in Indigenous medicine. Gonzales is the granddaughter of Kickapoo, Comanche and Macehual peoples who migrated throughout the present-day United States and Mexico.
Family-owned restaurant La Indita in Tucson has been around for nearly 40 years. The restaurant has become popular among vegetarians because many recipes from Purépecha founder Maria Garcia use beans rather than meat.
In North America, corns, beans and squash are at the heart of Native American agriculture and are referred to as the Three Sisters. Corn provides tall stalks for beans to climb while beans provide nitrogen to fertilize the soil. Squash plants have large leaves that shade the ground, which helps prevent weeds and promotes moisture retention in the soil.
The humble bean burrito has been a part of the working class diet since before the term vegetarian was coined, Gonzales said. People also aren’t aware that bread, made from the seeds of amaranth, was also part of the Indigenous diet, she added.
Amaranth grains have been cultivated for more than 8,000 years in Mesoamerica. But when European colonists invaded the Americas, they saw the amaranth bread on altars and related it to the devil. Amaranth was banned for more than 300 years, an example of how Europeans used food control as a way to control Indigenous people, she said.
There’s a reason why in Mexico, corn, beans and chile are called Los Amigos de Pobre, Gonzales said. Even after cows and domestic pigs were introduced to the Americas, frijoles and maíz remain symbols of Mexican identity.
“You have to remember that because of colonialism, people didn’t have a lot to eat,” Gonzales said. “It was maximum exploitation for hundreds of years. So with these three crops, it is a full diet. You will not die. Culture can survive for hundreds of years on these basic crops alone.”
From ‘dirt poor’ to Arizona fine dining:How this chef shares his Navajo food culture
How veganism can lead to healthier eating habits
Decolonizing food is just one reason why people have turned to plant-based foods. For many Mexican Americans who identify as vegetarian or vegan, a growing consciousness about family health prompted the change in diet.
Mexican Americans are more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have type 2 diabetes, and from 2017 to 2018, 14.4% of all Mexican American adults were diagnosed with diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Red meats have been associated with diabetes and cancer risk, said University of Arizona doctoral candidate Melissa Lopez-Pentecost, who researches dietary inflammation and cancer prevention among the Hispanic population.
Not only is red meat considered a carcinogen, but red meats have a higher fat content, she continued. Consuming a high amount of red meat puts people at risk of cardiovascular disease. In general, a diet high in processed meat puts people at higher risk of obesity, which can increase the chance of getting diabetes or cancer, Lopez-Pentecost said.
Lopez-Pentecost, who’s vegetarian, said that even within her own family, the first reaction to meatless dishes is that they won’t taste as good. Meat is such a dominant part of today’s mainstream diet that an educational aspect is required to show vegetarian foods are flavorful too, she said.
She emphasized that veganism shouldn’t be synonymous with “healthy,” however. One can eat a diet of mostly sugary foods and still be vegan, she noted.
The conflation of vegan with other popular labels in the wellness industry can be confusing, as it was for José Bojórquez’s family.
Bojórquez grew up in Maryvale, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in west Phoenix. He now runs a food truck serving vegan versions of tacos al pastor, pollo and carne asada, as well as breakfast burritos with soy-based chorizo.
“They didn’t get it, my parents and siblings,” Bojórquez said. “They got confused between organic food and vegan food. Mom would make dinner and I’d ask, ‘Does it have milk?’ And she’d be like, ‘Yeah, but it’s organic.’ She’d be like, ‘Mijo, I brought chicken’ and she’d say ‘it’s organic.'”
‘Who’s making money off it and who can eat it?’
Marketing plant-based foods as healthy alternatives can mean big bucks — and plenty of companies selling loosely Mexican-inspired food are cashing in.
In 2019 Taco Bell introduced a vegetarian menu, joining a wave of fast-food chains offering alternative meats. Tocaya Organica, a slick California-based restaurant with locations in metro Phoenix, advertises “guilt-free meals,” such as the vegan and gluten-free Spicy Cilantro Verde Bowl.
South Phoenix ‘birria corridor’:Restaurants serve modern tastes and old traditions
In his book “Our Sacred Maiz is our Mother: Nin Tonantzin Non Centeotl,” Mexican American studies scholar Roberto Cintli Rodríguez noted how tortilla packaging has changed too. Indigenous symbols appear on packages now. Corn tortillas might be advertised as “vegan” and “gluten-free” now, even though corn tortillas have traditionally always been vegan and gluten-free, he said.
Foods like tecuitlatl, algae harvested by the Aztecs and better known as spirulina, are now marketed as “superfoods” in the wellness industry.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” Cintli Rodríguez said. “If someone can make money from it and it’s their culture, that should be a good thing. … But these are the questions I’m asking: Who’s making money off it and who can eat it?”
The Aztecs also treated huitlacoche, a corn fungus, as a symbol of bounty and a successful harvest. The prized delicacy can be found on tostadas at Tumerico in Tucson, where where the restaurant also sells the corn smut in jars.
At Phoenix’s Barrio Cafe, chef Silvana Salcido Esparza serves huitlacoche on tlayudas, an Oaxacan dish. While the restaurant isn’t exclusively plant-based, many of the ancient pre-Hispanic plants, such as squash, appear in dishes like the calabacitas mole.
Salcido Esparza described these dishes as decolonized, returning to the roots of Mexican food. As veganism becomes more accepted, she’s glad to see Mexican restaurant owners have the opportunity to open exclusively plant-based ventures.
“This is the origin and base of Mexican food,” Salcido Esparza said. “I want to see people capitalize on it, but I want to see people of the culture, honoring their culture, capitalize on it.”
Bringing vegan Mexican food to metro Phoenix
For some small restaurant owners in Phoenix, offering vegan menu items just makes good business sense.
Valerie Lopez said she had to convince her mother to add jackfruit birria to the menu at Hola Cabrito, a restaurant in south Phoenix that also serves tamales made with vegan cheese, chile verde, corn, quinoa and hemp seed.
Families and friends want to eat together and if one person in the group doesn’t eat meat, this could deter people from eating at her family’s restaurant, she said.
Maria Lebron, co-owner of Pachamama restaurant in Phoenix, said being a cancer survivor made her more conscious of health, but the documentary “What the Health?” inspired her to go vegan.
Lebron said that when she initially went vegan, the mock meats and highly-processed soy food products at the grocery store didn’t seem like a good trade-off. She approached her husband Kevin, a professional chef for 20 years, and asked him to make her foods she would enjoy eating.
That’s how their business Pachamama was born, Kevin said.
After starting as a food stand at the Downtown Phoenix Farmers Market, the business has since added a brick-and-mortar restaurant near the northeast corner of 19th Avenue and Indian School Road.
The menu features Kevin’s version of tacos de papa, a dish Maria Lebron grew up with. His version is made with corn tortillas topped with chile-garlic mash, cabbage, chipotle cashew crema, marinated radishes, smoked almond dust and cilantro.
Other menu items include hearts of palm ceviche and mexiyaki, a twist on Japanese okonomiyaki, made from hash browns, rice and coconut milk batter, cooked crispy and topped with avocado pico de gallo.
The name Pachamama, which means “Mother Earth” in Quechua, refers to a goddess revered by the Incas. Maria said she wanted to pay tribute to her and Kevin’s Latin roots — Maria is Mexican American and Kevin is Puerto Rican.
“By default, just by cooking Mexican food there’s going to be some connection to Indigenous culture of Mexico,” Lebron said. “For instance, corn has been highly revered in Mexico by many many tribes.”
For Keyla Aguilar, co-owner of Earth Plant Based Cuisine in Phoenix, animal welfare is her priority. While working at a burger joint as a teenager, she decided eating animals didn’t align with her beliefs.
“If I love animals, it’s just weird to eat them,” she said. “The way most of them get treated in these farms, it’s just sad. They live such a horrible life and some of that energy gets transferred to you. They lived a bad life and it goes into you.”
Aguilar said that in her early days of vegetarianism, she mostly subsisted on French fries and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Aguilar remembered feeling left out at Mexican restaurants when she was the only vegetarian in the family. Her only options were beans or a cheese quesadilla. She stopped being vegetarian because her parents were concerned about her health, Aguilar said.
Her family’s attitude later changed. Now she and her entire immediate family are vegan.
Her sister Keren and her mother began experimenting with vegan cooking, adapting the family’s Mexican recipes to be made without meat and dairy. Learning that they could enjoy flavorful tamales and other favorite foods without lard or cheese made it easy for the whole family to convert, she said.
“Their digestion got better. They felt lighter, less groggy and heavy after meals,” she said. “My family has always been a healthy family, but now they started seeing additional benefits.”
The new family recipes inspired her to open her first restaurant, Earth Plant Based Cuisine on Grand Avenue near the intersection of 15th Avenue and Roosevelt Street. Earth serves vegan versions of tacos al pastor, chorizo fries, Sonoran hot dogs and milkshakes.
The restaurant makes all its meat alternatives, such as seitan al pastor and mushrooms carnitas, in house. The shrimp in the shrimp tacos is made with a seasoned root mixture or potato, carrot and rutabaga.
Felipe Guzmán’s restaurant La Santisima in Phoenix and Glendale has a vegetarian and vegan section on the menu. Dishes include mesquite-grilled cactus with caramelized onions and a cauliflower asada inspired by a dish his mother cooked for his father, who was the only vegetarian in the family.
Eating together has always been important to his family. He wants his restaurant to have options so families can share a meal regardless of their vegan, vegetarian or omnivore diets.
He said that being vegetarian or vegan is often framed like people are missing out on something, but Guzmán’s father never felt that way.
“He said cows and animals are part of God,” Guzmán said. “He passed away when he was 96 years old, started being vegetarian when he was around 60 years old. He always had a shot of tequila and three garlics in the morning. Like a mesquite tree, he was very strong.”
Subscribe to azcentral.com today to support local journalism.