Marlene Aguilar is a Xicana of P’urhepecha descent, born and raised in Tongva territory, with roots in the inter-mountain valley region of Michoacán, Mexico. As a community-based cocinera, she draws inspiration from her campesina family, but has also been shaped by her work in food equity programs and community-supported agriculture.
Aguilar is the founder of the Irekuarhikua food project, which aims to offer seasonally-inspired affordable plant-based meals, while highlighting the resilience of indigenous foods. Her project offers a meal prep service like comida corrida from fondas or cocinas económicas found throughout Mexico.
Our reporters Dania Alejandres and Stephanie Perez interviewed Aguilar this month for the latest issue of our Radio Pulso podcast. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW ON THE ‘RADIO PULSO’ PODCAST’
Boyle Heights Beat: We hear that you’ve been preparing some tamales. How’s that been going?
Marlene Aguilar: I’ve been busy. It’s tamal season. And it’s a lot of work because I actually prepare the tamales from scratch. So I cook the dry corn in cal, that’s the process of nixtamalization. I cook it, then I grind it, and then I prepare the masa, with the fat and the seasoning and stuff like that. And then I also prepare the fillings and assemble them and then cook them, so it’s a pretty thorough process. That’s one of the reasons why I only make tamales during this time of year, because it would be a lot.
BHB: What is the significance of tamales within the Latine culture?
MA: Well, Latino culture involves a lot of different folks, right? So I’m going to specifically focus on the Mexican culture because I am Mexican descent. But, yeah, there’s a variety of different tamales all throughout Latin America and it’s pretty amazing because if you think about it, maiz is born in Mesoamerica and it extends down to South America and up to New York State area. So it’s pretty amazing the variations of tamales that have resulted.
Tamales usually are associated with Christmas and New Year’s, but tamales existed before people started celebrating Christmas in the Americas. Corn is about 7 to 8,000 years old. Tamales are roughly about the same, but Christianity wasn’t in the Americas until the colonial settlers, the Spanish, came to the Americas. So that’s 500 plus years. So tamales I feel are a celebration of the harvest of maiz. In Mexico maiz is harvested in late November or December and typically maiz takes about seven months to grow. So usually it’s planted around June, that’s when the rainy season happens in Mexico.
Back in the day, we didn’t have irrigation systems and sewage systems like we have now and so most people depended on the rain specifically to grow their harvest. So when it’s time to harvest, it’s a celebration. We’re talking about big pieces of land that need harvesting. You need a lot of different hands. All your family, immediate or extended, come together to harvest. And mind you, for the harvest, you start running out of maiz. It’s not like here at the store, when you could go anywhere, you know, to the tortillería if you’re in East LA or Boyle Heights. Before it was just what is available is available. So it’s really, I think, a celebration of how well the harvest went, being grateful to nature for being able to have maiz, and not just in that moment at harvest time, but all throughout the year, because people usually planted enough maiz to last them for the next harvest.
I think it’s really a reflection of an agricultural cycle. It’s deep within our tradition and culture, that we still remember it. And so even though now it has more religious ties, it’s older than that.
BHB: What inspired you to start cooking plant-based meals? Are you vegan yourself?
MA: I was in college, I was taking a nutritional science course, public health course, and we were talking about how prevalent diabetes and these diet-related illnesses were in communities of color. And one of the main things that we talked about was lack of access to healthy foods in communities like East Side/Boyle Heights, and an overabundance of liquor stores and fast food. And so I thought, I want to be able to provide access, because that’s one of the things that was a main issue.
Our culture is really meat heavy, right? There’s a variety, over-abundance of meat options in the community: tacos, hamburgesas, pizza, so I wanted to offer something different. I was vegan strictly maybe 10 years ago, a little more than that. But with time, as I’ve researched how my ancestors ate, they did eat meat, but it was a seasonal thing and it wasn’t every meal, three meals a day. And so now I do eat meat. I eat things like turkey, bison and lamb. I eat mostly native meats, and not all the time. So turkey is seasonal. Turkey, you start seeing it around Turkey Day, “Thanks-taking.” And then bison every so often, because it’s kind of pricey and it’s grass-fed. So it’s those kinds of things, I focus more on quality, than just the stuff that you see at the store. But I’m mostly plant-based. I’m a gardener too. I am an urban gardener and I try to plant as many vegetables as possible because I am big on making sure my food is free of toxins and pesticides. And so whatever I have in my garden, I grow and I eat.
BHB: We have noticed Boyle Heights and East LA are filled with fast foods and not as many organic options available. They’re more expensive than the ones that have pesticides and all that.
BHB: Why do you think having vegan options for cultural foods is important?
MA: It’s important because you’re trying to be inclusive of everyone. I remember when I was strictly vegan, I felt left out, that nobody thought of me. And oftentimes I would have to make my own food. So I’m a cook and that’s not a problem, but there are some vegans that aren’t really into the kitchen, but they need to eat. So I think it’s important to incorporate them, but also have agency as vegans and make space, claim space within family gatherings. And that’s by way of bringing your own dish, enough not just for yourself but for other people, so they could taste and be like, “Oh, this isn’t too bad.” There’s a certain idea of what vegan food is or what healthy food is, but if you incorporate, include the same sazón that you would a meat-based dish, it’s still good.
BHB: For a lot of Mexican families, those things aren’t very common and they’re not really accepted. People would be like, “Eh, I’m good.”
MA: And it’s so interesting you say that because there are so many dishes that are Mexican or Latino that are veggie or vegan.
BHB: Yeah, but they deny it as soon as they see the word vegan.
MA: Right. For instance, when Catholics celebrate lent, there are so many different dishes that come out, and they’re vegetarian. You’re like, “Whoa, what happened here?” My parents come from Mexico, they come from Michoacán, from very rural communities, and I remember asking them, “So what are some dishes you guys ate?” and the majority, when they were really, really young, they didn’t really eat a lot of meat. It was only if my grandparents, my grandfathers on each side, went hunting. And it was only then when they were able to get some. It wasn’t until later on, that meat became more accessible. It’s like, “Well, then what did you guys eat?” And she’s like, “Oh, well, we ate calabacitas and papas and all kinds of different things.” I’m like, “You see, It’s just [that] you forgot.” There’s this lack of memory.
BHB: How did you learn to cook these plant-based meals?
MA: I learned asking my mom. I moved away from East LA after high school. I went to college up in the Bay Area and I didn’t know how to cook before I left. I was very dependent on my mother. I actually resisted the kitchen because I’m like, “No, I’m a feminist, and I don’t belong in the kitchen.” But then, I wanted real Mexican food and it’s like, “uh-oh”, so then I had to call my mom and learn by myself with her guidance, of course. And then also because during that time I was involved in different food projects. There was always the scenario when they had leftover cases of something, and it’s like, “Oh, how do you do this? How can I use this in 10 different ways?” So honestly, I would just Google and then either follow the recipe or just kind of get an idea and get inspired. And then further on in different other projects, I was given the task of helping Latin American communities eat veggies that were not familiar to them. And so I would just incorporate different veggies with the same sazón, with the same cooking techniques and stuff like that. That’s how I learned how to experiment and it’s a lot of trial and error, but it honestly made the kitchen exciting for me, because I resisted when I was a teenager, but because I was introduced to a variety of different vegetables that I probably wasn’t really accustomed to, it made it exciting, and I hadn’t seen the kitchen as something exciting. I had seen it as something like, “Oh, my mom’s gonna yell at me that I’m not doing it right or I’m not doing it fast enough.”
BHB: What kind of plant-based tamales do you make yourself?
MA: My specialty is blue corn tamales. I started using blue corn because when I started becoming really into ancestral foods, I knew that yellow corn grown here in the United States was genetically modified, so I wanted to avoid that corn. I knew that blue corn wasn’t genetically modified, and that it would be safer. So then my mom taught me how to make nixtamal a few years back, and we started making every kind of maiz thing from tortillas, gorditas, sopes, tamales, and she taught me how to do it. I use vegetarian shortening, non-hydrogenated, for the fat ,and then for the fillings I substitute the meat with oyster mushrooms, because they shred very similarly to shredded carne, meat. So I make oyster mushrooms in guajillo sauce. I use basically the same sauce that my mom would for the pork. She uses pork, red sauce, but I substitute the pork with the mushrooms. I also make the rajas with vegan cheese. I also make some turkey tamales. They’re not s plant-based, but I substitute the pollo, the chicken, with turkey because turkey is a Native American meat. It’s native to the Americas. The other ones that I like to do, the sweet corn tamales, I make out of chocolate and so it’s nothing but chocolate and it tastes like a brownie.
BHB: Oh my god that sounds delicious. Tell us more about your food project. How did you come up with the name?
MA: Irekuarhikua is a P’urhepecha word. It’s an indigenous language of the region of Michoacán. And when I was taking a language class and I came across the word, I thought it was really beautiful because it translates to “way of life,” “forma de vida.” And I thought that was a beautiful word that captured all my interests from growing food, to researching and bringing back ancestral foods, to cooking seasonally, cooking by the seasons, cooking things that are currently in harvest. And I just feel like it really reflects life. You plant your seeds, you tend to them, you compost all that stuff, and harvest it when it’s in season and cook it. It’s more of a lifestyle than a trend. And so the food project… I do catering more now than the meal service, I was offering a meal service. And the idea was to provide meals that people could have using seasonal produce, so they could have them throughout the week [for] lunch. But I stopped doing that. Just a lot of work and I just needed a break.
So I offer catering. I have a small garden, but I try to use the stuff from my garden. You know, quality produce is something that, like you mentioned earlier, we don’t have readily available here in the East LA/Boyle Heights area, so I try to grow a little bit more of what I’m going to consume so that I could incorporate it into the foods I cook for people. So whatever is in season, for instance right now what’s in season is lettuce. So I have some lettuce ready to go for future catering gigs that I have coming up.
BHB: What food equity programs have you been part of?
MA: I’ve been part of different ones. Here in LA, it’s called Food Not Bombs, or Comida No Bombas. Basically, we would go to farmers markets and at the end of the farmers markets get donations from the vendors, food that they don’t want to take back or they don’t have the capacity to keep, like fridge space. And we would take it and then cook it and then distribute in areas like Skid Row or just wherever folks needed a meal. I worked with a housing developer here who offered nutrition education programs, and also access to organic foods in their housing developments in the Echo Park, Highland Park, Pomona areas. And my role there was nutrition education to try to… basically it was providing spaces for people to cook healthier. And then when I was in the Bay Area, I was part of a farm, Organic Farm. A Community Supported Agriculture program, and we worked with a small farmer to either plant things in the greenhouse, hand weed, different things like that.
BHB: How does your community react to the work that you’re doing?
MA: My community supports me. They hire me for their community events, because they see that I’m offering something that’s lacking. It’s mostly support. They just hook me up with gigs. And I really do really appreciate that. I don’t know who’s going to [read] this, but yes, if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to be sustainable. It’s usually word of mouth. I don’t have a big marketing thing, or well-known brand, but people just hire me on to do things for them. And it’s interesting, because sometimes, some people have tried my food without even knowing me, and then I’ll meet them and be like, “Oh, I tried your food before.” And it’s like, “Oh, great.” So that’s how my community reacts. And they support me and just always sharing my name in spaces or rooms where it applies. So I am really grateful for them.
BHB: Is there anything else you think is important to mention here.
MA: I would just encourage folks to develop their relationship with food. Oftentimes, food is seen in our culture, it’s been commodified. It’s not given its proper place as it was a long time ago with our ancestors. So developing our relationship with food is going to make us healthier, physically, our bodies. Then as we further develop that, it could also make our environment cleaner, healthier. I understand that in urban spaces, in the city, it’s sometimes more difficult, but it’s not impossible. I just really encourage folks to just plant a seed, if you can, of something that you like, that’s manageable. Start small, so you could see what it takes, all the energy and work that goes to cultivating that. So that the value of food and the people that cook it and grow it is heightened or that work is valued more, because I feel like it’s not. The kitchen work is paid really bad and also the farm workers are paid really bad. And so I would want us to just really think about that a little bit more. Reflect a little bit about that.
I think that’s pretty much it. And just be grateful, you know. We can’t take for granted the elements: water. Here in California, we’re in a drought, specifically Southern California. So just being more mindful of how we use our water, that’s important too.
BHB: Thank you so much. This was a really interesting conversation.
MA: Thank you. And if folks can follow me on Instagram. The handle is @Irekuarhikua. You’ll be able to see when I do my pop ups and things like that. I’m actually going back to the kitchen to make tamales now. So in case you read this while you’re eating your tamales and you’re like, “Oh, I want to try those tamales,” I’m also going to be making tamales in February, for the Dia de la Candelaria, which is tamal season still, so keep your eye out. Thank you so much.