2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Afro‑Cuban artist, cook, and queer activist Nancy Cepero on questioning everything

Nancy Cepero, vegan chef, queer anti-racist activist and artist, on trying to change Cuba’s food culture, self-care, and queer activism after the backlash against same-sex marriage.

A new generation of Cuban activists is questioning everything, including the heavy, meat-laden Cuban diet. Nancy Cepero, vegan chef, queer anti-racist activist and artist, is proud to be counted among them.

This is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Nancy. You can listen to the full episode, for free, on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Nathan Thornburgh: Let’s start with your your profession. You were a cook, a caterer, a chef. How do you define yourself?

Nancy Cepero: I am not just a cook. First of all I’m an artist. I’m a visual artist. I’m a painter, I’m a printmaker. And I have always cooked because it’s my family profession.

Thornburgh: So you were born into cooking?

Cepero: Exactly. So I learned how to cook very young. And I also work in my father’s business. It’s what we call here a paladar, and also a cafeteria. 

Thornburgh: So it’s a home-based kitchen that people will come to from the neighborhood and eat.

Cepero: Exactly. And at the same time I do my art, I paint, I do my a woodcut and stuff, and I’m also an activist.

Thornburgh: Artist, cook, activist.

Cepero: In 2017, I became a vegan, so I started to see many things in a different way, to see life in a different way. So one thing I used to do was share food with friends or in meetings or at events while doing activism.

When I talk to my community about the need to eat better, I’m talking about self-care. And I think for the Black and queer community, this is a subject we need to embrace in general: self-care and self-love.

Thornburgh: Why did you make that change? Was it overnight? Was it a slow evolution in your consciousness? How did it happen?

Cepero: I was making this personal research about how to take care by myself. Paying attention to the big people in my family, and the health issues they started to have.

Thornburgh: You mean obese people in your family?

Cepero: Yes, my grandmother, my father, my aunties, and mother. I started to look at their lifestyle in general, what they eat, what they do in daily life.

Thornburgh: What did you find?

Cepero: In general in my family, we didn’t to do to much exercise for instance. Or go out and take fresh air. Some of them smoke a lot and they used to eat too much meat. They eat a lot of meat. They have built a culture around it.

Thornburgh: The culture of eating meat.

Cepero: Exactly. And I realized those in my family with more of meat dependence are those with more diabetes.

Thornburgh: When I came down here, the first time was during the special period and meat was a luxury. It’s a privilege to be able to eat meat. And now, fortunately, people have more choices in the food they can eat, but there’s a cost. 

Cepero: Yes. I think that’s related to the culture—how we learned to eat or what our elders taught us to eat, and who colonized the country, and their gastronomic culture. But I think nowadays it is also a relationship with the special period. So many families weren’t able to get enough meat  to feed their family.

Thornburgh: So now they’re going overboard.

Cepero: Yes, It’s like, now we have it, we’re going to take it, and we’re going to take it a lot. 

Thornburgh: And every day is pork Friday or something.

Cepero: Exactly. And a lot of chicken, and a lot of fried food.

Thornburgh: I assume the paladar is not going vegan. Your family is still cooking. So what are they cooking? Is it all meat dishes? 

Cepero: It’s basically traditional Cuban food, or other things that are not properly Cuban, but are popular to eat here, like pasta.

Thornburgh: Yeah, Cubans are crazy about Italian food.

Cepero: Yes.

Thornburgh: So you got some pasta.

Cepero: Yes. We have a specialty based on Italian, but very local.

Thornburgh: Very Cuban style.

Cepero: Yeah it’s Cuban style.

Thornburgh: What makes a Cuban-Italian dish? Pasta with pork chunks?

Cepero: Yes. And for instance, my grandfather used to put sweet potato, cooked sweet potato with spaghetti. When we had spaghetti and Neapolitan spaghetti, it was mandatory for him to put some sweet potato in it.

Thornburgh: Right. Well that is definitely what they say with the name for Cuban food, comida criollo, right? Is mixed. It’s always been mixed.

Cepero: Exactly.

Thornburgh: How was that conversation with your family when you said, “Listen, I’m looking around and I see a lot of bad health and I am choosing something different for myself.” Did they take it personally? Was it like an attack on their culture, their food, their livelihood?

Cepero: It is hard for them to be open to the conversation in general and also to even think about changing their lifestyle about food. I am not telling people to became vegan. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned, to include more based plant-based foods, more vegetables, more fruit, less sugar, less rice. And obviously not that much meat, and not that much fried stuff.

Thornburgh: This feels like a very hard thing to suggest to not just your family, but to any Cuban. What are some of the challenges about maintaining veganism in Cuba? Access to certain ingredients must be top of the list.

Cepero: I think that is a big challenge, and it’s part for that reason that I am not telling people they need to be vegan.

Thornburgh: Because maybe they won’t have the ability or the focus that you do, to be able to find the things you need. What are you missing here in Cuba?

Cepero: Because we need to work, we need to hustle a lot to get most of the things we have. And there are things that we don’t get. Like seeds, some seeds and dried fruit which are important in a vegan diet. Let’s say chia seeds. Or nuts.

Thornburgh: These things have to be imported.

Cepero: Yes.

Thornburgh: They’re expensive.

Cepero: And also, we don’t have the information or the culture we need for some things that we do have, like pumpkin seeds, because they don’t sell that in the markets here, but you can get it by yourself from the pumpkin. Right? And dry it and consume it. But it is a lot of work.

Thornburgh: And there needs to be a market for that.

Cepero: I think that is necessary. And and now this is related with what we were talking about before, to push for a little bit of change. I know that by myself, I cannot change the people’s whole way of thinking. But if we start to talk more about these subjects, maybe some day we’re going to start as a country to see the need to grow certain things or talk ingabout some kind of things related with nutrition and well, that’s what I think.

Thornburgh: Change starts with one vegan. One vegan starts to change and maybe can make a little move. Maybe it’s because I grew up around Cuban-American food. I love pork, but I recognize that veganism has a long history as a political thing too. Veganism and activism seem pretty related. Are you finding that too, like in your activist circles? Are there more people who are making that choice, or is it easier to have those conversations?

Cepero: Yes. Because I think in activism, when you have a cause and you’re fighting for justice, in some ways you’re going to find many struggles are related because the oppression affects everybody at some point. I’m talking about the queer community. I’m talking about the African diaspora. I’m talking about women. And also for instance, in my community, we are mostly Black or African-descended people. Also feminist and also queer people. And when I talk to my community about food and the need to eat better, I’m talking about self-care. And I think for the Black and queer community, this is a subject we need to embrace in general. It’s just about food, but self-care and self-love.

Thornburgh: One part of your activism obviously is around queer issues. Cuba’s in some kind of crazy place now with Article 68? Was it last year where they had said that, We’re going to make gay marriage legal and write it into the constitution. And then there was a huge backlash. It seems like a really intense time for activism around queer issues. Where are we at now in Cuba with this?

Cepero: Well, I think we keep fighting on it in general, as a human right. That’s what most people in the community think and feel. I stand with the community in this cause, I went on the [“Conga Against Homophobia”] march on May 11 last year. Even though I personally don’t believe in marriage as [an institution].

Thornburgh: So you’re not going to get married to your partner, but there are rights that go into that. There are rights that are important. Maybe you don’t want to get married, but if you’re in a same-sex relationship, you want to be able to visit them at the hospital, or inherit.

Cepero: Exactly.

Thornburgh: To share all the things that you need to share, to share a life. 

Cepero: Exactly. And is also related to heritage, and a lot of stuff. And I mean, even if this is a right, because it is a right for straight people, who don’t even need to be asking for it, it doesn’t make sense. Because there is no justice to giving privilege to some part of a community and not to another. I mean, it’s 2020.

Thornburgh: It’s 2020.

Cepero: It’s 2020. I remember when I was younger in ’90s when I was a child every year that started with a “2” was something like science fiction. And we are living that science fiction now.

Thornburgh: This is the future.

Cepero: So we are living the future. So we need to live in this future for real.

Thornburgh: Speaking of the future here, one of the things that really shocked me about the fight around gay marriage was the rise of the evangelical church here, and the power that they had, which is not something that I’m familiar with in Cuba. It seems like a new dynamic. You have a new enemy here.

Cepero: I agree with you. I just realized the power they have now with this conflict about gay marriage.

What I wish for Cuba is to be open. I wish for freedom, of the heart, and of the mind.

Thornburgh: Speaking of the other point of activism around Afro-Cuban identity. What’s the Afro-Cuban religious relationship to homosexuality? Is homophobia baked into Santeria and the other Afro-Cuban religions?

Cepero: That’s an interesting question, because I think in my experience… I was about to say that every religion I know has a homophobic base, but I’m not really sure about that. What I think is that we people are racist. We people are homophobic. We people are misogynistic, right? And we people ruled religious practice.

Thornburgh: So it’s not in the text. The Santeria doesn’t have to be racist or homophobic, but if they are, then that’s going to come out in the religion.

Cepero: I think so. I think whatever you are inside, or whatever your culture is, or whatever way your family raised you, you’re going to put that in your practice, religious or not. And also in the way you interpret the information you read, being Christian or Santeria, I don’t know. I think that not in everywhere they practice the same. Here, women are not allowed to do a lot of stuff. I think women are like a backbone, but still they tell us we cannot do certain things. However, in countries like Nigeria where the religion was born, women are able to do important things and to have important information.

Thornburgh: We were having a conversation about how the Afro-Cuban religion stopped evolving, because it was so secret and so forbidden that it had to stay a certain way. Whereas in Nigeria, it just has kept evolving and maybe modernized a little so women can be involved in ways that feel true to 2020, for example.

Cepero: I think we women are dangerous, or they think we are dangerous. Maybe we are dangerous. We are too much powerful. And even when they manage this concept, the act like they feel that fear in general. I’m talking about the way the societies have been built.

Thornburgh: There’s a reason why they’re trying to exclude you.

Cepero: I think so. Fear.

Thornburgh: Talking about 2020 as the year of the future. What is your hope for Cuba, in let’s say 2030? Describe to me the Cuba that you want to be living in.

Cepero: What I wish for this country is to be open. I wish for freedom, of the heart, and of the mind. I wish that we won’t be blocked at that point.

Thornburgh: End of the embargo.

Cepero: Exactly. But not just that kind of blockade, that’s an important point. But maybe because of this same reason, I think we have blockaded ourselves, and we have a lot of fears. I want freedom and when I say freedom, I’m talking about inside each one of us. And as well in general, freedom about everything. Because I realized that it’s so easy for us to say no, to say we can’t. We need to be positive and we need to work.

Thornburgh: You seem very free and obviously you have gone after living the life that you want to live. But what do you need to become more free? What’s holding you back? 

Cepero: I’m not living the life I want to live. I’m working for it. That’s what I do, I work hard to live the life I want, to live the life I deserve. And I think I am not trying hard enough. I need to work harder, because the life I deserve, the life I want, should be easier. Why do I need to fight to be recognized as the human being I am, for being a woman, and queer and black and Cuban and [marginalized.] I don’t need to fight for it, but I need to fight for it. So this is not the life I want, this the life I have and I work hard to enjoy my life, for it to be the way it is. But I know that I deserve more. And when I say “I,” I’m talking about my mother, talking about my aunts, I’m talking about my friends and lovers and my brother, my niece, about my community in general, about my whole country—because all of us deserve something better. 

Listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher.

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