If you really want to hurt me, talk badly about my food
University of Texas-El Paso
“It was a disgrace for the gringos to eat tortillas and beans. Now, I am proud to see Mexican restaurants everywhere.” -Roberto
The prevalence of Mexican restaurants in the United States has increased over the years; where this type of food was a marginalized food industry just fifty years ago it is now a booming market. Mexican restaurants pervade and prosper in most major American cities, and a drive through even small-town America will display a number of establishments dedicated to this south-of-the-border cuisine. From Taco Bell to Martha Stewart, Mexican food has been placed on the national stage, and with a swelling Mexican American population it is sure to continue growing as a culinary force.
But while Mexican restaurants have enjoyed a new place among America’s eating experience, the food, while becoming less visibly marginalized, is still intellectually marginalized by many. “Latino food is tainted as low class,” says Krishnendu Ray, professor of liberal arts at the Culinary Institute of America (qtd. in Andrews). Unlike Indian, Asian or Italian food, Mexican food does not have the same allure and admiration in the American psyche. So, my focus in this essay is to pinpoint some specific attitudes towards Mexican food and attempt to make a link between those attitudes and attitudes and actions towards Mexicans and Mexican Americans. I will begin by pointing to some textual resources then move on to discussing a qualitative research project which I conducted.
In the late 1800s Mexican Senator Francisco Bulnes attacked the national character of Mexico by deriding Benito Juarez and, more poignantly, by chastising another national hero, the tortilla. Yes, according to Bulnes the maize (corn) tortilla was part of what was retarding Mexico’s progression.
Bulnes attributed Mexico’s backwardness to a combination of Iberian conservatism and Indian debility. He explained the natives’ weakness, using the recently developed science of nutrition, by dividing mankind into three races: the people of corn, wheat, and rice. After some dubious calculations of the nutritional value of staple grains, he concluded that “the race of what is the only truly progressive one,” and that “maize has been the eternal pacifier of America’s indigenous races and the foundation of their refusal to become civilized.” (qtd. in Pilcher 77)
This may seem an absurd and laughing matter today but these attitudes were strong precursors to more contemporary attitudes of Mexican cuisine.
In the same line of thinking as Bulnes, “Mestizo scientificos…believed that salvation therefore lay in the adoption of European culture, especially the consumption of what bread [as opposed to corn tortillas]” (Pilcher 78). The tortilla, a staple of Mexican and Mexican American foodways to this day, was stigmatized and demonized. And when Mexican immigration to the United States vastly increased during the 1900s similar notions of Mexican food were developed. As the number of Mexican immigrant woman (the primary cooks) increased in numbers the “Americanization” of these women was deemed an important task by many.
Two particular areas in which the Mexican female was regarded as crucial in transforming outdated practices in the home were diet and health. Americanization programs encouraged Mexican women to give up their penchant for fried food, their too-frequent consumption of rice and beans, and their custom of serving all members of the family—from infants to grandparents—the same meal. According to Americanists, the modern Mexican woman should replace tortillas with bread, serve lettuce instead of beans, and broil instead of fry. Malnourishment in Mexican families was not blamed on lack of food or resources, but rather “from not having the right varieties of foods containing constituents favorable to growth and development.” (Sanchez qtd. in DuBois 257)
Just another example of the devaluing of Mexican cuisine (and its people).
Also, pointed out in Encyclopedia Latina, elite Californios in the mid to late 1800s (and beyond) “persisted in identifying themselves as Spanish” because of Anglo-American’s labeling of them as “Mexican” to establish white superiority (15). And how did this affect thinking about food? “Cookbooks of this early period reveal attitudes held by Anglos toward Mexican and Spanish food and people, which for much of the early part of the 20th century, they demonized. ‘Spanish,’ as an ethnic identification, was used ‘when they [Anglos] wished to appropriate what they liked, and ‘Mexican’ when they needed to disparage it.”
As a final, and more contemporary example, Diane Kennedy points out in The Cuisines of Mexico (1972):
Far too many people outside Mexico still think of them [Mexican foods] as an overly large platter of mixed messes, smothered with a shrill tomato sauce, sour cream, and grated yellow cheese preceded by a dish of mouth-searing sauce and greasy deep-fried chips. Although these do represent some of the basic foods of Mexico—in name only—they have been brought down to their lowest common denominator north of the border, on a par with the chop suey and chow mein of Chinese restaurants twenty years ago. (qtd. in Walsh XVI)
These statements seem to indicate that many in American culture (in the 1970s) viewed Mexican cuisine as a simplistic and unhealthy cuisine.
Along with these textual sources I would like to make a short reference to two other comments made about Mexican food. The first is the quotation that opened this essay which is by my father (Roberto) who was a first-person observer of these attitudes about Mexican food in American culture in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. His comment was made in the 90s when he began to notice a shift not only in the amount of Mexican restaurants being established in El Paso, Texas and the rest of the state and nation but also a shift in Anglo-American attitudes toward Mexican foodways. But as the research I present in the next section of this paper will show, these negative attitudes have not totally dissipated.
The last comment I would like to end with is one I found on an internet discussion blog. While the comment reflects, what I believe, a very extreme view of Mexican foodways and people I believe it is necessary to point it out because some may not believe that in the 21st century there are still people who have views which are reminiscent of Senator Bulnes’ ignorant ideology. In a posting with the title of “White people sick of Mexican food!” the user “Real Paladin” writes, “Mexican food is nasty, so are mexicans for that matter.”
My research project came about from a Food and Culture class at the University of Texas-El Paso. Many of the readings in the course focused on doing research “from the ground up”; focusing on the voices of everyday people in order to theorize about how foodways are indicative of larger social issues in a community, a nation and even globally. Specifically, my research consisted of talking with approximately ten high school students in El Paso, TX. All students were from the same high school which is located in West El Paso, a middle to upper class area of the city. These discussions occurred over a two week period in late-October to early-November of 2005.
The specific method which I used to conduct the “interviews,” espoused by Meredith, is the charla culinaria (culinary chat) in which people are interviewed in a way that focuses on open discussion and dialogue (see Los chilaquiles). The subjects are asked to talk about their lives, attitudes and opinions and the researcher later sifts through the conversations to pinpoint issues which s/he deems relevant and important to his field of study. The researcher should not come into the research looking for or assuming specific answers.
My methodology here is what might be called a modified charla culinaria in that even though there was no strict questionnaire or set line of questioning I did steer the students toward giving me their opinions about Mexican food specifically. What I found intriguing about their rhetoric was an attitude toward Mexican food that was far from favorable or complimentary. Students seemed to have both a negative attitude toward Mexican food and to acknowledge that American society deems Mexican food as second-rate and inappropriate for important public functions. These attitudes were not very surprising to me considering the textual research I have done and growing up with stories from my father (which I alluded to earlier) on how Mexican food was deemed disgusting and “the food of the poor” when he was growing up in the 50s, 60s and 70s. But, I believe it is important to address these attitudes for they may be indicative of, and perpetuate, wide-ranging attitudes toward Mexican people and their culture and Mexican American people and their culture.
In recent research and scholarship there has been a push in my field (Rhetoric and Composition) for what has been termed self-reflexivity. That is, the researcher shold be aware of his/her research situation, of biases s/he may bring to the table, and understand that presenting research in more of a subjective narrative than a strict presentation of Facts. While I use direct quotations from the students I dialogued with there is the ethical and scholarly issue of representation. Am I representing these students fairly and “correctly”? Can I use their statements in a parametric manner (that is, taking their statements to generalize about society at large?) I have certainly attempted to “stay true” to what I believe the students were saying but certainly do not want to paint them in a overly-negative light. People may jump to assumptions about these students considering their attitudes toward Mexican food but that would be partially unfair without getting to know those students in a more complex manner (which I did not get a chance to do in this case). As Cheri L. Williams puts it in Dealing with the Data, “most researchers have yet to find a balance between confidentiality and public commendation in the writing of ethnographies and case studies” (qtd. in Mortensen 42). I hope to be open, fair and self-reflexive in how I tell my story about the attitudes and assumptions of these particular students.
And in a self-reflexive manner I must scrutinize myself, the researcher. While I attempt to re-present these students in a just manner, I no doubt extrapolated specific quotations from all that the students had to say. I purposely chose statements related to attitudes toward Mexican food (even though that is not all that they talked about) because, after conversing with them, I felt this would an interesting and worthy angle for my paper to take. I also must mention the fact that I am Mexican American and do not want Mexican food (or any foodway for that matter) to be devalued, demeaned or labeled as second-rate. Also, being an El Paso native, I am making assumptions about the student’s intentions when making certain claims. For instance, when one of the students mentions the restaurant Olive Garden, I am assuming he is using this as an example of a “nice,” above-average dining establishment, which I’m assuming most El Pasoans, including he, sees it as. Finally, one may ask Who Cares? Or What is the Point? so those questions will be addressed in the final section of the essay, Attitude and Action.
What’s in (the presenting of) a Name?
One final note concerning the written text of this document is that if I am to employ research methodology (the charla culinaria) that argues for the legitimization of the everyday person’s voice then I believe I should represent that in how I present those voices/sources. While one culture critic, the aforementioned Meredith, chooses to name her “everyday people” sources by last name (as with scholars) in order to textually show their legitimacy, I choose to do the opposite. Since the charla culinaria methodology attempts to level the playing field of knowledge (where scholarly knowledge is not automatically placed above the knowledge of the mundane) I will, instead of bringing the mundane truth of the commoner up to the level of the scholar, bring the scholarly knowledge of the “intellectually superior” down to the level of mundane truth/knowledge. We are all searching for answers and explanations and providing near-half-truths about the “reality” around us, so scholarly knowledge and “common” knowledge may be equally valid; a hard pill to swallow for some academics and even for me, who has spent a large portion of my life attempting to be anointed a “scholar.” Thus, all people/sources in the final sections of the essay will be referred to by first name.
This section focuses specifically on statements made by the students I dialogued with and one local businessman, beginning with “Vinny.”
When our conversation about foodways turned to talk about where the students would take a “big date” or a person they were trying to impress, Vinny responded:
It would be inappropriate to have a big business meeting at a Mexican restaurant,
even if it was an “Olive Garden” Mexican restaurant. You would want to take
them somewhere else.
There are two things that struck me about this short statement. First, the student described going to a Mexican Restaurant for an important event as “inappropriate.” This, I believe, is a very strong word to describe the situation. And because I believe knowledge and attitudes are socially constructed, that is, knowledge is not a personal enterprise but comes about from interactions with others (see Bruffee and Berlin), this student’s notion of the appropriateness of Mexican food is not just a personal statement about his particular point of view, but an indication of his social surroundings.
Secondly, Vinny stated that it would be inappropriate “even if it was an ‘Olive Garden’ Mexican restaurant. Olive Garden is a “middle of the road” (possibly “high end” in El Paso) Italian restaurant which apparently the student found as being appropriate, not just because it was a nice establishment but because it was non-Mexican (Italian). This points to two assumptions: (1) that there aren’t any nice, appropriate Mexican restaurants and (2) even if the Mexican restaurant was a nice, clean establishment it would still be inappropriate simply because it served Mexican food.
These assumptions are clearly negative and point to the devaluing of Mexican food in the United States. This one student’s comments don’t speak for all, but show an attitude that one could assume pervades the American psyche (I’m assuming Vinny isn’t the only person in the country that has these attitudes).
Another student involved in my talks had similar attitudes to Vinny. Because I was intrigued by Vinny’s comments about the “inappropriateness” of Mexican food in certain situations I decided to ask Slim what he thought.
Ya, you wouldn’t have an important dinner at a Mexican place. It’s not fancy.
It’s seen as home-cooking. You would probably take them out for steak or
something like that. Maybe if there was a nice Mexican place but that wouldn’t
be the first choice.
This student in this talk left room for the possibility of eating at a Mexican restaurant for an important meal, but only if it was “nice” and even then it wouldn’t be his first choice. Once again, these attitudes weren’t positive and they brought to the forefront certain assumptions: (1) there are no “fancy” or “nice” Mexican establishments (2) Mexican food is better meant for the home than “important” events and (3) it is better to take a person out for steak (Americanized foodway) than Mexican if you want to impress them.
The first assumption is a clear matter of subjectivity. What do you label as “fancy”? What do you label as “nice”? Apparently the student has not been to a Mexican establishment that he would consider good enough to impress anyone, especially not someone he deemed important. This says much about his attitude toward Mexican foodways but once again, as with Vinny, this attitude is a social construction that is created and influenced by the student’s interactions with others.
The second assumption is interesting in that it labels Mexican food as “home cooking” and that that is one of the reasons it is not impressive. What is intriguing is that all foods, if you think about it, are “home cooking” to one extent or the other. Yes, it is very likely that more people will be making tacos in their home tonight as opposed to duck-in-wine-sauce, but most types of food are cooked at home just as much as Mexican. Chinese, Italian, German, French, American, are all food types that are cooked constantly in American homes. For the student to label Mexican food as “home cooking,” and as a reason it is not impressive, says much about his attitudes toward Mexican food and its place in society.
Within the second assumption there are two further points to be made. The student seems to be devaluing the “event” of eating at home as opposed to an event which can be labeled “important.” Thus, a meal at home is one in which Mexican food can be eaten because it is home cooking, but in an important public dinner, Mexican food is avoided. Also, the student did not say “I see it as home cooking,” but instead said “It’s seen as home cooking.” He is recognizing that others within society have the same assumptions as he. He notices that others label Mexican food as “home cooking” (merely home cooking it seems) and that is one of the reasons it is not “fancy” or impressive.
Slim’s third assumption is that an Americanized foodway (steak) would be appropriate for an important event. He did not mention other types of food that would be impressive enough besides a steak dinner but he clearly set up a juxtaposition between Mexican food (unimpressive, not “fancy”) and an Americanized foodway (impressive). What is further intriguing is that Slim is Mexican American and stated he really likes Mexican food and eats it on a regular basis. So, it is not that he disliked the food or thinks it is bad or disgusting (as some do) but that he labeled it as unimpressive for important events and recognized that others in general share the same attitude.
A third student I spoke with also commented on the appropriateness and/or impressiveness of taking someone to a Mexican restaurant for an “important” event. I did mention to her comments made by the other students.
I have no problem with Mexican food but I’m sure a lot of people have the same
attitude as Vinny. For a important meeting I would maybe take them to Abuelos
(a Mexican restaurant in Dallas, TX).
Because I lived in Dallas for three years I knew the restaurant she was talking about. Abuelos is more of an “upscale”-type restaurant even though, if I remember correctly, the prices were reasonable (by “reasonable” I am situating their prices between Mexican restaurants where I have paid five dollars for a full meal and establishments where I have paid twenty-five dollars for a meal). The restaurant is quite large, has impressive Mexican style paintings on the walls, and is in an upper-middle to upper class suburb of Dallas (Plano). What is interesting is that Sonya says that she “might [maybe]” have an important dinner at that restaurant even though it is what I would call a very “nice” establishment. This seems to echo the statement made by Vinny where he said that even if it was an “Olive Garden” type of Mexican restaurant it would be deemed “inappropriate.” So it seems that it is not only the “fanciness” of a restaurant but the type of food that is served there that makes the biggest statement. And as is the case with all three students, a Mexican restaurant just wouldn’t be good enough for an important event.
After my short charlas with these particular students I thought it would be interesting to talk to a local businessman about attitudes toward Mexican foodways because the students had framed the “important” event in terms of an “important business meeting.” Peter works in the real estate and loan business with a large and reputable national company. I asked him to talk a little bit about the kinds of places his company took colleagues and clients that came into El Paso for business.
Oh, if the client is from say, the East Coast, and they have never eaten Mexican
food, or they say they’ve never had real Mexican food then we’ll take them to
a good Mexican place like Forti’s. But a lot of times we’ll take them to Steak and
Ale or Pellican’s.
And when I go to Dallas, to the corporate office, they are more likely to take us
out for steak. They probably wouldn’t take us out for Mexican.
These comments indicate that Peter seems to be aware (or was maybe made aware when we started discussing this topic) that business dinners outside of El Paso, at least in his experience, will most likely take place at non-Mexican establishments. He is also aware that businessmen that come into town may be wanting to or expecting to eat at a “real” Mexican restaurant because El Paso is heavily populated by Mexican Americans and borders Mexico. But even though he understands that Mexican food will be seen by many as an El Paso commodity that must be experienced, he still says that many times the clients/colleagues are taken to more traditional American establishments like Steak and Ale and Pelican’s. This fits in with the notion of what is “expected” for an important dinner and as Peter’s comments seem to indicate, taking someone to a Mexican restaurant for an event like this is out of the norm, something only done because outsiders want a taste of “real” Mexican food.
Attitude and Action
So, what is the point? Why put effort into research about attitudes and assumptions about Mexican foodways? The answer is quite simple. I believe negative attitudes and assumptions about Mexican foodways is indicative of many attitudes and assumptions made about Mexican and Mexican American people by many in American culture. While corn tortillas are no longer blamed for the backwardness of a civilization or community there still exists, as I have attempted to illustrate in this essay, negative rhetoric and attitudes about Mexican foodways in the United States. But, attitudes aren’t uncomplicated or un-powerful realities. As Linda, in Exotic Appetites, puts it:
…attitudes are not purely mental. I do not simply carry them in my mind; I carry them on my face, in my posture, and (crucially) in my interactions with others. I constantly display my attitudes in the ways I approach the world…Behavior is part of the attitude itself, not just the outward manifestation of it…actions are shaped and formed by attitudes. (40)
So, I conclude that these attitudes which I have presented both exemplify and perpetuate negative stereotypical notions of Mexican and Mexican American people. They also go hand-in-hand with, and lead to, real actions in the world which can range in nature from name calling to unfair hiring practices and wages to “English only” movements in Literacy education (among others). So, I am not proposing that everyone who dislikes Mexican food is stereotyping or disliking of Mexicans or Mexican Americans, but it does not take much creativity to see a link between negative attitudes toward Mexican foodways and negative attitudes and actions toward some Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the United States.
Abarca, Meredith. ““Los chilaquiles de mi ‘ama: The Language of Everyday Cooking.”
Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food. University
of Massachusetts Press, 2001.
Andrews, Michelle. “A Tasty Melting Pot.” U.S. News and World Report. 22 August
Berlin, James A. Rhetoric, Poetics, and Culture. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1996. 77-94.
Bruffee, Keneneth. “Social Construction, Language, and the Authority of Knowledge:
A Bibliographic Essay.” College English 48.8 (1986): 773-790.
DuBois, Ellen and Vicki Ruiz eds. Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S.
Women’s History. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Encyclopedia Latina. “Cuisine, California.” Danbury: Grolier Academic Reference,
Heldke, Linda. Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventure. New York:
Mortensen, Peter and Gesa Kirsch eds. “Ethics and Representation: In Qualitative
Studies of Literacy.” Urbana: NCTE, 1996.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Que vivan lost tamales: Food and the Making of Mexican
Identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Walsh, Robb. The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos. New York:
Broadway Books, 2004. Introduction (XVI).