Meet Hortencia Jimenez, an Inspiring Doctor Helping Latinas Have a Healthy Relationship With Food

Hortencia Jimenez BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Instagram @drhortenciajimenez

Dr. Hortencia Jimenez is a Latina of many talents. She is a respected sociologist and Sociology Professor at Hartnell College and an author. She graduated from San Jose State University with a B. A and an M.A in Sociology and received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Texas.

Hortencia Jimenez has earned several academic awards and has been published in countless Sociology and Latino studies journals. She is also a certified Holistic Health Coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in New York City, specializing in dismantling diet culture.

While the sociology and diet worlds might not seem as if they go hand-in-hand, they are actually intertwined, especially when you look at how diet culture, ancestral foods, and societal norms are all connected and influence how we think about food how we think about our self-worth. 

The constant conflict between messages of food shaming and appreciating the food you have can cause a lot of women, especially Latinas, to have a confusing and unhealthy relationship with food. This is something that Dr. Jimenez knows all too well.

Born in Nayarit, México, and raised in a Mexican-immigrant household in the agricultural community of Watsonville, California, Dr. Jimenez spent summers growing up working in the fields, where she learned the ethic of hard work and perseverance. 

When she was young, she recalls receiving comments about her body and often witnessing food shaming. But at the same time, she was encouraged to embrace her cultural foods. Clearly, these competing messages would be confusing for anyone, and it wasn’t until later in life that Dr. Jimenez realized just how troubled her relationship with food was.

And her story is more common than you might realize. 

According to Mae Lynn Reyes-Rodríguez, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in Chapel Hill, “most immigrant women, and some U.S.-born Latinas, are given cultural messages that they have to eat all the food on their plate.” 

On top of that, food is often used to comfort children or show love and affection to family members, Reyes-Rodriguez explained to NPR. “These cultural values could lead to losing the self-awareness of body cues to hunger and satiety, and potentially promoting distorted eating behaviors or binge eating disorder — which is one of the most prevalent eating disorders in the Latino population.”

This is why Dr. Jimenez is on a mission to help Latinas improve their relationship with food, teaching them that they can and should be able to embrace food without guilt and that it is possible to love your body and be proud of where you come from. Still, to do so, we must dismantle diet culture. 

Through her social media presence, Dr. Jimenez is working to increase Latinx representation in the health and wellness arena and drive a conversation about health that dismantles diet culture and helps people heal their relationship with food. 

We chatted with Dr. Jimenez to learn about her upbringing, the obstacles she faced as a first-generation college graduate, her thoughts on diet culture in the Latinx community, and her advice to other Latinas navigating their wellness journey.

What first inspired you to become a sociologist? 

I have always been curious about the social world and have been very observant of my surroundings since I was a kid. I wasn’t nurtured or encouraged to pursue my curiosity because that was considered disrespectful and rude, especially observing other people. I was a sociologist by heart, even without knowing that this major existed.

The very first class I took was Introduction to Sociology, and I fell in love. Sociology gave me the language to articulate my experience as a Mexican immigrant growing up undocumented in the United States. That was powerful and transformative, and it changed my life forever. It lifted a heavy burden that I carried for many years, growing up undocumented and away from my parents and siblings.

What obstacles did you face as a Latina and a first-generation college graduate? 

In addition to the gender oppression at home, growing up undocumented, working-class, and being bullied in school for not speaking English were additional challenges I faced as I navigated the educational system. Another obstacle that I faced and continue to heal from is the emotional, physical, and psychological separation from my immediate family. 

Other struggles that I faced as a first-generation college student ranged from dealing with the imposter syndrome, feeling lost as I navigated my undergraduate and graduate program, financial struggles, and feeling like an outsider in my classes and the institutions I attended. The worst experiences were in my doctoral program when I decided to be both a student and parent. I had three children while I completed my Ph.D. I experienced many microaggressions both for my research interests and for being a student parent. I wanted to give up all the time. What sustained me was the support of my husband, my family, and my community. “Échale ganas,” “tu puedes,” “estamos orgullosos de ti,” were common phrases my family would say to me. They couldn’t support me financially or help me navigate graduate school, much less help me with childcare, but I had all the love and moral and spiritual support I needed to survive and thrive in graduate school.

How did your experiences growing up in Mexico and the U.S. contribute to your personal relationship with food? 

I consider myself a transnational immigrant having ties to both countries. The physical borders do not transcend the emotional connections that I have with my family back in Mexico. I preserve the language, culture, customs, and foodways of my family and ancestors. Growing up in the Sierra Madre in Nayarit, Mexico, I was fortunate and privileged to see the rich culture and foodways of my family and learn about my Huichol ancestry. Due to colonization, the language was lost, but many foodways remained. 

Growing up in the U.S was extremely hard because I missed my family. I felt that I had lost a connection to them due to the physical border that separated us. I knew that food was a way to be in community and in spirit with my family. This deep spiritual connection to my Mexican cuisine brought childhood memories that sustain me up to this day. Food for me is more than nourishment; it’s a deep appreciation and acknowledgment to the land and the people who cultivate and harvest the food we eat. 

What fueled your desire to become a health coach and help others achieve a healthy relationship with food?

Diet culture is insidious and creeps into our lives at an early age, and unfortunately, our own family members enforce many toxic food narratives and shame our bodies. While Mexican cuisine is celebrated and honored, I was shamed for how much I ate. I often hear fat-phobic comments such as “no comas tanto porque vas a engordar,” “no comas tantas tortillas,” and “no comas pan.” In addition, the colorism and anti-indigenous racism, “no estes en el sol te vas a poner prieta,” “no uses colores fuertes porque estas prieta,” sent me messages that being Morena was not beautiful. 

I carried many of these messages with me as a teenager and young adult, and the messages were further amplified by the mass media’s unrealistic Eurocentric beauty standards. This led me to try to shrink my body by restricting myself from food and trying a few diets. I realized years later that I wasn’t living my life to the fullest and was losing connection to my cultural food and identity. I became a certified health coach because I wanted to help people like myself heal their relationship with food. To embrace their cultural foods without shame or guilt and be proud of who they are. I also saw the need to provide workshops to the Latinx community in my town on health and wellness from a holistic perspective that moves beyond discussions of food to identify the social and structural barriers and inequalities. 

Why do you think so many Latinas struggle with diet culture? How do you hope to educate other women and future generations of Latinas about achieving a healthy relationship with food while still embracing their culture?

Research shows that diets disproportionately affect women more than men. Women experience more food-related challenges and body dissatisfaction. For Latinas who come in diverse shapes, sizes, and colors, this is even more challenging. The pressure to conform to Western beauty standards is perpetuated in the media and often enforced at home. The diversity of Latina bodies and shades of color are still disproportionately represented by thin light skin Latinas with European features. We see this in movies, novelas, the news, etc. 

One of the first steps to better relationships with food is identifying and addressing toxic food narratives and body shaming. Naming and calling the perpetrators of our food traumas is powerful and liberating. It requires us to be vulnerable and compassionate. There is so much food trauma that we carry and need to release to continue embracing our cultural foods. We can heal our food traumas while also re-connecting to our cultural foods. It’s a life journey of healing. However, diet culture doesn’t want us to do this because it won’t profit from our insecurities and fears about food and body image. We need to channel our energy and anger toward diet culture, a system based on the oppression invested in capitalizing and profiting on our insecurities. 

How do you balance your various roles and professions?

I enjoy teaching various Sociology courses because it allows me to teach a wide range of topics and social issues interconnected to our well-being. Sociology informs my health coaching and vice versa. I do not see my role as a professor and health coach as separate identities. 

I honor my ancestral wisdom, lived experiences, motherhood, formal education, and the different roles I have in society. My identity as a professor and health coach is largely shaped by my lived experiences growing up in the United States. I cannot and will not compartmentalize and separate my identities.

What is the most rewarding part of your work? What are you most proud of?

I have received numerous awards for my work at the community, state, and federal levels. It is worth mentioning these because, as a Latina immigrant, it is not common to receive such awards.

  • Community Achievements Award by the Latino Network of Monterey County
  • Certificate of Recognition by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors
  • Certificate of Recognition by California Legislature Assembly, Anna Caballero
  • Human Relations Award in San Jose, CA
  • Resolution of Commendation by the County of Santa Clara, Board of Supervisors
  • Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition 
  • Certificate of Recognition by the State of California, Senate

My academic awards include being an undergraduate McNair Scholar at San Jose State University and C. Wright Mills Graduate Student Award at the graduate level at the same institution. While in my doctoral studies, I was the first recipient of the NACCS Immigrant Beca founded by the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) and earned numerous fellowships that allowed me to complete my graduate work and dissertation. In 2015, I received a Certificate of Recognition as an Outstanding Faculty by the EOPS/CARE/CalWORKs Programs at Hartnell College and was nominated and selected as the 2016 I AM HARTNELL Faculty Recognition Awardee. In 2018, I was awarded an Outstanding Faculty award by the TRIO program at Hartnell College. These awards reflect my hard work and commitment to the Latinx community and my students. This brings me to what I am most proud of.

I feel so humbled and honored to be part of my students’ educational journey. I love seeing how their consciousness and awareness of the social world in which they live evolves, allowing them to make a change at the individual and societal levels. I’m proud of being a community college educator.

 I live and work in Salinas, California, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World” due to the production of different types of vegetables. This is the agricultural community where the majority of my students live. They come from working-class, immigrant, and indigenous backgrounds and are first-generation college students, just like me. I’m honored to live and work here and be of service to the community.