Photo via  raymondyue .

Photo via raymondyue.

In each installment of “Breaking Bread,” Phylisa Wisdom will discuss gastrodiplomacy–using the history of different foods, and eating and cooking those foods, to foster understanding and cooperation between cultures. Think of it as breaking bread to break down barriers. We’ll explore who gastrodiplomats are and what they’re doing–or cooking–to engage in dialogue with, or about, other cultures and countries. The column will feature interviews with sassy changemakers, recipes from chefs involved in gastrodimplocatic efforts, and analysis of effective efforts (and sometimes wretched failures) from all over the world. We’re unapologetically in favor of talking politics at the dinner table.


Theoretically, gastrodiplomacy – using the eating, preparation and study of food to improve cultural understanding and diplomacy – can be a useful tool for reflection and learning. However, eating and preparing food from another culture is not inherently gastrodiplomatic. In fact, a feeling of unfettered access to the food of another community can further cultural divides or reinforce racist and colonial attitudes towards marginalized communities. Without a critical lens, the act of eating and serving cuisine from a culture other than one's own can tend towards appropriation rather than appreciation. So how do we, as analytical and progressive food lovers, avoid co-opting the food and traditions of others? How do we use food to encourage critical international dialogue, rather than to stifle it? Personally, I’ve been grappling with these questions for awhile, particularly with regard to my enjoyment of my favorite cuisine: Mexican food.

In the so-called “melting pot” or “salad bowl” that is the United States, Southern California is one of the most delicious ingredients. I’ve spent a mere six months in my hometown of San Diego over the past seven years, spending the rest of the time traveling. People abroad have often asked me what I miss most about my home. My answer (sorry family) was always easy: Mexican food*!

In Southern California, where the topic of immigration is highly politicized and deeply polarizing, our love of Mexican food is complicated. In 2012, 37 percent of the 11.6 million strong total Mexican immigrant population in the U.S. reportedly lived in California. Many of the undocumented workers in San Diego, an estimated 200,000 in 2010, work in hospitality and agriculture (a $5 billion industry) and directly contribute to putting food on the plates of Californians. San Diego’s food industry is a hotbed of immigration policy debate.

Image via  thomashawk .

Image via thomashawk.

On April 30th of 2006, more than a million people took to the streets in America’s Southwestern cities to protest proposed immigration laws, which would make it more difficult for immigrants to legally live and work in the United States. It felt like the whole of Southern California, along with other border cities and states, was involved in a collective conversation about the role of the Mexican workforce, including Congressman-elect Brian Bilbray, a bile-hurling anti-immigrant crusader.

But Bilbray is himself a Mexican food lover, proud of San Diego’s favorite cuisine. In 2009, he was involved in a friendly football wager with fellow congressman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania. If Doyle’s team won, Bilbray had to buy lunch for Doyle’s entire staff, and vice versa. And which restaurant did Brian Bilbray identify as the potential caterer for this lunch? Why, Rubio’s Baja Grill of course. Nevermind his staunch anti-immigration politics; Bilbray knew that nothing said “San Diego” like a good fish taco. While owner Ralph Rubio is American-born, his father (who fronted him the money to start the fish taco chain) is a Mexican immigrant.

Yes, the Ralph Rubio story is one version of the mythical “American Dream.” Father comes to America in search of a better life for his future family. His son, a first-generation American, went to San Diego State University, and with his dad’s financial backing, opened his first Rubio’s just after graduation. Now, the fish taco tycoon says of his customer base “even though Rubio’s has wide appeal, our core customer has a better education and higher income,” both areas in which young recent immigrants struggle with equitable access.

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that “ethnic” food restaurants started by Americans (even first-generation ones) don’t aim to serve the population from whom they’ve taken culinary inspiration. Ralph Rubio himself didn’t even taste a fish taco until his was an adult, and the recipes are not his family’s. He says he goes to Tijuana to taste street food and “draws inspiration” (takes recipes?) from vendors there to develop his menu (he’s not a chef himself). The story of the former congressman who hates immigrants but loves their cuisine or the businessman whose immigrant father fronted the money for his taco company that doesn’t aim to serve uneducated poor people are dishearteningly typical in the U.S.  

Personally, I LOVE fish tacos. I don’t just enjoy them; I could swim in them. For me, nothing says “home” quite like drinking a horchata on the beach, eating a fish taco, and swimming in the ocean. But I am not Mexican (or Mexican-American). I’m from the side of the border where an actual militia of (mostly male) Americans have taken it upon themselves to guard the U.S.-Mexico border in their spare time. Rather than be appalled by the alleged 116 cases of sexual assault on children by U.S. Border Patrol agents, a proponent of the Minuteman Militia, Rep Louie Gohmert (Republican, obviously) of Texas has accused President Obama of waging a war on women because he refuses to “defend the women of America from criminal aliens!” The criminal aliens, by his (personal?) count have allegedly committed “at least 7,695 sexual assaults.” No word on how many of those have been reported, and we are still waiting to hear what he thinks of the conditions for Mexican people seeking refuge in American border states. “Give us your tired, your poor” on the Statue of Liberty is perhaps too far from the border for us to recall her message?

So what is the role of the progressive Mexican food lover in the debates around immigration and human rights in the U.S.? How can we be gastrodiplomats in our day-to-day eating habits?

Lovers of Mexican food in San Diego and beyond must seriously evaluate our own immigration politics. Yes, many of us who grew up along the border lived on streets with Spanish names; a relic of Spanish colonialization. We know the words. We know the ingredients in the food. We take our friends for “the best enchilada you’ve ever had.” But, if we can’t think critically about the effect of conservative immigration policy on our neighbors, perhaps we should not partake in the cuisine. When we lovingly eat Mexican food and claim it as part of our regional identity, but vote for people like Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas or for former Rep. Brian Bilbray of San Diego, this is what we are saying: “I will take the parts of your identity and presence in my community that suit me, and deport the rest.”

Mexican food is a growing food trend, and restaurateurs have noticed. Eating in “Mexican Food” restaurants owned and run by white people does not teach us about Mexican culture, but eating in those owned by Mexican immigrants doesn’t inherently either. The experience of eating Mexican food is enhanced by the knowledge that the salsa is a recipe freely taught to a chef by her abuela, or created by the chef’s own culinary innovation and talents that he or she is proud to share with diners at his or her restaurant. Diners shouldn’t expect this to be an interesting cultural learning experience. We should expect it to be a fair business transaction: the customer receives a delicious product and the business owners and chefs get to sell their own, ethically-created, product and make a profit. The dining experience for both customer and proprietor is diminished, for example, if one is eating a Rubio’s fish taco slathered in sauce that Ralph Rubio “created” based on his interpretation of flavors he experienced in Tijuana, where the food he ate was most likely cooked by someone living in poverty, whom he did not pay for the recipe.

Image via  VisitPlano .

Image via VisitPlano.

We can be lovers of Mexican food and also be responsible gastrodiplomats. They are not mutually exclusive, but it does require selectivity and a code of eating ethics. Each diner must live his or her own code of eating ethics independently, and think critically about what we want to get out of our dining experience. Everyone involved in the buying, selling, production and consumption of food is an active player; how do we want our choices and behaviors to impact their experience along the way? Those of us who are not Mexican or Mexican-American don’t have to sacrifice Mexican food, and in fact we shouldn’t. But, we can challenge ourselves to think critically about the difference between experiencing culture and claiming it. We can acknowledge histories of oppression and colonialization, and make sure that our business transactions in restaurants are fair and equitable.

Questions we could ask ourselves when choosing restaurants include: who is the front-of-house staff, and who is at the back-of-house? Where did these recipes come from, and have the chefs and creators of recipes been fairly compensated? Without asking, we can look to décor or location as clues to how owners and managers interact with Mexico: are there Mexican tropes, like images of Frida Kahlo and colonial mission bells (like Taco Bell) carelessly thrown together to look “authentic”? Is this taco shop in a neighborhood that’s accessible to Mexican and Mexican-American customers?  Sometimes, restaurants provide us with fairly obvious indications of the politics of management. For example, an establishment that makes fun of Mexican immigrants – like this restaurant did with their “how to catch an illegal immigrant” shirts – makes the value they place in the citizens and country from which the cuisine originates quite plain. It’s a fairly safe assumption that the health and well-being of recent Mexican immigrants is not as valued as the product they are selling.

In California, and in other border states, many white people who identify as having a familiarity with Mexican food and culture “celebrate” Cesar Chavez Day or Cinco de Mayo. Many college students consider these days to be an opportunity to get drunk on tequila and “play Mexican.” We can ask ourselves and our peers what these holidays, and Cesar Chavez's legacy in particular, mean for California’s food industry.

Loving Mexican food is part of my regional identity, but it doesn’t give me claim to pieces of a cultural identity that isn’t mine.  I will never be called the derogatory, racist “beaner,” because of my love of Mexican food, unlike the people who so often prepare it (and a lot of the other cuisines served in the U.S., as well). People like me, who are white, love Mexican food and experience it as a piece of home, must think critically about the difference between being a consumer and claiming an identity. For decades, white people have been able to play at being food tourists and enjoy delicious morsels of Mexican culture, while degrading, underpaying, and abusing many of the documented and undocumented workers who contribute to making it for us. The diplomatic food lover understands that in order to be in solidarity with the people preparing food, creating recipes, and providing a “cultural experience,” we must pay them fairly and prioritize their human rights.


*“Mexican food,” is of course a much broader and more diverse cuisine than the many conspicuous taco and burrito shops lead us to believe. I still struggle to find the specific Baja flavors that I love outside of Southern California, but the plethora of regional variations on Mexican cuisines is a topic for another day.