Published: Aug. 30, 2021 By

Sophia is a second-year MENV student who specializes in Sustainable Food Systems. In this Student Highlight article, she shares how her Hispanic heritage and identity have shaped her academic journey, her career trajectory, and the person she is today.

Sophia Piña-McMahon PortraitI am a second-year MENV student studying Sustainable Food Systems. My background is in Anthropology and Geography, so I tend to approach my work in the food system through a cultural and environmental lens. Throughout my time in MENV so far, I have been particularly focused on cultivating the skills for a career in multimedia storytelling in the local food and regenerative agriculture spaces. I'm originally from Seattle, Washington, and I am a proud Mexican American.

Over the last six years I've been away from home for school, but I always go back and visit during the holidays. When I did so last Christmas, it was the first time in 24 years that I saw pancakes on the table for breakfast instead of tortillas. Like many others, the pandemic kept me away from my grandparents for the entirety of 2020. Because my grandma wasn't able to visit us and cook a batch of tortillas on Christmas morning like she always does, my family made buckwheat pancakes for breakfast instead. Don’t get me wrong, the pancakes were great—healthy, vegan, gluten free, organic—all of the things that consumers think of when they hear the words "sustainable food". But how sustainable is food without heritage?

Not being able to see my grandma last year meant more than a menu change. It also meant losing the time of year when I feel most in touch with my Hispanic identity. Her accent, the smell of her cooking, being called  “mija” (a term of endearment in Spanish, meaning “my daughter”) and her stories about our extended family all make up the strongest connection that I have to my roots. It was easier to maintain that connection when I was young and constantly surrounded by my Mexican family. But as I've grown older and spent time in increasingly white spaces, including the environmental field, it’s become more difficult to stay connected to my roots. Fortunately, my time in MENV has helped me see how I can turn that around.

I decided to study Sustainable Food Systems because I am passionate about a wide variety of social and environmental issues, many of which intersect with the food system. But now that I’ve spent a year in MENV, I’ve come to realize that I am also passionate about how the making of the modern food system affected my ancestors and the communities in which I was raised. While statistics about food-driven deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions concern me, so does the plight of migrant farm workers in America, the disproportionate proximity of CAFOs to low-income communities of color, and the lack of Indigenous representation in regenerative agricultural narratives. All of these issues must be addressed in the cultivation of a more sustainable food system, and I am grateful to be in a program like MENV that recognizes this and brings social and cultural perspectives to the forefront of our work.

This is something that I know I must continue to do for myself as I move forward in my own food systems career. Too often, sustainable food systems storytelling paints pictures of “garden of eden” style utopias while leaving out the narratives of marginalized groups. But these people—Hispanics, immigrants, Indigenous communities, and other marginalized groups—make up the backbone of the mainstream food system and are the wisdom-keepers who have been cultivating and harvesting food sustainably for generations. I want to tell the full story of the food system—as it really was, as it really is, and what it really could be. This means intentionally seeking out and amplifying marginalized narratives, acknowledging the history of the land, and inspiring constant commitments to further action.

My Hispanic upbringing is the primary reason that I am so passionate about telling the story of the food system in its entirety. Without a doubt, my grandma’s tortillas were the first food I ever loved. Of course they tasted incredible, but that’s not why I loved them. I loved them because I loved rolling out the tortilla dough with her, counting in Spanish while the tortillas cooked, and sitting around a table with a dozen of my closest family members to share them afterwards. At the end of the day, I believe that a sustainable food system is one where that kind of experience is preserved and celebrated—the same way that our environment should be.

To me, Hispanic Heritage Month is a reminder to not forget who I am. Not only that, it’s a reminder to celebrate who I am and find new ways to weave my culture into everything that I do. It’s a reminder to celebrate my mother, my grandmother and all of my ancestors before me. And it’s a reminder to recognize that their relationships to food and the environment have been passed on to me to carry forward in my life and in my career.