(Page 2 of 3)
Tamales and Truncheons
As long as Mexican food has existed in this country, government has tried to legislate it out of existence. This is partly because of stereotypes but mostly because government is government. The resulting underground Mexican food economy, meanwhile, has birthed some of the cuisine’s most innovative trends.
In 1880s San Antonio, so-called chili queens—Mexican women who brought the Alamo City national attention by setting up impromptu stalls in city squares to sell fiery bowls of what was then known as chile con carne—began a decades-long game of cat and mouse with local officials. The authorities would declare a certain neighborhood legally off-limits, and the chili queens would shrug and move their tents to the outdoor plaza across the street, bringing with them their legions of loyal customers. It took until the 1940s for San Antonio bureaucrats to formally legalize the street vendors, but only if they subjected themselves to rigorous health inspections and hawked their food from white tents with screens. The public scorned these bowdlerized women, and the chili queens disappeared within years.
The same story arc has played out nearly everywhere in the United States where there has been a Mexican with food to sell. Wandering tamale men spread across the United States during the 1890s until competitors and not-in-my-backyard types convinced city councils to pass laws against them. A century later, loncheras peddling tacos and burritos —first to construction sites, then to anywhere workers take their lunches—have encountered the same protectionism and prejudice. As the public embraces the convenience, affordability, and taste of food trucks, restaurant owners and the city officials they lobby have repeatedly attempted to squash the competition.
Any new businesses in town will always make city planners and councilmen wary and greedy, of course. But the sad, surprising reality is that most of the resistance to loncheras comes from brick-and-mortar businesses. Instead of refining and broadening their offerings to keep up with their new competitors, the incumbents fall back on an argument straight out of a Mafia protection racket: Since we pay more taxes and business fees than food trucks, government should squash our competition so we can continue business as usual.
It’s a strategy that has long worked. In 1992 tiny Pasco, Washington, set rules limiting where taco trucks could park and requiring them to pay $45 each month per parking spot. Pasco’s restaurants, by contrast, paid only $35 a year for a license. Five street vendors took Pasco all the way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, arguing that the double standard was unconstitutional, but they ultimately lost. Similar crackdowns have taken place in Fresno (1995), Chicago (1997), Phoenix (1999), and Dallas (1999), where Planning Commissioner James Lee Fantroy sneered during a public hearing on the subject, “The proper preparation of food is one of those things that we must carefully watch. I don’t think I could bring my family to one of these [trucks] and feel comfortable.”
Even in Los Angeles, the second-largest Mexican metropolis in the world, the majority-Democrat L.A. County Board of Supervisors tried to ban food trucks as recently as four years ago. The city has destroyed carts selling unauthorized bacon dogs and even hauled off some entrepreneurs to jail, despite acknowledging that no bacon-dog customer has ever registered a complaint.
L.A. has a long history of putting the squeeze on Mexican-food peddlers. From 1900 to about 1925, the city council passed resolution after resolution trying to ban tamale wagons from downtown Los Angeles. The tamaleros, knowing what they meant to their legions of customers, fought back. In 1903, when the council tried to outlaw them altogether, tamale wagons formed a mutual-aid society and presented a petition with the signatures of more 500 customers that read in part, “We claim that the lunch wagons are catering to an appreciative public and to deprive the people of these convenient eating places would prove a great loss to the many local merchants who sell the wagon proprietors various supplies.” When the city council finally kicked the vendors out as part of the effort to create the sanitized, whitewashed ethnic fantasyland now known as Olvera Street, the vendors just went underground, where they flourished for decades and eventually transformed into loncheras.
In 2008 the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution making parking a truck for longer than one hour in unincorporated communities such as East L.A. a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. The plan sparked a furious backlash—not only among the loncheros, who created La Asociación de Loncheros L.A. Familia Unida de California (Association of Loncheros Los Angeles United Family of California) to defend themselves, but among young bloggers and hipsters who had grown up patronizing loncheras after clubbing or working late. Soon black T-shirts emblazoned with a white lonchera and the statement “Carne Asada Is Not a Crime” flowered across Southern California, and a group of foodies helped the loncheros sue the board of supervisors. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge eventually overturned the supes’ diktat.
But it was mostly the will of the loncheros—almost all immigrants who initially came to the United States with no knowledge of English, let alone an understanding of our legal system—that earned the victory. In my homeland of Orange County, Roberto Guzman led a group of loncheros in 2006 to sue the city of Santa Ana to be able to park on city streets from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m., seven days a week. His Cadillac-pink truck “Alebrije’s” sells food from Mexico City—buttery, crepe-like quesadillas, massive chili-soaked sandwiches called pambazos, and a concoction of six tortillas covered with sautéed onions, bell peppers, jalapeños, and grilled ham, bacon, and carne asada called alambres.
When the city council (also majority Democrat, and all Latino, making Santa Ana the largest city in the United States with such leadership) sought to negotiate with the loncheros to install a lottery system giving rights to some food trucks but not all, they refused. “Please,” Guzmán scoffs. “It would’ve been favoritism all the way. I felt as if they were going to take away the sustenance of so many families. It was going to be a huge economic loss. And it was too much a worry that, at any moment, [the city] could take away the parking spots from us.” Today Santa Ana is a lonchera paradise—and Guzmán owns three of them, with plans for more.
The self-appointed guardians of Mexican food in this country are right on one point: The popularity of Mexican food has indeed allowed many non-Mexicans to build multimillion-dollar fortunes. German immigrant William Gebhardt created Eagle Brand Chili Powder from the basement of a bar in New Braunfels, Texas, in the early 1890s, parlaying that into a canned food empire that lasts to this day. Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, got his idea for hard-shelled tacos from Mitla Café, a San Bernardino Mexican restaurant that stood across the street from Bell’s burger stand during the early 1950s. The Frito-Lay company developed its most iconic chips, Fritos and Doritos, by purchasing the rights to those crunchy treats from Mexican immigrants. And Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle, which has mainstreamed massive burritos during the last decade, openly admits he was “inspired” by the burritos sold in San Francisco’s famously Latino Mission District.
The easy response to critics of appropriation is that it’s the market that decides who gets rich, not ethnic politics. Besides, obsessing over the many gabachos who have become Mexican-food millionaires ignores the many success stories involving Mexicans who displayed the same guile as their pasty-skinned contemporaries.
Larry Cano, for example, started out as a dishwasher at a Polynesian-themed restaurant in the Los Angeles enclave of Encino, worked his way up enough to eventually buy the place, then renamed it El Torito—the chain that pioneered sit-down Mexican dining in the United States. In Texas, the Martinez and Cuellar families created empires with their El Fenix and El Chico chains, respectively, formalizing Mexican restaurants for the rest of the country and essentially creating the genre of Tex-Mex. In Southern California during the 1990s, the Lopez family, immigrants from the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, helped popularize regional Mexican food in this country, fighting the double challenge of introducing Oaxacan food to both Americans and Southern California Mexicans who looked down on the cuisine as the domain of backward Indians. Today Mexican immigrants are following the Lopez/Oaxacan lead and selling their regional specialties nationwide.