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Putting Mexican Cuisine on the Table: The Cultural Dimension of Cuisine as Connecting Point

 

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.    - James Michener

New York City!! Often praised as ‘the Melting Pot of the World’, it is hard to imagine a city with more diversity in immigrant communities, cultural expressions, languages, celebrations, and … cuisine. Beyond the bagels, hotdogs, pretzels, pizzas, gyros and tacos on virtually every street corner, there is a world of ‘ethnic restaurants’ where cuisine and culture meet … or do they? Can food serve as an ambassador of a culture? Does it feed friendliness, understanding, and acceptance of the ‘other’?  

The potential role of restaurants as facilitators of cross-cultural understanding and interaction is worth examining. Restaurants can take the guest on a cultural as well as culinary exploration that extends even far beyond its doors, or, on the other end of the spectrum, simply yield to a ‘food is just food’ philosophy.

As one of the most significant, most recent and fastest growing immigrant groups, the Mexican community and its cuisine shall be at the center of our exploration through three different New York neighborhoods. Is it possible to experience Mexican culture through its cuisine, in a way that would encourage a respectful and understanding interaction with the Mexican community in these areas? 

I.  Jackson Heights 

Our culinary journey commences in one of New York City’s well-known multicultural neighborhoods – Jackson Heights. A multitude of ethnic eateries, specialty shops, bakeries, and restaurants set the scene for the diverse jumble of Hispanic, South Asian, Korean, and Chinese immigrants who live there, giving the impression of multicultural co-existence and tolerance.

Annie, a longtime resident and English teacher in Jackson Heights, perceptively remarks, “This is truly a multicultural neighborhood, peaceful and tolerant, but the different groups tend to live in their own community. There is little interaction.” Describing how the language barrier, cultural and country pride, and stereotypical prejudice distance the Asian and Mexican communities, she characterizes the prevailing attitude as one of neighbors living side by side yet in very different worlds. “They see each other as being very different, unfamiliar. An ‘I don’t eat Chinese food’ versus ‘I don’t eat Mexican food’ attitude is very common.” 

After some thought, she points us to a Chinese bakery that is popular among both Asian and Hispanic locals – a proposed example of inter-ethnic mingling and communication in spite of obvious language barriers. Yet the extent of interracial socialization is limited to the silent transaction between the Hispanic customer pointing to the pastry of choice, and the Chinese lady behind the counter. While Hispanics usually order to take away, Chinese community members are more likely to eat and socialize ‘in house.’ Even the bakery’s goods are conveniently segregated in two different counters – one displaying traditional Chinese pastries, and the other carrying more “standard” breads for its less-adventurous, non-Chinese customers. 

Such distinct separation is further apparent by the absence of Asian customers in Mexican eateries. “Asian customers? There are none.” As the Spanish-speaking owner of a small taco shop explains, “They go to their places, we go to ours. They like their food, we like ours.” These local experiences are illustrative of the kind of interaction and attitudes typical to the area. As the ‘Jackson Heights research group’ of the City University of New York Honors College observes, “For the most part the diverse groups get along because ‘despite physical proximity, the different groups in Jackson Heights…live in very different communities’.”   

The manager of Fiesta Mexicana largely confirms this experience. Despite being nearly next door to Asian shops, businesses, and eateries, there is hardly any Asian-Mexican interaction in the restaurant. The customers to Fiesta Mexicana are almost exclusively white-American or Hispanic. When asked about tensions between the Mexican and Asian communities, he explains, “I think it’s just that in general they don’t care about our culture and food. No hostility, just nothing in common.” According to his experience, showing interest in Mexican cuisine can be important in becoming more familiar with Mexican culture. The opinion that Mexican cuisine and restaurants are cultural representations of Mexico is captured in one of his smiling comments. Proudly praising one of their traditional specialties, he assures us it is impossible to eat their ‘Chimichangas ala Caserola’ without thinking about Mexico with a smile on your lips…

II.  North Park Slope and downtown Brooklyn 

“Mexican? You want to find Mexican here??” Shaking her head emphatically from side to side, she chuckles in response to our apparently ludicrous question. Asking for directions to a Mexican restaurant in the predominantly black neighborhood of North Park Slope and downtown Brooklyn is near futile. Such food establishments are scant, reflecting the small presence of Mexicans living in the area. Residents can point out the precise whereabouts of the few Mexicans they know in the community. “Ralph’s on South Portland and Lafayette – the owner has some workers, and I think they’re Mexican…7th Corner Hardware Store – that’s another one you might try...” 

In such a neighborhood, where there is minimal contact with Mexicans, food may become the primary means of introducing Mexican culture to the larger community. However, restaurants in North Park Slope and downtown Brooklyn are not always able to assume this role. As the answers from locals to our questions disclosed, the ties between culture and food have been partly broken by a prevailing attitude that food is a necessity rather than a luxury of high culture. For many in this neighborhood, eating is dictated by convenience, nutritional value, and “what the pockets can stand.” 

For locals, this demand is met on the corner of Willoughby and Jay Street, where Super Taco stands proudly as the “Best Tex-Mexican express in New York City.”  Inside, the walls are adorned with a large sombrero, and a Mexican flag mounted alongside an American one. At the counter lies a stack of menus, each of which proudly claims, “Mexican food is rate No. 1 in ethnic foods!”

 The attempt to establish a link with Mexican heritage is a weak one, lost amid the customers who enter and exit the store within a span of five minutes, take-out box in hand. A frequent visitor to Super Taco comments, “People are looking for healthy foods, like rice and beans … I also eat here because it’s about the flavor… and the price. It’s cheap.” And where does the culture fit into this equation? “If you’re hungry, food is food. I don’t care about the culture.” Little wonder that she sees no irony in the fact that this particular Super Taco is both owned and run by a Chinese family. 

Yet the indifference to culture seems to be true mainly for those of lower income who are confined to seeking out cheap and fast food provided by places such as Super Taco. In practice, this generally means the African-American population. Super Taco seems to draw its customers primarily from this group, as our observations and conversations here revealed. 

In contrast, just a few blocks away, New Mexicali is a sit-down restaurant that caters to those who can afford to pay more for an authentic and friendly experience. Its strongest clientele is found in the white population, which makes for about 60% of the restaurant’s total diners according to the manager. And unlike the bland experience for customers at Super Taco, diners at New Mexicali are constantly engaged in Mexican culture during their dining experience, surrounded by elaborate Mexican décor, music, and bi-lingual staff and menus. 

The manager of New Mexicali is convinced that such cultural engagement is taking place. “Eating is important. You’re sharing a big joy of life, Mexican way. You can learn a bit more and talk about more than just food.” Willing to facilitate this process, he enjoys sharing his culture with his guests as part of his work. If customers ask or seem interested, he is happy to talk about Mexican traditions, customs, and way of life.

 III. West Village 

“Probably most of them here are working, because it’s an expensive neighborhood to live in. I see a lot of them in kitchens, delis…” A young man in Washington Square Park comments thoughtfully on the presence of Mexicans in the West Village area. He adds: “It seems that a lot of people look down on them. I’ve noticed that even South Americans look down on them … and whites look down on Latin Americans in general…” In West Village, the Mexican community includes people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, immigrants and non-immigrants alike. But to casual observers in this relatively expensive neighborhood, ‘Mexican’ will most readily evoke the image of immigrant laborers or blue-collar workers. This particular group contributes to the bustling scene of diverse ethnic foods scattered throughout West Village, with their small, ‘authentic’ food shops. 

But while the potential for contact with Mexican culture is high in such places, discomfort, oftentimes stemming from the language barrier, deters potential customers from entering. Marissa, a resident of upper West Village, shares honestly, “I used to be intimidated because they often only speak Spanish. You feel unwelcome if they don’t speak English at all. It used to make me feel uncomfortable, like an outsider at those places. Like they were thinking, ‘it doesn’t matter if we speak the same language, we have nothing to share; we don’t care if you are here or not.’ But once I didn’t feel like an outsider, I came here more and felt they would welcome me to participate.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Mexican food in West Village is simultaneously falling prey to the irresistible draw of fast food culture and big chain restaurants. Brian, a resident who lives and works in the neighborhood, describes the scene, “There’s a burrito place around here that’s owned by some Chinese people. And there’s those ‘American’ version places like Chipotle or Café Caliente, but not many ‘actual’ Mexican places – at least I don’t know where to find them.” Another longtime resident, Michael, confirms the accuracy of this depiction, admitting, “I eat at Mexican restaurants once in a while … but it’s mostly Tex-Mex ‘Americanized’ … it doesn’t seem authentic.”  

Culture is watered down to near absence in such commercialized or Americanized restaurants, further encouraging disconnect between culture and cuisine. Michael continues: “Most of the ones [restaurants] I know, the atmosphere is like other cheap places like Chinese hole-in-the-wall shops. It’s just burritos instead … I haven’t really felt closer to the culture [by eating], but maybe if I find a ‘real’ Mexican restaurant then it would be different.” 

Nonetheless, there is a promising movement against this development. Aware of the diminishing presence of Mexican culture in the more accessible and mainstream restaurants, Barbara Sibley is committed to celebrating the richness of Mexico’s history and traditions through her restaurant; La Palapa, located on 359 Sixth Avenue near Washington Place. “I think of it [restaurant] as being a kind of ambassador, because cuisine is very important in learning about a culture or country. Food is the art of a country. So we are very consciously trying to break the stereotype … Like of being loud, having cheap food or cheap ingredients.”

With two locations in East and West Village, it specializes in “Mexico City style” cooking. Walking into the West Village, La Palapa guests are immediately greeted by a vast panorama of Rosa Carmina and other well-known dancers during the 40s and 50s – the golden age of Mexico’s film industry.  Further in, another wall is covered with film stills of a young woman who many customers mistake for a famous American actress from decades ago. Ms. Sibley is happy to explain to puzzled customers that the belle is María Félix – Mexico’s Marilyn Monroe of the 40s and 50s, who resisted Hollywood’s repeated efforts to sign her in to play a maid. 

Beyond the décor, guests also learn about Mexican traditions through their interaction with English-speaking, and oftentimes bi-lingual, waiters. La Palapa’s staff is equipped with Mexican dish and tequila dictionaries, and ready to explain the details of each dish on the menu. 

It seems that Ms. Sibley’s efforts to foster appreciation of Mexican culture and heritage have been rewarded in recent years. She notes, “Initially, people who came were looking for food like the Taco Bell type. But now you find that people come because they’re interested in the culture, not just the food. People know and appreciate the authenticity of this place.”  

La Palapa’s success in cross-cultural outreach is evident in the make-up of its clientele. According to Ms. Sibley, about 20 to 30 percent of customers are Mexican families; the rest is mainly comprised of a variety of Asians, whites, and travelers who visited Mexico and wish to recreate their experience abroad. The publicity they received from media groups ranging from a Japanese newspaper and the Chinatown News, to India Today, also stands as a witness to its successful outreach.

IV.  Conclusion 

Navigating through several different New York neighborhoods, we have witnessed the potential of Mexican restaurants and eateries to act as a gateway to experiencing Mexican culture. 

At the same time, however, we also observed that in many cases the ability of Mexican restaurants and eateries to fulfill such a role is severely limited or underused. These restaurants may be pressured by popular fast food culture to meet consumer demand for cheap food, or drawn to the appeal of efficiency found in standardized chain restaurants – in short, ‘Americanizing’ Mexican food. Although you could argue that these restaurants represent the perfect example of a ‘melting pot’ cuisine, in either case, culture is largely ignored or absent.  

But even being ‘authentic’ has its costs. Individuals, like Marissa in West Village and residents of Jackson Heights, are often dissuaded from frequenting ‘authentic’ local Mexican restaurants. They are put off by a general unease stemming from language barriers and the failure to find common ground with Mexican culture. And while other restaurants succeed in creating a comfortable, friendly environment for diners who have no familiarity with Mexican culture, these establishments are not equally accessible to all socioeconomic groups. 

Given such considerations, it is not surprising that many people express skepticism regarding the role of food in bringing different ethnic communities together. The initial attitude of our interviewees was frequently that food does not, in fact, feed friendliness in everyday life. Food is simply food.  

However, most people qualified their original statement after some thought, adding that food and restaurants could potentially act as cultural ambassadors. Dave, a recent graduate of NYU living in Jackson Heights, began his statement, “I don’t think that food is really a connecting point…” But he changed his mind after a moment, specifying, “… unless you really love it and go out your way to talk about it. I work for a cardiologist, and we have a lot of Spanish-speaking clients. About 1 out of 10 people will say that they love the food [Indian] and then we connect and have something to talk about…Yeah, it’s always nice to hear something like that.” 

Brian, a resident from West Village, said of restaurants, “It’s probably the best and most accessible way to interact and familiarize yourself with the culture in theory anyways – especially in place like New York. I’d rather do it at a restaurant – it’s much less intimidating than going to a cultural festival or something.”  

This optimism is not unfounded, as restaurants such as La Palapa prove successful in reaching out to familiarize others with Mexican culture. Furthermore, in all the restaurants we visited, an average of 70-80% of the clientele are regular diners. This strong connection with the local community implies that restaurants have much room for influencing perceptions and interactions that shape attitudes towards the Mexican community. There is potential for food to become a starting point for encountering other cultures and bridging different peoples. Food may not always remain “just food” in the future. 

 

References

 

Interviewed Persons

1.  Annie – Jackson Heights resident and English teacher

2. – Fiesta Mexicana manager in Jackson Heights

3. Shirley – downtown Brooklyn resident

4. Karen – North Park Slope resident

5. Robyn – Super Taco customer, downtown Brooklyn resident

6. – New Mexicali manager in downtown Brooklyn

7. Marissa – upper West Village resident

8. Brian – West Village resident and worker

9. Michael – West Village resident

10. Barbara Sibley – La Palapa owner in West Village 

 

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United-states United States 2006

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