Paying for Our Own Destruction

Disclaimer: If you feel that for some reason your situation does not allow you to change any aspect of your diet, even if that is simply a vegan Monday, then use this essay for its educational value to help those who can change their diets and store this knowledge for the day you might be in a situation where you too can change your diet. This statement is not meant to erase the existence of poor vegans, those vegans living in food deserts and all the others who despite a popular narrative to the contrary, still eat with ethics in mind.

Veganism calls to mind white people with dreadlocks who spend their trust fund at Whole Foods and thousands on a trip to India to discover the virtues of poverty. These people do exist, but just as white women are unfairly often the face of feminism, just as white men have become synonymous with rock music, we know that a lack of representation does not mean a lack of contribution.

Top: Cuban inspired bowl. Bottom: Roasted garlic mac n' cheese. Ph. by Salomé Luna Gemme.

My interest is not and never has been in investigating whether someone who claims they cannot be vegan actually can, that is your choice. That being said, I am not a perfect vegan and never will be, I regularly mess up. Let me officially set to rest the idea that the goal of veganism is to meet some ideological standard. Our goal should be to live in line with our ethical beliefs and use the power we have to influence a market driven by profit alone whenever we have the opportunity. My interest is in highlighting the importance of a vegan lifestyle as it specifically relates to Latinos like myself. I hope to break down the stereotypes that Latinos are uninterested in such topics as their health and the environment by framing the conversation in a way that speaks to our needs as a community.

Veganism is for white people. You have heard this lie so many times now that you too believe and repeat it. Yet, you have already fought and defeated this same lie in many different forms already. Literature was for white people. Collecting vinyl was for white people. Punk music was for white people. Going to college was once for white people too. The idea that something is not “for" your race or ethnicity is a tool of limitation. One that, once broken down, allows for the creation of a beautiful and unique interpretation of something that previously was lacking, something that was smaller before you took a piece of it, molded it and added your own vision.

Golden Food vegan restaurant in Lima, Peru. Ph. by Mari Santa Cruz.

Reasons such as environmental destruction, health, and animal welfare are relevant to and can be sympathized with by all identities. To say otherwise is to grossly underestimate a human’s capacity for care. However, there exist complexities to these issues that make them more significant to some more than others. I could detail how the hazardous pollution created by animal agriculture disproportionately degrades neighborhoods occupied predominately by impoverished people of color. I could explain the hiring practices of slaughterhouses, who employ primarily undocumented workers into such gruesome environments they develop addictions and violent behavioral issues, only to be deported by these same employers shortly before payday. There exists an extensive list of the ways in which animal agriculture exploits not only animals but humans as well, however, I will focus on only one of these ills now: the violation of indigenous rights.

A genocide of indigenous South Americans is quietly moving forward under a new cloak of consumerism. To fill the demand for meat, Latin America is being forced to exploit its own resources once again. Since 1978 over 289,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed throughout Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, French Guiana and Colombia. More than three-quarters of which is used for cattle ranching, with part of the remainder being used for soy farms, whose primary use is as animal feed.

While the destruction of one of Latin America’s most precious resources is tragic in and of itself in addition to the loss of animal habitat that leads to extinct species as well as the loss of an important environmental balancing mechanism that mitigates climate change, there is yet another loss in this situation, that of human life.

Top: Ocopa Arequipeña. Bottom: Tequeños. Ph. by Mari Santa Cruz.

Screaming into the void of consumer demand, many distinct indigenous groups have already organized and continue to speak out against the destruction of their homes for pastureland. Consumer demand has placed the value of meat and milk before that of indigenous people’s lives. Both the Yukpa in Venezuela and the Guarani in Brazil have detailed the violence they have experienced at the hands of cattle ranchers, who have gone so far as to murder indigenous people on contested land. Murders that go largely uninvestigated and unpunished. Damiana, the wife of the Chief of a tribe of the Guarani people, lost her husband as well as her three sons all to what has been dismissed as “roadside collisions” with the same cattle ranchers encroaching on their ancestral lands.

Activists have called for companies like Starbucks and universities like Harvard to divest, that is, to end their monetary relationship with harmful practices. We cannot hold these businesses to a higher ethical standard than we hold ourselves as individuals in everyday life. For the same reasons we sought divestment from these companies, we must divest our own money from companies and practices that are not in line with our own beliefs.

The act of protest has the power to influence, but only in so much as it controls the flow of money. A protest is most effective when it presents a possible loss of income; this is the point at which negotiation begins. In a capitalist society, money often weighs more than words and acts faster than law. Why then, would we ignore our most constant and accessible form of protest? The mundane act of grocery shopping is the single most politically powerful tool available to the working class, as with every purchase, support is either extended or rescinded. We already utilize this power in responding to new flavors, distasteful advertising, and bigoted CEOs; now is a more crucial time than ever to divest our support for products that are born out of exploitation and cruelty.

Olluquito. Ph. by Mari Santa Cruz.

Olluquito. Ph. by Mari Santa Cruz.

Saltado. Ph. Mari Santa Cruz.

As activists and ethically minded people, we cannot ignore our role as consumers whose purchasing choices have consequences. Animal agriculture is a decrepit means of feeding ourselves, propped up by all the ancient methods of unconscious consumerism and violence that we have no choice but to move away from or face the consequences of a world prioritizing cheap perks built on a chain of cruelty. We need to do better; if that means just one meat free day a week, then repurpose the old business adage and remember, every dollar counts.


Salomé Luna Gemme writes about food, culture, and beauty at LunaGemme.com. A Cuban-American nacida y criada en Miami. Orgullosa as hell. She’s shy but you shouldn’t be; find her @salomegemme basically everywhere.