Food Justice and the Healing of Ancestral Wounds
by Marcelo Felipe Garzo Montalvo, Educator with Planting Justice
“What does it mean to be a human being?” asks (r)evolutionary activist/philosopher, philosopher/activist Grace Lee Boggs. After participating, studying and carefully reflecting on the revolutions of the past 100 years, Grace re-minds us what is at stake in our social movements for justice. She reminds us that we are involved in a struggle to continue moving the social itself, to keep pushing the boundaries of our collective humanity. Our movements become (r)evolutionary the moment they transcend oppressions in ways that dismantle multiple barriers to our connectivity, challenging us all to become more human together. We move in community, move socially, towards “new” understandings of being human. In conversation and co-creation with her partner Jimmy Boggs, they remind us that “just because we were born from our mother’s womb doesn’t make us human beings.” To be human is to be in the process of becoming human. Lest we forget, Grace and Jimmy Boggs are fundamental abuelit@s for our food justice movements. Along with the youth from Detroit Summer, Grace and Jimmy shaped the contours of what we even understand today as ‘food justice’, that is the struggle for the restoration of our humanity through the regeneration of our local and global food systems and the land itself.
Similarly, another activist/philosopher, philosopher/activist, Sylvia Wynter, asks us to call into question “our present culture's purely biological definition of what it is to be, and therefore of what it is like to be, human.” Following Frantz Fanon, she challenges us to move beyond individualist, reductionist ways of understanding oppression. Specifically, they unpack dominant understandings of the “complexes” developed through and as a result of colonial occupation and violence. For Fanon, and Wynter, the alienation we experience as colonized people is not the result of individual mental illness or pathology – as was (and still is) argued by many of the dominant Western disciplines of psychology, medicine, and anthropology – but is a healthy and very human response to the social illness of colonization itself.
In light of all of this I often wonder: What are we doing in food justice to challenge individual, pathologizing paradigms of understanding diet-related disease and hunger in our communities? There has been debate over terminology, is it “food insecurity” or a “food desert” or “food apartheid”? But how have we been able to see, and therefore challenge, the systemic and inter-generational wounds of colonization in our current food system and our communities? I have witnessed a few ways this can be made more clear for our work as food justice (r)evolutionaries.
Diabetes and heart disease are two of the main diet-related diseases of the 21st century. They are the most present chronic diseases in our families and our communities; a direct result of living with food injustice and a sick food system. But how do we move beyond a purely biological understanding of these ailments? How are these diseases connected to our struggles to be more fully human?
I turn to other sciences, sciences of the Other, to expand and decolonize our worldview in this way. The epistemologies/conocimientos/knowledge systems of many “traditional”, “natural” healers, cross-culturally point to the energetic, emotional and spiritual (that is, unseen) dynamics of our health, as well as our suffering. The idea of understanding health in a more holistic way means to re-connect and re-member how the health and well-being of our bodies, is also the health and well-being of our spirits, our emotions, our minds, etc. Physical health is emotional health is spiritual health is mental health. Similarly, physical pain is emotional pain is spiritual pain is mental pain. The point is to re-member, to come back together, to heal. While Western allopathic doctors will “pre-scribe” pharmaceutical ways to try and overpower or attack a disease, holistic healing paradigms seek mainly to boost and support our already present systems, to feed the medicine we already carry within us, in order for our bodies (mental, physical, spiritual, emotional) to heal. One need not even know what is happening in an acute way. We need to know only that certain systems have been compromised (immune, digestive, emotional, nervous, etc.) and that providing allies for these systems (plants, songs, energy, touch, etc.) will allow our bodies to heal themselves from the inside out. For these Other scientists, whose science has been devalued by their skeptic positivist colleagues, there is also a social/cultural/environmental dimension to our health and/or suffering. Holistic healing systems demand that we address and boost our internal (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual), as well as our external systems (political, cultural, community, the land) for the sustainability and strength of each one of us.
From these ways of knowing, we are invited to more intuitively (that is, think for ourselves) understand our ailments, individually and collectively. For me, this shifts our perspectives on what is happening when our families become diabetic or suffer from heart disease. It becomes much more “simple”, but not simplistic.
If diabetes is an imbalance and malfunction of sugar levels in our blood via the pancreas, how do we understand what sugar represents at a mental, emotional, spiritual, cultural level? For many of us, sugar represents the sweetness of love and affection, the medicine we all need as human beings to love and be loved. Traditional Persian weddings pour sugar over newlywed couples. Goddesses of Love and Beauty across many traditions are often offered sugar, honey or molasses in ceremonies to feed their spirit. Western culture celebrates St. Valentine’s Day with gifts of chocolate and sweet candied hearts.
But what happens when we are getting too much sugar at the physical level, and not enough in our emotional, spiritual or cultural spaces? Could diabetes simply be the body trying to adjust, and compensate for the overall lack of love and tenderness we experience in our individual and collective lives? Again, Western paradigms would ask us to conduct a double-blind, objective study of this research question. But why not trust our intuitive knowing that many of our households, families, communities and social structures suffer from a chronic, inter-generational lack of love and care? Why not boost our collective and individual systems (physical, political, spiritual, emotional, economic, etc.) through acts of self, family and community love?
I have noticed a similar relationship in terms of heart disease. What happens when we understand heart disease as a dis-ease of the heart? The heart is almost always understood across cultures as the energetic center of giving and receiving love, as a central source of power for the body. But what if a heart attack occurs because there is an actual attack on the heart? In our environment, even in our homes. When we do not give and receive love, our hearts can become hardened, a natural response to constant threats of violence and harm. We must honor our bodies innate wisdom in this way, to protect, to survive, to heal. We must never forget our fragility, our vulnerability, to each other, through our hearts. But what happens when we never get the space to heal, while we continue to protect and defend ourselves from ongoing harm? That is, let us not further pathologize ourselves for not having enough love in our daily lives, but let us demand a restoration of all our relations, with ourselves, our relatives, our communities, our systems, the land, etc. Let us resist food injustice through inner work/public acts of love and understanding. Let us demand a space to heal.
The wounds of colonization, slavery and imperialism remain open in our culture, with everyday practices that normalize violence against people of color, women, poor people, queer and trans-people, or anybody understood as being outside (or in-between) dominant categories of “human.” All ‘men’ are created equal? But some are more equal than Others, some are more human than Others. What happens when we continue to live in a culture (and social systems) that re-colonizes, enslaves, and exploits everyday? I fear we continue to pass on these wounds that we have inherited from our ancestors, unless we are addressing, interrupting and healing these wounds directly.
Diabetes and heart disease illustrate these inter-generational traumas as well. Have you ever noticed how diabetes was a generally obscure disease before the proliferation of the industrial food system? On the Pima reservations of the Southwest, studies have shown a direct and alarming correlation between the construction of dams in the local rivers in the 1950s and the first spike in diabetes in the Pima community. Today, almost 70% of the reservation suffers from Type II Diabetes. Many American Indians living on reservations are all too familiar with the history (and continued presence) of commodity food stores in their communities. These stores serve up a feast for the diabetic body, distributing the by-products of a sick food system, offered as a sign of ‘benevolence’ from the American government after occupying and seizing their native lands.
Worldwide, it has been shown that the main commonality amongst the five groups with the highest rates of diabetes (indigenous peoples of North America, Oceania, Asia, as well as African Americans and Latin@s in the United States) is a shared experience of displacement from land, water and culture through colonization and imperialism. When our communities are dis-membered and dis-placed, our bodies will revolt, will demand justice, from within. Diseases like diabetes are not simply from a maladjusted biological system (as is sometimes argued for native people and refined sugar) but from a sick system being imposed upon a healthy and functioning body, a body doing its job of always trying to find harmony.
In this way, there have been medical trials showing that a return to native diets for indigenous people can reverse diabetes completely, very rapidly. Is this not the return of a loving and nurturing relationship between our selves and the land? How rapidly would diabetes rates fall if displaced people of the world were given a right to return to their homelands? How quickly would levels of heart disease plummet if we undammed the rivers and held space for our each other’s hearts to heal?
If, as Thich Naht Hahn suggests, the sun is our heart outside the body, and, as Michael Pollan argues, our food system is sick as a result of shfting from the sun for energy to petroleum and fossil fuels, what happens to our hearts when we stop eating from the sun, and start eating from soil fertilized with the blood and bones of our ancestors? Let us heal by giving thanks to the sun for his energy, by re-building the food system in his honor, and thus healing our own hearts, and the hearts of our ancestors. I was once told that our heartbeats are the very same ones as the heartbeats of all our ancestors. That is, since our hearts started beating in the beginning of Creation, this same heartbeat has been passed down through our mothers, creating an unbroken chain of heartbeats across all generations. Let us hold space to honor the resilience and fragility of our hearts, and all the hearts of our ancestors, as they loved and were loved, as we love and are loved.
Food justice is (r)evolutionary love!