Migrating Mexican Food: Interview with Ruth Farias

 

Ruth Farias sat down directly across from Richey, each in an armchair. Soannie was seated on the leather couch between them. The lounge on the second floor of the dorm was silent for the most part. The heater was on but Richey got up to turn it off at the start of the audio recording of the interview. There were only the faint sounds of other people in the hallways, going in and out of their own rooms. The elevator dinged faintly in the background every now and again.

Ruth sat up, her hair pulled into a tight bun, glasses on, with her grey sweatsuit, and bunny slippers. She had just come from her dorm room, which was also on the same floor. She held Richey’s phone in her hand, the device to which the audio was being recorded. Soannie moved to Richey’s side of the room, resting on the arm of the chair. Soannie’s phone was in her hand to record her own questions. With a press on the devices, Soannie and Richey proceeded to ask the questions.

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Ruth Farias by Soannie Maldonado

What’s Mexican food to you?

Home. Ruth responds calmly.

She continues, I grew up eating it so everytime I eat a certain thing it reminds me of when my grandma used to cook it and just the memories that come with it.

How would you say that has affected you growing up? Like, your perception of food?

Oh, uhm, well I have standards. I grew up eating that so I can’t eat certain things cause it doesn’t taste like how I’m used to it. I like flavor. Some people don’t put any- certain things like spice. I like chile and a lot of foods don’t have chili and when I eat it, it’s just bland for me. I need something that makes me cry.  

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Los Angeles, CA Map

Where exactly would you say you grew up?

That’s a tough one because I was born in LA. I stayed there until I was 8 years old. And then I moved to Philadelphia and I’ve been living there since then but I’ve been going back like every summer to L.A. So I’ve still have kept up to my Mexican side of my family.

Is that the only way you would say that you’ve stayed connected to your culture transnationally?

Sure

Have you ever struggled with finding the balance between those identities?

Well yeah. When I go to California, my family always calls me the little Honduran. Because I speak like a Honduran when I’m in California but when I come back to Philly, they always call me the little Mexican because I somehow come back speaking like a Mexican. So I don’t really know which one I am according to people but I identify more so with my Mexican side because those are the ones I’ve been closer to. The only Honduran people that I’ve been around is my mom and sometimes her brothers but not often enough.

Do you think that has affected the way you interact with people?

I think it has to do more so with my vocabulary. When I speak Spanish sometimes my Mexican slang can come out. And that’s when people point out ‘oh, the little Mexican’.

Do you think, especially now in America how there has been a lot of pushback on those who are Hispanic or Latin, that it has made you want to be more appreciative of your culture?

When I was younger, I was a bit embarrassed of being Hispanic because I did live in North Carolina for a little portion of my life and that wasn’t fun. I was bullied for being Hispanic since I was the only Hispanic in the school, it wasn’t fun at all. But after I moved to Philadelphia, I saw that there were more ethnic people and it felt more of an accepting community. So it was more like I was welcomed and I felt more in-tune with being a Hispanic, being ethnic.

And now that you’re in college and away from your family, that may have influenced your food and culture and way of being, do you notice now that you want to experience more of the food and culture?

Definitely. Being here in New York it’s really hard finding authentic food in general. Taco Bell- I hate Taco Bell. Chipotle, I can only eat the burritos from there, it’s too much sometimes. The only other Mexican place that’s authentic, is Coatzingo in Jackson Heights. That’s the closest place I’ve been to, to offer authenticity.

How do you define authenticity?

It’s the time of food that gives me the feeling of being home. That home feeling.

What do you think of the way the US views Mexican people and Mexican food?

I think it’s funny that they can accept our food but not our people.

This statement returns to one of Gustavo Arellano’s points mentioned in Taco USA. He states, “As long as Americans have enjoyed ‘Mexican food’ [and ‘Mexican culture’], many Mexicans have stood back, aghast, that Americans enjoy what they considered gross mischaracterizations of their cuisine.” (Arellano, 161) Among others, Mexican culture and food have been popularized, appropriated, and profited off of as societal institutions still marginalize Mexican people. There is a long history of this happening to most immigrant groups in America. It’s a push to get that authentic ethnic experience without any interaction with actual ethnic people. It then raised the question:

What claims do you feel non-Mexicans have to the culture and food?

What do you mean?

Per your last comment, do you feel that non-Mexican people or groups can still connect to your culture and food without appropriating?

When you mean non-Mexicans do you mean other ethnic people or white people?

Literally, everyone. Anyone who is just not Mexican. But since you bring up the differentiation, why did you?

Because ethnic people tend to be more accepting of ethnic people. And, I mean no offense to white people, but they just want our food and our holidays and they use them. They basically extort them. Our food, they Americanize them and our holidays, Cinco De Mayo, they use it as a drinking excuse. Honestly, in Mexico, we don’t really celebrate that.

This brings up the phrase, ‘Cinco de Drink-o’, as we think of the morphing of Mexican traditions as they enter the pop-culture realm.Such as there being frat parties with themes of “Mexican” culture on Cinco de Mayo which is offensive. Like the one that occurred at Baylor University last year, where some attendees were dressed up as maids or construction workers and some traditional garbs. Or in other not so extreme cases where Forever21 sell shirts with little taco characters on them. This also brings up the questions of appropriation especially within the United States and the Mexican community.

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Forever21
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Forever21: Taco Bell Anorak Jacket

How do you feel about- a guy like Rick Bayless, a white male who as a young kid was really interested in learning Spanish and kept going to Mexico to learn the foods of different regions, do you think it’s fine in that case that they do take the time to learn the language of the people and educate themselves but then come to America to sell the food as ‘gourmet’?

Is that the guy from the Food Network? I think he has his own Mexican food show.  

I actually don’t know.

I saw this one guy would go to Mexico and kind of how you just described.

Was he skinny with dark hair and glasses?

With the salt and pepper hair?

Yeah…

Then it’s the same guy.

I guess he has a show then.

Well, things like that it doesn’t really bother me because they are accepting of our culture, they try to learn more about our culture and they try to understand our culture. So things like that, I don’t mind but when people just claim our culture and don’t know much about it, it’s bothersome.

It’s when people are accepting of those serving the food and are the face of the restaurant but not those who are working in the back.

Exactly.

Would you say that the food Rick Bayless makes is just as ‘authentic’? As in you would actually go to his restaurant or are you apprehensive about believing in his skills.

I’d go to give it a try. I’ve seen his show and he tries to use, a much as possible, the most authentic spices but since a lot of people can’t handle spicy I think he adapts it to his demographic. Not everyone can handle spicy food.

He makes it more presentable?

Yeah.

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Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless said himself, “If you agree with me that authentic cooking respectfully utilizes traditional ingredients and time honored techniques to prepare dishes that express that express the spirit of a particular people, then, yes, this is authentic cooking at its best….I spell out dishes that embrace both sides of the border: dishes that give life to the brilliance of traditional Mexican cooking in the context of the contemporary American kitchen”.

Even in his own words, Bayless recognizes the chameleon nature of authentic’s definition. There are many who are comfortable with his approach to Mexican food as Bayless has ‘gone to the source’ in a manner of speaking. Although he is still making a living off of a food that might not be, culturally, his own but still pays respects in his ingredients. However, a history of migration and incoming influences of other countries food through colonization or not, has even cause variation of ingredients of dishes across Mexico itself. Things get even more complicated as we move along the border of Mexico and the United States, throughout California and beyond.

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Pacific West Coast Map

How do you define the different Mexican foods by regions? Such as So-Cal, Tex-Mex, No-Cal…

Since I’m from LA, I’m used to burritos, tacos, tortas, and sopes and all of that. Now, when I went to Ciudad Juárez. Last summer I ordered a burrito. I was expecting the same thing that I got in California. No Big no-no. It was just a little tortilla with beans in it. I was like ‘what is this, this is not a burrito’. But in Mexico, we don’t have burritos, (Specifically Sinaloa). It’s an American thing but in Sinaloa, where my family is from, we are mainly based on seafood and the seafood that I have there when I go to other places, I try it and I’m like ‘this is crap’. I like it from where I’m from because it has that zang to it. And yeah, I’ve been to Guadalajara as well and their birria is amazing. And in California, yeah it’s good too but it’s not like where it came from. It doesn’t taste the same. So yeah, every region is very different. And the tamales too.

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Bean Burrito

Unbeknownst to Ruth at the time, the version of burrito she experienced is a truer form than what’s sold today. Thanks to places like Chipotle, the mission-style burrito is a popular item on most menus. But burritos really started in the 1920’s “as they drifted along the borderlands” (Arellano, 143). From the 1940’s-1960’s, migrant workers were served the burrito as a quick and cheap lunch by their ‘handlers’. Back then when employing someone, the ‘handler’ was also responsible for giving workers their meals. This creature called the burrito became the cheap and effective solution to feeding their employees. By the 1960’s burritos spread nationally but the stigma around them sustained. As Arellano writes, they were “an object of scorn”, displaying a person’s class and then became food of poverty and embarrassment. Now, they are a popularized food like any other.

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Richéy Reeves & Ruth Farias

Previously you said something about, accepting the culture but not the people, in regards to immigration and all the political spheres we’re in today, can you tell us some of your thoughts on that? And the overall perception of Mexican people through those lenses.

Well, we’re seen as rapists and drug dealers and murders and yet they still eat our food and like I said they accept our food and whatever benefits them. But they don’t accept our people. I think it’s unfair because even if an ethnic person in general, not just Mexican, goes through the process of becoming a citizen, they still get shamed for being where they’re from. My godfather, he’s a US citizen and he’s so for a couple of years now and he works for long beach transit and his own passengers sometimes tell him ‘Go back to Mexico, you wetback’ or ‘Stop taking our jobs’. But he’s a citizen, why do people who may look like where they are from, get crap for it. I don’t agree.

You know, even when you’re in Mexico, the people from Oaxaca also face racism and discrimination within just Mexico.

I think in every country there will always be colorism. I do agree that within my own family there are lighter ones and darker ones and the darker ones get called ugly and that’s not how I see it but a lot of the older ones do. I think it’s in every region and every country, the colorism within each other.

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North Carolina Map

You said when you were younger you felt ashamed for being Mexican. Was the transition to living in North Carolina and trying to be accepted there, easier or harder with your family’s efforts?

It was a lot harder for me because I didn’t have any family there. It was just a family friend that lived there but no actual family. So it was very difficult.

How did you still try to hold on to your roots and culture while there?

Good thing I only lived there three months because I really think I would have been whitewashed.

When you were younger you felt ashamed of your background but because of how you felt, did you not bother to learn about how your family made the food or any other cultural aspects like holidays?

When I was 7 years old when we moved there and it was just me and my mother. My mother is Honduran and she sadly does not know how to cook much authentic Honduran food because of the fact that since she was young she had to work so she wasn’t at home taking care of the kids or cleaning the house and cooking. She was working to get her family by. So I don’t know how it would’ve been for me.

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Soannie Maldonado & Ruth Farias

And now that you’re older, do you feel the need to learn said food or cultural history to better claim your identity?

With my Mexican family that I visit every summer, I try to learn as much as I can but it doesn’t really help because they just go ‘a little bit of this, a little of bit this, and that’s it.’ And I’m like ‘excuse me, how do you do that?’ but I’m trying to get a recipe book before the people with the authentic taste leave us. My mother is trying. She doesn’t know that much but she knows something.

So you would like to pass down the cultural aspects to future generations?

Definitely.

Do you possibly know the reason as to why your family came to America?

No… I never bothered asking. I mean I know how they’ve come and made it by but I didn’t ask the reason why they came. I don’t know we’re so in tune with our culture, our Mexican roots that it still feels the same. Honestly, the only difference when I’m in California but it’s pretty much the same thing. I went to Mexico last summer, I was there for a month and it feels the same… I mean obviously, the community is different but the family is the same.

Typically, people migrant to different countries because of economic, social, political or environmental reasons. In regards to America specifically, one of the main reasons that people have migrated to the States is because to gain more economic opportunities as well as lay the foundation for a better life for their future generations. We see this all the time- people moving to countries where they might not know anyone in the pursuit of economic relief. Not all migrations sought are permanent as stated in an article from The American Economic Review, “While long-run U.S.-Mexico wage differences create obvious pressures for immigration from Mexico, short-run movements in relative wages may also contribute to immigration by encouraging Mexican residents to ride out Mexican economic downturns in the United States” (1337).

In popular cases of economic migration such as crop failure which then leads to famine or shortages of jobs and land, migrants have gone to where they could sustain themselves.

Uriel’s own story is a prime example of taking that leap, which can mean leaving behind your own family and anything you have ever known growing up. Uriel from Los Cocineros- From Guerrero, Mexico to New York , who stated  “Tenia nada. Me tuve que venir a trabajar para ayudar mi familia” (I didn’t have anything. I had to work to help my family).

What do you mean by community?

Like your surroundings. Like the houses, just the overall environment. It really didn’t affect me much because I’m already used to so many aspects because of my family.

To Ruth, her identity equates her culture and despite not being born in Mexico, it’s apparent through this interview the ways in which that identity is sustained. Cultural participation varies from person to person, but universally being surrounded by people of the same culture and eating the same cultural food is enough to establish just that.  For many people, identity travels. As Arellano says, “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 consider it Mexican food” (162).

Ruth’s own transnational identity has been insightful to say the least. As a transnational citizen, Ruth lives within the context of two or more societies that differ in size, scope, populations, laws, morals, and cultural codes. This aids her in having a better understanding of various social fields throughout different timeframes in the Americas. Some might see strong transnational ties as “detrimental, representing an inability or unwillingness to integrate into the new society.” (IOM) This interview is the personal account and generational effect of those historical and cultural events as indulged in class texts and lecture.  All in all, we see that our identities are as fluid as we allow them to be since Ruth could be American, Honduran,  and Mexican. To identify with a cultural group does not mean you need to be physically there but how you decide to assert and express your identity. Despite the appropriation and stereotypes that persist about Mexican people and culture in this country, there is a strong sense of self and community.   

 

Work Cited

Arellano, Gustavo. Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Scribner, 2013.

DESMADRE, director. Los Cocineros – From Guerrero, Mexico to New York City.Youtube.com, Youtube, 9 Dec. 2014.

Hanson, Gordon H; Spilimbergo, Antonio. Illegal immigration, Border Enforcement, and Relative Wages: Evidence from Apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border. The American Economic Review, Vol. 89, Issue 5, Dec 1999.

IOM. Migration and Transnationalism: Opportunities and ChallengesIOM: International Organization for Migration, International Dialogue On Migration, 2010.

Interview with Ruth F.” YouTube, uploaded by Tacaboutit17, 17 April 2018.

Robertson, Roland, and Kathleen E White. Globalization: Critical Concepts in Sociology. Routledge, 2004.