Common Grounds Found: An Interview of Mexican and American Cultures

The Stage is Set

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Mexican and American flag

The scene was warm and vibrant—the Common Grounds coffee house on East High Street. My fellow interviewer, Rachel Dixon, and I both arrived on the scene and chose a table at the front; although it was near the ordering bar, it was hopefully far enough from the general coffee shop din that there wouldn’t be any interference with the recordings. We reviewed our questions, pulled up the appropriate apps on our phones, and settled into our chairs—easily the comfiest ones in the place. I was still fiddling with my phone when Elizabeth “Ely” Medina walked up.

With a more professional look about her than I could ever hope to muster in myself, she smiled a bit nervously and asked if we were her prospective interviewers. Her smile widened pleasantly as we made affirmations, and she sat down in the one remaining chair, which looked decidedly less comfy than mine, for which I mentally chided myself.

The Interview Begins

“I am a second-year Masters student in the Educational Policy Research and Evaluation Department at the University of Kentucky,” she began (Medina). Born in Los Angeles, hailing from Iowa, she says she was blessed to be able to visit Mexico often, attending school there for two years in addition to traveling every Christmas and summer to her parents’ hometown in southwestern Mexico. Medina’s parents own a chain of Mexican restaurants in the U.S., and she notes the interesting disparity between commercial and home-cooked Mexican food: “For me, there’s Mexican restaurant food—which is really great, and I like it—but then there was also my mom’s cooking at home.” To her, each has its own merit, which echoes a statement made by Gustavo Arellano in his book Taco USA:

As early as the 1940s, restaurants took to promoting themselves as serving “authentic Mexican food,” as if their competitors were somehow inferior even though both served the same foodstuffs that Mexicans in Mexico derided as agringado—Americanized. . . .

Those who decried Tex-Mex and America’s other regional Mexican foods as somehow less legit than what existed down south never bothered to consider that the lambasted food was created by Mexicans here for Mexicans here, who considered it Mexican food. (162)

When asked what she thought caused America to become so enamored with Mexican food, Medina had several theories to offer. She believes that much of it was the result of advertising; Mexican brands that weren’t gaining steam in Mexico would put up ads in the U.S., where they more quickly garnered popularity—though this was mostly effective with alcohol, cheese dip, and chips and salsa (Medina).

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America’s Mexican ideal

In truth, the heart of Mexican food traveled with its people as they migrated north, sharing their culture with Americans by broadening their food to suit their new audience:

Some of my mom’s aunts and uncles were the first that ventured out, and they had small restaurants where they started serving Americanized food. Everybody who would work at those restaurants would learn everything from cooking to running it, and then would go and open up their own restaurants. So that’s how everybody got the same recipes. (Medina)

Thus, an attempt to improve cross-cultural relations became a nationwide trend, and Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and various other -Mexes were born and spread. Further than the Americanization of Mexican food, however, is the globalization of it—which, contrary to popular belief, actually came first. As asserted by Jeffrey M. Pilcher in his book Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food:

. . . [N]otions of authentic Mexican food have been invented by promoters of culinary tourism. While often attributed to ancient Aztecs and Maya, such an authentic Mexican cuisine did not exist in pre-Hispanic or even colonial times. In fact, Mexican food, like the nation itself, was the product of globalization, beginning with the Spanish conquest. (222)

Cultural Combination

In what, therefore, has this culminated? The globalization of Mexican food has not only broadened the spread of Mexican culture, but blended it into the cultures of other nations as well—and these cultures have blended right back. Even American food is visible in Mexico as Mexicanized versions of itself; for example, while America popularized the hard-shell taco, Mexico was popularizing ketchup on pizza (Medina). This cultural interchange has been the result of a long tradition between countries of sharing their people—what most people like to refer to as “immigration.” Though many simply assume that America is the premier destination for all things and people Mexican, there is actually a great outflux traveling in the opposite direction.

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To America, from Mexico, with love
Migration to Mexico
To Mexico, from everywhere, with love

Additionally, this movement has resulted not only in cultural blending, but in the development of new subcultures. Among these is the culture of the Mexican restaurant worker in America—one elaborated upon by Medina’s brother, who runs the popular Twitter page “MexRestaurantProbs,” in a most risible fashion.

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@MexRestProbs: Your definitive source for painfully accurate humor

However, other subcultures have ingrained themselves so much in American culture that we hardly think of them as separate. One, for example, is the food truck, or lonchera, upon which Arellano articulates the origins in Taco USA:

After the tamale wagons’ demise in the 1920s, Mexican families took advantage of the rise of the automobile to make meals truly mobile: in the morning, they prepared meals at their homes . . .. The familias drove through their barrios, stopping in spots from early in the morning until the evening; in 1927, a sociologist documenting the Mexican community in Los Angeles noted that they had “come to form a good business.” (163)

Unfortunately, the people who operate loncheras have faced just as much hardship as any other subcultural group, which Pilcher points out in a chapter of Planet Taco entitled “The Battle of the Taco Trucks.” Just as tamale wagons were driven out of American cities in the early twentieth century, “taco trucks’ public presence has made them a focus for anti-immigrant outrage . . .” with even such extreme measures occuring as “New Orleans bann[ing] taco trucks in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane Katrina at a time when Latinos were prominent in recovery efforts” (222).

The blending of Mexican and American cultures has also had some less visible ramifications, within the people who balance their identities between the two. Medina describes their plight:

Identity development is a very important factor, in especially first generation Latinos [living in America] and second generation, because you have a lot of Latinos that don’t speak Spanish. So then, who do they identify with? And they have trouble. I have a couple friends who don’t speak Spanish and do identify as Latino, and sometimes they tell me they feel embarrassed when people always try to speak Spanish to them, and they’re like, “Well, I don’t understand.” So they have an identity crisis where they’re like, “Am I Latino? Am I not? But I don’t feel completely American, and I still have Latino culture.” So it is difficult, because you’re lingering between “I don’t know what I am.” But I feel like, once you figure it out and you’re confident in both cultures and you value both cultures equally, it’s really easy to navigate back and forth. (Medina)

Summing Up

The integration of Mexican and American cultures is ongoing, with cultures and foods all migrating across borders with abandon. From southwestern Mexico where Elizabeth Medina’s family hails, to Iowa where she grew up; from the loncheras of Mexican streets to the taco trucks of American roadways; from the pizzas slathered generously in ketchup to the crunch of the hard-shell taco, geography is only an obstacle of distance—not a barrier of shared customs, values, histories, or experiences. The embrace  of the phenomenon that is globalization has spread all of these elements throughout the hearts and minds of us all, bringing us closer together. Long may it continue!