I’m not a vegetarian, much less a vegan, so talking about food in those terms is a bit like learning a new language.
For example, vegans don’t eat cheese from milk, so vegan restaurant menus refer to cheese-like substitutes as “cheeze” – a shorthand customers understand to mean a plant-based food product.
I learned this from Albuquerque restaurateur Tina Archuleta, an Indigenous vegan whose experiences living in a “food desert” shaped her future. Archuleta makes her own “cheeze” from pumpkins, but calls it “chi” sauce – a double entendre that sounds like “cheese” but also refers to the traditional Chinese term for the vital life force or energy that runs through all living things.
Archuleta has an entire philosophy about food and nutrition built around her own experiences as a Jemez Pueblo native, but colored by other world cultures that strive to live in harmony with nature.
It’s why her restaurant is called Itality Plant Based Foods. While it sounds vaguely Italian, the name is an offshoot of the Rastafarian term for food – Ital. Many in the Rafastari movement follow a general principle that food should be natural, pure and directly from the earth. That excludes animal flesh, milk products or eggs.
I met Archuleta in the course of inquiring about business and entrepreneurship in New Mexico’s Native American communities. With November being National Native American Heritage Month, there’s no shortage of contributions to explore. But entrepreneurship is a facet of Indigenous life easily overshadowed by the brochure-friendly imagery non-Natives are most familiar with: art, jewelry, beadwork, dancing, pottery and rugs.
There’s a strong tradition of entrepreneurs in tribal culture, says Marvis Aragon Jr., an Acoma Pueblo native and executive director of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico, located on the grounds of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. And they’re not all artisans.
From selling produce or alfalfa, to harvesting pinon nuts and hauling wood, many Indigenous people in New Mexico are essentially self-employed business owners who have to mitigate risks to their source of income.
“For many of these folks, it’s a way of life,” he says. “They fly below the radar and some may not even consider themselves business owners. In fact, many did not qualify for a lot of the supports that came up during COVID and the pandemic because they’re not registered businesses – at least not with the state.”
Archuleta’s career in food service and nutrition has similar roots.
“We’re pueblo people,” she says. “Our community is centered around food.”
She grew up helping her family raise produce and sell prepared food in Jemez Pueblo-owned booths that cater to visitors. Jemez food vendors enter a lottery for the chance to operate one of six booths each week during the busy season.
Archuleta describes “The Jemez,” a tourist-friendly region that includes Jemez Pueblo and nearby villages, as “New Mexico’s premier destination.” Yet it has few restaurants, making the pueblo-owned food booths a great opportunity for Jemez families to make money. The “Jemez enchilada” is the pueblo’s signature dish, featuring flour tortillas, cheese and onions – a favorite Archuleta has recreated in her restaurant as the “Hey Miss Enchilada” but with chi sauce, of course.
That area is also a food desert – without easy access to supermarkets – as is much of rural New Mexico, according to Archuleta.
She recalls making the 60-mile round trip journey to Bernalillo or Albuquerque with her mom to buy groceries – “cheap food with shelf life” to last between trips. A self-described “rebellious teen,” Archuleta began to suspect that what she ate was affecting her well-being.
“Ration food” from the government – flour, sugar and lard – had contributed to an unhealthy shift in the Indigenous diet, she says.
“Native Americans have a high incidence of diabetes and I connected it all to food.”
So, she embraced a plant-based diet to the bewilderment of her family.
“When I stopped eating sad, I felt amazing,” she says. “I left home because I wanted to control how I ate.”
She began farming produce on her own and selling it at the local farmers market, but many of her fellow pueblo members didn’t know what to do with kale, chard and unfamiliar vegetables. That’s when she saw an opportunity to educate her community about the benefits of reintroducing plant foods into their diets.
What followed was a series of entrepreneurial experiments to test whether her passion could be a money-maker. She became known as the pueblo’s “healthy cook.” There were cooking demonstrations at the pueblo’s wellness center and Archuleta began preparing healthy grab-and-go options for the “fresh fridge” of a local convenience store. She started catering for pueblo events – things like salads, sandwiches and quinoa stir fry.
But it was a Native Women Lead Business Summit at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center that finally made her think big. One of the workshops focused on marketing and Archuleta quickly realized that she had been building a recognizable brand. She also realized she was a “social entrepreneur” meaning she wasn’t just in business to make money, but to affect social outcomes. For her, it was improved health for fellow tribal members.
She entered a Native Entrepreneur in Residence program with New Mexico Community Capital, which provided a $16,000 startup grant. She bought catering equipment and developed a menu. Then she struggled to find commercial kitchen space to expand her business. Local incubators don’t prioritize business owners who don’t live in Albuquerque, she said. Archuleta still lives in Jemez Pueblo and commutes daily to Albuquerque. At the time she was working out of her own home kitchen to prepare food she was selling at the Railyard and pueblo feast days. The feast days showed her food was a hit with Natives and non-Natives alike.
“I had all this market, all this need, and nowhere to share my talent – I call it my medicine,” she says.
Lack of available kitchen space forced Archuleta to scale up. With technical support from Native Women Lead, Archuleta lined up the capital and financing she needed to launch Itality Plant Based Foods in the newest phase of commercial development near the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. The restaurant has limited indoor seating, which reflects Itality’s focus. Catering and preparing food to sell at pueblo feast days remain a core business focus. But now the public has access to breakfast and lunch foods that, frankly, sound amazing. Tamaya blue corn atole with roasted pumpkin seeds. Blue corn amaranth waffles with berry maple syrup. Pueblo pizza made with pueblo oven bread.
This is not “de-colonized” fare, which uses only the foods that would have been available to Indigenous people before Columbus. Archuleta will use any plant she has access to – even tropical ones like jackfruit – but her emphasis is on locally sourced, in-season fruits and vegetables. And whatever she makes will usually have a pueblo twist.
Locating in the Albuquerque district owned by the 19 pueblos has two important benefits for Archuleta. With her business being located on tribal land, the taxes she pays are going to tribal communities in rural areas of the state – the food deserts she’s determined to impact. The restaurant’s setting also provides cultural relevance.
“If I hadn’t done this, I would have watched someone else do it, but in a non-Native way,” she said. “This is where the future is going. We can’t continue to eat this way, in an oppressive and abusive food system, with heavy reliance on dairy and meat production. It’s not in line with Earth ethics.”
Archuleta forged her own path by following a simple desire to control food. First for herself and now for her people.
“I’m just trying to feed people and change health outcomes,” she says.
Andy Smith writes columns based on conversations with members of New Mexico underserved communities. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Help for would-be Indigenous entrepreneurs
There are a multitude of resources for New Mexico’s Indigenous people to develop business skills and knowledge. Aragon, with the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico, has a suite of training modules that help entrepreneurs at all stages of business development. New Mexico State University houses the Arrowhead Center and its nonprofit American Indian Business Enterprise. In August, the AIBE hosted a one-day conference on entrepreneurship, “Breaking Barriers” that explored things like networking, marketing and access to capital.
And the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is in the midst of raising roughly $9 million to build a multi-faceted “opportunity center” that will include space and equipment for creative industries such as jewelry and pottery as well as a culinary incubator. Students will not only learn specific trade skills, but the business side of their craft with courses on financial literacy and starting a business.
“We think we have the resources to help individuals that want to learn a new trade, that want to get into business, that want to get a job, get some job skills,” IPCC president and CEO Mike Canfield told the Journal last December. “We think we’re a perfect place to do that.”