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A delectable look at history and heritage of chocolate

UCLA institute highlights contributions of Latin America’s indigenous cultures

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Cocoa beans in a cacao pod
Keith Weller/Agricultural Research Service

Cocoa beans in a cacao pod

Interested in the history and culture of Latin America? Have a sweet tooth? You can combine those pleasures at an upcoming community lecture on the history of chocolate in Highland Park on Sunday, March 29, at 2 p.m.

Sponsored by the UCLA Latin American Institute (LAI) at the nonprofit arts organization Avenue 50 Studio, the event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is required. Audience members will sample chocolate while listening to a history of its impact and uses.

The public lecture is part of LAI’s ongoing community outreach activities to share the latest research findings on the Latin American region with L.A. residents. The Avenue 50 Studio event evolved out of a larger, two-day professional workshop (“Chocolate in the Americas”) that LAI is offering to K–12 educators over two weekends this month.

A sweet story

The story of chocolate, which is consumed by millions all over the world today, begins with cacao, known to the Mexica (Aztecs) as cacahuatl. The lecture will offer an engaging multidisciplinary look at cacao’s history and heritage from its origin as a spicy, savory food consumed primarily as a beverage in ancient Mesoamerican societies to its journey across the Atlantic and transformation into a simple chocolate bar.

“Cacahuatl: The Origins and Global Impact of Chocolate” will feature presentations by a historian Manuel Aguilar; a chef Maite Gomez-Rejón and local chocolate maker Patricia Tsai. Aguilar is professor of Latin American studies and art history at California State University, Los Angeles; Gomez-Rejón is founder of ArtBites, a website that publishes a culinary history blog; and Tsai is the owner of ChocoVivo, L.A.'s first bean-to-bar chocolate shop.

“I thought chocolate would be an interesting topic to explore because it’s such a familiar and widely consumed commodity, and is very connected to Latin America,” said LAI Outreach Coordinator Cynthia Gomez, who designed the LAI teacher workshop and organized the lecture.  “It’s also a great way to examine history, economics, geography and globalization, as well as a little science,” including botany, environmental science, nutrition.

“The collaboration with Avenue 50 Studio is an extension of the UCLA Latin American Institute’s outreach efforts to create a better understanding of Latin American history and culture through initiatives that extend beyond the UCLA campus,” said David Arriaza, executive director of LAI. “Our federally funded Title VI grants have allowed us to share faculty research and expertise with the K–16 community to encourage and support the infusion of Latin American Studies into the curriculum.”

Support for a Mexican folk art

The institute and Avenue 50 Studio are also collaborating on a series of workshops on papel picado, a Mexican paper-cutting art form. Led by master artist Margaret Sosa with major funding from the Alliance of California Traditional Arts, each workshop consists of five free sessions. The workshops were “sold out” within days of being announced.

The art form is dying, said Kathy Gallegos, director and founder of Avenue 50 Studio. “We want to revitalize an interest in the art, especially among younger generations, in order for younger artists to carry on the tradition.”

“Chocolate and papel picado have a long history in the Americas and are the result of an exchange of ideas and cultures,” remarked UCLA’s Gomez. “They also both have indigenous origins. I think it’s important to recognize the contribution of Latin America’s indigenous cultures, which have a significant but often unacknowledged influence on our lives today.”

This story was adapted from the UCLA International Institute.

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