Last month, The Latino Restaurant Association (LRA) along with the support of culinary experts and Latino organizations, signed and sent a letter to the non-profit culinary organization, the James Beard Foundation (JBF), asking for a change in their leadership roles. The press release published by EIN Newswire, states how the letter was written by Lily Rocha, who is the CEO of the LRA, and was specifically sent to JBF’s CEO, Clare Reichenbach.

When it comes to JBF’s leadership roles, Latino organizations, and culinary professionals have noticed that there is no equal and proportional representation of Latinos on their Board of Trustees. This raised concern among many, including the owner and president of Casa Vega Restaurant in Los Angeles, Christina Vega, who launched and leads this initiative. 

Vega’s concern for this situation first came after hearing discussions from the Latino community and the culinary world regarding JBF’s leadership roles. Vega explained how this type of discussion towards JBF is not something new, the non-profit organization has been reached out before regarding recognizing Hispanics for their culinary talent.

Casa Vega has been open since 1956 and it has been a home to immigrants and the Latino community. Photo courtesy of Christina Vega.

El Pollo Loco

In 2021, a press release from El Pollo Loco stated how the company wanted to bring attention to how Hispanic chefs were not being recognized equally in past JBF awards for their impact on the culinary industry in the United States. The press release stated that to get awareness and attention, El Pollo Loco took out a full-page ad in the New York Times where they listed 11 Hispanic chefs as possible nominees for the 2022 James Beard Awards and they also placed a billboard near JBF’s location. 

Vega said how impactful this awareness from El Pollo Loco was and how it has made a change. “And since 2021, Latinos have gotten considerable awards from James Beard, but I do believe it took this level of exposure to do so. I don’t think they were going to act until this happened,” Vega said.

Exclusion of Latinos

As for this current situation, Vega first decided to look at the JBF’s board to see if there was an exclusion of Latinos at the leadership levels, and to her surprise, she noticed the lack of Latino leaders.

On the JBF’s website under their values section, it includes how the organization strives for diversity in the culinary industry, this also includes their staff and Trustees. JBF’s staff is currently 52% BIPOC and their Board of Trustees is 36% BIPOC, according to the website.

Vega then decided to reach out to someone from the JBF, where she had a back-and-forth conversation regarding the topic. Vega was told how the JBF is doing its best to find Latino candidates but it has been a hard process finding people who appropriately fit the role. Vega was told that there was only one Latino on the board. 

As a result of this, Vega decided it was time to step up and do something about this because she was shocked at the organization’s difficulty in finding Latinos. She shared this conversation with Rocha and the rest of the board members of the LRA, who all agreed there needs to be a change. The letter was drafted by Rocha and signed by the board members of the LRA. 

Being a James Beard Award Winner and alumni of the James Beard Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, Vega has been proud to be involved with the organization but believes this initiative is the correct thing to do. 

“Latinos deserve to be at this table. And not only have a seat, but fair representation,” Vega said. “I mean, we are the food community. And to be left out of the conversation and to be thought that it’s so hard to find us.”

Latinos for the Board of Trustees

As for Rocha, she could not believe the response Vega got regarding finding Latinos for the Board of Trustees of the JBF. Running the LRA, Rocha said the LRA has been a supporter of the JBF but believes their leadership roles are underrepresented. 

“It infuriates me as well that this is an organization, by the way, that we love. Their credibility. Everything that they’ve done is awesome and we don’t want any of that changed,” Rocha said. “However, having arbitration of what makes culinary excellence only a white board, which is what they had before, not now, does not really satisfy us at all. And we feel it’s unfair.” 

In 2022, Hispanics or Latinos made up 19.1% of the population in the U.S. Rocha pointed out this percentage to show how there are Latinos who can join the Board of Trustees and believes the JBF needs to have leadership that understands the landscape of the U.S. in this current time. 

As for Vega, growing up with a Mexican immigrant father who was the original owner of Casa Vega, it was instilled in her how important it is to be an activist for Latinos. 

Lilly Rocha, Executive Director, Los Angeles Latino Chamber of Commerce

“My father was a massive Latino activist in the eighties. His whole role was breaking onto boards where they didn’t allow Latinos or to be the first, he called himself the Happy Token,” Vega said. “He was going to sit there as a Mexican and show them that he was not lazy, that he was going to go against all their stereotypes.”

Along with this, Vega said that based on JBF’s mission statement, she does not think this is the optic they would want. According to JBF’s website, its mission is “to celebrate, support, and elevate the people behind America’s food culture and champion a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity, and sustainability.”

When it comes to explaining why it is important for the JBF to have fair and equal Latino representation in its Board of Trustees, Vega pointed out the impact Latinos have made on the American food landscape. Vega said how popular Latino and Mexican cuisines are and how people from other cultures have based their whole careers on the cuisines. 

That is why Vega cannot believe that the JBF does not have enough Latino leaders. “I can’t think of a good reason why we are left out of something that in the food world, Latinos have such a major impact. We basically generate the entire food scene,” Vega said. 

Hope for the future

Rocha agreed with Vega and said one of the goals of the LRA is to educate the American public on Latino cuisine and the impact it has. Also, the LRA website states how the association strives to support the Latino restaurant community so they can thrive. “LRA community members come together to network with industry pros, market their brand and learn new ways of making their business more efficient. We are committed to going above and beyond for our members and community,” the website states. 

Overall, Rocha, Vega, and the LRA, along with supporters of the initiative hope that the JBF responds to what is said in the letter and brings in more Latinos to their board to have proportional and equal representation. 

“I hope that in 10 years there’s just always fair representation of Latinos and that nobody else has to have this kind of back-and-forth that is jarring and uncomfortable because, at the same time, I’m risking being alienated by the James Beard Foundation or being viewed as a troublemaker when I really want to be viewed as just someone who’s bringing needed change to the organization that they’ll be thankful for,” Vega said.

Jasmine Contreras is a freelance writer who grew up in Wilmington, Calif., and received a journalism degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She gravitates to news, features, and lifestyle...