The allusion to Mexican food in American politics is always cooking and this election cycle is no exception: Last Cinco de Mayo, the real Donald Trump tried to make up with Latinos by tweeting a photo of himself eating a taco bowl and writing: "I love Hispanics!" A few months later, "Latinos for Trump" cofounder Marco Gutierrez warned that Latino culture was so "imposing" that if "you don't do something about it, you're gonna have taco trucks [on] every corner." Last week, actor Alec Baldwin's Trump referred to the president of Mexico and his family as: "Señor Guacamole...his beautiful wife Taquito, and their twin children Salsa and Chips."
In part due to Latinos' increasing diversity, when political tensions flare north of the Rio Grande, they are often personified by something every American understands: a Mexican dish. Unlike Latino bodies, which could be of any color and of many national backgrounds, one can't mix up a chalupa with chop suey, or guacamole with any other mash. Fittingly, when according to the 2000 census Latinos became the largest ethnic minority in the U.S., this shift was registered in the national imagination by citing a statistic not related to demographics but to condiments: for the first time in history, more money was spent buying Mexican salsa than ketchup.
The bottomline is that the language used to make love-hate to Latinos largely comes through the kitchen. Whereas Mexicans and Puerto Ricans were once called greasers and spics respectively, today they are collectively referred to as beaners or frijoleros. (Though if jailed as an "enemy combatant," as the suspected Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla, then the Latino is no longer a beaner, but something much worse: a tortilla terrorist). Consistent with the logic that views Latinos as a threat but Latinas as a delicious spoil of conquest, the latter are seen as steaming, "hot tamales" ready-to-devour.
Yet, that Americans talk about tacos instead of Caribbean plátanos or Salvadoran pupusas, is not only about simplifying matters. The Latino community is extremely diverse, but those of Mexican origin are clearly the majority: 65% of 56 million people. And the Mexican prominence goes beyond numbers. It is also about their greater weight on American memory and deeper roots in the physical landscape. The fact that tortillas were eaten in North America long before the arrival of the British with their sour bread, and that the nation's southwest was Mexican territory until a bit over a century and a half ago, means that Mexicans are just as (if not more) part of this land than the Pilgrims. It likewise implies that since much of the United States was once Mexican territory, some day, it could be Mexican again.
Moreover, the culinary metaphor entails a rhetorical continuity: since the nineteenth century, the integration of immigrants to the United States has been fundamentally considered a problem of (in) digestion and absorption of foreign and inferior bodies. Accordingly, its discursive solution has been a culinary trope: the melting pot, or the fusion of distinct groups into a new and harmonious national stew where all cultural differences (if not racial ones) would dissolve. The ease with which the national is linked to food is such that even when Black and Latino social movements could no longer swallow the melting pot theory during the 1970s, the metaphor was revised, but not its fundamental referent. The nation went from being a boneless broth to a salad bowl where all ethnic and racial groups could co-exist side by side but not blend.
This is why politics cannot escape the food metaphor and is constantly marinating in it. A classic example comes from East Haven, Connecticut, a town of 29,000 inhabitants, 10% of whom are Latino. In 2012, the FBI arrested four officers for systematically intimidating, harassing, and using excessive force against Latino residents over the course of three years. Then, the inevitable happened: When the press asked the mayor, the honorable Joseph Maturo Jr., how he planned to help the community given the police's abusive behavior, he reportedly said: "I might have tacos when I go home."
Even though a large number of Latinos living in East Haven are not Mexican but Ecuadorian, they understand that for national purposes, all Latinos are considered tacos. So, they responded in kind and without delay. The next day, an activist group created a cell phone number allowing anyone to send a taco to the mayor. The result: two days after his comment, dozens of delivery drivers dropped off more than 500 tacos at the doorstep of the mayor's office. The message: eat it!
To eat or to be eaten, that is the question plaguing many Anglos as they contemplate the inevitable: in less than forty years they will no longer be the national majority. The idea, however, is hard to stomach, and with good reason: for several centuries, the Anglo aspiration had been to fly the star spangled banner from north to south in a Pax Americana, where Central America supplied bananas, Cuba and Puerto Rico sugarcane, and Mexico arms to pick tomatoes. But the goose is crooked: Today not a few whites feel that it is the Mexican flag that waves high and low on their territory, including on taco trucks, those roving food establishments whose arrival clearly announces that any given neighborhood's palate has crossed over to the other side.
In other words, the fear unleashed by greater visibility and political influence is that Latinos will demand what most whites have always taken for granted: the whole enchilada, la cosa completa, that is to say, everything. This is the root of anti-Latino measures that have been cooked in Alabama, Georgia, and Arizona in recent years, from empowering the police to pull over anyone who "looks" Mexican, to banning Chicano studies in colleges and universities. The anti-immigrant political scientist, Samuel Huntington once called the hallucination of Latino domination reconquista, the re-conquest. That is, a slow but steady push in which the United States would dissolve into a catholic, corrupt, and chaotic sauce, prepared to New England's distaste. This tacophobia, however, is groundless.
The Latino community is one that eats and let's others eat as they please, literally. For instance, when Latinos settle in towns and cities in the south, where the Hispanic population has grown the most in the last decade, small business owners buy restaurants on the verge of bankruptcy that were once called "Joe's," "Carmine's," or "Mamma Jennies." Contrary to expectations, many Latino owners often keep not only the original name, but also part of the old establishment's menu. Next to the guacamole and quesadillas, they offer hamburgers, French fries, and why not, even ketchup. And it must be said that Latino cooks are truly ecumenical. Meaning, they can cook anything. Just look at the back of any restaurant and you'll find that a good number of those boiling pasta, frying falafels, or seasoning tikka masala, are Latinos.
In addition, they are open to being eaten. Latinos have among the highest rates of intermarriage with other ethnic and racial groups despite the country's entrenched and enduring segregation. In this way, Latinidad both adds and accepts substitutes. You can wrap a tamal in foil, or serve Chinese rice with fried plantains. You can speak English, Spanglish, and/or, Quechua. You can listen to bachata and rap. You can go by Bill Richardson, Jennifer Lopez, or Pitbull.
In the end, the notion of a crushing corn mass, which expands and blankets everything, exists only in the mind of nativists. Most Latinos neither want the whole enchilada, nor that everyone only eat enchiladas -- even if for now they are seen by some as a fatal reiteration of Moctezuma's revenge.
Translated by Eduardo Martinez-Leyva