By Cheryl Lopez
To begin, I’d like to take a moment to remember a photo of Trump that went viral exactly one year ago. On Cinco De Mayo, Trump had a photo taken of himself while he ate a taco bowl with a caption that read, “I love Hispanics!” Keep in mind this very “authentic” dish was a product of his own business, only made and available at the Trump Tower Grill. As expected, the photo received a lot of media attention, but not for the reasons Trump expected. Rightly so, he was called out on his ignorance since this holiday is exclusively a Mexican holiday, but also because many acknowledged the irony in the photo and his so-called “love” for Latinos, particularly Mexicans. When I saw this photo, I thought, “How dare you?” How dare you accuse my friends, family and the rest of my community of disrupting law and order and bringing crime to this country and then tell us you love us? What made this worse is his way of showing it. He thought he’d be able to prove his love for us by eating a taco bowl, a dish that is not even Mexican but an American fast food creation. He knows nothing about our culture and has no respect for it either. The food was as inauthentic as his “love” for our culture and our people, it was offensive.
I am a Mexican American who was born and raised in New York City, a city known for its ethnic and cultural diversity. I grew up in a very “liberal” city but there are great misconceptions of just how inclusive NYC and the rest of America really are. It may be these misconceptions that make it difficult for some people to understand how acts of borrowing can become cultural appropriation.
As an ethnically diverse country we often share language, clothing, music, arts and food. It’s reasonable to expect our lifestyles to, in some ways, come together– and we should expect cultural sharing. Appropriation however, is an entirely different matter, it involves members of a more powerful group exploiting the culture of a marginalized group with little understanding of their experience. Cultural appropriation highlights the power imbalance that remains between those in power and those who have been historically oppressed.
There are a lot of Mexican restaurants in gentrifying neighborhoods across New York City. Gentrification in and of itself really bothers me because it drives already marginalized minorities out of their communities and because gentrifiers often appropriate something that’s not theirs. Suddenly, these more affluent neighborhoods take interest in owning and making restaurants like “Don Chingon” (where “chingon” translates to badass). Their attempt to come off as a hip bar and restaurant by using Mexican slang may work for some, but not for me. For most Mexicans, “chingon” isn’t a word that is used loosely, it’s a word that is normally used amongst close friends or family, with some important exceptions. This word is offensive to many who understand its meaning, especially for Mexican parents and grandparents. In this example, not only is the owner of the business completely uninterested in whether-or-not he or she is communicating with the Mexican community, or in insulting them. Instead he is appropriating our language and profiting from it.
If I were to walk into “Don Chingon” without looking at the restaurant name, I’d have no idea they sold Mexican food. It’s a simple restaurant with wooden floors, brick style walls and completely lacking Mexican authenticity. There is no sign of Mexican culture especially with its very American 30 pound burrito eating contest. Their guacamole with sliced grapes and pomegranate, as well as their habanero and pineapple salsa demonstrates their attempt to Americanize Mexican food. Places like “Don Chingon” are not just examples of the appropriation of Mexican food, but more importantly a lack of appreciation for all that encompasses Mexican culture and identity. Owners of restaurants that rely entirely on a culture they aren’t part of must take time and effort to ensure their business provides accurate representation of the entire culture they seek to benefit from. People who don’t believe in cultural appropriation let alone food appropriation, claim it is an exaggeration to make such claims.
Although some may claim my way of thinking is divisive, it’s not. Being divisive would require me to be non-inclusive which I’m not. I’m not saying don’t eat Mexican food if you’re not Mexican, I’m saying don’t claim authenticity when you own a Mexican restaurant that doesn’t show appreciation for my entire culture. Of course, I can just walk into these restaurants and eat their food. But is that really what these restaurants want? What do these places really communicate when their food doesn’t look, smell or taste authentically Mexican. What message are they sending with plain surroundings and nothing but pale faces looking back at me, like I or those that look like me don’t belong? (As if it were so surprising to see a brown face in a restaurant that sells Mexican food.) Why would I be a customer of or even support a restaurant that mocks my language, shows no appreciation for my culture and its authentic food, and is not welcoming of “my kind” even though they profit off my culture and are praised for it?
Colonization and gentrification are directly related to the appropriation of food. Abuela’s homemade meals consist of full-flavored bites with secret ingredients and recipes that were passed on over generations. Every mouthful feels like home and suddenly my mind is flooded with memories of family celebrations which always consisted of great feasts. Food is an important part of any culture, both rich with historical and for those who have grown up within a certain cultural background, familial associations. When colonizing practices like gentrification occur, our culture becomes colonized as well.
Abuela’s secret recipe is corrupted and transformed into a morally cheap, expensive appetizer or entrée at a fancy restaurant located in a predominantly upper-middle class white neighborhood. As a result, the cultural associations tied to our foods cease to exist. For white foodies to constantly take from other cultures without giving them proper credit tells marginalized groups that they don’t matter. But it does matter because people like me walk around in this skin living our culture and all the good and bad that comes with it. It matters because no one wants to be overlooked or erased by a privileged group who is not only to blame for their marginalization, but then praised for rebranding a profitable part of culture they show little respect for.
While some reap the benefits of Mexican culture without genuinely appreciating what it means to be Mexican, real Mexicans live in fear everyday of being separated from their families through deportation. People who object to cultural appropriation fail to take into consideration what culture is because they can’t relate to our experiences. Therefore, if you’re not part of that culture, and if your speaking from a position of privilege, you have no right in taking up space and claiming parts of the culture of minorities. As insignificant as food may be to some, take a moment to think about this, what would America be like if we loved Mexicans as much as we love their food?