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Indigenous foodways as tools of empowerment

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(Earth Eats theme music)

KAYTE YOUNG:  From the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, this is Earth Eats and I'm your host, Kayte Young.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  As I started to think more about theories around food and it's a thing that we do every day without fail, and it really shapes the way that we interact with one another. It shapes the way we interact with our environments, the ways that we create networks of relationships. Being able to kind of name it has given it a power to be able to use it, to tap into ways to think about social relationships in the present and can propose alternatives.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This week, we're devoting the full show to my conversation with Dr. Keitlyn Alcantara, an Anthropological Bioarchaeologist at Indiana University, who studies foodways as tools of empowerment. Stay with us.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening to Earth Eats, I'm Kayte Young. Let's dive right into my conversation with Keitlyn Alcantara.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  My name is Keitlyn Alcantara and I joined the faculty in Anthropology in August 2020 and I am trained as an Archaeologist, an Anthropologist and I'm interested in foodways in the past and the present.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, I understand that the name for your field is Anthropological Bioarchaeology, that is a mouthful. Can you explain that for those of us who aren't familiar with that field?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. So, Anthropology is anything that has to do with studying human systems, human relationship and then Archeology is ancient relationships in humans that aren't physically around anymore. And so, we do that through analyzing material remains, thing they left behind, whether that's art, or architecture, or written materials or food remains. And Bioarchaeology is looking at the actual physical human remains that are left behind and trying to interpret the way that society shaped bodies in the past. So, we don't have these people to talk to anymore and ask them about what their lived experience was, but we can look at the way that their lived experience shaped their bodies on a lot of different levels. You can do that on a molecular level and literally see, you know, what foods were shaping their bones, but also looking at things like how nutrition impacted their, their bodies throughout life, looking at how there's differences between different individuals in a population, to help you understand things about access and relationships of exchange. Also then, yeah, just looking at lived experiences, you know, we go through life and get in accidents and have particular moments that shape our bodies, so going back and looking at that in archaeological context.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You're talking about prehistoric times too, like, just being able to really learn things about people's everyday lives, like, about their food. How, how do you do that? What are the kinds of methods that you, that you yourself have been involved with?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. So, I work with a team, I can't do all of the things on my own and so, I focus on kind of the individual level of integrating the past, where there's also a team that's looking at archaeological sites across the whole site. So, they're looking at architecture, at refuse, like trash middens where people threw out old foods that then we can analyze and see, like, what physical evidence is there of what was being eaten and discarded. So, there we get things like animal bones and pollen and plant remains so we can interpret there, you know, what was being prepared and used. And then we can also look at things like murals and writing and, and seeing what's being referenced in the pat. We can also look at cores in the soil to see what seeds and plants there were in the ecosystem. We can look at oral histories.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And then on my end, I do dietary isotope studies. So, that's actually taking some samples of tooth enamel and some samples of bone and then we break them down and measure how much carbon and nitrogen of different isotopes there are and that tells about different kind of categories of food. So, carbon tells us about different types of plants that were eaten in the past. The nitrogen tells us more about the food web. So, whether they were eating more plant-based diet, or if there was marine foods in the diet, or if there were small rodents in the diet versus were they eating larger carnivorous animals as well. And so it can help us rebuild what the food chain looked like in the past.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Can you talk a little bit about your specific research in Mexican foodways in the late Postclassic period? I would really like to hear more about that.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. So, the late Postclassic is just a way of saying the period right before the Spanish arrived. And so that's a period that goes from around 1300 to 1519 when the Spanish first arrived in Veracruz, and then made their way inland to Central Mexico. And I really like this period, because there's so many things that you see in Mexican cooking, on the landscape, the types of plants that are grown in people's kitchen gardens that we see in an archaeological context as well. So, because it's this later period, there are still really easily traceable elements of culture that are persisting in the present. What my research started out as, was to look at a site that resisted the Aztec Empire, as they were expanding throughout Central Mexico around the 1400s and this one city state was able to kind of resist encroaching allies that were surrounding them and in Mexican history, this has kind of been downplayed a lot, as just like, "Oh, well, they were holding out." But it was a matter of time before they would become part of the Aztec Empire and then the Spanish arrived and they kind of threw a wrench into history.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  But I was curious about what were the conditions that allowed them to maintain the sovereignty, where other places hadn't been able to do so. And there have been different ways that people approach this question, whether they had, like, military might in the Xicohtencatl which is the, the region I work in, the people from Tlaxcala. They were known as fierce warriors and so one of the arguments was that, you know, they had a very strong military, that was able to help with this resistance. But I think that's a really simple answer, so I was curious more about, like, well, what else was there? And so, one of the ways that I started exploring that, was through bioarchaeological analysis of the burial population at one of the-- one site within the state. There was a huge project going to prepare this site for tourism, and so they had hundreds of people working on the site and were able to restore and uncover large portions of the, the city and, as they were doing that, they were restoring a plaza and stumbled upon a cemetery.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And so, they needed somebody to kind of analyze the burials that they were finding, so that they could move forward with the restoration of the area. And I was just in the right place at the right time and so I jumped into the project in that capacity, and documented how many people there were, what ages they were and kind of their living-- li-- their life experiences, were they a population that had a lot of illness, were they a population that had a lot of violence? And ultimately, this led me to become really curious about the role of foodways, and their ability to resist the Empire, because it was a population that didn't really have any markers of nutritional deficiency in their body. There wasn't any issues with growing good healthy bones. They had really good dental health, and this is something that you don't see at other sites in the region at the-- around the same time period. So, something about the way they were living was keeping them pretty healthy and so, they weren't, like, this, this poor population that was struggling to resist. And as I was doing this analysis, that was really isolated in a lab by myself, doing a lot of Excel sheets.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  I also was living in Tlaxcala for about a year and during that time period I would go out to the markets. There's one in particular that's new, it's, it's probably about 16 years old, so it's not a longstanding market, but it was an agroecological market, so small scale farmers that are really dedicated to the social relationships of farming and maintaining really small relationships. And I just started talking to people there and learning a little bit about some of these ways of farming, or of cooking, or of sharing food and started to imagine, what if that's what people were doing in Tlaxcala. And so, having feedback from these people that I was talking to, helps me go back and reinterpret the data that I was getting from the archaeological site and proposed that perhaps one of the reasons they were able to resist, was because of the system of food sharing that happens. They have a lot of festivals where everybody comes and eats together, and also just a deep knowledge of all that is available on the landscape being able to eat, things that other people might consider weeds, or animals that might be considered too small or that we as contemporary archaeologists might not see as food, but are very high nutrient things that they can include in their diets.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, you were finding evidence of those foodways in contemporary diets, or you were wondering if there was?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. Like, a, a lot of the people that I had talked to in the market, they would have, you know, your everyday things like lettuces and tomatoes and, you know, cabbage, but they also would bring a lot of wild greens. So, these are things that here we see and we don't consider food, we consider weeds that invade our gardens, but--

KAYTE YOUNG:  Like, what kinds of--

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  I'm blanking on the name right now. They're called [FOREIGN DIALOGUE] in Spanish, but they're like lambs quarters. Yeah, lambs quarters is, is one that we see all over the place, especially in Bloomington, I've noticed it a lot, it sprouts up everywhere. But that's a really high nutrient green. And kind of those wild things that grow, a lot of cacti as well have high nutrient contents, but we don't consider them as food now in the present and so we don't see them as king of part of that food web. And so I was seeing how much, in this particular market, people were using those as things that they were selling, things they were including in their recipes. There's this excellent stand that makes all of the Mexican food that you can imagine, but only with mushrooms instead of with meat, and so they have, like, tacos there like, aguisado, like, lingua tacos, but they're made out of different types of mushrooms that have different consistencies. And, and just thinking about how much our food system in the present is very much shaped by colonialism and this European influence on food that would've looked much different in the past.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And so what I was seeing was that they were showing me the different possibilities of understanding the data that I was getting from the archaeological site. And that data looked like a population that was eating a lot of things that had similar values to cactus, to wild greens, eating a lot of things that weren't necessarily marine foods, like, that showed trade, but were really localized, you know, wild birds and deer and, and things like that. And then the other thing was that the population was all really similar. So, there wasn't a hierarchy of access, and that might have meant that we see, in contemporary Tlaxcala where they have these festivals at churches, where everybody can come and get free food, they had similar things then where they would have events, where everybody would contribute food and share food and that kind of evens the playing field for everybody to be able to have access to similar things.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Wow. That is so interesting. I can't even imagine what that must be like to discover those kinds of things, especially what you said about the hierarchy of access. That just seems like something that must be rare in, in what you find in various societies, you know, when--

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, I, I think it's something that-- I mean, I've more recently been reading into a lot of indigenous foodways across the Americas. And I think it is something that was more common, that we've forgotten about, or that was kind of written out of history. But that was one of the ways that people were able to survive, without having as heavy a dependence on agriculture as European societies did, was by creating that works of food sharing and creating these events where people would all come together in the middle of winter and have, you know, like, you could just imagine, like, having a bunch of different stews, and nuts, and breads that people are bringing and, especially, I think, like, during the pandemic just thinking about the wintertime, how nice it is to be able to come together and talk during this period of cold, dark and be able to share in those things. So, I think that it probably wasn't as rare as we think it is. Yeah, we just-- we kind of forgot that that's how things were, or at least maybe not forgot but erased from memory.

KAYTE YOUNG (narrating):  My guest is Dr. Keitlyn Alcantara, Anthropological Bioarchaeologist at Indiana University, who studies foodways as tools of empowerment. More from our conversation after a short break.


KAYTE YOUNG (narrating):  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. Let's get back to my conversation with Anthropology Professor, Keitlyn Alcantara.

KAYTE YOUNG (interviewing):  Were you already working in food, were you already interested in food as part of your research, or did this particular culture and what you found sort of get you into it?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  I think, subconsciously, I was interested in food. I grew up going between Mexico and the U.S., and not really being sure how to express my identity as a Mexican American and food is a really easy way to do that, knowing how to cook something, being familiar with certain foods. When I'd go to Mexico, I'd request certain foods and that would feel-- make me feel like I was home, or I was connected. And when I was in the States, being able to make those foods while I was here, made me feel closer to Mexico as well. And that's something that I didn't really start thinking about until I got into kind of my dissertation work and, and this research, but that now has grown a lot more and it seems obvious that it was always there, and it just took me this process to recognize that.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  The university that I studied at, had a focus on dietary isotopes, so that kind of pushed me in that direction. But as I started to think more about theories around food, and the fact that we-- it's a thing that we do everyday without fail and it really shapes the way that we interact with one another, it shapes the way we interact with our environments, the ways that we create networks of relationships. And I think I was subconsciously aware of that, and then being able to kind of name it has given it a power to be able to use it to tap into ways to think about social relationships in the present, and kind of propose alternatives.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Mm hm. Do you want to say anything more about what excited you or-- about what you were discovering?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  I was coming from my sixth year of graduate school. I was very burnt out and over academia and over trying to figure out what my theoretical framework was and trying to sound smart. And I got a Fulbright to study in Mexico for a year and do my research and getting that break from learning in a purely book sense, and getting to actually experience and meet people that weren't academics, and have conversations that were adjacent to what I was studying, but weren't forcing themselves to be research, was really, really energizing for me. And most of the people that I encountered and I would conversations with, we would bond because we were both plant people. We were excited about how different plants grew and different flavors and different ingredients that you could grow yourself. And I think I started out with that as just, like, these are people I enjoy around-- being around, these are people that I enjoy talking to and then slowly began to realize that there was, there was actually that theoretical framework I was looking for, that's what it was, was this relationship to,to land, this relationship to thinking about how we cultivate connection to a place, cultivate connection to the things that grow in that place, how they become a part of our own bodies as we eat them, how they become a way that we connect with one another.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Seeing that take shape and then thinking about that as a way to put myself in the past and imagine that happening, on a landscape that I was able to be living on with the plants around me that I knew grew in that time period, 'cause we'd found evidence of them, and imagining the way that I was seeing people cooking in the marketplace over, you know, coal stoves and seeing-- imagining that in the past as well. It just really brought it to life.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Well, so it sounds like your interest isn't just driven by understanding a specific period. You're really interested in connecting it with contemporary life, daily life and issues that are happening now and how we relate to food.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, yeah. Another part of my work that happened around that time was that when I came back after that trip, I n-- needed, I craved that inner connective academ-- academic approach. It wasn't enough to just be writing anymore. And so I started a after-school cooking program, where I was working with Latin immigrants in Nashville and cooking with middle school students as a way to remind them of where they came from or help them tap into those memories that are just so hard, when you have to leave the land that, that you're from and come and live in a different place and still try and understand who you are and what values you have and what history you have. So I started these cooking workshops. They were, they were really about just getting people to remember all of the things they already knew, by smelling something and having a memory spark, about how their grandmother used to make it, or where they would eat it or a particular family event. And I think that was where I started to see the way that this archaeological conversation that I was having, was about so much more in terms of food sovereignty.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  That this site in Mexico was an example of why it's so important to have this connection to your food sources and distribution of abundant free things from the landscape but that that also crossed over into contemporary food access issues and the power in being able to decide how, when you share food, to hold knowledge about the way that your ancestors and your family members have shared food, or made food in the past and how much information is contained just in, in food itself. So, yeah, it definitely sparked a bigger conversation.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Can you talk about one of the foods that you made with the students?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. One of the, one of the, the sessions that we did, we made elotes, which is just corn on the cob, but you put mayonnaise and cheese and chili on it. But what they learned to do in that workshop, was how to grind down dried corn kernels in a molcajete metate, like a ground stone. And so I showed them a few archaeological ground stones and had some friends come in that were from Guatemala and they also showed them a few, like, pictures of how they cooked in Guatemala. There were some students who had recently come to the States, and were like, "Oh, yeah, that's how we used to cook in my kitchen all the time." And so it was just like an interesting mix of, of relationships to corn and showing them how, like, the images of corn in the States, this yellow corn that's all uniform and connecting that to their histories of this diverse multi-colored corn that goes back thousands and thousands of years and how much it's part of, like, Latino cuisine in everything, in tortillas armarillas and just having that conversation with them, that, like, something as simple as, like, you could boil an ear of corn, slap some mayo on it and you're tapping into this history.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And it doesn't even have to be this complex recipe, it's really just, like, how does this flavor, this ingredient help you remember these deeper connections.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Mm hm. Wow. You've written a really beautiful piece about that experience for The Bitter Southerner and I was wondering if you could talk more about what that experience of cooking with those kids, what it meant to you? What it brought to you that you felt like you were missing at that time?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Well, I moved to the States when I was about six and I've mostly lived in places, there have been one or two that were a little bit more culturally diverse and mixed, but most of the places that I have lived, have been pretty homogeneous. Just, you know, I was the odd one out, because I had a little bit of, like, Mexicanness still clinging to me, and it was something that I really sought to hide, that I didn't want to be different, and I didn't want anybody to know that I had a different way of seeing the world. And that was something that I don't think I really noticed until I got to college and started taking classes about cultural anthropology, and these theories of hierarchy, of cultural hierarchies and how we internalize these ideas that, you know, we're not enough, and how much those are tied to politics. And so, as I was doing these programs, I saw so much of that similar experience in the students. They were in Nashville, Tennessee, which has a pretty big Latin ex-immigrant community-- has several different immigrant communities, but it's still in the U.S., and it's still this place that doesn't really center those communities and overarching culture.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And a lot of these students were coming into Nashville public schools that were predominantly white, and had teachers who didn't have time to speak to them in Spanish or to learn more about them and so they felt just really small, and they felt really, you know, insignificant and, so, being able to cook with them was, I think, something that brought out a lot of stories from students that seemed really shut down and just, like, these quiet middle schoolers that you couldn't get to talk, but as you started tapping into these sensory experiences, having them chop vegetables, or having them smell different spices, it just opened up kind of a portal to a different moment in their lives where they did know something and they did have something to say. So, I think that was one of the most fun parts, was you never knew what kind of stories were going to come out of the students and how much more complex their identities were, were going to be. They were just sharing all kinds of things where before you saw a moody teenager and you were like, "Oh, okay, I get it, you aren't able to express this part of yourself here, so you'd rather shut down."

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And so I think that was, yeah, that was just a really eye-opening thing to see how easily food can make you feel invisible. If you're stuck on school lunches that are bland and really don't bring any memory, they don't make you feel good, they don't make you feel, like, represented and how easily that can shift to something that opens you up and reminds you all of these stories and memories and experiences that you have within you.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, and you talked about how working together, like, on a shared task of preparing the food can really open up a more relaxed space for people to talk, which is something I have experienced before, and I think it's, it's really interesting to see the way that food can, can serve that, that role.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, yeah. I think any tactile kind of learning really just helps us get out of our heads and, and not be so self-conscious and so, you know, protective of our, our energy of, like, not doing the right thing. So, it was, it was always fun to see them. And there's one experience in particular that I remember, where we had parents come one day and the students had been cooking for, like, four or five s-- workshops before that. So, they knew how to use a knife, they knew-- like, they weren't excellent at everything but they could do it, and we would end up with okay food. It was really hard to mess up the things that we were making. And the parents came and I had to kind of go around and be like, "It's okay to let them do this, you need to step back and let them do this. See, see what happens if you just let them take this space." And they, they were really surprised too by, like, their kids' capacity and, yeah, like, autonomy that showed up when they were put at the head of that task. So, it was also a really fun thing to see them kind of flip from a after-school program, where maybe there was more structure of how they should be in a space to just kind of the chaos of cooking and allowing that to happen.

KAYTE YOUNG:  And did it inform your researcher in any way, or, or did it feel like it kind of helped you get through that intense academic time?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. I think it reminded me that I needed to tap into play and to joy. And I think when I was doing-- finishing up my dissertation and doing this, I had a lot of discouragement from my academic sphere of, like, you're spending too much time on that and it's not going to help you finish, and ultimately I think it was one of the things that helped make me a competitive job candidate, helped make me just, like, a multi-faceted person in an academic sphere and it's also really shaped the way that I teach and the way that I do research, because I see how students who are only focusing on reading, writing, theory, are only operating at, like, a 50% capacity of what they could be, in terms of engaging with the world and showing everything that they are. And so, in my classes, no matter what they are trying, incorporate, you know, a day where we do some art, or a day where we cook together, or eat together, or are outside, because I think that switching up the ways that we're engaging with the world, and thinking about the world and adding in those more embodied learning styles, is really key to getting that deeper multi-faceted interpretation and analysis and reflection about why the world works the way that it does.

KAYTE YOUNG:  This might be a good time to ask you, what are the classes that you're teaching?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. So, right now I am teaching community based research, and that's a graduate class that is helping students develop different methodologies for making their work bigger than the university and integrating it more with real world issues and thinking about how to go about partnering with community members in a way that's not patronizing, but instead is about co-creating and is about recognizing that within this academic silo, we might think we know everything, but everybody contains knowledge that's unique, and only they know how the world looks from their perspective. And so learning how to create space for different types of knowledge to come together, and hold equal footing, and then also helping graduate students realize, like, all of the things that they have in them too that they already have. There's so much impostor syndrome, and so, trying to counter that by saying, "Well, you already, you already lived at least a couple of decades on this Earth, and so, what did you learn during that time, and how can we integrate that into this, so that you don't feel like you're starting from zero."

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And then I've taught a, a few different undergraduate classes, prehistoric diet nutrition which looks at how humans evolved, but with a specific focus on food and how the food that we eat shapes our relationship to landscape, and then how that in turn shapes our bodies in the way that we are biologically shaped for our particular form of engagement with ecosystems and becoming human, which is an evolution class. That's an intro class for anybody that's interested in anthropology and bioanthropology, and just wants to get their foot in the door. And then in the spring, I'll be teaching food and the body, and that's a class that I developed to talk about food and equity in the U.S., but from a perspective that looks not just at the last couple of decades, but looks all the way back to indigenous relationships to land, how those were ruptured, how that shapes the ways that society created food systems and social systems that really ignored a lot of the, the needs that we have in terms of nutrient sources, but also, like, spiritual and relational relationships to, to food and to land and to one another.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And then traces that through different key moments in U.S. history of dispossession, of migration and thinking about how that then applies to a lot of the food and equity issues that we have now, as something that's not as easily solved as redistributing resources. It's a lot deeper than that, and we have to really address those historical issues before we can talk about long-term solutions.

KAYTE YOUNG:  You have described your methods as a decolonial approach. And I was wondering if you would be willing to say a little bit more about that? I mean, you've touched on it a little bit.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. It comes from this idea that there was a really big shift in the world during the period of colonialism. All around the world there was relationships of indigeneity to land, meaning that groups in all of the continents had thousand year histories of paying attention to the landscape, of being in a relationship with the landscape, of having kind of sustainable understandings of how much you could take before it threw landscape, ecosystems out of balance, and having that become integrated into all kinds of things like social gatherings, and story telling, and art, and all of that was interwoven into this understanding that we need to pay attention to balance. And colonialism kind of came out of this capitalistic idea that, well, maybe we don't need balance. Maybe we can accumulate resources and accumulate wealth and that will get us even better than balance, that we will be able to have extra and the world that we're living is really based on that idea of, of not balance, but how, how can you get more, how can you get better, how you can get more developed and more extraction, and more accumulation of resources and technology.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And one of the things that comes out of that, is that we're exhausted and the landscape is really suffering and we see all of these climate shifts that are happening, because we're not in balance anymore, because we are trying to take too much and this shows up in our own lives in burnout. It shows up in our disconnection from one another, and depression, and anxiety and even, like, the university systems that are about publishing instead of, are you actually learning something that you enjoy, and is a value, and is going to change the world? So, the decolonial approach, for me, means trying to counter that system in practice, in as many ways as I can. So, I talked a little bit about class structures that are not just about, can you write a paper, can you-- can we hit all of these marks during this semester, but that are a lot about checking in with one another, are there rhythms we need to reset, are there assignments we need to retool based on who's here, and what they need from the classroom?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Can we-- Do we need to make more space for rest? Because there's things going on in the outside world that are just too much right now. And then another component of that, is recognizing that a lot of the, the knowledge that we create within universities, is only a very small part of all the different ways that we can learn about the world. And so, centering and recognizing traditional knowledge and oral histories and art and cooking even, as forms of knowledge that contain a lot of information about the way the world works and trying to recenter those instead of only peer reviewed articles, only canon books and helping people to recognize that knowledge isn't something that is valuable 'cause it's hoarded or special or elite, but it's something that we all have, and all contribute to the world.

KAYTE YOUNG:  So, when you were talking about the way the world was before colonialism and that, that balance and then being out of balance, it's not only affecting people's personal health or mental health, it's, you know, it's, it's destroying the planet. You know, it's, it's why everything is so out of balance. It-- I mean, one could make that argument. And also, I just-- just as you were talking about the people paying attention to what's around them, and being in touch with the landscape and knowing what can be taken, and how much, and just that, you know, colonialism, it strips that from the people who are being colonized. You know, it sort of stops that from happening or from continuing. I mean, not completely, like, because you've-- your work has focused on communities that have resisted through foodways. I think that's something that's really interesting. Could you-- I don't know whether you want to say any more about that, about foodways as resistance or food sovereignty?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, yeah. And I, I mean, I would say that it, it strips the people that are being colonized, but it also strips the colonizers of peace. This colonial mentality of always needing more, I think, is something that's really, really pervasive in our culture today, that we all kind of have, of, like, we need to get that better job, we need to do more, have a better relationship, have, you know, more things and it's something that really never gives you a space to rest and just be. And, so, yeah, I just-- I wanted to, to say that it's something that I think impacts everybody. But in terms of food as resistance, I think there are a lot of ways that it's not as black and white as, like, colonizer colonized, and then, like, the world is this way and used to be this way. There's, there's so many things in between and I think one of the things that comes out of this mentality of progress, is that there is one progress. There's one goal we're trying to reach and what happens with that is that all the other sidelines, threads that make up our human history, get pushed aside or just made less visible.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And I think throughout time, throughout colonialism, throughout everything that's happened, there's always so many different other things that are happening at the same time. And, and so, like, when I think about food as resistance, I think about all of the small things that we do everyday to try and make our lives more bearable that aren't necessarily the big actions. Like, , you know, went on a walk and I noticed some fall leaves and there was a squirrel, and it was really cute and I laughed for a minute. And that is, you know, a small act of resistance, and of, of trying to be present in the present moment and I think that things in foodways like, you know, making a meal for your family that you enjoy, and the smell of a kitchen wi-- full of steam from a soup on a winter day is kind of this really present making form of resistance. And so, it is something that we see in communities that we call, you know, the colonized ones, or people who we've seen who have, have faced a bigger brunt of violence and history. And I think we're surprised that, like, even there, you can find these, these great things happening.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  But I think it's also something that we miss at all moments in time, these everyday things and actions, these small, small things that we don't notice, are, are kind of shaping the good parts of things as well.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Mm hm, yeah, it's like making a life.


KAYTE YOUNG:  This is Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young, talking with Kaitlyn Alcantara. We'll be back in a moment.


KAYTE YOUNG:  Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats, and my guest is Anthropology Professor Keitlyn Alcantara. I asked her to tell us about the Healing Garden Project she started in 2020, at Hilltop Gardens on the campus of Indiana University.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  I started my position here at the University in August 2020, like I said, and it was hard, it was really hard. It was coming in during a pandemic, coming in to students who were having to deal with a lot at a really young age, a lot of political instability, a lot of violence, a lot of grief. Wanting to recognize that, but also being a new person in the space, just trying to orient myself and just feeling utterly exhausted and I went home to Mexico over the winter break, and spent a lot of time outside and just realized that, I think, one of the things that I would need to be able to maintain that balance, and to not just get absolutely burned out and miserable, would be to integrate into my daily, weekly practice time outside. And I had visited the Hilltop Gardens in the fall, and really enjoyed the space. I think the benefit of it, is that it's so big that it has its own kind of ecosystem there, that I haven't found. It's like a, a community center but with this, like, ecosystem around it. And, so, I proposed starting a little garden there in the spring, and it really drew a lot of people with similar interests, in terms of community and care and alternative ways of being in the university system.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And, so, we started with the idea of trying to counter kind of the dominant ways that community gardens exist in, in Bloomington in the U.S., and try and challenge that with all the different ways that you can engage with plants. And they don't have to be tidily in rows, they don't have to produce food for us to harvest just for eating, we can enjoy it. It doesn't have to just be for production. And it was a little bit of a mess at the beginning. We all just kind of came out and spent Saturdays together in the Garden, planting things and tried to have a plan and it didn't really go super well, but we had some experiments in there and a lot of the students that were engaged, were students who are international students who weren't able to go home because of the pandemic. And so, we had a lot of conversations about place and land and relationships.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And, yeah, it just became a space for thinking through these ideas of alternative ways of being and also for getting to know Indiana as soil, as a place that has its own sort of web of life, and trying to get to know that as well. So paying attention to things in the seasons, or the different animals that came through. And I was able to also integrate it into my classes as kind of a embodied place to learn from as well, not just lectures, but, like, can we go out and forage and see what kinds of different things are growing in the grass? And now it's kind of grown into a, a series of little projects that are stemming off of all of the students that are involved as well. So we have some outreach to the Latino community here in Bloomington. We started going door to door with little epazote herb plants, and just asking people, like, "Do you like plants? Do you want to learn more? Would you like to, in the future, have some kind of activity in this garden space?" And that was a lot inspired by the work I did in Nashville, just knowing that for a lot of parents who have kids growing up in the States, one of the things that is painful, is that they don't know how different things grow, especially ingredients, plants that are part of Latin American cuisine and herbs that, in Mexico, people grow in pots on their sidewalk, but here, there's less access.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  So, trying to provide that space as well, and having a few events of, you know, just inviting people to come out and play in the Garden, create art in the Garden, have book discussions in the Garden.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Oh, that's nice.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, yeah. So it's kind of just become a community co-op space, where we think through these ideas and support each other in experimental ways of being in the university and also trying to connect that to the community that's outside of the university.

KAYTE YOUNG:  In one of the descriptions for the Garden, I saw this line: "We work together with the Garden to unlearn practices of white supremacy and those are urgency, perfectionism, homogeneity, hierarchical decision making, defensiveness, and create a space for multiple ways of knowing, related to land and relating to one another." That is just such an interesting approach, and something I have never seen in another community gardening space. Do you want to say anything more about that?

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. On our website, there's a link to the resource that that definition kind of comes from and it's a really great resource because I think especially in the uprisings in 2020, white supremacy became this, this word that we associated with other people and that was really only the furthest edge of, like, terrible things, and not all the other ways that this idea of one way of being in the world, being the best way. And it's something that we all unintentionally subscribe to, just by being a part of a nation that eliminated indigenous ways of being, that was all about homogenizing immigrant and enslaved ways of being in the world. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we accidentally internalize a lot of that. And I think especially in academic spaces, the way that the academic world is set up, is very much about this sense of, like, we need to do this now, you need to publish this now, you need to answer this email now, you need to do this really well, there's no space for making mistakes, you need to have known this already, and already be an expert in it.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And that creates this community that's just always tense and always exhausted, and always seeking to put blame on people. And it's become so normalized that we can't even see it. We can't even see how unhappy we are with something that isn't serving us anyway. And, and I think one of the, the things that I want to create in the Garden is a space for people to make mistakes while they're unlearning that, because it's really hard to practice a new way of being in the world, if you've spent your whole life being a whole different way. And, so it's really aspirational. We're trying to be non-hierarchical and yet I, I still try and, like, send out the main emails, and want to know everything that's going on and we're trying not to be perfectionists, but sometimes it's really frustrating when things don't go the way we had planned and-- but really making space for seeing that, recognizing why it's happening. I'm used to living in this other way of being, I'm trying not to do that anymore. How can we practice that by taking a breath, just letting this be a different rhythm and, and moving on?

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, and seeing, seeing lists like that, I, I have encountered that before. And it is just so, when you recognize yourself in it, and you realize, like, well, this is the just the way I've always been, and I thought that's the way I was supposed to be, and just realizing, like, there's another way. This is learned, this is-- these are-- especially something like, you know, perfectionism is something I can totally identify with. And, and we bring it into our spaces of pleasure, not just our work. We bring it into the garden, we bring it into cooking, we bring it into these spaces where it just doesn't belong and isn't helping with what we're trying to do, which is connect with each other, connect with ourselves or the Earth. And, and things like perfectionism and urgency, they get in the way. I just think it's really interesting to see that named in a space, that we're actually going to intentionally think about these things and try not to go there.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah. And I absolutely have to shout out the Plant Truck Project as Lauren McAllister, who's the one that leads that project. We had great conversations about this, that helped me think through this a lot. So, like I said, I'm learning this right now, I'm not an expert in it, but I'm here learning and kind of making it public that I'm, I'm trying to unlearn, this is the goal. But I think that their work is also, like, steps ahead of that.

KAYTE YOUNG:  When we spoke, Keitlyn was scheduled to give a talk on food as storytelling. I asked her to explain.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  So, I think that food has memories inherent to it, that we might not realize we have in our own minds. So, the way that a smile can make you think of a particular moment in time, it not only taps into that memory, it taps into all of the things that you know to be true about that world. So, a smile can make you think of your grandmother's kitchen, but within that memory, you might know what kind of tiles she had, what kinds of cups she had, and all of this is knowledge about the way the world worked that particular moment. And a lot of times, the foods that have been passed down, particularly during moments of strife and chaos and violence, are messages about how to be in a world that is counter to these particular moments of trauma and violence. So, comfort foods are stories about the ways that you can imagine something better or the ways that you can embody something better in a particular moment, just by eating a food that reminds you of care, that reminds you of a way of engaging with one another.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And so the talk is, is going to be talking about my work in Mexico, but also thinking about our relationship to land, and the, the climate crisis that we're, that we're experiencing right and how the ways that what we choose to eat really shape our relationships to the world we're living in, and shape the realities that we are creating for the future. And there's all kinds of complex issues here, but just thinking about the way that eating a frozen pizza tells a different story about what's important, about what's possible, about all the ingredients that have been super processed in ways that you can't even imagine. You don't have that same relationship to food as if you were able to grow salad greens, and throw a salad together, or you were able to harvest that wheat and make your own pizza. Those are different ways of being in the world. One is highly industrialized, one is a story where you're very disconnected from your body, where you're very disconnected from the places, the people who made your food.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  And so thinking about how we can, we can rethink about our food systems as ways that we're projecting into the future, about how the world will work as well, and how we can use things like community gardens or spaces where people have more control over their food, as a way to give them agency to shape a world that's different from the one that they're kind of pushed into through these, these food systems and work systems, and things that strip possibility.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Hm. In the example you gave of the frozen pizza though, I, I can imagine someone having a food memory of their dad heating up a, a frozen pizza on a Friday night as a treat and the comfort, or the nurturing that that could, could embody for them, regardless of maybe the story of that particular food's production.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And actually in the prehistoric diet nutrition class, one of our final projects was to pick a comfort food and trace its origins. And I had a student whose comfort food was Totino's Pizza Rolls. And I think that the comfort and, like, the social relationship is absolutely there. But then, unpacking, like, why is that food the one that becomes the comfort food? And it has a lot to do with labor and economy and, if given all of the options in the world, would that still be the comfort food that would make you feel the best, all of the different layers? You know, so does it make your body function to your optimal energy and gut processing capacity? Does it help sustain you for more years? Or is it something that is comfort in the short-term, because that's what you have access to? But how do we--

KAYTE YOUNG:  Mm hm. Probably because it's connected to a relationship that's meaningful to you.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, exactly. But, yeah, I think untangling all of those stories is really important to understand all of the different ways that people create networks of care through food, that are valid and necessary, but also, at the same time, challenging why some people only have those options, of networks of care and ways of engaging in the food system and what you're putting in your body, and what is actually making you who you are. And then other people have more options and more ways to create and cultivate that care.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Yeah, yeah. It looks like it's about time to wrap up. Thank you, I really-- this has been a great conversation for me. So thank you.

KEITLYN ALCANTARA:  Yeah, thanks. It's been a pleasure.

KAYTE YOUNG:  I've been speaking with Keitlyn Alcantara. She's an Athropological Bioarchaeologist, in the Anthropology Department at Indiana University, Bloomington. That's all we have time for today, but you can hear the rest of our conversation, there's a bit more, on our website, or wherever you get your podcasts. You'll also find links to learn more about Dr. Alcantara's work and some of what we talked about.

(Earth Eats theme music)

KAYTE YOUNG:  Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

RENEE REED:  The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Toby Foster, Abraham Hill, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Payton Whaley, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG:  Special thanks this week to Keitlyn Alcantara and to Mike Paskash for recording assistance.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Hands with brown skin holding pale seed pods over a plastic container partially filled with gray, round seeds.

Lauren McAllister of the Plant Truck Project removes okra seeds from dry pods in the greenhouse at Hilltop Gardens on the IU Campus. Lauren has been involved with the Healing Gardens at Hilltop, which Keitlyn talks about in the interview. (courtesy of Keitlyn Alcantara)

“As I started to think more about theories around food, and it’s a thing that we do every day without fail, and it really shapes the way that we interact with one another, it shapes the way we interact with our environments, the ways that we create networks of relationships–being able to name it has given it a power to be able to use it to tap into ways to think about social relationships in the present and propose alternatives.”

This week we’re devoting the full show to my conversation with Keitlyn Alcantara. She's an anthropological bioarcheologist at Indiana University-Bloomington, who studies foodways as tools of empowerment. 

We talk about her research into Mexican foodways during the Late Postclassic period. Using bioarcheological methods, she studied the diet of a community in Mexico who had resisted the Aztec Empire, before Spanish colonization.  She was curious about the role that food sovereignty might have played in their ability to resist conquest, and about how contemporary foodways in the community may be influenced by the past.

We also talk about cooking workshops she organized with Latinx middle school students from immigrant communities in Nashville Tennessee, and what she's learning about the powerful role food can play in connecting us with our origins.

Keitlyn Alcantara started her faculty position in the Department of Anthropology at IU in the fall of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a trip home to Mexico in the winter, she was inspired to start the Healing Garden at Hilltop project, as a space for herself and others in the community to spend time in the garden without the usual expectations found in community garden spaces. A description of the Healing Garden includes this passage: 

“We work together with the garden to unlearn practices of white supremacy (urgency, perfectionism, homogeneity, hierarchical decision making, defensiveness) and create space for multiple ways of knowing, relating to land, and relating to one another.” 

Keitlyn gives credit to Lauren McAllister of the The Plant Truck Project for contributing to this work. We touch on this, and more, in our conversation on this week's episode of Earth Eats. 

Music on this Episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.


The Earth Eats’ team includes: Eoban Binder, Alexis Carvajal, Alex Chambers, Toby Foster, Daniella Richardson, Samantha Shemenaur, Payton Whaley and Harvest Public Media.

Earth Eats is produced, engineered and edited by Kayte Young. Our executive producer is Eric Bolstridge.

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