LISTEN: Abrania Marrero on dietary colonialism in Puerto Rico

"Shifts in the agricultural priorities of the island has ... political, cultural, and, ultimately, nutritional implications."

Abrania Marrero joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Health podcast to discuss the increasing push for food security and sovereignty in Puerto Rico, and how the island's relationship with the U.S. mainland has impacted its residents' health.


Marrero, Ph.D. candidate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, talks about how dinners with her grandma inspired her career path, and Puerto Rico's shifting relationship with food and farming.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Health podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Marrero, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

All right, today I'm talking to Abrania Morrero, a PhD candidate at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Abrania talks about the increasing push for food security and sovereignty in Puerto Rico, how the island's relationship with the US mainland has impacted its residents health, and the threat posed to the island from climate change. Abrania has a powerful, at times poetic, way of describing her research around food and I really enjoyed my talk with her. Enjoy.

Well I am really excited to be joined now by Abrania Marrero, Abrania, how are you.

Abrania Marrero

Good, how are you.

Brian Bienkowski

I am doing excellent I really appreciate you taking time to talk today.

Abrania Marrero

Really excited to kind of just dive in.

Brian Bienkowski

Yes, excellent. So let's do that. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about growing up in Puerto Rico, what it was like and what about it perhaps influenced your choice to pursue public health.

Abrania Marrero

Yeah, so my mother's family is from Orocovis, which is kind of dearly called "el corazón" or the heart of Puerto Rico right in the center of the mountains. My father's from Barranquitas and like a lot of other families in the late 90s, my mother actually lost her job when this federal tax incentive was repealed and it began to drain a lot of the island's industrial sector into bankruptcy so she moved the four of us with my sister to New Orleans, where I currently am because of the pandemic and where she continues to work as a petroleum refiner. My dad is in the Air Force, but my sister and I would spend every summer though, like a lot of other Puerto Rican children kind of back and forth, back on the island, so I was kind of raised in Orocovis too, kind of trailing after the skirts of my grandmother, my godmother, and my six aunts. So there's this like song, I kind of like speak in music so like, bear with me, there's this kind of unspoken national anthem in Puerto Rico. And in it are the words, "Quiero volver a sentir la tibia arena, a dormir en tus riberas, isla mía, flor cautiva." And that translates to, I want to go back and feel the warm sands, sleep on your riverbanks, island of mine, captive flower. And that lullaby captures so much of what it means to remember my childhood. it was a piece governed by the stillness of the mountains, the nourishment of a backyard garden. It was cousins and cleaning and cooking. Yeah, it's like a nostalgia, made up of just as much by warmth as it is by like grave because you just like, want to go back there. And it was like in trying to understand why I couldn't why there was like so little economic opportunity there and the island that launched me into the research I do know. Like, when I was little I never understood it or maybe they just didn't let on but my family was poor. Um, my grandmother had to have a job at the school cafeteria and was a seamstress and request is for all of her family members and friends. She worked like all her life for the privileges I now get to carry and I wanted to understand how it was possible that people so full of strength and self determination had to like constantly fight against this weight of poverty that like certainly wasn't homemade right, so I want to stop know how we could as families as communities like just go back right to that abundance. That was a lot, but

Brian Bienkowski

no, that's excellent that lullaby's really beautiful even though I don't speak the language, it's really powerful and it. The idea of home being warmth is so odd to me because I live in such a Tundra frigid climate but you know it's the same idea of winter being warm together indoors. So I, that's that's a really beautiful, really beautiful lullaby. And so, so building on what you said you've said a Puerto Rico that we are not vulnerable we have been made. We have been made vulnerable and I think that's a really powerful little pack of words there and I was wondering if you could talk about what you mean and how your current research fits into understanding these vulnerabilities.

Abrania Marrero

Yeah so, Puerto Rico is right, it is and has been, abundant, I think, perhaps, you get images in the media, of, of, only victimization. So I want to highlight that and that abundance lies within our land. And in our people, as recently as the 1950s for example the island had been growing the vast majority of its food. We had been rooted in agriculture, just as much in our economy is in our traditions traditions of self sufficiency and at the exact same time. Mutual Aid. So, even today, if you're in the countryside, your neighbor is going to have a think of plantations your second second uncle's are going to be the ones growing the root vegetables your niece grows pumpkin, and the chickens roam kind of aimlessly in the streets. But when you go with your machete, to gather your lunch for that day. You're gonna gather three times as much so you can bring some over to your friend too, so we like operate and this kin network of exchange, it's like an informal and circular economy that feeds not only our bodies but our communities and our cultural values. But that dream that Anthem is dying. So that same federal tax incentive that when I was phased out right, that had to kind of get my mom out. It had also convinced this entire generation of Puerto Ricans that farming was a poor man's ambition that the booming industries of oil, pharmaceuticals, that was prosperity, so farming disappeared, and with it our food sovereignty. So we now import almost all of the food we eat.

Although estimates are like, difficult, you think, I think you tend to hear that 85% But again, a quarter of our economy is that informal underground so we don't know. But regardless, with that importation comes super energy dense Ultra processed foods, sugary beverages, canned meats. The island has the highest observed prevalence of type two diabetes found anywhere in the United States. I with an aging population has a fractured health sector increasingly vulnerable to the burden of chronic disease. So this, that the political dynamic, that is our relationship with the mainland. It has that the very least, shaped our health and our well being for the past century, is a history that is embodied. And as we move into the future we will be increasingly grappling with the environmental disasters in the Caribbean. That will again, not be our doing as the high income high greenhouse gas emitting countries, kind of pass on the burden of climate change, and food insecurity to our shores. That's the verbose version of that one little statement.

Brian Bienkowski

And so for your, your research is of course trying to zoom in on some of these problems and perhaps alleviate them or mitigate them and before we get to that. I'm wondering if you can point to a defining moment, that shaped your identity on your, on your way up to your, where you're at now.

Abrania Marrero

Yeah, I'm sitting at the dinner table with my grandma. She is exactly that emblem of, she is a rock of a family of showing your love to your family, through, through work, and through food, and through, you know church. I always have aspired to be like her and my mother to kind of allow your loved ones to rest quietly, and you're kind of embrace. And the way I think about public health is always through the lens of what can we reclaim, Like what, not necessarily what are the exposures that make us sick. But what are those strengths the same strengths that she embodies that we that are our protective factors, right. Yeah.

Brian Bienkowski

So now you're pursuing your PhD is in Population Health Sciences and nutritional epidemiology, and I wonder if you can just kind of walk us through what these what these fields are, what they're all about and why this was the route you took.

Abrania Marrero

Yeah, so I kind of got into it a little bit, but food is definitely, like, the centerpiece of my life. At least, it is like it's incredible to think about right like even from a biochemical perspective like you can easily map on how so much of our like body's functions are serving that one task of eating our teeth to chew our lungs to bring an oxygen for metabolism our blood to carry nutrients to our muscles, and then historically Food and Agriculture is like the backbone of the Anthropocene. It governs so much of our natural resource use, and our planetary health impacts. And again, food is the center of my social and spiritual life it is the plateful of rice and beans. That is the word love right that is never spoken out loud, but always said in that service. Unleavened Bread is the culmination of Mass on Sundays, right, so those are those perspectives and then from an epistemological perspective. Food is an inescapable confounding problem. Why, because foods are matrices, nutrients and nutritional epidemiology are irretrievably embedded in a network of other nutrients and just one food item, let alone an entire meal, an entire day of meals, an entire lifetime. So, and then, and then there's this other aspect that eating is not just survival like for our body right it's, it's a source of human thriving, we catch up with friends over coffee we celebrate our triumphs at restaurants. We shop at supermarkets and food deserts. So the prospect of perfectly isolating that causal effect of nutrition is a behemoth task, if not literally impossible but that is what is so attractive about it as a training population health scientist, learning about how to predict and advocate for health, and this field kind of forces you from the very outset, to be honest about all of the assumptions and limitations and potential pitfalls that truth seeking entails. And it captures that patchwork of causality that is the entire human experience. It reminds me, just like we must be grounded in real life and in real communities it reminds me that the role of epidemiologist is just a little bit more complicated than any typical scientists it's twofold not wonderful. Not only do we have to identify whether an exposure is in fact causal, but we also have to ask ourselves, should we do something about that exposure, and that all of a sudden brings you back to reality right because that second question is an inherently ethical one and one that you have to ask, with community and with considerations of autonomy, beneficence and justice, kind of doing away with any suppose it's sterility of of science right.

Brian Bienkowski

So a lot of scientists. You know when I think about an air pollution scientists for example they study air pollution and maybe they're able to go back to their apartment and depending on where they live, maybe they don't think about it all night I'm, I'm thinking about you as somebody who seems like food touches your life in so many ways, including your work. If you're able to disinter disentangle, some of the problems that you're looking at whether it's who's creating the food who's suffering so that food makes it to your table. I mean all the problems embedded in the system, here and abroad. If you're able to disentangle that kind of in enjoy meals with friends and family.

Abrania Marrero

Oh yeah, I mean, I definitely feel like I am myself first and foremost and perhaps the scientists. Second, I think, I always have this, this worry. The self doubt that I think is actually really important and I've come to embrace that, perhaps, you know, my lived experience the fact that I'm, I feel like I am a data point, And my work makes me have a biased perspective to that work and keeps me from, you know, from potentially uncovering other perspectives that I'm not thinking about. And I think every scientist has their has their biases and kind of has their agendas, and I embrace that I recognize mine. And I also internalize that, that constant self questioning, um, in order to in order to make sure that I'm not taking it. I'm not taking it outside of kind of the rigor that, that these communities and this science deserves. Right,

Brian Bienkowski

right. In the past you've called it a dietary colonialism, that's, that's impacting Puerto Rico and I think me like most people I've never been there, would love to go, but think of this, this place of kind of maybe rolling countryside or something I'm not thinking of Walmart and prepackaged foods. I'm really not. So I'm wondering if you could talk about this dietary colonialism how it manifests down there and why it's problematic from a public health perspective.

Abrania Marrero

Man, I'm gonna, it's yeah, There's certainly Walmart's there. When I think of dietary colonialism I'm gonna zoom away back into history, though, as I've already mentioned, there's is this overriding narrative, even in how I retold that story that Puerto Rico has only just recently been exposed to, quote unquote, westernization and food import dependence. But the reality of colonialism on the island is much more far reaching with roots in the 15th century. So our research is kind of like dug into that and mapped out how shifts, and our cultural priorities of the island, really kind of has these impacts across political, cultural and ultimately nutritional kind of implications, right. So, for example, we went from smallholder farmers growing well food to colonizing nations being more interested in cash crops for export. So that reconfigured the agricultural landscape towards non nutritive tobacco sugarcane, coffee, and then another fun fact, we had the introduction of resource intensive livestock operations that can also be traced back to that period, despite like we know that an island has limited land and pasture land right and now we know that, you know, highly processed meats could have negative health implications. And again I want highlighting again how public health must be self doubting and self critical right. This was actually bolstered during the 20th century by this public health assumption that there was protein malnourishment in the Caribbean. So, now, so overcome what was fertile agricultural landscape, actually, like devoid of food. We had to start importing inexpensive rice vegetable oils, animal fats, those things come into play and are now the things that we consider as traditional staple foods, of course, they're being, they're being brought in, benefiting the economy of the exporting country. And, and I cannot this historical perspective, it can't, I can't be said it would be incomplete without acknowledging that slavery was fundamental to that story, and is the ultimate injustice of that past, and you could continue to see racism and colorism manifest discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico today so really want to highlight that. And finally just broadening out, that this pattern of marginalizing local agricultural knowledge and food traditions in favor of colonizing nations has repeated itself in small island nations all over the world that we can highlight the Pacific Islands as an example, those things threaten local livelihoods, cultures, and health.

Brian Bienkowski

So how about some of the positives, I What are, what are you seeing in Puerto Rico are some of these other island nations that you can outline some of the efforts locally to push for nutrition and kind of a nod to the cultural heritage instead of a foot being put on it.

Abrania Marrero

Yeah, I'll definitely highlight agro ecology. It's a burgeoning effort in Puerto Rico, and it commits not only to sustainable and regenerative farming practices right to protect every single acre of mountain and shore. But it also emphasizes that social and political peace, right where you want to alleviate poverty and we want to promote gender equality, protect land rights, preserve food cultures, support small scale food producers. It has roots that are kind of that mirror La Via Campesina, but we've made it all our own, we have organizations like Organizacion Boriqua developing processes for local organic certification we have Campo Sofia, bringing dinner tables right into the farm we have Alianza Por La Agricultura, they host these Farmer to Farmer conferences for peer learning and coalition. Women are finding their rightful place in the landscape. They have always been the heads of households like my grandma. They're the food and health decision makers of their families, but they have seldom have held the same economic power, as their male peers. And all of these efforts, kind of have this overarching theme that food lies at the intersection of health, environmental sustainability and self determination. I just want to highlight some research my group has done on thinking about climate resilience in Puerto Rico. We've we talked with smallholder farmers right after Hurricane Maria, and it really highlights that multidimensionality through narrative storytelling these participants kind of discuss their various efforts to ready their farms for another extreme weather event, whether it be diversifying their food crops, digging wells or installing solar panels, preparing community road clearance plans. The conversation reveals a lot of local and intergenerational expertise, but it also reveals a lot of pain right and we can't dismiss and massage that away. There is resilience, but there's also this this grief highlighted that when food is your work, that when providing sustenance for your family is your livelihood, that when the Land is Your bounty or identity, and that land gets decimated, that there's a part of you that gets decimated too, hopefully, some participants you know some participants kind of have continued to struggle we talked to them a year and a half after the hurricane. Others kind of saw this cycle of seed and harvest and death and nature's renewal that, that they saw their identity in that too and some of them found a way to plant again.

Brian Bienkowski

So it's very clear that this research isn't just a paycheck for you or a route to a job, so I'm wondering, how do you see your, your work, your research fitting into making things better when it comes to food accessibility food justice and nutrition because I don't You don't seem like the kind of person that's going to publish and then leave it, leave your publishing in some esoteric journal it seems like you would you would push a little more so I'm wondering what that looks like.

Abrania Marrero

I think partnerships with communities and organizations that are on the ground like all of those have already mentioned, is key, but also like uplifting, this, these truths and these desires of food sovereignty to the scientific stage is crucial, I do. I am a scientist at heart, I think, um, and I kind of hope to dig into this more in the written piece, Which I guess is like an unsolicited commercial for a free agent, right, but I hope that my colleagues and nutrition, kind of understand or the theory at least, that, That food systems can actually be self determined. I keep using that, coming back to that word. That's what that those objectives are achievable, and it's what the communities we serve. That's what they desire. And I think it's very nice actually very easily for public health professionals when we think of a system to imagine individuals at the very innermost of concentric circles that in those circles represent their social and political and ecological environments. And with that image it's actually very difficult to conceive of individuals really having any agency over their lives. They're instead kind of rendered helpless to the structural determinants around them and become sick. But I want to emphasize, and I want to emphasize, by the way that a structural perspective is imperative and long awaited and it's a welcome respite from all of the biomedical theories that have long dominated the field right but it alone is not enough, we got to, instead of just imagining the arrows, kind of cascading down from the systemic to the individual. We have to envision arrows that rebound back up from individuals to systems that communities have power and capacities to own their own health, their own farms their own food systems, and it is exactly through those social and cultural and political and ecological spheres that they do so. And they coalesce this like shared and sustainable power to affect the change that they want to see.

Brian Bienkowski

So full disclosure, I, I actually run a - My wife and I have a small farm down the road and I've worked in urban ag and this is all very close to me too and I, I have to say as someone who's written about the environment work in this space for a while, food is where I have the most optimism. I've seen people from very different political persuasions that all understand that we all eat and kind of get the point that local is better and less chemicals are better I think these concepts are pretty self apparent, I'm wondering if you share my optimism.

Abrania Marrero

Yeah, I just, you know, I've been looking at funding opportunities but the United States Department of Agriculture, doesn't tend to show any political inclinations but, but, you know, you think about the farm bill in United States and it tends to be a bipartisan supported bill and you think of rural development right there are so many lines that we have kind of gotten used to being drawn in the sand and the United States, the, the, the political spectrums that kind of no longer talk to each other. But food and farming are. Can I hope the one of those unifying things that I can go to, you know, Rosanna and I have, and talk to farmers about their sugar cane. And, you know, they are probably voting for somebody very different than, you know, other members of my community, and at the same time we could kind of agree together that we could use the residue that they were going to burn on their farms to instead make biochar, and that that is going to be a source of income for them and that's also going to reduce air pollution and the in their area right I think it's very easy it is, it is a platform that brings us joy, as a human species and so maybe I hope that it could be a common place to come together and to talk to each other about solutions, we'll see.

Brian Bienkowski

So obviously you're here in the interchange program because you have at least a passing interest in science communication and getting your work to a broader audience, and I'm curious if you can talk to us about a bit about how you see science communication fitting into your work moving forward.

Abrania Marrero

I love this question. It's like science communication is so hard. I see it, I see it in my conversations with my mom and my aunts, about what to cook all the time now that I'm getting a PhD in nutrition and they think I'm some kind of expert. So I previously mentioned how you have to like keep the complexities of systems in your mind, and that that is essential to our work as scientists, but actually I think is like the anti thesis of effective health communication. And I think I'll say it again I think translating our work to actualize change, instead of thinking about those complexities. It's just, I think it's overwhelmingly apparent, but almost virtually absent that we have to consider agency centeredness and our conversations with folks that I can be as excited as I want about colonial histories, or that new recipe of baked plantations I just tried out, or I can also come in with the assumption that they want to reduce their current disease risk, or they want to control their blood glucose levels, or they want to go on a diet. But none of those things may be true. And I think it is imperative as a communicator, not to pose, but to listen as like almost like an irony. So, what are her goals, what choices does she want to make what strengths and knowledge and resources do they already have what resources do they want to reclaim what problem does he want to overcome, and with who or for whom does he want to work. It is only by honoring the power that individuals have over their own health, that we will push any kind of needle forward and. And I think obviously like this, unwavering faith, almost that that one conversation that one decision or that one movement has enough power to act on the whole system, you know.

Brian Bienkowski

And then in your communication experience up to this point, have you used social media platforms at all to translate your work or just maybe connect with other folks who are interested in.

Abrania Marrero

I got on Twitter in March of last year. Perhaps as a distraction, and the pandemic perhaps. Yeah, more so, knowing other scientists in my field using it as a way to communicate their, their worth, I actually think we're battling and the new world of tech this algorithmic type of landscape in which I will go on Twitter and I will only see other public health scientists speak my speak, you know, be talking about causal and friends or. But, and I just recently like yesterday like uncovered the world that is like fiction, Twitter and like, just, you know, and I think tick tock is another example of that. So it's very, it'll be really important to understand how we can actually reach the audiences that we want to reach, when we're communicating, and not just preach to the choir in those kind of black holes that, that these platforms are becoming

Brian Bienkowski

Well Abrania, this has been a really awesome conversation. I have one last question for you and that is what is the last book you read for fun.

Abrania Marrero

I'm currently reading the Dostoyevsky, can you believe it or not; brothers, The Brothers K. Um, yeah, and it's super dense, I maybe more approachable when right before was the Lord of the Flies I had somehow missed it during high school.

It was great.

Brian Bienkowski

That's awesome. I'm actually reading Dostoyevsky's, what is A Disgraceful Affair right now, which is a bunch of short stories and it is amazing to read those authors and they still have, it's still it's still relevant, it's still works today.

Abrania Marrero

Beautiful.

Brian Bienkowski

Well Abrania, thank you so much for your time today I really appreciate it.

Abrania Marrero

Thank you.

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