This morning I learned about a forthcoming event in Milwaukee, Taco Fest. Apparently this is going to be their third one already, so I don’t know much about the organizers and I don’t feel like going personal on them, so let me go straight into cultural appropriation of Mexican cuisine, traditions and adjudication of faux paraphernalia such as culturally inaccurate sombreros and adorable chihuahuas with tiny colorful Spanish Flamenco dancer dresses; not Mexican.
It shouldn’t surprise me at this point, my 10th year living in the US, meaning 10 painful “Cinco de Mayo” and daily micro-racism. There is a very fine line between liking someone else’s culture and the self-allotment of that person’s traditions, heritage, flavours and chattels; but specially when it comes to immigrants, the appropriation of people’s memories of their homelands and roots.
Food is a tricky field when it comes to cultural appropriation and culture purity, or whatever. I’m not the most chauvinistic Mexican you’ll know, but I’m proud of the many things that I consider valuable components of my life. I recognize that tomatoes, potatoes and corn are American vegetables, America the continent previous to Spanish conquest, but I also cannot see Mexican food without persian limes, livestock from europe, jewish sweets and fried goodies, French bakery, Syrian and Lebanese spices and technology that reinvented tacos. Mexico is also a melting pot of different cultures; immigrants, refugees, 300 years of being a Spanish colony, etc
We can’t start talking about tacos without understanding corn. Corn is a domesticated and genetically modified grass scientifically manipulated for centuries by Mexicans and cultures in Central America. It is a sacred crop, it represents a common achievement by methodical perseverance. It’s the base of the nixtamal, the tortilla dough, also used in many other recipes.
There is nothing more flattering as an immigrant than knowing other people want to know about my culture and traditions, trying to learn our language and our recipes, here’s when it starts to become ambiguous and disputable, when a person with a default privilege captures whatever it learned from that culture, puts it in a box and without connecting any dots or even knowing or caring for knowing the significance of those newly possessed items, it modifies them and then shares them as their own.
In 1821 the inquisition was abolished in Mexico and 3 decades later separation of church and state was declared. Jewish refugees began to pour in to Mexico. Ashkenazi Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe came in the 1880s, in 1885. Sephardi Jews soon followed, fleeing persecution in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Lebanese immigrants followed and then a second wave of jewish refugees from Syria, Spain etc. This is an important fact in the taco history if we want to understand cultural appropriation. Spain already brought with them jewish and arabic recipes, pretty much Spanish cuisine is arabic, but it was until almost 2 centuries ago that Mexicans had the opportunity to connect with a heritage they didn’t know it existed, or it was not something you would think of everyday. They knew Spain was part of an islamic empire for centuries, and they knew judaism was an important element but also a hidden and forbidden ghost. The techniques and ingredients were always there. When refugees arrived to Mexico, it was like missed-connections finally found each other, three cultures of many cultures themselves discovering similar flavours, music and humour. They adapted quickly despite some christian-conservative backlash, patriotism and anti-immigrant resistance. These cultures have also something in common, they come from a lineage of centuries of knowledge, of pilgrimage and persecution, of conquests and written history, of science.
Buñuelos, an essential dish in Mexican cuisine, a tradition at Christmas, Ramadan, and among Sephardic Jews at Hanukkah. It is what my mom and her mom made for our families in December, along with baked cod with olives, tomatoes and olive oil, roasted goat and semita breads.
There is no such thing as being culturally 100% something, I can’t even tell you where I come from exactly, I know I come from a suburb close to Mexico City but grew up in the country and the Pacific coast, I know one of my grandmothers was abandoned by an Italian immigrant in Veracruz and raised by two amazing women I never met, and my other grandmother is a conservative catholic from a forced-conversed lineage, my mom and dad are Mexicans, I’m Mexican.
Why do I talk about people and families? because behind our traditional food that’s what you have, you have real people with personal stories, we come from different backgrounds but when we meet at the table we share our food, but I don’t come at your table, steal your grandma’s recipes and tell you and your friends I invented them.
But, what makes a taco? Well, you have thousands of years of food technology in the tortilla, the next component can be a braised or slow-roasted animal protein, sauteed or fire-roasted vegetables, then the toppings, usually cilantro, lime juice, diced white onion, charred chiles and/or salsa from I don’t even know how many chiles we have, tons; fresh or sun-dried.
That’s it, that’s your taco, it’s a minimalist dish just like sushi, and just like rice is the most important element in sushi, corn makes the taco. It is not only the vehicle but the predominant flavour. We have an incredible variety of corns, each one tastes completely different from each other, and just like grapes, you can taste the ground where it was grown and how it was grown. Traditional tortillas require a lot of energy in the process, from drying the corn, to crushing the corn into a fine flour, then you have to make the dough (nixtamal) and then cook the tortilla.
My uncle Ramon in Phoenix was a bracero, he was a farm worker when he was a kid, the generation of Cesar Chavez. He didn’t go to school but was always very curious and good at observing and understanding machines, he then built a tortilla maker machine and started his own business. Same machines that made the tortillas I used to eat when I lived in Mexico City during High School. Going to get tortillas is another tradition, every Mexican knows about this. You get some change from Mom or dad around 1:30pm, you go to the tortilleria store and get in line, get two pounds or so of warm tortillas wrapped in paper and with the rest of the change you get some candies or whatever, that’s part of the contract when you’re a kid, my parents did it, I did it, I kept the change.
Back to Milwaukee Taco Fest. Back in 2006 I moved from sunny Mazatlan, a small port in Mexico’s northern pacific coast to Milwaukee, during snowy spring. I don’t regret that move, at times it makes me sad because I love my family and Mexico, but I also love my daugher and wife, Wisconsin and the opportunities and liberties this country has provided to me. I’m very fortunate and I have a lot of gratitude for the people who welcomed me, helped me professionally and of course my friends.
This is an extremely segregated city with not a real solution to the problem from the structures, seems like the system works to keep us divided. It’s a city divided in correlation with the amount of melanin your skin has and whether you have a latino accent or not. The south is a proud district of latinos, Mexicans as the majority, living in old Polish homes, a district with many entrepreneurs trying to make a fair living and pursue their American dream, some are new immigrants, some have been important components of Milwaukee for decades. Many businesses in the area are owned by Mexicans, who just like my uncle or myself, not a lot of school, but our dreams, ambitions and creativity are big enough to find a way, we don’t like excuses, we find solutions, we do it as community and rarely as individuals. When you are a Mexican in Milwaukee and dream big you immediately find ceilings difficult to break, and I believe we live in a perfectly structured caste system, we have levels of power and hierarchy, none of this is fair, men and women, no matter who they are should have the same access to society, but of course that’s not reality and it is important to recognize that this system exists.
So, when you have one third of Milwaukee’s area full of places selling tacos made by Mexicans, by businesses owned by Mexicans with a very strong inheritance, but a white dude who thinks it’s OK to organize a taco fest for other white people in a safe environment because they are scared of entering a “bad” neighborhood, all I can think of is Christopher Columbus “discovering” a place with people living there already but taking their knowledge and essence into a protected place. It is the guy saying “I’m not racist, I have a Mexican friend” You have in this festival a chihuahua beauty pageant, let me tell you something, I’ve never seen something like that in Mexico, I’ve see other kind of animal cruelty, but never with tutus or tiny plastic sombreros, you have a social-media friendly environment where people take selfies with giant plastic maracas and thinking it’s ok to mock Mexicans because the place/festival allows them to do so, plus their social privilege and the fact that they pay a ticket. You have some Mexican restaurants, but BelAir and Gypsy tacos win, because you prefer social connections than true flavours, the gentrification of Mexicans. I understand some of the money goes to charity, that is never a shield for bigotry.
Being Mexican is “cool” now, and that’s awesome, I’m glad you like Frida Kahlo, a communist feminist artist, I’m glad you think Zapata is “cool” even though you voted for Hillary, I love the idea of seeing you wearing T-Shirts with skulls not knowing that we think of death as life, etc. It’s nice to see that other people can look “cool” being Mexican while Mexicans don’t look close to being cool while being themselves, ourselves.
These kind of attitudes keep Milwaukee divided, colonized, poor. I’m all for having a Taco Fest, but allow Mexicans to be participants and organizers while avoiding cliches, stereotypes and being your sidekick. Allow Mexicans to be our own ambassadors of our culture, our memories. Let’s eat tacos together, let’s celebrate food together, but let’s respect other people’s inheritance. It is not enough by inviting more Mexican business to the event, you need to reinvent the concept, make it more respectful. Mexico is not only a country, it’s a culture of many cultures and we will defend the memories of our kitchen tables.
This is the reason why a man cannot sleep in a public park in front of a starbucks without being harassed and sadly killed. Because our priorities are messed up in this city, half of the city can’t sleep well because they’re poor and they’re second class citizens and the other half can’t because they’re afraid of them; us.
Some people will think I’m making a big deal about this, or we, but this is personal, and when you connect the dots the result is a segregated city, a racist city. This is my home, I’m not going anywhere even when some always say to us when we complain about injustice “well, if you don’t like it go back to ____” No, I don’t like it, I live here, get used to it.