*A couple of White women traveled to Mexico and brought back tortilla recipes that they got from Mexican women in markets and restaurants. They started selling the tortillas from their food cart and all hell broke loose on them. They’re accused of cultural appropriation and had to close their cart. I’m concerned about the effect that this story is having on the concept of cultural appropriation, or has the concept been hijacked already? Gutsavo Arellano gives us a good perspective. VL
By Gustavo Arellano, OC Weekly (5.5 minute read)
My thoughts on cultural appropriation of food changed forever in the research for my 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. One of my personal highlights was discovering the restaurant that Glenn Bell of Taco Bell infamy had cited in his autobiography as being the source of “inspiration” for him deciding to get into the taco business. How did he get inspired? He’d eat tacos at the restaurant every night, then go across the street to his hot dog stand to try and recreate them.
Bell freely admitted to the story, but never revealed the name of the restaurant. I did: Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino, which is the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the Inland Empire. I was excited to interview the owner, Irene Montaño, who confirmed Bell’s story. I was upset for the Montaños, and when I asked Montaño how she felt that Bell had ripped off her family’s recipes to create a multibillion-dollar empire, I expected bitterness, anger, maybe even plans for a lawsuit in an attempt to get at least some of the billions of dollars that Taco Bell has earned over the past 50-plus years.
Instead, Montaño responded with grace: “Good for him!” She pointed out that Mitla had never suffered a drop in business because of Taco Bell, that her restaurant had been in business longer than his, and “our tacos were better.”
It’s an anecdote I always keep in mind whenever stories of cultural appropriation of food by white people get the Left riled up and rock the food world. The latest skirmish is going on in Portland, where two white girls decided to open up what the estimable Willamette Week called “a concept that fits twee Portland”: a breakfast burrito pop-up located within a hipster taco cart. The grand sin the gabachos committed, according to the haters, was the admission that they quizzed women in Baja California about how to make the perfect flour tortilla.
For their enthusiasm, the women have received all sorts of shade and have closed down their pop-up. To which I say: laughable. The gabachas knew exactly what they were doing, so didn’t they stand by it? Real gumption there, pendejas.
But also laughable is the idea that white people aren’t supposed to—pick your word—rip off or appropriate or get “inspired” by Mexican food, that comida mexicana is a sacrosanct tradition only Mexicans and the white girls we marry can participate in. That cultural appropriation is a one-way street where the evil gabacho steals from the poor, pathetic Mexicans yet again.
Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly, author of the syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!”, and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. He started at the paper with an angry, fake letter to the editor and went from there—only in Anacrime!