Tortillas as a Political Statement

Politics is the last thing anyone would associate tortillas. But I would say that tortillas do figure as a statement because it speaks volumes about the American people’s relationship with Mexico. It exposes whether we support or dismiss the strong presence of Mexican culture on our own. It is well known that the Trump Administration has taken a negative stance on Mexican immigration– pinning them as people not worthy of humane treatment and respect. To date, there are no other groups of immigrants that have been insulted and condescended as Mexicans, especially in the United States. Yet, somewhere in America, on Friday nights particularly, people chose Mexican restaurants and bars as their first choice to celebrate their happy hours with co-workers. For example, my sister and her colleagues have chosen Dos Caminos on 9th avenue and 14th street in Manhattan as their primary happy hour location. What do they love most? Their signature margaritas served with a giant over-the-top bowl of guacamole and chips. There are many Americans who enjoy the flavor of Mexican dishes, and to them, it is just-food. But is there more to the story– Mexican food can be seen as a loophole that forces people to face the realities found in the “backstage” kitchen, the government, and at the border. With this in mind, a discourse has been generated as a response to the popularity of Mexican. In connection with my past work, the goal of this discussion is to reveal how deep the relationship with people and Mexican food is in light of politics.

Taquería Diana is a popular late-night restaurant in the East Village.

  In a February 2019 article for The New Yorker, Gustavo Arellano recounts the moments when his wife, Delilah decided to start making a new variety of pozole at Alta Baja. The traditional pozole with is usually made with pork shoulder and according to Arellano is a “hominy stew that’s been eaten throughout Mexico since pre-Columbian times.” At one point in time the main meat found in pozole was human, but today Alta Baja has come a long way, introducing vegan pozole to the menu. Working closely with one of the staffers, Juana, Delilah was able to develop the vegan pozole by substituting ingredients like hoja santa for parsley and omitted using epazote, a spice, due to its strong flavor. The substitutions are a testament to how small Mexican restaurant change their food to meet the needs of people. As best stated by Juana, “If we’re going to sell it to Americanos, it should be easy for them to enjoy” (Arellano). This twist on pozole is catering to the Californians while maintaining its Mexican origins. It becomes part of the authentic Mexican food that is found outside of Mexico because it is made by people who understand what pozole should be– especially since the recipe stems from Gustavo’s mother. But this represents some of the first world problems with dishes like pozole that places a façade on the realities behind Mexican food. This changing of recipe reveals how much the American people have distanced themselves from realities at the border. To have such prowess to influence Mexican restaurant owners to alter their menus so that it suits their taste buds is telling of Americans’ insensitivity. What Arellano has witnessed at his wife’s restaurant in Santa Ana, California, has led me to question if many other Mexican restaurant owners across the country fell obliged to alter their traditional recipes to suit others. In my past essay, “If you want Mexican Food, Look No Further, Taqueria Coatzingo Has You Covered,” I emphasize “the importance of preserving tradition and memories outside of Mexico.” Failing to preserve traditions outside of Mexico, such as changing the recipe of pozole to please vegan eater, is how politics squeezes through the cracks. And as exciting it may sound, it problematic because the theme of altering recipes is how Mexican food strays away from its roots at the hands of unassuming American patrons. 

     In another article, “America’s First Taco Editor Says That Burritos Are Actually Tacos,” writer Helen Rosner interviews José R. Ralat, a fellow writer, and author of American Tacos. She discusses with Ralat the popularity of taco culture. In Texas, tacos have become embedded in their livelihood. Even though according to The Texas Weekly, barbeque is the state’s most beloved way to cook, Texas has also adopted barbacoa.  Due to their strong Mexican American community, many Texans love barbacoa– that is, cow head that is set to cook in an underground pit for 14 hours. Now focusing on Ralat, a Puerto Rican born New Yorker, he has taken on the special position of America’s first taco editor. This means his position requires him to cover all types of Mexican variations, from traditional Mexican dishes to Tex-Mex. Also, his job is to tell the story of the reasons why the restaurants started and how they are contributing to their communities. But aside from his professional background, Ralat tells Rosner that “Tacos are Mexico’s gift to the world. In Texas, we’re lucky enough to live in a place that used to be Mexico, and that helps make them part of our DNA.” I couldn’t agree more! Tacos are easy and delicious to eat– it’s a conversation starter, it is a people-pleaser. It has allowed for a new wave of tastes to dominate an entire country like no other in the world. And therefore, I think that America should embrace the love for tacos, honor the people who introduced it to us back in the 1890s, and continue to have an amicable relationship with Mexico. But that is easier said than done. When asked by Rosner, “Is this a case of, every Texan loves tacos, but not every Texan loves the people who make the tacos?” Ralat didn’t really answer the question and it goes to say how politically touchy the subject is. Regardless, I expected that he was going to touch on the contradictory nature of Mexican-hating people loving Mexican food, but he didn’t. I think beating around the bush is his way of avoiding telling the truth about people’s attitudes towards the creators the Mexican cuisine. And maybe for the sake of his position at The Texas Weekly, he didn’t want to say something that could come back to him. I think as a taco editor, you must set the bar high by talking about these difficult themes. Ralat’s answer got me thinking about Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights, Queens. “Once inside you are immediately meet with the kitchen area, displaying the hard work that goes into each meal” (Sawney). Anyone who enters the restaurant is met with the people behind their food and it is impossible not to acknowledge them. In general, Taquería Coatzingo creates a space where everyone feels welcome to enjoy their food. It is hard to think that there are people that exist who recognize the legitimacy of their mole with chicken, and not the legitimacy of the chef-owner who is overjoyed to be sharing something special with the world. Unfortunately, there have been too many instances where the food is treated better than the people.

     Delving into more striking examples of people who like Mexican food but not the people who make it, is found another article by Helen Rosner, “The Absurdity of Trump Officials Eating at Mexican Restaurants During an Immigration Crisis”. She begins by pointing out that Mexican foods can be found in many restaurants that are not dedicated to Mexican cuisine. America has taken to benefiting from the rich tastes of Mexican food without attaching it to the people behind it. Amid the growing crisis at the border, regarding the inhumane separation of children and parents, Kristen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security was spotted eating at MXDC Cocina Mexicana. As children laid packed together in overcrowded cells, she was eating Mexican food with ease.

A patron at the restaurant recognized her and took a picture to expose to her as a hypocrite – as word spread quickly, a protest as she began to indulge in a bowl of guacamole. MXDC Cocina Mexicana is known to be a high-end restaurant that puts a modern touch on things, owned by chef Todd English. The bulk of its patrons are not Latino, yet (most likely) this restaurant, like many others are fueled by Latino/Central American workers in the “backstage kitchen”; unseen and unheard, unacknowledged. Rosner concludes with a powerful quote from Gustavo Arellano, “When they’re eating it, they’re able to disassociate it from the people who made it, or who picked it or slaughtered those cows.” The dissociation factor is at the center of how Mexican restaurants can be used to gild over the realities at the border. After reading this shocking article, the chef-owner of El Huarache Loco, Veronica Salazar came to mind. Before moving to the United States, she participated in her family’s restaurant which has accumulated over 70 years of history, serving the everyday people of Mexico City. When she arrived in the U.S she shared that same history with people in San Francisco, with her start-up food stand. Today as the owner of El Huarache Loco, she can share a new variety of huaraches with the Mission District community while also educating the assistant chefs that work alongside her. In light of Kristen Nielsen’s disassociation from the roots of Mexican food, it would be hard to think that someone like Veronica could possibly experience something just as insulting. Contradictions like loving the food, but not the people, is an evil behavior in which people should not participate. 

Inside of MXDC Cocina Mexicana

     In light of the Mexican restaurant as a loophole that reveals the realities found in the “backstage” kitchen, I want to illuminate how restaurants operate as a first step and a safe haven for people who are new to the country. In the chapter the “Cooking Mexican”, José Antonio Vázquez-Medina explores the evolving “culinary nostalgia” amongst those in the restaurant industry (65). He focuses on three main ideas– migrants as the validators of what is authentic, the transfer of nostalgic culinary knowledge from immigrant families to restaurants, and how the border prompts the question of what is “original” especially with the inherent trend of Mexicans hailing from very different regions. Vasquez evokes us to question and wonder about the connection between the borders and the people who cross them. Kitchens of American Mexican restaurants allow migrants to receive the experience needed to help them assimilate to American culture and way of life. For Vázquez, Mexican restaurants serve as an immigrant’s gateway to becoming part of a new community. It provides them with stability after weeks spent making the voyage in the United States. It also allows them to see that there are established Mexican immigrants that believe helping others get on their feet– it gives them a glimmer of hope.

In a “helper-worker” situation, like Vázquez’s restaurant, you do not need to have legal status to be employed, which allows those in the restaurant business to learn a substantial living. “Helper-worker” relationships create a kitchen culture where the owners and workers share a language, same region of origin, and ideals. According to Vazquez, it “creates a nostalgia for the community of origin that binds the workers and the owners together” (66). The nostalgia that I believe Vazquez is referring to is the feeling that this “helper-worker” relationship resembles that of Mexico. The idea of the restaurant staff acting more like a family rather than random strangers who work together. The idea that the people who seek work are also seeking kinship, is an important factor when creating a healthy and friendly restaurant environment. The restaurants serve as a beneficial buffer, it allows a worker to grow so that when they are ready to move onto a new avenue of work, they know what is expected of them and will be able to face future challenges. 

Speaking of restaurants that believe in helping migrants get acclimated, it is important to recognize how restaurants can also function direct political statements. In an Eater article, “How Mexican Restaurateurs Are Taking the Lead on Immigration Activism in NYC,” Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, praises the initiatives of the New York City restaurant, La Morada. Yajaira Saavedra is one of the owners of La Morada in the South Bronx, is a well-known activist for immigrants in her community. Yajaira and her mother Natalia believe in being open with their undocumented status as a form of protest against the anti-immigration policies of today. While Yajaira has been through difficult experiences such as being detained by the NYPD for her activism, the food that she serves the community is what matters the most. At La Morada, the traditional Oaxacan food serves as a “form of resistance.” Especially, since traditional Oaxacan foods are not considered canonical or mainstream Mexican-American food, such as Cal-Mex or Tex-Mex. This resistance targets the stigma that foods belonging to minority groups and poor communities are dirty, cheap, and unhealthy, by uplifting indigenous foods. Upadhyaya gives testimony of Yajaira’s positivity, “She wants to remind people to be healthier by reconnecting with indigenous ingredients, like corn, beans, and herbs.” This is crucial because the Mexican diet of ancient times is as healthy as it gets– especially with corn as the base for all meals. Yajaira’s emphasis on the indigenous diet relates directly to the themes of a book by Alysia Galvez, Eating NAFTA. Through Galvez’s research, she has found that since the institution of the NAFTA deal indigenous Mexicans have been forced to leave the ancient diets to embrace a food culture that promotes the underlying acquisition of diabetes. At La Morada, Yajaira is promoting the type of Mexican diet that is not going to lead to health problems. And the food is as rich as her activism–she not only engages in activism for pro-immigration but also initiatives like Black Lives Matter because she understands that the issues tend to intersect. The message that Yajaira is trying to send out, is Mexicans should continue to represent who they are and not hide in the shadows– especially since they contribute substantially to society.

Lastly, I want to take a close look at the role of food at the border. In an article with Bon Appetit, Michelle Gracía explores life on both sides of the border with “In the Midst of a Border Crisis, Cooking Is About More Than Survival.” First Garcia describes a mix of Central American immigrants living in Matamoros, Mexico, who are working together to make food collectively for their children. On this side of the border, food is migrants’ way of showing each other empathy during difficult times. And I could only imagine that people have developed a sense of obligation to help others when faced with a fellow group of migrants who need food. The main idea that García wants us to understand is, people are sharing what they don’t have, and in doing so they are making a community. January 2019 marked a turn-point in the asylum-seeking process– one could no longer remain in the U.S to receive a decision, instead, they have to await their status in Mexico. This is detrimental to the thousands of people who have risked their lives to cross the border. Across the border, in Brownville, Texas a humanitarian group, Team Brownsville, is hard at work collecting sacks of rice and beans to provide meals to alyssum seekers. As very few immigrants were allowed through the borders courageous people like “Mike Benavides ran to a local gas station and loaded up on warm flour tortillas stuffed with eggs, bacon, and chorizo, or as he calls them, “99 cents of heaven.” So, Benavides an American sees the inhumanity at the border, he is doing what many people should do– help. This is the type of activism, similar to that of La Morada, that lets Mexican migrants that American can be their home. Plus, the notion of serving a hot meal that is similar to their home serves a piece of comfort for those who are far from home. As a former member of the military, Benavides understands what it means to mentally suffer without professional help. Many of those who have crossed the border are traumatized by things they’ve seen, and are exhausted. Therefore, his nonprofit Team Brownsville has become an extension of himself as he strives to nourish people who have been deprived of a proper meal– with breakfast tacos and other warm meals like a mole. 

As Mando Rayo, a taco journalist, once said, “tacos are like a Trojan Horse”. Any form of Mexican food is a Trojan Horse, to be exact. From the moment the patrons at Alta Baja began ordering Delilah Snell’s vegan pozole, to the moments when Yajaira Saavedra and Mike Benavides began using food to invigorate and strengthen their communities– you cannot deny its history and the people behind it. America has shown no mercy for those on the other side of the border. Especially with Trump Officials enjoying Mexican food, knowing that they don’t are apathetic towards the families that have been separated at the border and an array of the other inhumane treatments. In addition, its insensibility leads to a lot of major problems, and I hope that the Zapata family who owns Taquería Coatzingo and Veronica Salazar of El Huarache Loco, never have to experience something like that in their restaurants. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this discussion, Mexican food is a loophole that forces people to face the realities found in the “backstage” kitchen, the government, and at the border. I hope that in the future that people behind the food can earn as much respect as the food itself.

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