Reviewing “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

Reading from his new book, Orange County: A Personal History.

A couple weeks ago I RSVP’ed to attend a book talk and signing to coincide with the release of Gustavo Arellano’s new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at UCLA. I was looking forward to it as I enjoyed Gustavo’s two previous books (Ask A Mexican and Orange County: A Personal History) and couldn’t wait to read the results of his research on the popularity of Mexican food across the US. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook and he’d been dropping hints about his research and trips on both and in articles on the OC Weekly. Plus, is there any topic better than Mexican food and drink?

The quietness of El Cargadero makes me think of Rulfo's Comala

Anyway, I also like Gustavo. He’s a funny, entertaining and opinionated writer covering topics a lot of other journalists ignore. I’m also a fan because we share similar roots. Our mothers were both born in El Cargadero, a pueblito outside of Jerez, Zacatecas. His more autobiographical books felt like I was reading my own familiy’s history.

I never went to the book signing. That afternoon, my Dodger loyalty trumped my Cargaderense roots and pride. Who says Mexican immigrants and their children don’t acculturate or assimilate? Sorry, Gustavo. I ditched your reading but I did buy and read Taco USA. I went the e-book route since I didn’t want to wait for it to ship and didn’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America Review

Taco USA is a must read and worth the money you would have spent on dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant or a couple of meals from your favorite taco truck. I read slowly, wanting to savor — sorry for the pun — the descriptions of a lot of new-to-me takes on Mexican food outside of Southern California. I was also disgusted by some of the many culinary crimes committed in the name of making Mexican food palatable to white Americans’ taste (see: canned tortillas… guácala!).

I always start with 4 tacos when I go to Martha and Emilio's
Back to the book, the first two thirds are a chronological history of Mexican food in the US. Gustavo recounts the heyday of chili queens in Santa Fe and tamale men from San Francisco to Chicago at the turn of the century. Even back then, ambulantes (street vendors) were a big part of the Mexican food culture, or what passed as Mexican food. I had no clue why cartoon characters crowed about “hot tamaleeees!” Now I know. Other things I learned: the taco (hard, fried style not the ones above) didn’t become popular nationwide until the 1950s-60s; why non-Mexicans are the most popular Mexican food writers and chefs; the origin of nachos; and why chicken, shrimp or veggie fajitas is a misnomer.

Tepeyac's Manuel Special

My favorite chapters were about the burrito and Mexican food cooked by and for Mexican people. I attribute that to my LA and California bias. Gustavo begins the chapter on the burrito by describing the Manuel’s Special giant burrito at El Tepeyac Café in Boyle Heights (East LA, for the LA outsiders).

El Tepeyac Café

I have a particular affinity for El Tepeyac even though a lot of people don’t think the food is all that great. My grandparents, Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni used to live right around the corner from El Tepeyac. Literally. During parties, we used to peek over the wall into the El Tepeyac parking lot. My parents met when they were part of the youth group at Assumption Church, which is across the street from El Tepeyac. It’s where they got married. My siblings and I were baptized there and several other aunts and uncles married there. My roots run deep.

how to make burritos - step 5: enjoy (or save in baggies for lunch the next day)

I started the burrito chapter, “What took the burrito so long to become popular”, with warm fuzzies. And then Gustavo went on to the Mission style burritos in San Francisco (my favorite burritos) and how they inspired chains like Chipotle. I’ve had two Chipotle burritos, both bought by someone else. I don’t get the hype. He also answered a baffling question about the origin of San Diego -berto suffixed chain restaurants. My favorite is the Adalberto’s by my tío Beto’s house in Chula Vista. Their carne asada nachos are amazing.

Chilaquiles at la Juquila (they made me cry)

Gustavo’s chapter on the rise of Mexican food made by and for Mexicans made me hungry and sad that my favorite Mexican restaurant on the westside shut down a couple years ago. I was introduced to Oaxacan food in the late ‘90s by friends and quickly grew to love their moles, enchiladas and chilaquiles. I didn’t know at the time that Oaxacan restaurants were still relatively new in LA. The westside outpost of La Guelaguetza closed down recently. It bummed me out. That was my go-to spot for taking friends from out-of-town for Mexican food they couldn’t get elsewhere. Sadly, I never tried the chapulines (grasshoppers).

Tapatío at a Cuban restaurant

The latter third of Taco USA focuses on Mexican food products and drinks in US stores. This was less interesting to me, except when Gustavo discussed the history of brands like salsa El Tapatio. I was used to seeing it on the table at home, but was surprised when I started to see it as a condiment in restaurants or as a flavor for Doritos. I also got confused by all the entrepreneurs making money off Americans’ tastes for tortillas, salsa, tequila and more.

My only criticism is that Gustavo doesn’t discuss one popular critique or fear of Mexican food: it’s unhealthy and fattening. He does discuss the xenophobic fears, e.g., Mexican food is dirty, too spicy, or it’s going to cause some unfortunate digestive issues. This one got to me when I was losing weight and would read “Going out for Mexican, help!” on the Weight Watchers message boards as if Mexican food needed to be feared. Yes, I know, there are a lot of popular Mexican dishes that are fried and/or very cheesy. I love some of those, but it’s just one type of Mexican food. I lost a bunch of weight without ever giving up my beloved tortillas, (both corn and flour, not the cardboard like whole wheat kind either), tortas and tamales.

A life without tortillas would just be sad. I think Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, said it best:

What value is a life without booze and Mexican food?

Gustavo is currently on a media and book tour. Check out his schedule here. For more on the book, you can find a short interview with Arellano on LA Bloga and an excerpt in the LA Weekly. He also was on NPR this week discussing the rise of tacos and the origin of Taco Bell.

Edited: The NYT reviewed Taco USA in the Dining & Wine section this week. It’s a great review and gives you more of an overview of the book and about Gustavo’s career as a food critic and expert on all things Mexican American. If you haven’t exceeded your 10 pages/month limit, go read it.

This day in Chicano history: José Alfredo Jiménez (1926)

January 19, 1926:
José Alfredo Jiménez, one of México’s most well-known singer-songwriters, was born in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato

Yeah, yeah, I know Jiménez is not technically a Chicano. He’s as Mexican as you get being born in Dolores Hidalgo, known to all Mexicans as La Cuna de la Independencia Nacional. For the Spanish language challenged, the Cradle of National Independence.

While Jiménez wasn’t around in the 1800s and didn’t contribute to the fight for Mexican independence, one can argue that the dozens of songs he’s penned have influenced Mexican identity on both sides of the border.

As a kid, I listened to a lot of Jiménez. I remember watching my dad sing “Camino de Guanajuato” at the top of his lungs with various other family members. I’d sing along too, even though it was probably inappropriate for a kid to sing a line about life being worthless. In my 20s, “Camino” began to mean more as I explored my roots in Salamanca, Guanajuato and actually traveled and visited the roads and landmarks mentioned in the well-known song. One of my most vivid memories of being on my uncles’ ranch just outside Salamanca was singing “Camino” with about 40 other family members, with such pride and joy. It was pretty amazing.

One of the best songwriters that ever lived

For Chican@s, knowing or singing some of Jiménez’s most popular songs may show you’re not too much of a poch@. It might be a fun way to bond with the older generations or make you look like a badass at mariachi-oke (yes, that’s mariachi + karaoke) night when you don’t need the words to get through “Ella” or “Que Te Vaya Bonito”. Or it just might make a good buzz even better.

Six ways to celebrate José Alfredo Jiménez’s birthday:

  1. Drink some tequila, but not too much as you don’t want to end up with JAJ-like liver issues
  2. Sing your favorite Jiménez-penned song, if you need an idea for something else besides “El Rey”, check here.
  3. Request the roaming musicians play a romantic song like “Serenata Sin Luna” or “Si Nos Dejan” while out on a date
  4. Make a playlist of JAJ songs interpreted by old school artist and re-imagined by newer artists. Example: “Te Solte La Rienda” by Maná
  5. Watch one of the movies he acted in. [IMDB]
  6. Try your hand at writing a torch song.

It’s a school night, so no tequila shots for me. Plus, I’m all out lime. Instead, I’ll make a playlist of the four versions of “Camino de Guanajuato” and put them on a loop while going through my photo sets from trips to the motherland. As always, I’ll ignore Jiménez’s warning to avoid Salamanca, mi pueblo adorado.

¡No te rajes Guanajuato!

[Thanks to Think Mexican for the heads up about Jiménez’s birthday.]


Dad and tía Ofelia

Tía Ofelia, descanse en paz (rest in peace)


A while ago, I wondered what it was like for my father to grow up stateside while all his extended family was in Guanajuato. I felt like my father had been cheated of the relationships with his cousins, aunts and uncles I had thanks to proximity. I teared up thinking about how lonely it must have been for his parents and siblings without the support of their extended family nearby.

Despite this, my father is actually quite close to his cousins. You wouldn’t know that they didn’t grow up in the same town or ranch if you saw them interact. Well, my dad would stick out. He doesn’t look like he knows the first thing about driving a tracker or managing a ranch. But the resemblance between him and his cousins is uncanny.

In 2004, I took some time to get back to my roots in Mexico. As I prepared for my first trip in a dozen years, my parents were jealous. They told me I’d be treated like a rockstar. And I was, even if I was the only kid from the LA side of the family to visit. Everyone wanted to see me, take me to see the sites, made sure I ate well and overall I enjoyed my trip. A few of the kids started calling me Cindylandia. I loved it and in a short time developed a connection to people I was meeting for the first time as an adult — I didn’t remember much from my trips as a kid, and nothing from the trips as a baby.

Quite possibly my favorite pic from Morelia

One of those people was tía Ofelia, who lived on the ranch just outside of Salamanca. She was always much quieter than her many brothers (nine in total!), but she was kind and inviting. When we last visited in 2007, she accompanied another uncle, Max, and my parents on a short road trip to Morelia. We spent the day there with my great aunt and her children and grandchildren.

I knew tía Ofelia was gravely ill, but was still surprised to learn of her passing (via Facebook, oddly enough). My dad got a call from nephews in Houston.

Rest in peace, tía Ofelia.

Desert blood

This morning on my way to work, I heard a KPCC story by Adolfo Guzmán about the English translation of “Los Muertos” a poem by María Rivera about the thousands of victims of drug violence in Mexico. The poem reads like a litany of cities, towns, victims and the violent acts committed against them. [Los Muertos/The Dead English translation]

In the afternoon, shortly before I left work, I saw Daniel Hernández’s tweets about several deaths after arsonists started a fire Monterrey casino.

“Four armed persons entered and began to say: ‘Everybody leave! Everybody leave!’ ” she said. The woman said she ran out a door to a parking lot, but many others fled to the second floor of the casino.

The witness said the attackers, wearing white masks, did not fire weapons or hurl grenades, as some early news reports had suggested. “They started to throw gasoline. There was no grenade attack,” she said.

A line from Rivera’s poem came back to me “… their bodies burnt.”


31, El Cargadero, Zacatecas & tamborazo

Treinta y uno

During the fiestas de San Rafael, the patron saint of El Cargadero, the ghost town comes to life with migrants who have returned for the festivities. I’ve never been there for the feasts in October, but 4 years ago my parents went with Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni. During the day, they went through the bureaucracy of signing over the grandparents’ house to my mom. In the evening they joined the festivities in the Plaza del Migrante or watched the borlote (commotion) from the balcony. My grandparents’ – well, now mom’s – house overlooks the main plaza. This was great for people watching, but not great for making international calls.

My dad called me one evening during the trip. Even though he was inside the house with the windows closed, I could still barely hear him. It wasn’t the connection; the background noise of drums and horns from down below was drowning him out.

The sound was familiar. I’d heard it several times before at anniversary parties, weddings, birthday parties and any other special occasion. Pretty much every big party on the Zacatecano/maternal side of the family featured a tamborazo zacatecano.

I must confess, I’ve always been ambivalent to tamborazo, which sounds a bit like a marching band[1] sometimes. It might just be the Guanjuato/paternal musical influence, but I never warmed to the music. For backyard parties, the tamborazo was always too loud. Sometimes, the horns and woodwinds sounded out of tune and the musicians weren’t that good. There was no singing; and after a while songs started to sound the same. Like the rest of my cousins, I was usually glad when the band took a break and the DJ played pocho-friendly music. Despite my ambivalence, I danced, especially if my 91-year old tamborazo-loving grandpa pulled me out to the dance floor. I love dancing with Papá Chepe and will take every opportunity I get while he can still dance.

I feel a little bad for feeling this way. I’m supposed to be proud of my culture and champion it, right? Even if it hurts my ears?
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The Tijuana house

Last year when I interviewed Papá Chepe at the East LA StoryCorps booth I asked him about his proudest life achievement.

I was a little surprised by his answer.

He admitted that he was proudest to have donated his home in Tijuana (what I call the Tijuana house) to an orphanage, Hogar San José de Calasanz (HOCATI). My grandparents came to this decision after their home had been on the market for years. They’d had some problems with the house too. There were break-ins, and a car crashed in to the garage (no one was hurt). As they aged, they spent less time in Tijuana and their other home in El Cargadero, Zacatecas and more time at their LA home, also known as my family’s home.

I grew up going to Tijuana frequently. Each time my family went, we’d have birria downtown in a restaurant with stuffed cow heads mounted on the walls. Aftweward, we’d go shopping. I usually came home with a shiny pair of patent leather shoes. I’d scuff them up the next weekend chasing kids and imitating my mom’s dance moves at the next party.

For us kids, the Tijuana house was a bit boring. We couldn’t watch our typical cartoons. Instead we explored the house. We’d rattle Papá Chepe’s collection of Miller High Life glassware and neon signs as we ran around the second floor. We’d run up the cool metal spiral staircase in to Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni’s room. We’d crawl in and out of the tiny door in to the garage… until we got scolded by Mamá Toni or my mom. We’d have Azucaritas for breakfast and churritos with limón y chile from the store down the street for a snack.

Sometimes, we’d sit out on the second floor balcony and stare at the thousands of homes crowded on the Tijuana hillside. We’d walk down to the third floor, which had been made to apartments, and explored the outdoor laundry area and small garden.

I was too young to understand why my grandparents had three homes in Tijuana, East LA and Zacatecas. I didn’t know that Papá Chepe built the house nor that when Papá Chepe came to the States to work, he moved his family to Tijuana so that they’d be closer to him. It was in this period that my tío Chuy got lost in downtown Tijuana. He was just a little boy, no more than six years old. The family was rightfully worried and looked for him everywhere to no avail. That evening, he was brought home by a mysterious, short and chubby man. My family thinks it was the Santo Niño de Atocha. When extended family migrated north from Zacatecas, they often stayed at the Tijuana house on the way to the states.

While the Tijuana house was a significant part of my childhood, it was less so in my teens and almost absent in my 20s. I’ve only been to the Tijuana house once in the last 10 years. In 2005 I stayed with Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni for a couple of days before flying out with them to Zacatecas for Christmas. Rather than run around the house, I spent it going through old albums identifying tías and tíos as children and teens. The house was like a museum of my family’s history.

All of that history has been removed from the house. The furniture stayed. The home is large enough to house about 15 children. Currently, it’s being readied for teens to move in. My family is very committed to HOCATI. My grandparents and parents have visited the children and taken them toys. When they donated the house, my family knew we’d be supporting HOCATI for a long time. Last fall, my mom sold all of the avocados on our tree and donated what she raised. (There were a lot of avocados, at least 300.)

This Saturday, March 19th, my family will host a fundraiser for HOCATI at our home in Hacienda Heights. It’ll coincide with el Día de San José, which we always celebrate as it’s Papá Chepe’s saint’s day.

At the fundraiser this Saturday, we’ll have lots of great food for sale as well as entertainment. If you’d like to stop by for some tacos, sopes, tamales, or enchiladas or would like to know how to donate to HOCATI, let me know and I’ll send you the invite.

Hometown roots

My roots are showing right now. This is typical. Since I first started dying my hair five years ago, I’ve never gotten the recommended touch up six weeks later. I typically wait 3-4 months to get rid of the grays after a little prompting from my mom.

This time around, I couldn’t pass up my mom’s offer to set up an appointment with her yoga buddy, Sylvia.

Mom picked up her cell phone, made the call and made an appointment for the following morning while Sylvia’s children would be at school.

The next morning, I made the 5-minute drive from my mom’s to Sylvia’s house. She greeted me warmly and invited me in. Her home looked as I remembered it, sans children and with a young woman, let’s call her Alicia, sitting at the dining table examining various items of gold jewelry.

At first, I thought Alicia was a family member or close friend because she and Sylvia were talking about mutual friends. I didn’t realize they had just met moments earlier when Alicia had knocked on her door asking if she had any gold to sell. Sylvia found some broken bracelets, lone earrings and other items to sell. While Alicia inspected and weighed the jewelry, Sylvia started dying my hair.

After getting the pesky gray roots and dying the rest, Sylvia put up the wet hair on top of my head. She removed her gloves and for the next half hour while the dye set she made calls to friends and neighbors. Earlier, Sylvia had promised to help Alicia find some more people willing to sell gold.

In quick Spanish, Sylvia explained why she had so much confianza (trust) in a stranger whose named she didn’t even know. Shortly after meeting Alicia, Sylvia discovered that she was from Jalisco. Not only that, she was from a neighboring rancho to Sylvia’s hometown. The people they were talking about when I arrived turned out to be mutual contacts. It was a coincidence that made a big difference for Alicia. Without the hometown connection, she likely would have not had much success going door to door.
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De Oro, Plata y Bronce

¡Vamos, Henry!

I was in Mexico during the 2004 Athens Olympics. It was strange. Rather than have several athletes considered favored in marquee sports, Mexico only had a few. I was so used to seeing the US on top of the podium and in the medal standings. But Mexico, not so much.

In 2004, the hype was all about Ana Guevara, a sprinter favored to win the 400 meter dash. While out dancing one Friday night, everyone in the club stopped to watch one of the preliminary heats. Everyone cheered loudly and ordered celebratory shots when Ana won that heat. On the day of the final in 400 meter, my cousin woke me up cheers of “¡Vamos, Ana!” Almost all Olympics commercials featured Ana. It was pretty exciting. But Ana didn’t win gold, she won the silver. Belem Guerrero, from Ciudad Neza south of Mexico City, surprised everyone with a silver in cycling’s point’s race. Finally, the last two silver and bronze medals were won by siblings Oscar Salazar and Iridia Salazar in taekwondo.

I wondered if Mexicans watched athletes like Oscar de la Hoya (aka the Golden Boy) and if they claimed them. I wonder if Mexicans will claim Henry Cejudo, the son of undocumented immigrants from Mexico City. He was born in LA and moved around with his mother and siblings.

Henry just won the gold medal in the 121-pound freestyle wrestling event. He reminds me a little of Oscar de la Hoya, especially posing with the US flag draped around his shoulders.

Will he be the new Golden Boy?

Photo credit: Elizabeth Dalziel/AP