Hispanic Heritage Month: Paco Vélez reflects on Mexican heritage and how food links us all

Paco Velez

Mexican American civil rights, Latino and farm labor leader, Cesar Chávez famously said, “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him … the people who give you their food give you their heart.”

The statement resonates closely for Feeding South Florida’s President and CEO, Paco Vélez, who was raised immersed in his family’s Mexican culture in his hometown of Eagle Pass, Texas.

With his home one mile from the Mexican border, Paco recalls listening to the dulcet tones of ranchera music, watching his father compete in the heart-pumping action at charreadas (similar to rodeos), but most of all, his fondest memories are of the delicious and aromatic meals that were central to every celebration.

“All of the family got together for holidays and sung Spanish songs, but no gathering was complete without a meal. The holiday celebration of Posadas ended with food – tamales and buñuelos and after a wedding, menudo was had by all.”

Over the cooking and consumption of food, conversations and memories were cultivated – a notion familiar to us all but sadly, missed by over 1 million individuals right here in South Florida. This reality is not lost on Paco, who grew up hearing his father’s stories about working as a migrant farmworker –missing school to travel from South Texas to work in the fields of Michigan and Nebraska.

These experiences helped Paco understand at an early age that often times, those who help put food on our tables are often the ones who have trouble providing food for their own families.

Indeed, the concept that food is a catalyst for understanding others’ experiences and cultures more broadly has stuck with Paco.

Having grown up in a border town, a 99 percent predominantly Hispanic community, it wasn’t until Paco went to Baylor University that he recognized how special and impactful his Mexican heritage and culture was to him. In an environment where people looked and spoke differently than what he had become accustomed to, it was by breaking bread with others and bonding over similarities and differences of cuisines that he cultivated strong, lifelong friendships.

“It’s important to celebrate the experiences that link us because it’s so easy for people to feel like they don’t belong or are inferior because of their differences. Through some of these trials we face comes understanding. Often, people try to fit others into their own world, versus understanding the world of others. Once you get out of your world and start to understand or walk through other people’s shoes, you can really understand who they are,” shared Paco.

We agree. That’s why this Hispanic Heritage Month, we highlight the memories of growing up in a Mexican American home and how life’s experiences and rich cultural upbringing has contributed to Paco’s worldview and desire to impact others. Regardless of one’s background, music makes us dance, happy occasions make all us smile, sad occasions make us cry, and food unites us all.

That’s why Paco believes that “through food, comes understanding.” Indeed, today, as CEO of one the largest food banks in the United States, the topic of food often comes up, and it has now become an ice breaker for Paco – a bridge to understand others.

“This is an important time to encourage dialogue and understanding about other cultures –  I can tell you about my culture when it comes to music and celebrations and food. Whether it’s sharing how to make chile relleno, or the real meaning behind Cinco de Mayo or Dia de Los Muertos, I’m happy to talk about culture, food and music, and I’m happy to learn about yours.”

We’re hopeful that initiatives like Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, Jewish American Heritage Month, and so many others, are all opportunities to learn about each other and that while we might share different recipes, our commonality is that food nourishes all and always takes us home.

Feeding South Florida will continue working to ensure that folks have what they need to nourish their bodies, create family memories and give everyone the opportunity to open their home, share their food, and share their heart.

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