Maria Parra Cano on healing self, family, and community with ancestral foods and forests
Interview by Kimi Eisele
Maria Parra Cano is a chef, ancestral foods educator, community organizer, mother, and farmer in Phoenix, Arizona. After graduating from of Scottsdale Culinary Institute, she began researching ancestral/traditional foods from Central Mexico, where her family roots are, and the Sonoran Desert, where she lives now. She offers food demonstrations, workshops, and runs Sana Sana, a food truck in Phoenix. Maria is the recipient of a 2020 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award and has been working with her husband, Brian Cano, to plant a food forest in South Phoenix. She spoke with BorderLore about her interest in healing foods, researching tradition, and the power of community.
How did you come to work with ancestral foods and healing?
In 2005, my parents were both diagnosed on the same day with diabetes. I was asking, what can I do to try to help them heal? I decided to go to culinary school. At the time I worked for a nonprofit as their director of prevention and education programs, so health disparities and healing were part of my work already. I was trying to find out how to use a preventative approach instead of a reactionary one. For me, it was food. It all depends on what we put into our bodies. I went to culinary school on what they called a career-switcher track. I worked full time, then went to school in the evenings. This was my life before children.
In culinary school, I was learning about these French cuisines and realizing that they were not my people’s food. I was learning a lot of this from my own body, how it reacts to lactose or gluten. We had to taste everything, so I ended up gaining close to 80 pounds. And this whole time I’m trying to be preventative, trying to help my parents to reverse their diabetes. I was like, this type of food is not working for me. We learned about the “mother sauces”—bechamel and cheese sauces, for example. But I was like, these aren’t my mother’s sauces! As soon as I graduated, I was able to focus on ancestral foods. I went back to cooking the way my mom traditionally would cook—the chiles, the moles, things like that—to shift the narrative for myself and ask, How does this translate?
I feel like often I navigate multiple worlds, being Chicana, being Indigenous, a mother now, navigating the mainstream plus who we are culturally and how we identify. When I graduated culinary school, I went on my own journey, relearning ancient grains from my family’s lineage, making connections with family, visiting, trying to learn as much as possible, from relatives and elders. We come from Texcoco, Mexico, right outside of Teotihuacan.
In 2012, I was diagnosed with diabetes during my first pregnancy. At first it was just gestational diabetes, but a year after the birth of my daughter it didn’t go away. At that point, I was already mainly vegetarian. Through multiple pregnancies, for about six years of my life, I was still learning about how to manage my health through my diet. With my fourth child, I had postpartum preeclampsia and had to go to the emergency room a week after delivery. Because of my blood pressure, I could have had a stroke. After two days, I was released. I called up the women of the Cihuapactli Collective, who were my birthing team and also my postpartum team. They helped with my children during that time, and with my husband. I told them from now on, everything needs to be plant based. Soups, stews, everything. I had my dandelion teas, my cinnamon teas. I said, this is the way my body is going to heal. Within three months, I went to my doctor’s appointment, and they told me I no longer needed the medication for hypertension or diabetes medication. At the time I also had stage four liver disease that I didn’t know about, and that was no longer an issue.
At that point, my husband said, we need to help other people. Within a month, we had a food truck called Sana Sana, which comes from a saying in Spanish, “Sana sana, colita de rana …”. We thought it would be an effective way to bring the food to people who live in the food deserts and don’t have access to healthy food.
We focused on that for almost three years, up until the pandemic. We also established an Indigenous food pantry, working with local farmers and producers to source dry goods from throughout the continent. Wherever we parked our food truck, we also had our dry-goods pantry there for people who needed it. And then the importance of connecting with the land became more evident. So now we are working on a food forest.
What kinds of food did you offer from the truck and the pantry?
We started making my mom’s comfort foods and salads with ingredients like nopalitos, reintroducing cactus to a lot of people who weren’t familiar with it or maybe had it tried at once when they were younger and didn’t know what to do. We began including the educational and medicinal aspects of foods. We did food demos and education classes all focused on why we use certain ingredients and the medicinal properties behind them. Healing the community through food.
In the pantry, we have a non-GMO ground blue corn that we use through a company called Pinole Blue. When we first started, I was doing pop-up food demos in Tucson with LOCAS. We would travel to Tucson to do the pop-up markets and food demos and using cholla buds, quinoa, saguaro syrup, popped amaranth. These are now items that we have in our pantry. We also use a lot of tepary beans mainly sourced here locally through Ramona Farms. I also started traveling to the San Xavier Co-op Farm to source items. Our pantry includes items from San Xavier, Ramona Farms, Pinole Blue, and locally roasted coffee from Quetzal Coop with Tonatierra. We try to keep everything as local as possible, but we do also have wild rice from Spirit Lake in Minnesota.
I wanted to just back up a little and ask about your parents. You mentioned that you grew up eating healthy food at home. How do you think their diabetes diagnosis happened?
I learned traditional dishes from my mom, all the recipes. Every food on the food truck was like my comfort food; it was all my mom’s food, though veganized. I think as the older my parents got, the harder it was for them to eat healthy food. That happens with so many of the elders in the community. It’s so similar to kids; they get used to eating certain foods. When everybody left home, went off to college, and did their own thing, processed foods and fast food became convenient. My mom no longer had to cook these large meals for nine of us, so I could see that struggle. My mom passed away in 2015, but she was pretty much vegan with us by that time. She was able to be an organ donor and do things that most diabetics are not able to do.
What are some of the favorite foods and ingredients that you use?
My daughters really love popped amaranth and quinoa. I make what I call our “Ancient Granola” using those grains, also chia seeds, pepitas, and sunflower seeds. They eat it like popcorn. I always like sharing the importance of amaranth because of our ceremonial relationship with it. Before colonialism, our families would use that grain on altars for offerings. We do the same now as a family. I’ve been educating my children about why amaranth was outlawed and forbidden–it was because it’s such a high nutrient dense food, that it would power the warriors and the colonists did not want to be overpowered! I have pictures of one of my daughters in a field of amaranth that we grew here in South Phoenix. Beautiful, amaranth with the long purple stalks and she was sitting in the middle.
My oldest daughter is now eight and she calls herself a professional corn grinder, which she does with a metate. I tried showing them the traditional tools, but also the value of a tortilla itself, what it takes to make one traditionally and knowing that yes, you can buy one at the store, but this is the way we would make it. She’s really good! I’ve done a few tortilla making classes for children and she instructs it! I don’t even have to do anything.
We serve special teas, too. Cinnamon tea, which is very warming and helps balance blood sugar and increase the circulation in the body, but not recommended for people who are pregnant. Dandelion tea, which helps balance your blood pressure and detox the body. Nettles tea, which can help stabilize blood sugars and increase circulation. I wouldn’t sweeten anything. We don’t use any processed sugars or gluten in our foods. We made mole with my mom’s recipe, but instead of using chicken or turkey broth, which is the ancestral way of making it, we would use mushrooms. Mushrooms have so many medicinal healing properties–helping with scar tissue, healing wounds. I did always warn people about spiciness though. We use chiles! I’m just letting you know, it’s spicy.
And now you are working to plant a food forest? A lot of people will wonder about that since we live in the Sonoran Desert. Fruit-bearing trees grow here, but it’s different from somewhere like Oregon. When you say food forest, what does that mean?
We have an acre and a quarter at Spaces of Opportunity, a 19-acre farm in South Phoenix. We just finished our water infrastructure, so now we have water, which is amazing. Next we’re focusing on preparing our soil. We’re planting a medicinal food forest. We are trying to use as many desert plants as possible, and then trying to gauge what our yield would have to be to produce specific items like jojoba oil, salves, and tinctures. It’s going to take a few years to grow, because we’re growing everything either from seed or from small plants or sprouts. We’re planting chiltepin, Mexican elderberry, Navajo tea, lemon grass–plants that are both beautiful and medicinal.
Yes. Mesquite trees. Also guaje trees, but only as cover crop, but we don’t want them to grow to too large. We’re also looking at peaches, apples, pomegranate, pears, quince, moringa and nopales.
And the food truck is on hold for now while you’re working on the forest?
Right now, I’ve mainly been focused on larger caterings, food demos, classes. Down the road I already envision a mobile pantry that we’re able to take around, with prepared meals already, as well as value-added products.
What are the main communities you serve?
I like to say urban Indigenous communities. In South Phoenix, we are in a food desert. It’s a huge area. Our main focus is to see how we can not only survive from a business perspective, but also provide resources for those who might not be able to afford things. For example, tepary beans are high in protein, but they’re not accessible in a lot of places, especially here in Phoenix. I’m one of maybe two other vendors. Part of it is that people don’t know about it, but the other piece is the affordability. So how can we subsidize that for people to be able to use it?
This past year with the shift at Sana Sana during the pandemic, I focused on food distribution. I worked with three different community partners to do indigenous dry food care packs. For one project, we provided 10,000 families with these goods. And I was able to work with Ramona Farms, Pinole Blue, and others to also support their operations, because that was something important to us, too, how can we bring money back to them. For another project through Native American Connections, I did prepared meals for elderly centers as well as dry goods totes for maybe 1000 people. Then through the Orchard Community Learning Center, we prepared foods for 100 people a week for about three months.
Where do you think your caring sensibility comes from? You could be a caterer and have a food truck and do your thing, so where does this sense of supporting others or sharing the bounty come from for you?
I have a background as a community organizer. From a very young age, my mom would encourage us to go to protests. She would say in Spanish, No se dejen, meaning make sure you speak up, make sure people don’t take advantage of you. It’s also knowing about systemic oppression. I see things from a different lens now as a parent, how I need to change that for my children. The community aspect of healing has been a really big influence on me, specifically. Every birth, every experience my family has had, has been in amongst community. I’ve been part of ceremonial circles, including the Calpoalli Nahuacalco here in Phoenix, for over 20 years. My foodies are another community. Gardeners or farmers are another. For me, working in community makes sense.
Connecting back to our lineages is the way we survived: caring for each other’s children, cooking for one another, helping others heal. And if we didn’t have it, we created it. Through the collective, we always say, “from womb to tomb.” We help nurture a birth and do the same when people pass. When my brother passed away a year ago, the community came to support me through food or through just showing up and saying, we’re with you. It’s hard for people that don’t have those connections or relationships, but we can always ask, how can we help? How can we create that community for others? How can we continue these messages of sharing our ancestral lineages and the teachings of the peoples here in this territory in a respectful way?
How has SFA’s Master-Apprentice Award supported your work and enabled you to expand your work?
Even during the application process, my husband and I thought of it as having time to work together on something, given our busy schedules. He’s my apprentice technically, but we see this as a very much partnership. The food forest is like our big garden project. It has enabled me to focus on an ancestral foods curriculum and cookbook. I found recipes that I had written 20 years ago. We have a welding fabrication company as well. The question has started coming up for my husband about where his heart is. Traditionally, his family were farmers in Texas, so for him, it’s about reconnecting back to that. So how can we make the food forest work so that he doesn’t need to be in the metal shop? It’s been wonderful for our children as well. They’ll go out there and run around and help plant and weed. So now we’re asking, How can we as a family grow this, nurture it, and then help feed other people?
Cover photo: Steven Meckler
If you enjoyed this interview, you might like:
Harvesting Cholla: The Pleasures of Intangible Heritage, May 2020
Agave Returns: Resurrecting a Botanical Spirit of the Borderlands, April 2018
2 thoughts on “My Mother’s Sauces”
I love the title. My boyfriend told his sister I was French. Whaat? We didn’t talk much. That must be an assumption he made because my name sounds French, I thought. Naive, I was. Was your mother a good cook she asked? She was. She must have made wonderful sauces. She did. Thank you for this memory of my mother’s sauces. And for reminding me about my grandfather telling me when I was very young: You are the desert. I have called myself and been called many names including by the Jordanian man who two inches away from my face demanded to know why I was pretending not to be Jordanian. But I have always known I am the Desert (not a metaphor) and this beautiful story about her and her work reminds me of my mother’s kitchen in the Sonoran Desert. Maria is a treasure and she is loved by her community.
Can we order from her food pantry by mail? I would love to try some of the products. I remember her demonstration at TMY several years ago and am excited about her progress!