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Tacos are all the rage nowadays. Yuppies flock to cool taco trucks, hipsters love to discover hole-in-the wall taquerias and foodies can’t get enough of trendy taco restaurants — it’s all so much fun! I’ve seen “upscale” and “gourmet” taco restaurants open up all over Texas that are backed by large corporations and usually benefiting only white people. Hell, the people demanded a taco emoji (granted, a white-centric one) and received it because people love tacos so much.
The American palate is expanding and tasting untasted territory all the time through talented chefs creating and experimenting with new flavor profiles and through cuisines introduced by immigrants from all over the world. It’s really cool that we can try Vietnamese, Dominican, Thai, Peruvian, Ethiopian and a swarm of other “ethnic” foods in most urban cities, but sometimes embracing another culture can blur between appreciation and appropriation. I totally want others to enjoy tacos and buy tacos, especially from Mexican people who make them, because they’re so delicious and an integral part of Mexico’s identity. When it comes down to it, you don’t automatically appreciate Mexican culture by virtue of eating tacos — you have to be down with la raza.
There’s a bad taste in my mouth when white restaurant owners co-opt tacos for profits and white foodies venture for the most “authentic” tacos as a badge to show off their own expansive tastes because in both cases they’re taking parts of a culture they enjoy and commodifying it, all while disregarding the parts they don’t care for. Immigration, low-wage jobs in the food and farm industries and gentrification, just to name a few, are issues that concern Mexicans/Americans, the very people that created the tacos. Do white people eating tacos care for rights of the undocumented worker preparing their next Instagrammable plate? Can the Mexican cooks, waitresses, busboys, dishwashers and staff who work at these restaurants afford to eat the food? When taquerias owned by Mexicans don’t conform to white people’s tastebuds or standards of appearance, will its food be acclaimed?
The interactions between white people and Mexican food has always been fucked. Before it became popularized in the U.S., Mexican food was thought of too exotic, dangerous and spicy to be eaten. Food historian Jeffrey Pilcher points out these ideas have reinforced racist images of Mexicans. “People use food to think about others, and popular views of the taco as cheap, hot, and potentially dangerous have reinforced racist images of Mexico as a land of tequila, migrants, and tourist’s diarrhea.” My family has experienced the impact of these racist ideas. I wrote in the first Taco Tuesday column about how my mom was embarrassed to eat the tacos my grandmother prepared for her school lunch in front of her classmates. Immigrant food has always been scorned for being the other and for not conforming to American culture. It wasn’t till Glenn Bell, the founder of Taco Bell stole the crispy taco recipe from the Mexican American restaurant across the street from his hot dog stand that Americans were open to eating tacos. Ever since the taco was introduced to the American mainstream, the Mexicans behind the taco have been exploited.
Today tacos are ubiquitous, come in a variety of price points, creations and fusions. Now white people aren’t afraid of eating most tacos since Taco Bell got them well acquainted. Some have even graduated to wanting more “authentic” versions. Now in foodie culture, people are obsessed with authenticity of “ethnic” food which can be just as problematic. They want to eat at the taqueria where all the Mexicans eat at because that must mean it’s authentic. They want to be the first ones to report on the crazy fillings they tried at the badass taqueria, like grasshoppers, ant eggs, veal brain or tripe. They get to prove their worldliness when they eat tacos. When I say I love tacos, I’m a Mexican girl cliche but when a white person loves tacos they’re with it, they’re in the know.
Ruth Tam writes in The Washington Post about the “sting” of this kind of cultural appropriation. Growing up, she was ashamed of her family’s Cantonese food but now the same food is touted as the latest trend. The same dishes being hyped up are the ones that were looked down on when cooked by her family in their homes. She points out how immigrant food is treated in the U.S.
“In the United States, immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism — a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood — or high-minded fusion — a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite.”
I frequent various taquerias around East and South Dallas, each one of them different and great in their own way. One of them is El Come Taco that serves up tasty traditional D.F. tacos like al pastor and alambre tacos and other street fare like tortas and pambazos. The place is owned by a really nice dude named Luis Villalva, who runs it with his family. You can find his mom in the back cooking meats on the flattop and his sister usually is the one who takes our orders. The tacos at this place are fucking delicious, there’s no doubt about it. The cabeza I usually order is always tender and seasoned just right while the salsas they tailor make to accompany different tacos are full of kick that takes the whole thing to the next level.
This taqueria stands out from the rest not only because of their amazing food but because of their well-designed, bright space and welcoming atmosphere, which is very — as the Dallas Observer puts it — “taqueria chic.” Their hot pink logo is the white outline of a calavera with a big sombrero and mustache which is also branded on their blond tabletops. You can find caged filament bulbs, exposed ductwork, distressed-looking walls and magenta and lime green accented walls throughout the restaurant while a sleek white front counter awaits you when you order. It’s a win-win situation for the gentrifiers in the area, they get great “authentic” food without having to deal with the unwanted brownness of a shitty looking taqueria.
Don’t get me wrong, I love eating at El Come and I whole-heartedly support this local, Mexican-owned business that is succeeding and making a name for themselves. I just wonder if this restaurant would be so lauded and popular with Dallas’ yuppies, foodies and hipsters if it weren’t for it’s stylish appearance — a sanitized version of a typical taqueria that is comfortable enough for a white person to dine at. The Dallas Observer writes in their review of El Come: “With a slick décor and a warm demeanor El Come updates what can typically be a little rough around the edges, and without losing a shred of character or authenticity.” Yelp reviews of the place echoes the same sentiment: “one of the nicer taco shops in the neighborhood”;”Clean and modern”;”Compared to taco spots a few blocks away, it felt very clean, well designed and with a bit of a hipster feel.” What all these reviews imply is that El Come Taco’s design strips away racist connotations associated with “ethnic food” like uncleanliness that leads to sickness or a rundown shop that in turn caters to low-income folks who are usually brown — but, their tacos are totally legit.
Just to put things in perspective, I also eat at Taqueria Conin and Tacos La Banqueta found in the same area, which serve the same D.F. style street tacos — sans the chic design. Taqueria Conin is tiny and there’s nothing more than the big flat top stove where the taquero is cooking and a bar against a yellow brick wall with only 5 barstools. At Tacos La Banqueta there’s more seating but also is no frills when it comes to the ambiance. The tacos at both these establishments are extremely tasty and keep me coming back for more every time. The way I would rank these three taquerias would be: 1. Tacos La Banqueta 2. El Come Taco 3. Taqueria Conin, to give you an idea of how good they are in relation to each other. The fact is all three of these places serve damn good tacos. But because Conin and Banqueta are unabashedly found in a low-income neighborhood with mostly Latino patrons it is equaled to grungy and dirty, when that’s really not the case. Like reviews about El Come Taco, Yelp reviews for Conin and Banqueta remark on the appearance and location but then weirdly tokenize the “authenticity” of these places. Take a look at the ones for Conin: “Forget the gritty image on the outside, the place was fairly clean on the inside, albeit not exactly pretty…but the Tacos were a thing of beauty!”; “Don’t let the run-down nature of the area/building dissuade you; this place is awesome.” And the ones for Banqueta: “Don’t let the outside of this place detour you. This little East Dallas taqueria is legit.”; “I do have to say, the neighborhood may scare some people off, personally I’ll go anywhere for good food, but be sure to lock your car. Just sayin…”;”It appears family run and there is only one who can barely speak English. But this only adds to the experience and authenticity.” Oh yes, white Yelp reviewers, you’re real troopers for braving the sketchy taco places. Good thing you don’t actually have to live there with all those brown, poor people, you can just eat and then leave. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write Yelp reviews for locally owned Mexican businesses, they need all the help they can get, but focus on what’s important — the food.
Phylisa Wisdom writes in Render magazine about gastrodiplomacy, “using the eating, preparation and study of food to improve cultural understanding and diplomacy” and brings up some really good points and questions when thinking about our interactions with food from another culture.
“We can be lovers of Mexican food and also be responsible gastrodiplomats. They are not mutually exclusive, but it does require selectivity and a code of eating ethics. Each diner must live his or her own code of eating ethics independently, and think critically about what we want to get out of our dining experience. Everyone involved in the buying, selling, production and consumption of food is an active player; how do we want our choices and behaviors to impact their experience along the way? Those of us who are not Mexican or Mexican-American don’t have to sacrifice Mexican food, and in fact we shouldn’t. But, we can challenge ourselves to think critically about the difference between experiencing culture and claiming it. We can acknowledge histories of oppression and colonialization, and make sure that our business transactions in restaurants are fair and equitable.”
In theory, we should strive to think more critically when eating food from another’s culture in order to get an understanding of it. When choosing restaurants, we should question who is staffed at the restaurant, who created the recipes and if the creators were fairly compensated, and gauge a restaurant’s understanding of the culture through the way it presents itself. For ages, white people have been eating scrumptious tacos with abandon, all while exploiting and degrading thousands of Mexican undocumented and documented workers who contribute to making it for them. More than 70 percent of U.S. farm workers are foreign born, mostly Mexican, and half of them are undocumented. An estimated 1.4 million people out of the 12.7 million workers in the restaurant industry are undocumented according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And according to the Pew Hispanic Center about 20 percent of the nearly 2.6 million chefs, head cooks and cooks are undocumented while 28 percent of dishwashers are undocumented. Only 20 percent of restaurant jobs pay a living wage, and women, people of color, and immigrants are often excluded from these living-wage positions. The reality of the Mexican people behind making your fancy ass tacos at a white-owned restaurant / the bomb ass tacos made at a Mexican-owned restaurant are tough for many reasons: low wages, irregular hours, no sick days, paid vacations or paid breaks and if they’re undocumented, they must carry the extra burden of always working hard, so as not to lose their job or be threatened with deportation. Even then there’s a difference between the economic situation of taco restaurants owned by white people and Mexican family-owned taquerias who employ Mexican undocumented workers. Unlike their counterparts, white restaurant proprietors more than likely have the resources and the leverage to pay their workers a living wage — especially when their food is meant for the consumption of other privileged people who can pay more for the food than Latino patrons at Mexican-owned taquerias — but decide not to in order to make even more profits. You could say that the well-being of Mexican workers are not as valued as the tacos they’re selling.
So why is all this relevant to your taco eating? Phylisa Wisdom articulates it the best: “The diplomatic food lover understands that in order to be in solidarity with the people preparing food, creating recipes, and providing a ‘cultural experience,’ we must pay them fairly and prioritize their human rights.” At the heart of it all, we need to just be decent humans. We need to treat people and their cultures with respect and not just take the parts that benefit us while still being prejudice toward the people it came from. If you love tacos, support the people making them for you, especially from Mexican-owned taquerias. If you’re a foodie seeking the most authentic tacos out there, don’t pretend like you have a deeper understanding of Mexican culture or think you’re more cultured for being “adventurous”(aka out of your privileged comfort zone) in your taco or restaurant choices. After all, Mexicans can’t divide their brownness when eating a taco and white people won’t ever experience all the implications that come with that brownness. If you really do love the gift of tacos my people gave you, every last delicious morsel of them, the least you can do is to challenge yourselves to think critically between experiencing culture and claiming it and avoid co-opting our food and traditions.