One Nation, Under Tacos

An excerpt from 'Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America'

* * *

Mexican food appears at our state dinners, in elegant presentations. Mexican food appears in our school cafeterias; packaged as chimichangas or in bags of Fritos; in convenience stores, heating on rolling racks, waiting for the hands of hurried customers. Mexican food sponsors college bowl games such as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and buys naming rights for sporting venues such as the Taco Bell Arena at Boise State in Idaho. Mexican food commercials blanket television airwaves, hawking salsa and hard-shelled taco packets and high-priced tequilas and imported beers, promising a day at the beach and endless fiestas. Mexican food fills our grocery aisles, feeds college dormers, sits in our freezers and pantries, is the focus of massive festivals, becomes tween trends or front-page news—and if you don't know what I'm talking about, ask your kid about spaghetti tacos.

That wonderful culinary metaphor, the melting pot, has absorbed Mexican in this country just as so many immigrant cuisines of the past—but in a demanding way unique from other traditions that have penetrated the American palate. While there are more Chinese restaurants than Mexican in this country, the latter is the easier sell; you don't see hundreds of different soy sauce brands sold at supermarkets or General Tso's chicken cook-offs at your local community fair, but you do see it with hot sauces and chili contests. While pizza is the best-selling and farthest-reaching item of Italian-American cuisine in fast food, its rise and that of pasta and Italian restaurants is only relatively recent; the United States, on the other hand, has loved Mexican food for more than 125 years—bought it, sold it, made it, spread it, supplied it, cooked it, savored it, loved it.

Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine at his Dallas restaurant during the early 1970s. The machine pictured is now part of the Smithsonian's collection
Mariano Martinez invented the frozen margarita machine at his Dallas restaurant during the early 1970s. The machine pictured is now part of the Smithsonian's collection

Location Info


Fullerton Public Library

353 W. Commonwealth Ave.
Fullerton, CA 92832

Category: Libraries

Region: Fullerton


Gustavo Arellano will sign copies of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at the Fullerton Public Library. April 12, 7 p.m. Lecture, free; books, BARATO!


Check out a bunch of pictures of Mexican food here. Sabroso!

Comida mexicana in the United States is similar to M.C. Escher's Relativity, each staircase helping the climber reach a particular plateau, only to whisper promises of higher, better planes in an endless hat dance of delights. Americans have defined Mexican food as combo platters and enchiladas, margaritas and guacamole, tortilla chips and actual tortillas, frozen burritos and burritos made to order. There are mom-and-pop shops and multinationals, taco carts and tamale men, taco trucks operating under cover of night and luxe loncheras that tweet their latest specials. Beans, rice, carne asada, soyrizo—all of it absorbed, enjoyed, demanded by Americans and all of it whetting appetites for more. And with this country's latest Great Migration stretching brown folks beyond the American Southwest to all 50 states, covering virtually all metropolitan areas, from the prairies and flatlands of the Midwest to Maine's rocky shores, Alaska's tundra to the Florida Keys, we're experiencing a renaissance of Mexican food anew—a perpetual foreigner perfectly at home.

We've had generations of Americans who scarf down tacos and burritos just as a previous generation forked through chicken potpies and ate pastrami on rye. And that's just the United States. As globalization sets in, so does Mexican food. Mexican restaurants operate across Europe, in Turkey, in Nepal and Addis Ababa. Down under, Taco Bill's has sold fish tacos to Australians for nearly 25 years. Sometimes, it's Mexicans who run these restaurants; many times, it's American expats. Sometimes, the locals dine there, but it's more often American tourists seeking a taste of home. It's too easy to say Mexican food is an all-American food; to say as much is to ignore the tortured relationship between Mexicans and their adopted country. But Mexican food is as much of an ambassador for the U.S. as the hot dog, whether or not either country wants to admit it.

Let me give ustedes an example. Tom Tancredo doesn't like Mexicans—no way, no how, no duh. The former Colorado Republican congressman and onetime presidential candidate spent most of his political career railing against a supposed invasion of the United States by Mexico—and while intelligent minds can disagree about unchecked migration to this country, Tancredo flat-out feels Mexicans are downright deficient.

"Sadly, corruption is deeply ingrained in Mexican society from the local police to the government owned utilities," Tancredo wrote for the conservative website WorldNetDaily. "It's a way of doing everyday business."

This statement was a direct dig at me. In November 2010, we debated in Denver about whether Mexicans ever assimilate. I maintained that we do; Tancredo didn't accept the possibility, yet he never explained how someone such as myself—who only spoke Spanish when I entered kindergarten, was the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came into this country in the trunk of a Chevy, and who now favors English and Chuck Taylor All-Stars—did it. The back-and-forth squabble happened at Su Teatro, an old movie house now home to one of the most vibrant Chicano theaters in the United States. There is no need to go into the details of our discussion, except for one pertinent point: Before lambasting Mexicans and our supposed refusal to join American society, Tancredo joined me for a Mexican dinner.

The restaurant was across the street from Su Teatro—El Noa Noa, a large eatery that advertises itself as the Mile High City's "best and most authentic Mexican restaurant." At night, Art Deco-style neon lights flash the restaurant's name, a reference to a legendary nightclub in Ciudad Juarez that was the subject of a famous Mexican song. A party on your plate. The atmosphere isn't aggressively ethnic: no strolling mariachis or women fluttering fans and eyelids. Eaters sit; waiters bring out a plate of chips and salsa and fetch drinks. People of all ethnicities come in to eat, though the clientele leans more American than Mexican.

« Previous Page
Next Page »