Melissa Nunez shares her perspective on ethical consumption for Latin@s.
We have come, once again, to the time of year where the lines at panaderías and tamalerías grow increasingly longer. When the temperature drops below 70° in South Texas, memes like the Mexican Winter Starter Pack begin their seasonal circulation on social media, picturing things like San Marcos cobijas, pan dulce, a variety of sopas, and a mug of hot chocolate. If you spend enough time online you are bound to encounter debates about traditional foods and what selections, brands, establishments, fillings, preparation methods are most satisfying or authentic. At times, it seems, we stake our identities, our own cultural authenticity on such loyalties. It is not so surprising. When it comes to food, especially Latin@ food, you will find very strong opinions on things like flour vs. corn tortillas, red vs. green salsa, pozole vs. menudo. However, when I came across a conversation about the best Mexican hot chocolate brands, one specific response took the discussion in a different direction. It claimed that all sweetened chocolate was colonized chocolate, and therefore inherently inauthentic. This poignant perspective takes you from the comfort of your virtual couch to a confrontation with the history of commercialization of chocolate and other goods, like sugar and coffee. Far too often, colonization and its imperial impacts are spoken of in the past tense. And this is a problem.
I feel I was far too old when I began investigating the ethical sourcing of products, a newish mom in her mid-twenties trying to make the best choices for her children. Once I started looking, I wanted to tell everyone what I found. But it can be hard to be that person. I have experience on the receiving end of didactic horror stories, one in particular shared while I was six months pregnant about how soda consumption deforms a baby’s brain in utero after just having consumed my second one that day (the combination of sugar and carbonation being one of the few things to quell my morning sickness). So, I started small, investigating brands committed to transparency and tracing. At times I slipped, holidays like Halloween and Christmas were difficult with their nostalgic sugary wares on display everywhere you look, with alternatives more difficult and expensive to procure. But this year, I have made a firm commitment to weeding out the bad products in my life.
One result of my research was finding Endangered Species Chocolate, a reputable brand with a quality product I purchased almost exclusively until they stopped carrying the specific percentage I found perfection locally and had to shop around again. Here I discovered Tony’s Chocolonely which, while not an exact swap, satisfied both craving and conscience. I decided to gift these bars at Christmas to my family members as an introduction to the brand. It wasn’t until I was in the checkout line of the only grocer in my area to consistently stock these chocolates behind a woman with a cart filled with spring salad mixes and other vegetables, lean meats, and fruit that I stopped to think about how this might look. My cart was filled with the muffins from the in-house bakery I had originally stopped to pick up for my children and their friends and the twenty bars of chocolate I had added on well-intentioned impulse. There was nowhere to hide my embarrassment, so I began loading my goods onto the conveyer belt with gusto, feeling her eyes on me as I neatly stacked the bars in groups of fours.
Finally, she asked, “Is that chocolate that good?”
Relieved for the chance to speak for my cart and my cause a stream of words ensued. “Yes. It’s good. Very good. It is one of the most ethical chocolate brands I have found, and this store is the only place I’ve seen them, so I tend to buy in bulk. I’m also giving them out as Christmas gifts. They have new holiday flavors, and the bars are very thick and rich. Anyway, they are really, really good.”
She smiled and nodded before turning back to her actual groceries. My words were not as smooth as the chocolate, but maybe she’d give it a chance to speak for itself.
There are many events that rally us to a cause, that rally solidarity for flag and country. Soccer teams, boxers, artists, and actors that represent us on screen garner our support. However, I am more partial to the solidarity I see during graduation seasons. I enjoy scrolling through posts that recognize the devotion and sacrifice of family, the hard work of parents and grandparents that has paid off as children and grandchildren find success in higher education. Throughout the pandemic, I was also gladdened at the support shown to field hands and other blue-collar laborers who worked nonstop during dangerous times of dwindling resources to continue to supply the rest of the country with the necessities. I saw another show of support making the rounds at Thanksgiving, reminders to respect the hands that worked to bring food to our table. Witnessing these happenings this past year made me stop and think: it is time to see these sentiments in action.
For many of us of Latin@ heritage, there are strong ties to this group of laborers, whether past or present, direct or indirect—through familial or cultural ancestry. We often express pride in where we come from, our roots, and the progress of present, the promise of future. We work hard at both the public and personal level, but live in a country that still, at certain times and (more often) in certain places, views us as outsiders, immigrants, regardless of generation. I think at this time of year, when we wear our Latinidad in the blankets (or serapes or flags) proudly draped around our shoulders, as we eat our pan dulce and sip our cocoa, we can take the solidarity a step further for those still struggling under the colonial thumb. There is a long history of white countries and corporations profiting off the forced labor and stolen lands of Latin America and so many other areas around the globe. And those of us of descended from the Latin@ diaspora should inform ourselves of product and company history.
We come from a wide range of lands and peoples, but the attempted extirpation of ethnicities, the forced servitude to capitalism at the cost of countless lives, is something that touches us all. Colonization continues and we need to make a stand against it in ways big and small, with our voices, our votes, and our dollars. To make choices and changes as we can afford, swapping out negligent labels for more responsible and ethical ones. Because what we can no longer afford is to continue funding gluttonous corporate consumption of communities, of people and planet, the deforestation and displacement that comes with the reprehensible practices of certain conglomerates. Each choice for change is a call for better practices, says we will not be silent or complicit. We are not complacent. Let us start the new year with treats that taste extra sweet, honoring our heritage not only with the familiar warmth and depth of flavor, but with the knowledge that we stand in alliance with those still fighting for justice.
Melissa Nunez is an avid reader, writer and homeschooling mother of three. She lives in the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas—a predominantly Latin@ community. She writes both essays and poetry inspired by observation of the natural world, the dynamics of relationships, and the question of belonging. Her work has been featured in FOLIO, Yellow Arrow Journal, and others.
Image by Pablo Merchán Montes