The culture vultures seem to take particular pride in “discovering” the foods we’ve been on for decades and even centuries – like the whole Nopal debacle. Like, we get it, our food is delicious and while I’m not opposed to non-Latinos enjoying or preparing our dishes, there is a more insidious side effect of creating “food trends” grounded in the traditions of disenfranchised and lower income communities – the primary example being the rising prices of dietary staples like avocados or the “gourmet” versions of our foods that take precious dollars from Latino run businesses.
There is also the issue of credit, every recipe represents decades of ancestral knowledge and I don’t have to tell you that every region and municipality has its own highly guarded and beloved specialties. So where is the line between appreciating and profiting off a culture without any type of regard for the very people who shape the culture? The fact is that Latinos are treated like second-class citizens and yet our food (which is already devalued and criminalized when cooked and sold on the street by Latinos) is fine. Other than the nopales “food trend” incident, here are five other times the culture vultures came for Latino food.
Update: Kooks Burritos has closed. No brunch this weekend. https://t.co/So3o7NB3xX
— Willamette Week (@wweek) May 20, 2017
Last year two Portland women went to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico with the intent of “discovering” the best recipe for tortilla masa. They came back with what they’d learned and opened their own burrito cart on Cesar Chavez Blvd, okay cool. But things took a turn when they actually admitted to spying on the women who did not want to share their recipe or preparation method. “They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look.” Who does that?! This threw gas on the dumpster fire that is the relationship white Portlanders have with their fellow residents of color. The women were accused of stealing a cultural tradition that was not theirs to profit from and the business eventually flopped.
You may remember when quinoa was declared a hot food trend in the early 2000’s. In this case it was not just one restaurant but the United States as a whole that became enamored with the idea of a “new” superfood. The “miracle grain of the Andes,” became so popular in the U.S. that the price of quinoa tripled. The questions about the benefits to the farmers in Bolivia and Peru are questionable. Some say farmers saw increases in wages as demand for the superfood grew, while others contested that the price hike meant the communities who’d relied on this substance for centuries were now no longer able to consume their own crop.
Sounding like a weird midwestern club, the Corn Connection in Dallas, Texas took it upon themselves to show Mexican’s the “better way” to do elote cups, by making them more expensive. Not only that, the owner found himself in hot water when racist Instagram posts surfaced. He then blamed the whole thing on a “Mexican employee” he fired “several months ago” and then blamed another racist interaction on a different employee who he claimed wasn’t really an employee – she just had access to his company Instagram account for no reason apparently. “I don’t have anything to be ashamed of, I’ve done nothing wrong. I didn’t post anything and would never say anything harmful to someone. A former employee said something that was in terribly bad taste – the guy who said it was Mexican. I don’t understand how it could have been racist if he is Mexican. He was just saying my cart is better than your cart” he told the Dallas Reporter. The post in question was about calling Mexican eloteros cart’s “Roach’n ass carts in front of Home Depot.” He also claims that he isn’t a cultural appropriator because he doesn’t know what that is and that he’s just selling elotes as a hobby.
Gentrification at it’s finest. A white-owned “fruiteria” in the barrio. pic.twitter.com/ChDeCsOsvs
— 🌿Zoe Rain🌿 (@clayandrain) October 26, 2017
San Diegan Jenny Niezgoda began a Kickstarter campaign to open a “Mexican inspired Juice bar” in – you guessed it – a Chicano neighborhood, Barrio Logan. Going to your local frutería and getting fresh fruit, jugos y aguas frescas is a part of life for Latinos. We were juicing before it was cool. But it seems like gentrification and egregiously insensitive business practices go hand in hand. In this case, the Kickstarter never got off the ground after the community got involved. Barrio Logan has a long history of fighting gentrification and protecting its residents from outsiders coming in and trying to profit off the neighborhood.
I’ve always felt a little salty when I’ve seen tacos being rebranded simply because taqueros are such a cultural staple, especially here in L.A. This of course isn’t the first or last example, but as many have noted Bryan McMillan aka the “white boy” from LA’s White Boy Tacos has been celebrated and embraced as an entrepreneur while literally standing next to a Latino who gets looked down on and arrested for doing the same damn thing. In Los Angeles street vending is the most popular form of accessible entrepreneurship. And although legislation was recently passed in favor of limiting arrests, there are still stiff fines, confiscation, and building owners who keep pushing for dominion over public sidewalks. At one point McMillan did have his cart confiscated, but his face made Los Angeles EATER while street cart vendors all over L.A. are having their livelihoods taken from them without so much as a peep.