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Imagine Otherwise: Aileen Suzara on Filipino Food Activism and Eco-Education

Imagine Otherwise: Aileen Suzara on Filipino Food Activism and Eco-Education

retro
November 1, 2017

Aileen Suzara wearing a black patterned shirt and silver earrings, in front of green plants

 

What role does food play in building sustainable communities? How might cultural traditions challenge us to think differently about the environment and public health interventions? What roles do food activism and culinary entrepreneurship play in social justice work?

In episode 51 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews chef and eco-educator Aileen Suzara about her journey into professional cooking, the familial stories she has uncovered connecting land to community and memory, the important role of Filipino farmers in the sustainability movement and food activism, and how Filipino cooks and farmers across the diaspora are creating some tasty ways to imagine otherwise.

Guest: Aileen Suzara

Aileen Suzara is a land-based educator, eco-advocate, and cook. Aileen’s path in food began in childhood, as she began to retrace her family’s migration stories from the Philippines to the US through recipes.

She builds on a decade as an eco-educator, environmental justice advocate, and as public health nutritionist to explore the chronic disease epidemic and the regenerative possibilities of cultural food practices.

Teaching and cooking have taken her to De Anza College, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Hawai’i, as well as to organizations including Filipino Advocates for Justice and the Sama Sama Cooperative.

Her writing has been published by Kitchen Kwento, the Center for Art and Thought, and Hella Pinay.

Aileen is the founder of the food business Sariwa (which means “fresh” in Tagalog), whose goal is to reimagine ancestral food traditions and share vibrant, seasonal foods with the local community. Sariwa is also a member of the San Francisco based La Cocina incubator kitchen.

We chatted about

  • Aileen’s food company Sariwa (1:56)
  • The connections between food, health, and social justice (8:40)
  • How stories help us connect food and culture (14:46)
  • Familial Filipino recipes and Aileen’s connection to her mother (18:20)
  • The entangled relationships between academic training, cooking, and community activism (21:06)
  • Imagining otherwise (24:59)

Aileen Suzara wearing a black patterned shirt and silver earrings, in front of green plants. Text reads: Being an eco-educator is about lifting up the connections all of us have with land. Whether we're living in the city or a rural area, it's there. it's about bringing forward these connections to water, air, to human and non-human life.

Takeaways

Sariwa’s food activism mission

Sariwa is something of a question for me. It came about when I was beginning to explore the ways that cultural foods can both build community and build health. One of my guiding points has been trying to create a sense of home through food as someone who finds home in different places. And also it’s trying to carve out a place that feels welcome and inclusive to people who come from different cultures as well. Through the business, I’ve been finding ways to bridge food stories, recipes, and take guidance from small growers regarding sourcing. Through this I’ve been trying to get to this question of how can a small scale business go beyond the transactional nature of how businesses often work?

What being an “eco-educator” means

It’s just simply about lifting up the connections all of us have with land. Whether we’re living in the city or a rural area, it’s there. It’s about bringing forward these connections to water, air, to human and non-human life. I’ve worked for several years in schools and community gardens, I’ve worked in farm based education, and also been a part of different educational settings. What I began to get really focused on was that there’s this idea of environmental education that I think that a lot of young people might get exposed to which is great. We all need to learn about the science and history around environmentalism in this country. I didn’t often see curriculum that connected a sense of culture with the environment.

Aileen’s beginnings as a Filipino food justice advocate

When I was 8, I remember just kind of going through this dusty bookshelf in my family’s house…I remember tucked away between these cookbooks that we didn’t really use like French cookbooks and American style dining ones, there was this slim, falling-apart paper volume that didn’t have a lot of pictures. It was a Filipino cookbook that my parents had brought over when they migrated [in the 1960s]. I remember pulling it out and it was like finding this book of spells. There were ingredients that I didn’t understand and dishes I didn’t know about. As a young person who had grown up with pressure to assimilate around language, the things we ate, and the way we presented ourselves while out, finding this cookbook was kind of like this magical passport into another realm of understand my family but also this bigger history and culture that we are a part of.

Connections between recipes and familial memory

I remember one day coming and visiting and how she had begun cooking something on the stove….There were these amazing smells coming from the pot on the stove and inside of it there was ginger, lemongrass, mushrooms, baby coconut meat, and baby coconut water. All these beautiful things and I was like ‘where did this recipe come from? How did I live my whole life and where did this dish come from?’ She said ‘Well I just thought about it today and thought I could make it.’ And literally she couldn’t have eaten that or cooked it for many decades at that point. Just seeing that in our own home showed me there are recipes that we hold from each other or that are just kind of dormant. There are day-to-day ways that recipes affirm the story of who we are but there are also untold stories and untold recipes that might just be waiting to come to the surface.

Supplementing activist work with academic training

There was always a reciprocal relationship between cooking, community-based activism, and academia. For me, it was ultimately always about building bridges. I remember when I had applied to this public health masters program at Berkeley, there was this excruciating feeling that maybe I wasn’t supposed to go to graduate school. Or maybe I didn’t know how to write a paper anymore. All of this self-doubt started creeping in, but I remembered that what really drove me to go in that direction was wanting to further ground the story that I had been seeing around chronic disease, the loss of traditional foods, and also the regenerative possibilities of cultural foods. I thought ‘How could I harness that and put that into an application?’ When I was at Berkeley, I was on a mission to access all the different resources and research, anything that could help answer this question of how we can revitalize cultural foods and use Filipino American foods to bring greater health to the community.

Imagining otherwise

We’re in a political climate that’s looking favorably around communities of color and immigrant communities. We’re in a moment that asking for us to all come together. The world that I’m working towards is one that’s based on relationships, on understanding and building reverence for land and people. I want to live in a world where we can celebrate and pass down cultures that shape our future. I want to live in a world that’s rooted to place and to land, so we can have a healthier future now and for future generations.

More from Aileen

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 51 and my guest today is Aileen Suzara. Aileen is a land-based educator, eco-advocate, and cook. Aileen’s path in food began in childhood, as she began to retrace her family’s migration stories from the Philippines to the US through recipes. She builds on a decade as an eco-educator, environmental justice advocate, and as public health nutritionist to explore the chronic disease epidemic and the regenerative possibilities of cultural food practices.

Teaching and cooking have taken her to De Anza College, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Hawai’i, as well as to organizations including Filipino Advocates for Justice and Sama Sama Cooperative.

Her writing has been published by Kitchen Kwento (which we talk about in the episode), the Center for Art and Thought, and Hella Pinay. Aileen is the founder of the food business Sariwa (which means “fresh”), which  reimagines ancestral food traditions and shares vibrant, seasonal foods in community. She is also a member of the La Cocina incubator.

In our conversation, Aileen and I talk about her journey into professional cooking, the familial stories she has uncovered connecting land to community and memory, the important role of Filipino farmers in the sustainability movement, and how Filipino cooks and farmers across the diaspora are creating some tasty ways to imagine otherwise.

[To Aileen] So thank you so much for being with us, Aileen.

Aileen Suzara [01:52]: Thank you so much for having me on, Cathy.

Cathy [01:55]: So you are a chef and an activist and I’d love to hear a little bit about the organization that you founded and your approach to food.

Aileen [02:07]: Sure. So I’m the chef and founder Sariwa, which literally means fresh in Filipino or Tagalog. As a small food business Sariwa is focused on joining together locally sourced ingredients (and I’m based here in California in case folks are listening from elsewhere) together with dishes that are inspired by my family’s homeland in the Philippines and with different dishes and influences from the Filipino American diaspora. We share food through catering, pop-up dinner events, street-food festivals, and community workshops.

In the future, I’d love for it to be anchored in a physical location because building face-to-face relationships around food is a big part of what I hope to cultivate. Sariwa, which is part of the La Cocina incubator kitchen in San Francisco, joins together with businesses that are led by women of color and immigrant women who are building businesses and in doing so, changing the landscape of our local economy.

Cathy [03:12] What drove you to start this company?

Aileen: There are several things that drove me to start setting it up. It came about when I was beginning to explore the ways that cultural foods can build both community and also build health. One of my guiding points has been trying to create a sense of home through food as someone who finds home in different places and also is just trying to carve out a place that feels welcoming and inclusive to people who come from different cultures as well. Through the foods business, I’ve been finding ways to bridge food stories and recipes, take guidance from small growers into sourcing, and trying to get into this question of how can a small-scale business go beyond the transactional nature of how businesses often work.

[04:17] I come from an activist background as an educator. And so to me, the driving force has been really thinking how can we build a more healthy and inclusive local economy and have a culture shift around how we look and understand food.

Some of the other things that drove me to start Sariwa years ago when I started working around health and wellness in communities of color was I began to see a story repeated over and over again, with different nuances and different reasons. I’m saw high rates of cancer and diabetes and heart disease and chronic diseases but also saw the ways that communities who were reconnected with their traditional food cultures could grow healthier and stronger. I began to think, “Okay, I’m seeing this where I grew up in Hawaii, where there are native communities who are reconnecting and revitalizing traditional local food practices.”

[05:25] I also began seeing this when I was in Arizona on a farm that was doing seed conservation in the ways of traditional seeds and access and growing. These foods were really impacting people’s sense of self and also physical health. And I thought, “What is the way that I can channel that back into my own community as well?” That was something I was personally hungry for. The more I began to connect with people within my community, the more I began to see that maybe there’s a path for that we are all going to take together to build this.

Cathy [05:59]: So you mentioned education and approaching education from an activist perspective. You identify with a really cool term that I would love to hear more about. You call yourself an eco-educator. What does that term mean for you and how does it fit in with the work that you’re doing with Sariwa?

Aileen [06:17]: I think at heart will always feel like an educator. Sometimes I like to look back and realize that there are educators in my family line that go back—educators and farmers. Sor me, the core of being an eco-educator is just simply about lifting up the connections all of us have to land. Whether we’re living in a city or rural area, it’s there and it’s just about bringing forward these connections to water, air, soil, human, and non-human life.

I’ve worked for several years in schools and community gardens doing farm-based education in different educational settings. There’s this idea of environmental education I think that a lot of young people might get exposed to, which is great as we all need to learn about the science and the history around us in this country, but I didn’t as often see curriculum that connected a sense of culture with the environment and that seemed like a big missing piece.

[07:34] I got more excited about the ways that people were bridging those two together. When we look at the environment or ecology, it’s not just something that’s out there away from us. It’s about who we are and our relationship to place. So as an educator, wanted to make environmental education something that’s culturally relevant, something that people could connect with wherever they’re at.

Cathy [07:59]: Across your various projects, you’ve been very interested in the structural connections between sustainable agriculture or health and racial and social justice. You do this through the lens of Filipino food, which is really fantastically interesting. I’m curious how you see food as a unique tool that helps us understand how these things are connected. You mentioned, for example, approaches to food that emphasize culture or emphasize our daily material lives, that kind of ways that we spend our hours and our minutes. So why food?

Aileen [08:40]: My focus on food struck me as an early age, so I feel like I was set on that path pretty early. I’ll share a short side story. When I was eight I remember going through this dusty bookshelf in our family’s house. My parents had immigrated [to the US] in the 1960s. They actually didn’t love cooking, so it’s funny that I became kind of food obsessed. I remember seeing tucked away in between all these cookbooks that we didn’t really use—French cookbooks, American-style dining cookbooks—there was this slim, falling-apart, paper volume that didn’t have a lot of pictures. It was a Filipino cookbook that my parents had brought when they migrated.

[09:32] I remember pulling it out and it was like finding a book of spells. I opened it and read the ingredients but I didn’t understand what they were. There were dishes I didn’t know about. As a young person I’d grown up with pressure to assimilate around language and the things we ate and how we presented ourselves while out. So finding this cookbook was kind of like this magical passport into another realm of understanding my family but also understanding this bigger history and culture that we were part of.

[10:26] Flash forward and food has always been this constant thread in any of the places I’ve been able to work. I remember being part of some environmental justice work between the US and Philippines years ago where around 10 of us were focusing on toxic waste. What I was struck by was that when we had a chance to meet with communities in the Philippines who were working at the grassroots level, we had the most amazing meals. People just had this rich understanding of food culture in the places where they were at. I began to see how food has a place in the world of activism. It has a place in the world of everyday life for everybody. It just feels like the most common ground that you can have with people. If you can tap into food, you can bring people together in a very tangible and practical way. It can also feed conversations that can go much deeper than you might imagine.

Cathy: What do you wish more people knew about Filipino food?

Aileen [11:16]: So many things, and I’m still learning the stories. You know, what I wish people knew about Filipino food connects to farming. I think back several years ago to when I was at some organic farmers’ meeting, where I was one of the very few people of color there. I remember being told, “I didn’t even know that Filipino farmers in the US were a thing.” I remember thinking, “We are a thing!” It just kind of drove home the idea that there is this largely invisible history that isn’t visible to a lot of folks, including folks who identify as Filipino American. It’s important to understand that this history is part of the fabric of this country when we’re thinking about food or food systems or agriculture.

[12:14] Even in the sustainability movement there is this really pervasive whiteness. I would often hear these well-intention ask, “How do you diversify the movement?” But people of color, Filipino Americans, have been part of building food systems for centuries. And we were part of it from the very beginning. So if there was something I wish more people knew about Filipino food and farming, it would be to know that this food is interconnected with everyday life here—even the invisible histories that people don’t know. I want there to be a current understanding of what these histories are and the lessons that they offer for us right now.

[13:11] And the next step, and this often comes up when I have been working with youth or young people, is to know that when we look at these histories, there’s also a lot of pain and trauma there. There are histories of resistance. There are histories of organizing and labor movements and these are so important to be connected to. There’s also a legacy of rich traditions that run really deep. That history of agriculture and farming is so important too because the other way we understand food is with our mouths.

We’re cooking recipes because when you begin to kind of tap into a wealth of Filipino recipes that highlight an abundance of crops, dishes that go against the stereotypes of what Filipino food is (that it’s all greasy or fatty or fried or meat), these are dishes that really showcase a deep relationship to land and to seeds and to crops.

Cathy [14:01]: You’ve mentioned stories quite a few times and it’s clear that storytelling is at the core of your approach to farming, your approach to food, and your approach to teaching others about these things. I know you run the website Kitchen Kwento, which is a fantastic collection of stories that traces these kinds of complex relationships between land, food, individuals, communities, and families. I’m curious about your favorite stories that you’ve come across in doing this kind of storytelling or story collecting work. What’s one of your favorite stories that you’ve come across that that illustrates something about how food connects these different sites of culture?

Aileen [14:44]: When I had started that blog, I actually never expected anyone to read it, not even my parents. I literally didn’t know how to set up a blog or do anything of that nature.

Cathy [14:55]: But you did it anyway and wonderful thing has come out of it.

Aileen [15:00]: Well, I started it. I was actually preparing to embark on what ended up becoming two years apprenticing and training in organic agriculture. I missed the boat on blogging in the 1990s so I turned to blogging in the 2000s to trace these questions of land, food, communities, memory, and even just day-to-day learning while farming as someone who has chosen to explore this. What I realized was that there are so many personal questions and narratives. It feels like a nice diary, but more than anything, what I loved was having people share their stories back. It became far more than just letting me journal in public. It became more of a conversation on how can we hold and lift up stories that are just kind of flowing in many directions.

[15:59] I remember getting a letter from someone I had only met very briefly, who actually works as a midwife. She was saying that for her own family and for herself as a midwife focusing on maternal health, she found this void around what our recipes and dishes can support postpartum women. While she was reading the blog, she started to send me stories and I got to read about how she was beginning to have these dinner-table conversations with her own Filipino American family every night when they would have dinner and gather. They would begin by sharing a story about an ingredient or recipe. And when she was working with mothers as a midwife, mothers who came from different cultural perspectives, they would begin to talk about foods that support health. I just really loved that because as a Filipino American, I know that’s the lens I come from. Ultimately food begins to uncover this universal picture that spans across cultures. And I’m just finding one route to into that as a Filipino.

Cathy [17:20]: One of my favorite stories of yours—and there are many, but just to pick one because we can’t talk all day—is called “Searching for the Land of Salt.” I originally came across it through the Center for Art and Thought. And I know you’ve worked on this piece and published this piece in other spaces as well, but that was my entry to it. You write something really evocative. You say, “We write, cook, and salt to affirm a place in the universe. Our lives can be scrawled or simmered, set in loaves or stanzas, recipe or verse.” That is just beautiful, first of all, and so evocative of the intense role of salts and of cooking and food and taste have in our communities and our lives. I’m curious if you’ve ever been surprised to learn something about a person through the recipes that they make or the recipes that they share with you.

Aileen [18:22]: They are always so many surprises. There are often secrets in our own families. I do get to work with so many young people in different families, but one of the most surprising secrets I’ve learned through a recipe or dish has been within my own immediate family and specifically with my parents. I think I mentioned that for my mom, the kitchen wasn’t always her favorite place. But I remember one day I was visiting and she had begun cooking something on the stove. I didn’t know what possessed her but there were these amazing smells coming from this pot on the stove. Inside of it, there was ginger, lemongrass, mushrooms, chicken, baby coconut meat, and coconut water—all these beautiful things.

[19:33] I was like, “Where did this recipe come from? How did I live my whole life not experiencing this and where did this dish come from?” And she was like, “Well, I just thought about it today and I decided to make it.” She probably hadn’t eaten that or cooked it for many decades at that point.

Seeing that even in my own home made me realize there are recipes that we hold from each other or that are just kind of dormant. There are day-to-day ways that recipes affirm the story of who we are, but there are also untold stories and untold recipes that might just be waiting to come to the surface. Seeing that that could even happen in my own household kind of blew me away. And it also tasted really good!

Cathy [20:29]: You’ve approached food as a chef and as an educator, but you’ve also approached it through academic study. You’ve studied public health and nutrition, particularly at UC Berkeley. I’m curious how that academic training has shaped your cooking in the kitchen and your community activism work and maybe vice versa. Did you find that your work as a chef and your work in sustainable agriculture and in communities of color in terms of food cultures shape your approach to public health and nutrition at school?

Aileen [21:06]: To me, there is a reciprocal relationship between cooking, community-based activism, and my entering into academia. For me it was ultimately always about building bridges. I remember when I had applied to the public health master’s program at Berkeley, had this excruciating feeling that maybe I wasn’t supposed to go to graduate school and maybe I didn’t know how to write a paper anymore and all of these self-doubts started creeping in. But I remembered what really drove my need to go in that direction. I wanted to further ground the story that I’d seen around chronic disease, the loss of traditional foods, and the regenerative possibilities of cultural foods. I was like, “Okay, how can I harness that and put it into an application?”

[22:20] When I was at Berkeley, I remember feeling like I was on a mission to access all the different resources or research I could, anything that could help to answer this question of how can we revitalize cultural foods from my lens of Filipino American foods to bring greater health into community?

While I was there, I remember finding that there was a back-and-forth that was needed. One of the projects I worked on was Cooper Garden. It was a contest about big ideas with a sustainability award or prize that could go towards a project. And I remember thinking, “I know that there’s this community garden that wants to bridge health and culture and wellness and I think we should have a shot at this.”

[23:20] One of the boundaries that I felt like was being imposed was that in academia I was often asked, “How is bringing in culture innovative?” There was often an emphasis on technology or more technological innovation when it came to finding solutions and changing the food system.

I just tried to stay grounded and listen to communities saying, “We don’t always need to have innovation look like technology.” I also wanted to center the experiences and cultural practices of people of color, as those that we have around the environment around food or health could be looked at as innovation. It’s not just a nice add-on but actually an essential piece.

We won first place for that. And I know it’s not all about winning contests in academia, but that process gave me renewed optimism and faith in grounding work in where communities are at.

Cathy [24:27]: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which is really where I started this podcast. The whole thing is just an excuse to ask this question of very smart people like yourself, and that’s the question of the kind of world that you are working to create when you step into a kitchen, when you step in front of a workshop to teach people about sustainable farming or about Filipino cuisine, when you create the things that you create in the universe. What’s the world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Aileen [24:58]: Well, right now the world that we’re in is one with a political climate that’s looking unfavorably at communities of color and immigrant communities. We’re in a moment that’s really asking for us to all come together. And so the world that I’m working towards is really one based on relationships, on understanding and building reverence for land and people.

I want to live in a world where we can celebrate and pass down cultures that are going to shape our future. I want to live in the world that’s rooted in relationship to place, to land, so that we can have a healthier future now and for future generations.

Cathy [25:46]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you imagine otherwise.

Aileen [25:52]: Well thank you so much, Cathy. It’s an honor to be here.

Cathy [25:59]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud,  Michelle Velasquez-Potts, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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