Culture, Identity, and Dating as a Vegan with Gaby Cardenas
We met up with Gaby while we were out in Washington, D.C. and talked about her recent transition to veganism and how it affected certain aspects of her life. *This interview has been edited for length and clarity.*
nooch digest: So, Gaby, can you first tell me how you became vegan?
Gaby: I honestly think that the process started when you (Jon) became vegan. I remember when you first became vegan, I couldn't necessarily put my finger on it, but I had so much resistance to the idea. Like, so much resistance. And I felt like I didn't follow suit as an act of rebellion. (laughs) I kinda stuck to my guns, so to speak.
nd: Very much true to form. And it wasn't just you either; a couple of our other friends were very much against the idea as well.
Gaby: (Laughs) Right? And then what happened was I went to Costa Rica with [our mutual friend] Stephanie. During the trip, we had this really fascinating, really intelligent tour guide. The trip itself was amazing. At the end of it though, he had told us that he had been vegan for close to 15 years and I was kind of shocked. I had never met anyone in my life who I could relate to, culturally, who was also vegan. And it was kind of a catalyst for me because it made me think: "If he could make it work, living in Costa Rica, and he doesn't seem to be struggling with it, why can't I?"
He was so passionate about veganism and talking about all the health benefits from being vegan that you couldn't help but consider it. There was just this excitement about being vegan that I hadn't necessarily seen. And my mental representation of the typical vegan are these really intense, and really angry, people. So, meeting this brown man, living this happy life, all while being vegan, was kind of eye-opening for me. When I came back to the States, I decided that I was going to do a 30 day challenge. But even when I said that to myself, I knew I was lying and I knew that what I was really doing was experimenting.
nd: What do you mean by experimenting? Like you didn't want to commit to the vegan label just yet?
Gaby: Right. I didn't want to commit, but at the same time, I already knew that I was committed. I was somewhat in denial that I was making this transition. I think veganism is a very intense, very radical change in a lot of ways and in a lot of levels. And I think when you first go vegan, you don't necessarily understand all the levels that it touches upon.
"You have to be willing to consider that the way you were raised, or the things that you felt were normal, or what you thought was healthy, or what you thought was ethically or morally correct, that they were wrong. And that you were wrong."
nd: That is so true. I know for a fact that I'm still learning about the impact veganism has and the levels that it touches upon, like you mentioned. So what happened with the 30 day challenge?
Gaby: Literally halfway in, I was loving it and I was already feeling different. And it was so much easier than I had anticipated. So after the 30 days, I was like, "You know what? It was for 30 days but who was I kidding? I was really making a life change." You know that I'm very stubborn and I stuck to my guns. Truthfully speaking, the transition was hard. You have to be willing to consider that the way you were raised, or the things that you felt were normal, or what you thought was healthy or what you thought was ethically or morally correct, that they were wrong. And that you were wrong. And that's a really hard lesson to digest.
nd: Absolutely. What was it like for you to have your whole belief system turned upside down? And having to accept the fact that you have to change how you were used to doing or seeing certain things?
Gaby: I think the hard part was realizing it and committing to a different kind of life. Now that I know what it takes to have meat on my plate, or what it takes to have eggs, or dairy, I could finally say that it's not for me. It honestly became easier. It's hard, I think, to push yourself to be able to tell yourself that, "I was wrong." But once I was able to, it became so much easier. Like when I was what I like to call a "baby vegan", meaning that I had only been vegan for about 2 or so months, people kept telling me, "Oh, that must be so hard. I could never do it" Actually, the hardest part for me was deciding to do it. But once I decided to do it, it was the easiest, most natural thing for me to do, as a process.
nd: Very cool. I'm glad to hear that it became easier for you. I just wanted to go back a bit because you also mentioned that it took a fellow brown person who is vegan for you to think about going vegan yourself. And I just wanted to touch a little on the cultural aspect of food and what that means for you.
Gaby: I think this goes back to the many levels that veganism touches. One of them is a cultural level. Being Mexican, a lot of our dishes are very meat-heavy and dairy-heavy. There's also this connection with your culture that you feel through the food. Oftentimes, people connect with their culture through music and language, but also through food. I haven't even seen a fellow Latino vegan and I honestly didn't even think that was possible. So for me, being asked to go vegan, also meant that I was being asked to let go of a part of my identity, which feels like a huge loss. So when I met this Costa Rican man who's as "Costa Rican" as anybody else, and he's not struggling with any bit of his identity and it's still very much intact, that, in itself, was very eye-opening for me. He's living his life in a very intentional way and that kind of intentionality really resonated with me.
"I needed that cultural connection, so in the end I could be vegan and still feel Latina."
The fact that this man was vegan, which at the time, seemed like such an impossible, foreign concept to me, really broke that barrier for me. And I didn't even have to do it. He broke it for me. It reminds me of certain movements and how someone has to do it first so you can allow others to follow. As a queer person growing up, I didn't know any lesbians or bi people. And when you do, it just shatters your world. It was mind-blowing. I kind of think that he did that for me with veganism. He showed me that this is what veganism could look like. I didn't have to match how he did it, but this is what it could be like. And at that point, it felt reachable. And of course I realize that everyone's food journey is different, but for me, I needed that cultural connection, so in the end I could be vegan and still feel Latina.
nd: So how did your family take it when you told them you were going vegan?
Gaby: Well, my family knows that I've done crazy diets in the past. They were very supportive when I went Paleo for 10 months. So, when I came back and told them that I was going to try being vegan for 30 days, they said, "OK, how do we help you?"
nd: That's amazing. I know for a fact that it helps when you have an incredible support system especially when you're first starting out.
Gaby: Yeah, actually, props to my family for being so amazing and supportive. During the first couple of days, they would ask, "Are you sure you don't want this? It's your favorite!" There's still those kind of comments but for the most part, my mom was super accommodating. Whenever my mom would cook, she would make something for me, which is amazing because I don't necessarily consider myself a star in the kitchen.
nd: Did being vegan force you to rethink about how you prepare or see food in general?
Gaby: I knew logically that my taste buds were probably going to change and I was going to get used to drinking more soy milk or almond milk. What was most shocking to me was actually when I accidentally tasted something that wasn't vegan, I could identify it immediately. And it didn't taste good. For instance, I ordered a latté at Starbucks and they accidentally put cow's milk and I tasted it and I remember thinking, "This doesn't taste good, like it's gone bad." And then I realized I was tasting animal milk. This might sound crazy, but I honestly thought that I was tasting milk for the first time. Does that make sense? Like I used to drink milk all the time growing up and I would have a glass every night with dinner and just chug it like water. And the little taste that I had in that latté, I distinctly remember thinking that I was tasting milk for the first time and it did not taste good.
"As a queer person growing up, I didn't know any lesbians or bi people. And when you do, it just shatters your world. It was mind-blowing. I kind of think that he did that for me with veganism. He showed me that this is what veganism could look like. I didn't have to match how he did it, but this is what it could be like. And at that point, it felt reachable. "
nd: Wow. So in terms of when you switched to veganism, were there any benefits that you saw?
Gaby: My digestive system definitely improved and actually my mood considerably improved as well. I have a stressful job and I tend to be moody because of it. I work for a social services agency in West L.A. and I'm a program manager for the affordable housing program, which means I work with the homeless population as well as different communities in the area. Being vegan actually made me handle all that stress a little better. I feel like the best way to describe it was that my mood became more buoyant. I would react to stress and my mood would dip, but then I would have this delicious lunch and right after I'd be like, "You know what? Life's pretty good." Even just thinking about it now, I'm already happier. (laughs) You know, there's just something about eating vegan that makes your body feel lighter. Not just physically. but emotionally you feel lighter, too, which I wasn't expecting. And it wasn't like I lost a ton of weight right when I switched, in fact, I think I gained weight. I've been vegan now for almost, two years and I didn't start losing weight until this year. I was looking at the pictures back when I was in Costa Rica and I'd be like, "I was so chubby! Still cute, but chubby!" Now, looking at pictures of me, it's interesting.
nd: How did it feel seeing yourself in photos?
Gaby: Honestly, it was very emotional because being overweight, there's insecurities that come with that. My appearance and how attractive I feel to others — all of that was impacted definitely by my health and my weight. So doing this photoshoot and going through all the photos, just raw and unedited, it was like seeing a light within myself that I didn't see before. Even now, I feel emotional just talking about it. It was really eye-opening.
nd: Was that something you were expecting?
Gaby: No I didn't. In fact, when you guys asked me to do this, I wasn't so much worried about the interview so much as I was worried about doing the photos. I look in the mirror sometimes and there's this jarring image of me losing enough weight that even I noticed it. and suddenly there was a disconnect, and I didn't quite recognize it was me. And those pictures were really, really eye-opening for me. There was a shift happening externally, and now the shift was happening internally. I feel like I was able to see myself as other people see me and it was truly an amazing moment for me.
nd: I just need to hug you after that. So with that said, how does self-esteem and confidence play into that?
Gaby: It's funny because when I was first starting out, I didn't want to tell anybody that I was vegan. People would comment that I look different and would ask whether I did something different, and I wouldn't really say anything. I didn't want to be that vegan who all she could talk about was how she's vegan. When it came to that topic, I was very much private. As I continue to do this, however, I learned not to let it faze me, especially when I felt like I had to defend my choices.
My switch to veganism also came at a time when I got a promotion at work and I was losing weight, so my confidence was definitely on the rise. I remember weighing myself the day I went vegan and at my heaviest, I was at 220 lbs, which was a size 16, pushing 18. I didn't weigh myself for a very, very long time after that. Then, one day, it just so happened that I was at the Griffith Observatory and you know if you go downstairs, they have displays on each planet and scales on the floor for each display. If you stand on it, it will tell you how much you weigh on that planet. Anyway, I'm not a very observant person and of course, I didn't even see that there were scales on the floor. (laughs) I just so happen to be on Earth and reading random facts about the planet and the last line read, "This is your weight on Earth: 153 lbs." I was blown away, to say the least. Anyway, the point of that story was basically, now I'm more comfortable in my own skin that I have ever been. If I keep losing weight, great, but if I level out here, I'm fine with that as well.
nd: I know currently that you're seeing someone who is not vegan. What is that experience like?
Gaby: God, I love him but he drives me craaazy. (laughs) Here's the thing: I had to really think about that. Like I said, when I first decided to go vegan, I didn't do it for the animals.
nd: To be completely honest, neither did I. And that's fine.
Gaby: Right, but the longer I'm vegan, the initial reason as to why I became vegan is not why I'm still vegan today. Even that has evolved. Now I can say, I'm vegan for my health, for the animals, and for the planet. For some reason, overfishing really angers me a lot. When people would say, "I'm going pescetarian," internally, I would think, "Just kill our oceans, why don't you?!"
Anyway, by the time I met Robert, I was already vegan for a whole lot of reasons. So when I started seriously dating him, I had to ask myself a ton of questions. "Can I date someone who is potentially not vegan? Can I date someone and be OK if they never go vegan?" And that's hard. And i think it's something that I constantly explore. And right now I'm stupidly in love and I think it's been an interesting experience for him, too. However, there's been one thing that non-vegans do and it annoys the sh*t out of me and I get it, because I used to do it too when I wasn't vegan.
nd: What is it?
Gaby: It's the jokes. I honestly think that he brings up the fact that I'm vegan way more often than I do and it drives me insane. Like I would walk in a room and somebody would go, "Did you know she's a vegan?" And I'd be like, "I just walked in here to get a pen." So I actually ended up having a conversation with him about it and basically told him, "I know you're doing it because you think you're being cute. What I think you don't realize is that everybody else who's not vegan is trying to be cute. And guess what? It's not cute. I just get tired of it. I just need you to stop. If you really are OK with me being vegan, then stop joking about it and let me be."
nd: Do you do the same thing to him?
Gaby: No, I don't. I don't get on his case when he's eating meat. Live and let live is very much how I like to operate.
nd: But there must be some sort of internal conflict whenever that happens?
Gaby: Right, there is. But at the same time, I love him and I'm not with him to change him. If he's going to change, then it has to come from within. And it will be with something that he connects with. Because that's how it was for me. I don't like forcing people to change. We have a rule that if he's eating something that's not vegan, he's not allowed to kiss me until after we're done eating because it kind of grosses me out.
It was hard for him too because before I met him, he actually learned how to cook. And he learned to cook all these impressive, fancy, French dishes because in his head, "Oh, the next time I have a girlfriend, I'm going to cook her all these dishes and impress her." And then I ended up being his girlfriend. (Laughs) But since then, he's actually learned to cook vegan and I remember the first dish he made me was a vegan paella, which was phenomenal.
"I'm not with him to change him. If he's going to change, then it has to come from within, and it will be with something that he connects with. Because that's how it was for me."
nd: Besides food, is there any other aspect of dating a non-vegan that you experienced that you'd like to share?
Gaby: I mean we went to a sex store for one of our dates and he wanted to get edible lube and I said, "Not that brand. It's not vegan. That's not going in my mouth."
Gaby: I mean we found a vegan lube and it's butterscotch. And it's f*cking tasty.
nd: Amazing. There you go. That''s basically quintessentially Gaby. (Laughs) Last question: would you ever consider going back to being a non-vegan? Why or why not?
Gaby: No, I wouldn't, because there's no appeal for me. The last time I accidentally had something that's not vegan, I didn't even like how it tasted. But even beyond that, having seen videos and understanding what happens to animals, I can't even imagine going back. I mean, how can I live a life where I'm trying to be more intentional and more compassionate, and then all of a sudden just switch back because I don't feel like it anymore? I don't see that part of my life changing. And I don't see why I would want to. I think the longer I'm vegan, the more natural it feels.