Twenty-three years ago, over lunch in a Basque restaurant in Fresno, my longtime friend and mentor – the great Mexican American essayist Richard Rodriguez – offered an interesting thought about what was driving the transformation of the United States into a Latino country.
(That reminds me. I should let you know that the nation’s 54 million Latinos had a meeting and took a vote. The new country will be named: “Latino-landia.” You’ll get used to it.)
Rodriguez talked about how he had recently interviewed a white supremacist who absolutely loved Mexican food.
“People always think that culture is going to arrive in an evening gown,” he said. “It’s coming in a taco.”
As we say in Spanish, dicho y hecho. Said and done.
In the 1940s, Mexican-American students who brought tacos to school for lunch would eat them in a corner so as not to be teased by classmates. Today, white parents in the suburbs fill their kids’ backpacks with prepacked lunch meals – some of which contain chips, salsa and, yes, tacos.
And we have a new paradox in this country: There are many Americans who don’t like Mexicans but they love Mexican food.
So you wouldn’t expect these folks to get too worked up over the apocalyptic scenario envisioned by Marco Gutierrez, founder of “Latinos for Trump.”
Really? Why not “Chickens for Colonel Sanders”?
Having migrated to the United States from Mexico as a young man in 1991, Gutierrez fired up the cultural wars recently when – during an appearance on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” – he told guest host Joy Reid that uncontrolled immigration would lead to “taco trucks on every corner.”
Many people laughed. Others pondered one of life’s big questions: beef or chicken? MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough chuckled that a nation flooded with taco trucks “sounds like an America that I want to live in.”
Shows how much the smarty-pants in the elite media know about the modern immigration debate, where the impact of food – along with other aspects of culture such as language, ethnic holidays, the Mexican flag, etc. – is no joke.
What everyday people see, hear and taste drives much of the anxiety that non-Latinos (and, in a disturbing development, even some Latinos) experience as a result of changing demographics.
I saw the revolution up close in the late 1990s. While I was living in Phoenix and working as a metro columnist for the Arizona Republic, the nation’s fifth-largest city became embroiled in a messy food fight.
City officials began fielding complaints from neighborhood groups about mobile food vendors in their midst. The response was an ordinance that included a 10 p.m. curfew and a musical-chairs requirement that vendors not remain in the same place for days at a time.
Supposedly, the residents were concerned about litter, loud music, bright lights, late hours and an unsavory clientele. But it was no coincidence that the neighborhood groups were mostly white and the vendors were usually Mexican immigrants who spoke little or no English. The taco trucks were a proxy for something bigger.
Fearing the new restrictions would put them out of business and leave them with no way to feed their families, the taqueros (as they became known) fought back. Nearly a hundred of them organized, marched and – with the help of an immigrant-rights organization – convinced a prominent Yale-educated Mexican-American civil rights attorney to file an appeal against the ordinance. It worked. Eventually, the city relented.
One of the images I remember most clearly from those days is that of a taco vendor named Jose Moreno, who worked 12-hour days in his sweltering truck to support his wife and three kids. As he marched in front of city hall wearing an apron and a sombrero, he had strong words for city officials.
“They want to take away our right to work,” Moreno told me. “Why don’t they go after the drug dealers who do business in the same neighborhoods where we work? Why are they picking on us?”
Partly because they thought they could. And partly because taco trucks became for some people a frightening symbol of what Phoenix, the Southwest and the rest of America was becoming, and those people wanted to push back.
In 2016, that fears lives on, and it’s helping to fuel the Trump campaign in all its hideousness. There is nothing funny about that.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., formerly of Fresno, and now living near San Diego, writes for the Washington Post Writer’s Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.