Cultural Appropriation

The Death of a Nacho King Proves the Media Are Cultural Appropriation's Biggest Enablers

This isn't the first time the MSM have gotten their tortilla-chip meal provenance wrong.


For the past couple of years, the biggest issue in food media has been cultural appropriation: who can cook what, whom can write about it, and how "privilege" trumps hard work and originality to keep people of color down and lift up bearded white hipsters. The heat really gets caliente when it comes to Mexican food, where it seems like every yoga-loving millennial wants to open a Mexican fruit stand in the barrio or bug Mexican women in Ensenada for their burrito recipes.

The topic is generally a non-starter to me. Anyone can and should cook comida mexicana, because (as I argued in my 2012 Reason story on the subject) it keeps the cuisine innovative and thus popular, unlike, say, liverwurst. And I've seen nouveau riche "privilege" burn millions of dollars on shitty tequila bars that close within a year while Mexican immigrants create fast-food empires on nothing but sweat and the perfect French fry–stuffed burritos.

But the death of the 84-year-old San Antonio native Frank Liberto is a reminder that cultural appropriation's biggest enablers aren't entrepreneurs but rather clueless reporters who'll swallow any Montezuma's Revenge that PR hacks and Google feed them. Liberto died on November 6, one day before National Nachos Day—fitting, because he helped push the cheesy, crunchy meal beyond the American Southwest and into leaky concession-stand cartons and souvenir ballpark baseball helmets nationwide with a cheese sauce that didn't need to get refrigerated. Liberto debuted these prefabricated nachos at Arlington Stadium during a Texas Rangers game in 1976, and consumers haven't stopped squirting watery queso since.

Liberto didn't invent nachos. That genius was Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, who whipped up a quick meal of fried tortilla strips, melted cheese, and pickled jalapeños for hungry American military wives at his Piedras Negras restaurant in 1943. But facts didn't stop the San Antonio Express-News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Washington Post from calling Liberto the "Father of Nachos," even as they all acknowledged Anaya's innovation—and betcha more media outlets will do the same in the days to come.

Why? Because the National Association of Concessionaires deemed Liberto as such in 2004, then Smithsonian Magazine did the same in 2013, so why not?

Media love to use the Big Lie (Hey, I just broke Godwin's Law in an article about nachos! That must be some sort of record!) with Mexican food, because it precludes them from speaking with actual Mexicans. That's what I discovered when doing research for my 2012 book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Newspaper articles and cookbooks I scoured passed off as fact multiple dubious creation stories about Mexican foodstuffs: that the margarita was named after Rita Hayworth when she was a dancer in Tijuana (the screen goddess' birth name: Margarita Cansino), that chili became popular because the Texas delegation to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair set up a stand, that Rick Bayless is the greatest Mexican chef in the United States. No interviews, no research: just regurgitation of other food writers, who did the same ad infinitum. When I finally found the source for most of these origin stories, it turned out they were outright lies created to feed into American preconceptions of Mexicans as stupid, lazy beaners.

Such dereliction by writers not only erases Mexicans from their own history but becomes its own fuel for the hype fire that sets off most cultural appropriation controversies in the first place. Why look for Mexicans cooking Mexican food when it's easier to find whites and Asians doing the same? And why go to a Mexican restaurant run by Mexicans when they don't get the attention others do? You can't blame restaurateurs for wanting to make money, but you should blame the people whose job it is to promote the Next Big Thing.

If food writers (and social media influencers) would do actual journalism (or hire writers who know what the hell they're talking about), then most of the poster children for culinary cultural appropriation would get as much attention as a week-old bowl of guacamole and promptly disappear. Then social justice types could move on to bigger issues than whether it's OK that a Virginia housewife was the Johnny Appleseed of Mexican cooking in the U.S.

Liberto's death isn't the first time the MSM have gotten their tortilla-chip meal provenance wrong. In 2011, the death of longtime Frito-Lay executive Arch West made national headlines because he was credited with creating Doritos, those flavored tortilla chips that stain fingertips so delightfully. Reporters nationwide bought his family's claim that he'd discovered the concept in a "little shack" in San Diego and then brought it to his bosses.

The story was only somewhat right. West did encounter Doritos at a Mexican restaurant, but it was at Casa de Fritos in Disneyland, in the early 1960s. And it wasn't nameless Mexican who created it but rather the Morales family, whose fame via their XLNT tamales in Southern California was enough that Walt Disney contracted them to stock many of Disneyland's eateries. It wasn't a hard story to find: All I did was call the grandson of XLNT founder Alejandro Morales, who was more than happy to talk—and he spoke English, even! Yet the West myth remains. As recently as 2014, NPR still credited West as the Dorito's "inventor."

Postscript: My editor asked me to settle "the important 'messy pile of chips' vs. 'individually composed masterpieces' debate, if possible." It's not even a debate: The best nacho is the one at the bottom so soggy with cheese, beans, sour cream and grease that it has reverted back to its original masa form. Get a tortilla, and turn that into a nacho taco. "Individually composed"? Fuera!

NEXT: Mass. State Trooper Suing After Commanders Made Him Edit Report About Judge's Daughters

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. You are now my second favorite Gustavo.

    1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

      This is what I do…

  2. I think you are spending a little too much time in the big city bro. 99% of americans eat at a real mexican restaurant when they eat Mexican food. And most people, I dare guess, eat Mexican at least once per week.

    Sounds like you are griping on the ridiculousness level close to all of the current daily outrage over other stupid shit. i.e, making a mountain out of a molehill. This is somehow an insult to you? .

    No one really thinks popular mexican dishes were made by anyone other than Mexicans. Every town has at least 2-10 Mexican restaurants with the exact same menu obviously run by Mexicans or latin americans.

    1. With menus that are barely Mexican at all…

      1. Fair enough. I’m sure a lot of ethnic foods prepared by ethnic descendants are Americanized and boring but there is no great injustice being done to mexicans or Italians, for example, over who thinks who created their best dishes.

        This guy sound like a crying kid at Berkley.

        1. One of us clearly came to the totally wrong conclusion after reading this article. No, I’m not sure which one of us it was.

          1. Probably me. I thought he was complaining that the wrong people got credit for creating Mexican dishes.
            Had I not read this article, I would have never known and still wouldn’t have cared. It’s delicious food.

            1. He was making fun of all the idiots complaining about cultural appropriation without knowing anything about the cultural part. At least, that’s what I read.

              1. $park? leftist poser|11.8.17 @ 4:16PM|#

                “He was making fun of all the idiots complaining about cultural appropriation without knowing anything about the cultural part. At least, that’s what I read.”

                That’s what I read too. It also goes to a larger problem that is those who claim to be journalists. My mind was blown that the same papers and networks White Knighting the 2nd amendment and claiming the sacrosanct mantel of The Press actually do nothing of the sort. Even down to the level of writing truthfully about food. Whether outsourcing the the work to groups like Fusion gps or making up sensational speculation for clicks what purpose does the Fourth Estate serve? Not much I guess.

      2. “With menus that are barely Mexican at all…”

        Do I give a shit? No. When I go out to eat, I’m generally not looking for a cultural experience. I want something I can’t (or don’t care to) prepare as well at home, or I’m just hungry, or both. If it tastes good to me, why should I give a damn that some guy’s grandmother would never have made it that way?

        If I want to “experience” Mexico or some other culture, I’ll travel there, research it, or find some other way to immerse myself in it. In the meantime, there’s room for both authentic cuisine as well as Taco Bell. You may not approve of the choice I make, but I’m OK with that, and so is the owner of the restaurant.

    2. Shit, man, I live in Texas and I can tell you that down here most ‘Mexican food’ is Tex-Mex.

      Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t find ‘real’ Mexican food but you’ll need to go to the barrio to find it, and even then you’ll probably have questions regarding health code violations that won’t matter once you get your food.

      1. […] you’ll probably have questions regarding health code violations that won’t matter once you get your food.
        No dude, don’t make that mistake. When it comes to health code stuff, be like a Japanese father: “only A’s are acceptable!”

        Caveat: assuming it’s actually earned, and not just an inspector dicking around.

        1. I’ve been into some places that almost certainly wouldn’t pass a health code inspection that made some of the best damn food I’ve ever eaten.

          Then again, I’ve actually been to restaurants in Mexico so I consider even the dingiest place in the U.S. a better rating than some of the best places I’ve been to along the Texas / Mexico border.

          That changes once you’re inland a ways, but those border towns are a fucking dystopia. Not even a dystopia, more like survivors of Armageddon.

    3. Yeah, I don’t get his ‘ Why look for Mexicans cooking Mexican food when it’s easier to find whites and Asians doing the same?”

      Because out where we live (Arellano and I – the American Southwest), *all* the Mexican restaurants are run by Mexicans. So are half the Chinese restaurants. So is the one place that serves sushi where I live.

      And in the rest of the country there aren’t enough Mexicans to run a restaurant so if you want Mexican food (and Arellano simplifies things – there’s no ‘Mexican food’ anymore than there is ‘American food’ since Mexico is a yuge country with a very different culture and the cuisine changes as you move from north to south) whites and asians are your only choice.

  3. it turned out they were outright lies created to feed into American preconceptions of Mexicans as stupid, lazy beaners.

    Who let this retard get a job writing, well, anything?

    1. Seriously. I saw three Mexicans taking a nap after their lunch today.

      They had been working their asses off all day building a house, I might add.

  4. it keeps the cuisine innovative and thus popular, unlike, say, liverwurst

    Fuck you, liverwurst is awesome!

    1. This & furthermore, nachos are disgusting. And I don’t navel-gaze about who created them or who cooks them or, really, any of my food.

      1. This guy is the classic food snob. And obviously the last guy you want to get stuck with at a party.

      2. The true history of basically any food you eat is so lost to the dim reaches of time that you might as well forget about knowing ‘the truth’.

        1. The truth about Mexican food is that cheddar is a fundamentally British cheese.

          1. What’s that have to do with Mexican food?

            1. The fact that cheddar is a commonly-used cheese on nachos. Some places will do the more native types, though.

    2. Yeah, liverwurst rules. I need to get me some liverwurst.

      Nachos are also a fine thing, Mr. New York City Poopy-pants.

      1. On pumpernickel with coarse ground brown mustard and red onion, with a bowl lentil soup. =9

  5. Best Mexican restaurant (outside of East L.A. or San Antonio) was in Manhattan. Couple of immigrants still wet behind the years [sic] hadn’t yet figured out what Americans wanted. So they made their food like their mama taught them.

    Worst Mexican restaurant was in New Jersey where the salsa was made with catsup. Yup, catsup.

    Honorable mention for bad Mexican food: Dayton Ohio where it looked like a burrito, had the correct ingredients for a burrito, and was made like a burrito, but was the most inspiring blandness to ever have been wrapped in a tortilla.

    1. You can tell you’re in a good Mexican restaurant if you’re the only one there that speaks English, it’s a great Mexican restaurant if there’s seafood on the menu. “Mexican” isn’t just ground beef and chilies in a tortilla 15 different ways.

      1. It’s easier than that. Just look to see where all the Mexican truck drivers are parked

    2. Wow, they wouldn’t even spring for ketchup.

    3. Worst Mexican restaurant was in New Jersey where the salsa was made with catsup.

      You’re just talking domestic, though.

      I once had Mexican food in Amsterdam, made by Dutch people. I think they had seen pictures, but I don’t think they had ever actually had real-live Mexican food.

      I hand an “enchilada” that consisted of a tortilla filled with “young Dutch cheese” (a Brie-esque cheese that has a bit of a gouda tone), with tomato paste brushed over the top of it. It was . . . not an enchilada.

  6. This article confuses me. It starts off trying to talk vaguely about “cultural appropriation”, then dovetails into how restaurants and what-not tell stories about themselves to make themselves sound better, and it’s easy for that stuff to go uncontested.

    Is the take-away that the really bad cultural appropriation is the cultural appropriation that goes unnoticed?

    Eh, whatever.

    1. No, I think it’s that the people who tend to complain about cultural appropriation in the media are full of shit and don’t know what they are talking about.

      1. How true. Pasta came from China, not Italy. Potatoes, corn and tomatoes from the Americas. Many spices and spice mixes like curry would be off our list of preparing foods. If we cut all “cultural appropriation” foods from our diet we would have pretty damn boring diets.

    2. His point is that since the media won’t properly credit the Mexican roots or origins of certain Mexican food (they’ll credit white entrepreneurs, as found in popular myths), the left is motivated to reclaim cultural authenticity of those foods, as part of their ongoing battle against cultural appropriation.

      Which should hardly be an issue. Some people might think Chop Suey or the California Roll might be authentic Asian food, but that doesn’t affect most typical Asians.

  7. Taco Bell is the best Mexican restaurant ever.

    1. Taco Johns if you live in the Midwest – haven’t been to TBell in years.

  8. I will not be happy until my town has a carniceria. I have to by the meat for menudo out of a fucking sedan. Back in Tucson people had the decency to sell it out of the back of a Van!

    Man, I miss Tucson.

    1. Living here, my greatest sin is not eating out enough. I am sure I am the envy and the object of scorn for not enjoying Mexican as much as I should. But when I do get to a Nico’s it’s fantastic fare.




      2. Indeed. Here, to your south & east, we can pitch rocks at the fence all day long, but can’t find an authentic Mexican join anywhere, not even on the other side of the checkpoint. Seriously, who crosses into another country and complains that the Mexican food in Mexico isn’t like the Mexican food, ‘back home.’?

    2. There’s a fantastic one in Dixon, CA, just off the freeway, just south of the Pit School Road Valero station, next to Maria’s restaurant, which is also excellent. Don’t know the name. Everyone I’ve sent there raves about it, even Mexicans, and half the customers order in Spanish. I wish I had more need to travel that far.

      1. I live in Elk Grove about 25 minutes from Dixon. I will make it a point now to find this place. Thanks Scarecrow!

        1. Taqueria Jalisco?

  9. Ah, so Liberto didn’t invent nachos, he invented shitty nachos.

    1. He’s like Henry Ford “inventing” the car. Liberto didn’t come up with the idea of nachos; he just found a way to make it (or something similar) accessible to a lot more people. Props for that, and screw the detractors.

  10. American preconceptions of Mexicans as stupid, lazy beaners.

    Stupid, lazy beaners who also steal our jobs and do all the jobs Americans won’t do. And are bad hombres. Some of them are good people.

  11. I invented the Bacon wrapped Taco.

    As for pulled hickory smoked chicken and mole tacos? My invention. As authentically Mexican as it gets, yet the product of a gringo’s cullinary groking of all things tasty.

    I reject the premise that assimilating a style, genre, technique, influence or pattern is to be avoided. I reject the premise that a culture can claim ownership of itself.

    I do think that those individuals who rightfully invented something should be given the credit they are due. Its terrible the invention of Nachos and Doritos are attributed to people usurping the claim. As the inventor of the Bacon Wrapped Taco and the Hickory Smoker Pulled Chicken Taco with Mole, I side with the true innovators of those culinary delights.

    1. I think there is an opening now for Liverwurst tacos. Some hipster has probably taken it, though.

  12. Fuck you Reason. I am tired, and I wanted to just order a pizza tonight. Now I have to go find some fucking Mexican food because that’s all I can think about now.

  13. What are the rules here?

    Under cultural apprpriation are, say, Jeb Bush’s kids able to run a Mexican restaurant, or does his inherent WASPishness overwhelm his wife’s heritage?

    1. Well, according to the author, anyone who wants to should make Mexican food. So I’m going with that since it’s the right answer.

      1. That is of course right, I was just curious about the pretzel logic of the other side.

        1. It is sort of fascinating, but I think ultimately not worth trying to untangle.

  14. Why look for Mexicans cooking Mexican food when it’s easier to find whites and Asians doing the same?

    Are you fucking kidding?

    It’s damn near impossible to find any restaurant besides fast food that isn’t infested with Mexicans.

    Mexicans cooking Mexican food? How about getting them to STOP cooking Japanese food, or French food, or Greek food?

    It’s getting really annoying to have to pick the goddamned pickled jalapenos off my okonomiyaki.

  15. And why go to a Mexican restaurant run by Mexicans when they don’t get the attention others do?

    Is this some east-coast thing?

    Because around here, Mexican restaurants are almost always run by Mexicans*; it’s the exceptions that are rare, and only noteworthy when it’s both a Serious Chef and people whine about it (see Nick Zuken and Mi Mero Mole, and the “but he’s not Mexican!” flap from the local Appropriation Police).

    (*Or Guatemalans who don’t advertise it, sure…)

    Besides, er, aren’t Nachos “Tex-Mex”? Piedras Negras is right on the Texas border, and Norteno food isn’t the only or even the dominant food of “Mexico”, eh?

    I’ll even give them “Father of Nachos” for the guy who made them nationally popular; “the Father of X” or “King of X” is not “inventor of X”.

    Popularizing something matters to that something.

  16. Eh, Christopher Columbus gets credit for discovering America despite being the last person to do so.

    1. Well, he would if there wasn’t always someone to point out exactly what you just said every time Columbus is mentioned.



        1. At this rate, he may very well take over Columbus Day if Indigenous Peoples Day doesn’t win out first.

        2. Leif had the same problem, in a way. He was the first European to set foot in North America but probably did so in Newfoundland.

    2. The person who gets credit fro discovering something is, by definition the last person to do so.

      Also, the consequences of Columbus’ voyages changed the world significantly in ways that earlier visits had not. Before, Europe, Asia and Africa did not have peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, or maize, for instance.

      1. Also recorded history’s greatest mass death.

      2. Yeah, the fact that he wasn’t first is interesting, but not very important. He initiated significant European involvement in the New World. Whatever you think about that, it’s one of the most significant historical events ever.

    3. If you don’t tell anyone what you’ve found, you don’t get credit; Leif Ericson can stuff it. Liberto didn’t “discover” nachos, but he let us all in on the secret.

  17. Gustavo has written yet another thoughtful article. He is factually incorrect regarding nachos though.

    Individually composed masterpieces are the way to go; this is not a matter of opinion. Soggy sucks and cold stuff piled on hot stuff sucks.

  18. I am guessing taco pizza is probably the ultimate cultural appropriation – I do love it so. Basically every food group in one slice.

    1. I make a great taco lasagna.

  19. My Mexican friend told me that burritos aren’t really Mexican. Broke my heart.

    1. Why would you want a little donkey?

  20. the writer is confused the people giving credit are given credit for nationalizing something beyond the whole in the wall places they were served before and not so much looking at the original creator since that is rarely possible even today

  21. There is no such thing as cultural appropriation.

    1. Once I “appropriate” it, it becomes part of MY culture.

  22. who can cook what, whom can write about it

    How did you mess up who vs. whom when you got it right in the first part of the sentence?

    1. Typo seems a reasonable conclusion.

  23. Perpertrators of this deplorable dish should be deported- pain is not a food group.

  24. There is not a single food or genre of music today that isn’t the result of cultural appropriation at some point in the past.

    1. If someone doesn’t like cultural appropriation of “their” nation’s food, they can at least have the decency not to complain about it on an American-invented computer.

      1. Or start your own damn restaurant.

    2. Absolutely agree.
      What we have not had in the past though is trouble making media and illegal alien cry-baby’s.

      I mean we used to think “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”? Oscar Wilde
      Now it is cultural appropriation!

  25. Um, so?

    99% of people are complete idiots about any given topic, and what they think they know they got from other idiots. Google just made it easier to spread more idiocy.

  26. This article started out strong but then….it appropriated the outrage of culinary cultural appropriation. I’m triggered.

  27. I don’t know about you. I don’t know about you.
    Dead or alive, bring me the Nacho King. Bring me the Nacho King…

  28. Most people don’t eat liver anymore because its gross, and hipsters eat it because nobody else does. Were rich eough we dont need to get as many calories as possible out of each animal anymore, so eating organ meats is totally optional, and even the most rarefied foie preparation isnt even in the same league anmeight dollar hamburger. What I’m saying is I’m super surprised to see hipsters doing things for dumb reasons (I guess if they [alright, we] had good taste we wouldn’t be hipsters)

  29. What would French cuisine be today if it couldn’t “appropriate”?

  30. Mexico has a fundamentally European culture. A taco would be much more familiar to an ancient Roman than it would to an Aztec. The spices would be different, and of course corn is a new world food. But beef, cheese, sour cream, wheat flour, Lettuce, cilantro, rice, garlic, and lime are among the ingredients associated with Mexican food that originated in the Old World. There is no evidence that I know of to show that Pre-Columbian Americans used cooking oil.
    Food as we know it today, is a global fusion of ingredients and techniques. There was another recent spate of outrage about Jamie Oliver presenting a recipe for Nigerian Joloff Rice. Once again, the dish as normally prepared uses ingredients mostly from Asia and the New World. Everything was already appropriated long ago.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.