Foodways as Tools of Empowerment

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Since its founding in 1917, the YWCA of Southern Arizona has encircled women (and the community) with engaging programs laced in justice, dignity, skill-building and cultural conversation. These innovative circles of empowerment are growing, now including conversations around food as well as the social enterprise of a YWCA café and catering program based in the Bonita Avenue building. 

YWCA of Southern Arizona Community Life Director and Executive Chef Liane Hernandez also is TMY’s 2015 Culture Kitchen Director. Her culinary experience and local foods’ focus will add another authentic dimension to the multi-ethnic home-cooking demonstrations and feasting of our public festival, and BorderLore spoke with Liane about the power of food, food justice and tradition:

Liane Hernandez

Liane Hernandez, photo by Rachel Miller, website posting January 7, 2015

B: Will you explain your quote, “I am my community’s keeper,” and expand on how good citizenship involves community engagement?

L: Once upon a time, I was very lucky have a tremendous mentor and friend, Albert Soto.  He took me and others under his guidance and wings.  During that time, he taught me, in so many ways, that it is our job as educated, concerned and capable Chicanas, was to participate in the process of community building and advocacy.  Far beyond cultural production and arts advocacy, he always reminded us to participate and take a place at the decision making tables; when it was available and sometimes when it wasn’t.  I have always been very lucky to find mentors that encouraged me to participate in the life of our community, be it on the grassroots level or otherwise.  In order for me to feel like I am being my most useful I believe that it is critical to share my passions, advice, questions, heart breaks and sense of justice.  I remember distinctly at a NALAC conference in San Antonio, Roberto Bedoya said something that has stuck with me.  He said, “Citizenship is a verb.”  I think that was something that struck me because I had never considered that to truly live in a democracy one must participate, be vigilant, thoughtful and willing to engage with the other parts of our environment.

Tucson Meet Yourself Cultural Kitchen

Tucson Meet Yourself Cultural Kitchen: Marie Bampamluolwa demonstrates FuFu flour tin at Tucson Meet Yourself. Photo by Samantha Angiulo

B: How is food an important part of the dialog of democracy?

L: Food has always been my way of communicating my care and compassion for the people that eat it. Despite political rhetoric I also believe that care and compassionate choices are part and parcel towards maintaining a democracy.  I used to be a Banquet chef, so even when it was a stressful and difficult plate up, I have been blessed to have a career that allowed me to have some small part in the most significant meals that people celebrated.    Flash forward a few years and i find myself at the intersection between advocacy and food production.  The motto and vision of our cafe at the YWCA is “setting the table for change.”  This metaphor is significant for me because it is about the relationships that we are fostering through our community center, as well as those that we participate in among the women that I work with.  As we have stretched and pulled the cafe into shape, I realize in some ways, to borrow an idea from Jonathan Greengrass, we have not hired women to make salads, rather we make salads to train women.  But, in the process we are also attempting to fortify and sustain different ideas and ways of working that hark to our founders and their necessity to create a space of safety and camaraderie for women so that they may determine their futures.  We are working hard to build confident and striving women that in turn inspire the organization and supporters to participate, and the cycle repeats itself.  It is a beautiful and invigorating process that makes me so proud to be here at this time and place.  I have the amazing opportunity to produce food that I am proud of from local products made by friends and people that I really look up to, like Lucy from Small Planet, Diana from Arizona Sprouthouse, Don from Barrio Bread, the inspired crew of the Food Conspiracy and so many more.  Happily, the cafe crew is also meeting and getting to know local producers.  The idea of local becomes the creation of an environment of neighbors and people that we care about, and vice versa.  It is really such a wonderful and powerful engagement and environment that works to empower women and helps us to imagine a community that is healthy and thriving, not just getting by.  This environment allows me to actually have and encourage difficult conversations and work towards the change I want to see.  Imagine that!!

B:Will you comment on how access to healthy and meaningful foods is a right, and extreme food insecurity hurts democracy?

L: As I understand it, humans require certain things to sustain themselves: Food, water, shelter and I would say connection.  That primate brain of ours needs other folks to help us get and remain whole and healthy.  Food and shelter are two critical components towards building healthy and thriving communities.  At meal time and around food is where we are taught care, compassion, tradition and perhaps imagination as well.  For too long, we as a nation, had put convenience above health, neglect before concern and disdain in the place of care.   I sometimes wonder why the conversation about local, fresh and healthy whole foods, choices and taste are many times divorced from the dialogue around justice and advocacy for those in poverty.  I think that we must, as a community, look to each other for answers and engage with each other to imagine what kind of community we wish to live in.  These big questions are constantly asked in isolation of one another, thus incomplete answers are all we come to.   In Tucson, where mothers and children are the face of poverty, how do we have a conversation about safe and healthy communities? Who is in engaged, and who is taking responsibility for developing and seeing a plan to fruition?  There are ample examples of people talking around the issues that plague Tucson, but where are the leaders? Where are the funds?  Where is the courage?  Food security is one of myriad issues facing those who are also bound to be the first and worst hit as we continue into generational drought, climate change and the political impotency to address these issues in both moral and economic terms.  It seems to me that what the conversation needs is more input from the very folks who grapple with the question of access to healthy food.  I would love to see “promotoras” and moms at each and every table creating solutions for the issues of poverty instead of just on the menu to be discussed.  The leadership is being created daily by organizations like Tierra y Libertad, Flowers and Bullets, Las Milpitas and Fortin de las flores, so now we need the courage to look and listen to these folks in order to imagine and create a more just Tucson and Southern Arizona.

B: How is food a universal connector and part of our community folklife?

L: Tucson has a rich and long history and collections of stories and ways of surviving in our desert environment.  We, Tucsonans, are at times a motley crew but I honestly believe that messy history makes us a prime location for amazing culinary achievements.  From the nanas that turn out perfectly imperfect tortillas and caldos that cure all that ail us, to the pot of Wakavaki that bring in the Angelitos at Old Pascua, the landscape here is punctuated and made glorious by the foodways that people have cultivated and brought to this region.  I am so humbled to help provide this space for people to tell their culinary tales.  As a cook, I have learned more about life, love, passion, challenges and victory when I was shoulder to shoulder with my co workers and tias than in any other venue.  The conversation is one that feeds me as we watch another person tell their story about how they make sense of the world and then share it.  This sharing is powerful and rich and ultimately what makes us see that we are all just kids at the table, waiting to be fed more.  I can’t wait to share the stories and recipes of those amazing folks we call neighbors again this year.

I have had the good fortune and sense to take the time to learn a little tiny bit about the threads of the Tucson tapestry.  I am an eater and thus my world makes the most sense when I share a meal with someone.  I gobble up all that I can and then I hope that the experience can sustain us both until the next meal.  I have shared great sorrow and joy over bowls of noodles.   I have watched family re-member itself over platters of tamales and latkes and I have watched folks gain courage and resolve over plates of beans and rice.  Food is one of the greatest symbols of sharing with you who I am and my yearning to know who you are and who your people are.  I hope that over these three days we can begin to share what Tucson means to us as our home.



  • The webjournal on the Anthropology of Food is here.
  • Online content for the International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food is here.

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