To talk about culture can be something very tricky. To talk about culture and veganism can be even harder. First of all, because there is not just one culture, as many have been led to believe. Instead, there are thousands of cultures in the world, with their own practices, rituals, symbols, and languages. In Bolivia, we celebrate Mother Earth, nurturing her with rituals led by wise men and women in every community. Personally, my ancestors have passed on the tradition of giving her presents every Friday of August, which is the month of harvest. Sadly, a lot of people kill small animals as part of these rituals and give them to the Earth. When I first witnessed this, I started to question my own culture and to ask myself if I could still do the rituals without using animals or animal products.
Throughout the last 500 years, the Global North has spread and imposed its culture in the form of colonization. We can see it very clearly with festivities: Christmas, Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and Easter. Everywhere, people know about these holidays and even adopted them as their own, practicing them every year. However, veganism is not a form of colonization, because rather than a subjugation or conversion, it is a form of incorporating a healthy evolution for traditional cultures.
In the Andes, which is where I am from, the local culture teaches us to relate to nature as a being that is simultaneously a part of everything. Therefore, mountains, rivers, and even rocks have a soul. The relationship toward animals is very respectful and there is a dialogue with them, to live together harmoniously. Some of the most famous rituals are: “Todos Santos,” which happens on the 2nd of November and it is the day where the souls from our loved ones return for one day to visit us, so families have to prepare a table with their favorite foods, flowers, sweets, and photographs. Another ritual is the Andean New Year, which takes place on 21 of June because that is the date of the longest night of the year, where people stay up all night calling the return of the sun and asking for a successful new agricultural cycle.
In both Western and Andean cultures, there are different types of animal consumption. On one hand, no one can deny that the main image that comes up to mind when people think about Thanksgiving is a turkey as the centerpiece of the dinner table. Or that the main symbol of Easter is chicken eggs. With the passing of the years, Western culture has been driven to commodify consumption, which has intensified the cruelty toward animals. On the other hand, the Andean culture typically uses dead baby llamas (mostly the result of stillbirth or death from natural causes) in their rituals, which consist of preparing gifts (like seeds, honey, cacao, colorful wool, etc.) for the earth, which are burned together and buried. Although these rituals have a respectful approach toward animals, they have become more popular in recent years which has increased the potential for animal cruelty.
This is where veganism becomes relevant and propositive. Veganism is not about denying our cultures, nor forbidding people to celebrate their beliefs. But it brings up the subject of animal consumption, abuse, and cruelty for entertainment or food purposes. By making visible that cultures can be cruel toward other sentient beings, we can look for alternatives that don`t change the deeper purpose of the celebration.
For example, in the Andean culture, we could prepare vegan meals for our dead loved ones, or we could prepare vegan gifts for the earth. Also, in Western cultures, people could prepare vegan dinners (nowadays, we know it is possible to eat delicious meals without having to eat an animal), or have fun and entertainment without using animals or animal products.
Veganism shows us that culture is not about being inflexible. Times change, cultures are not static. We can question ourselves and improve over generations. It is possible to live in a certain culture and be vegan. It only means to be more innovative and think towards the future. That is where the term “veganize” comes from, which means to remove the cruelty, not the flavor, fun, celebration, or rituality. Besides, recognizing that something might be wrong with our cultures, leads us to think about other subjects that are harming others and ourselves, and the alternatives that we could implement in our holidays and festivities, like stopping the use of plastic, buying food from local producers, supporting fair trade, consuming healthy foods and others. As Jeremy Lent said: “Culture shapes our values. Our values shape history. Our values will shape the future.” We can evolve, refrain from harming the planet or the animals, and still enjoy the richness of all of our cultures.
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Photo: Alex Azabache via Unsplash