The Complex Intersections of Food, Health, and History in Hispanic Caribbean Communities

“I think culture is definitely important, but I try to have a more nuanced view of what culture is,” said Fuster. “I was born and raised in an urban setting. There are so many different layers that influenced me and how I view Puerto Rican [food culture]. For me, it’s different from somebody in Puerto Rico right now, or somebody that grew up in New York or Boston, or a different part of the country.”

She added, “That’s something that I try to do in the book: to explain that we’re more than just where we’re from. We have to look at people at the intersection of what I refer to in the book as structural factors. Our class, race, gender, age—those are things that interact with each other and where we’re from. It all shapes our views and practices around food.”

Debunking Stereotypes

It’s also common for dietitians to link high rates of diet-related diseases to Hispanic Caribbean cuisine, said Fuster, and to suggest that traditional cooking in these cultures includes fatty meat, starchy roots, and a lot of frying.

“When we think about ethnic foods, or immigrant diets, we think of these stereotypes,” said Fuster. “Like ‘You’re Puerto Rican, so you only eat rice and beans’… things like that. What I try to do is show that the Caribbean is a melting pot. There are, unfortunately, some erroneous ideas about what we eat.”

In her book, Fuster opens up about her own acts of stereotyping, including anecdotes like a conversation she once had with a Puerto Rican woman about the motivations that led to her changed diet.

“She mentioned that she had been eating more salads—specifically ones that went beyond the usual salad that you might see in Puerto Rico, the iceberg lettuce, tomato, and potentially avocado or onions,” said Fuster.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, she must have had a chat with a dietician; somebody must have told her she had to change what she was eating,” said Fuster. The real reason? “It was because she she got a pet iguana!” added Fuster, with a laugh. “She had to research what iguanas ate, realizing that our traditional iceberg lettuce was mostly water, prompting her to switch to more nutritious greens.” This experience led her to reflect on the reality of multiple (and unpredictable) drivers for dietary change and her own stereotypes about diets in the community.

The Role of Restaurants

As part of her response to these issues she brings to light in her book, Fuster founded The Latin American Restaurants in Action (LARiA) Project, an initiative that collaborates with Hispanic Caribbean and Latin American restaurants to develop strategies aimed at boosting cultural visibility and improving unity, health, and trust among Latin American communities through the lens of food. It’s funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“Something we forget is that we need to make a healthy choice a desirable one,” said Fuster. “I see restaurants as a vehicle for that. I also see that, historically, restaurants and food in general, are a vehicle for new immigrants to enter the economy.”

LARiA’s goal is to work directly with restaurants (it is already partnering with two) to curate dining options that offer both comfort and education to Latin American patrons.

“Something that we did with a Puerto Rican restaurant in New York City was that the chef developed a side dish with cabbage, peppers, squash—vegetables that [Puerto Ricans] are familiar with, but we might not eat it this way,” said Fuster. “But the chef seasoned it with the same flavors we’re accustomed to. People might go out and say, ‘I won’t go to that restaurant because they won’t prepare the food like my mom or my grandma’ or ‘I’m not going to spend money eating out at a place when I can make the food at home,’ but the idea here is to inspire some creativity in home cooking.”

Fuster’s plan is to grow the network of chefs and restaurants with which LARiA partners and expand the work to address how policies and regulations can help facilitate changes, to help inspire people in Latinx communities to consider healthy and tasty cooking habits, and, above all, to embrace their multifaceted identity.

“My aim is to change social and cultural norms about the deliciousness of healthy food,” said Fuster.