James Demaria

Veggie Mijas and the vegan diet revolution

Amy Quichiz is not what our society has traditionally presented as a plant-based activist. She eschews cultish vegan dogma in favor of open-mindedness. She practices more than she preaches. And she’s not skinny, white, straight, or socioeconomically privileged enough to throw exotic fruits and house-made seitan into a Whole Foods basket every other day. Still, to say Quichiz is compelling is an understatement: The unique combination of her coquettish disposition and the informed conviction of a not-yet-jaded organizer has captured a huge audience who seem to buy exactly what she’s selling.

“It sounded so small when it started,” Quichiz, 24, says about the idea of creating a queer-led collective for women of color, with a focus on veganism, when she was a sophomore in college. It began, officially, in January 2018 as a way to share recipes via Instagram and show others how to eat a plant-based diet on a modest budget. Soon, Quichiz and her friend (and now co-founder), Mariah Bermeo, 23, watched the grassroots organization now known as Veggie Mijas flourish rapidly in a matter of months.

At the time, Bermeo was getting assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps; it was one of the catalysts that led them to start organizing vegan potluck events on social media. As the collective grew, the modest gatherings evolved into well-attended panel discussions on topics such as food justice and how to plant your own herbs.

Later on, there were farm sanctuary trips and yoga sessions that promoted mindfulness practices. A year-and-a-half later, they’ve taken their online enthusiasm off the grid with a global community consisting queer, women, and non-binary folks of color in the States, as well as in Peru, Australia, and Canada, who connect often and bolster each others’ wellness aspirations.

James Demaria

Quichiz, the child of a Colombian mother and Peruvian father, wanted to create a space for more vegans like her — queer Latinas — to raise awareness of the positive impact fruit and vegetables can bring into Black and Brown communities and to challenge the mainstream stereotype of what a vegan looks like: white, female, fancy yoga-pants wearing, organic-eating, affluent, and thin.

“Veganism has always been centered in whiteness” Quichiz says. “It’s important to have a space for marginalized folks, especially when we are talking about a plant-based lifestyle, in which we’re often excluded from the conversation.” Nearly 600 scientific publications have documented racial and ethnic disparities in health care. When looking at the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., for example, mortality rates among Black Americans are higher than among white Americans. It’s no surprise why minorities, Black American Americans and Latinx included, are turning to a plant-based diet for more balance and better health.

People of color also experience underrepresentation in the vegan mainstream, Quichiz tells Mic. She used to be the only person of color at vegan events she attended while in college and having white vegan friends who often policed her for her decisions. Many would shame her for not being “a real vegan” if she ate a free meal on campus and took the meat off the plate — their shade is, she now knows, an egregious example of privileged snobbery. That food-shaming, at one time, made Quichiz feel that a vegan lifestyle was out of her reach.

But contrary to the narrative, many Black and Brown communities are rooted in the notion of veganism. The movement often forgets to credit the origins of veganism; non-meat eating cultures have existed well before the current Westernized diet trend. Jainism, an ancient religion from India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Rastafarianism, developed in Jamaica, is just one of a few groups that promote a plant-based diet. Beef, pork, chicken, lamb. and goat only came to Mexico's indigenous native communities after the Spanish conquest. In Pre-Columbian times, many followed a plant-based diet.

But of course, you’re not hearing any of this on your Beginners’ Guide to Going Vegan.

James Demaria

Although Quichiz says that eating whole foods, like her ancestors did, makes her feel better, she no longer punishes herself or lets others punish her for not being vegan 100% of the time. Instead of calling it “a slip,” she recognizes she’s making an intentional choice to not be vegan at a given time. This conscious mental shift has helped her improve her relationship with food. Many vegans and vegetarians alike are turning to a “flexitarian” diet, focusing on protein that comes from plants instead of animal products, but allowing meat and other animal-derived foods, like dairy, when needed.

“Slipping comes with the context of being pressured to be vegan at all times, at all costs, no matter what,” Quichiz says. “If there’s no access to vegan food at that moment and I’m hungry, I will eat it.”

Black and Brown communities are often food deserts, areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, and understanding the circumstances under why someone can’t be vegan 24/7 is important to the Veggie Mijas’ mission. They serve as a resource for recipes with items you may already have in your pantry or might be part of your diet already like avocado, rice, beans, or plantains. This ethos also translates to its events, where vegan or not, all POC are welcomed if they have a willingness to learn.

“People think veganism can be very elitist, which it can be if you're buying all these fancy products. But if you are just [striving for] a plant-based lifestyle, it's not that hard,” Quichiz says. Research recommends a plant-based diet, not necessarily fully vegan. For a healthy, balanced plate, we just need to incorporate more fruits and vegetables and consume less red meat as protein, opting for beans, nuts, fish and poultry, all versatile protein sources. But most of us do not, increasing the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers.

“People think veganism can be very elitist, which it can be if you're buying all these fancy products. But if you are just [striving for] a plant-based lifestyle, it's not that hard,” Quichiz says.

Inspired to transition into veganism by her Latina friends (and admittedly, after watching Earthlings, a documentary about how humans use and abuse animals for their own benefit), her reasoning for transitioning into the lifestyle are vast. Being vegan aligns with her core values: feminism and protecting the environment, and the core value of feminism is equality for all. To Quichiz, Vegan feminism extends the circle of intersectionality to farmed animals.

At any Veggie Mijas event, you can find individuals with different reasons for cutting down their meat and dairy consumption, but they’re all equally respected within the group. A collective that features a complete spectrum of diversity including gender, race and sexuality, Veggie Mijas is a safe place to discuss an important pillar of their lives: food, in a place without judgement and policing, thanks in part to the fact that its founders, and most of their organizers, are queer. It is made by them and for them; para y por el barrio, as they like to say.

In challenging white mainstream veganism, Quichiz wants young kids to know that they have options as far as the lifestyle they choose. Veggie Mijas now offers POC-only educational workshops on veganism and the impact kids can generate. Eating habits start from an early age, so Quichiz’s vision is to instill a strong sense of food values in children elementary-aged to teenagers by empowering them to eat healthier. There’s a direct line to the entire community, who Quichiz and her cohort can influence and support.

Quichiz and her group have now done workshops at schools in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. At the end of each workshop, they gift students with their recently-released cookbook, Casa Verde, which includes Peruvian, Dominican, Venezuelan and other traditional recipes from Latin America. The hope is that parents can also feel inspired to cook healthier meals at home.

“We underestimate Black and brown kids a lot, especially when it comes to food. We think that all they eat is junk food but we don't see the options that we are giving them,” Quichiz says. “We don't see beyond what they can eat. If you offer them foods that make them feel good, they’re going to choose that. You just have to give them a chance.”

And this doesn’t mean cleaning out the full fridge and abandoning all cultural staples that aren’t vegan. Quichiz advocates starting by “veganizing” each family’s favorite dishes. Papa a la huancaína — boiled potatoes in a savory, creamy sauce) — is one of Quichiz's favorites; her mother has retained it in their family's meal rotation by subbing in vegan ingredients that mimic the richness of cheese.

“It’s important to empower our kids to know they can make a difference in their communities, especially when we grow up in communities where they can be violence and a lot of trauma,” Quichiz says. “There can be a lot of healing in planting, growing and talking about food.”