Uh oh: TikTok influencers have “discovered” Mexican food.
TikTok user @gracie_norton shared with her audience in July a cool, refreshing recipe for “summer spa water” ― a drink that she said is “packed with antioxidants” and perfect for your #wellnessjourney.
But as many Latinos on TikTok noticed, Norton’s “spa water” looked a whole lot like agua fresca (Spanish for “fresh water”) ― a drink sold by street vendors throughout Mexico and Latin America (and very likely available at your local taqueria).
“They are now gentrifying agua fresca,” TikTok user @themadzness said.
“[When] our vendors are out selling agua fresca in the streets it’s ‘unsanitary’ and ‘ghetto’ but when a white girl does it it’s ‘nutritious,’” another TikTok user said.
In response to the criticism, Norton apologized, pulled the video, and recognized that “the origin [of the water] belongs to the Latin community.”
The “spa water” brouhaha was the most recent unwarranted rebrand of Mexican and Latin cuisine on TikTok and Instagram.
Latinos on the social media app also noticed that white TikTokers were pumped about “cowboy caviar,” a mix of chopped veggies that seemed to be a co-opt of pico de gallo to some, and reminiscent of a vegetarian ceviche to others.
As Latinx cooks will tell you, there’s nothing wrong with these cultural food exchanges. The criticism comes when social media influencers do not get the names right or simply fail to give credit where credit’s due.
“I love that young white influencers are discovering Mexican and Latin American cuisine because of TikTok, but it definitely can be frustrating when the authenticity of the food gets lost in translation,” Alfredo Garcia, a Mexican-American chef that goes by Freddsters on his popular TikTok and Instagram pages, told HuffPost.
“To a certain extent I don’t mind other creators attempting our cuisine, the issue is when people start changing the name or giving these foods a different name in order to ‘reach’ a larger audience,” he said.
TikToker Daniela Rabalais thought this summer’s culinary appropriation trend was ripe for parody. The Mexican-American content creator made a TikTok video of her own where she discovered “hotdogs” ― or as she put it “sausage tacos.”
She captioned the viral TikTok video, “If BIPOC appropriated foods like [white] people do to our cultural foods.” It has racked up more than 3.1 million views since it was posted on July 22.
Sausage tacos are “my newest obsession,” she said in the video.
“You’re going to take these really cute fluffy tortillas,” she said of the buns, before brandishing a jar of Hellmann’s mayo. “And [then] I’m gonna take this American kind of crema thing and coat it.”
Rabalais then jokingly shared where she purchased the ingredients for her sausage taco.
“I got [these ingredients] at Trader José’s so it’s SUPER accessible to everyone,” she said. (Trader Joe’s has also come under fire in recent years for product labels that some see as racist.)
Vanessa Fonseca-Chávez, the associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at Arizona State University, told HuffPost that Rabalais’ video felt like a “common defense tactic” used by Mexican/Latin American communities to turn to “humor as a mode of resistance.”
Fonseca-Chávez added: “Clearly, Latinx communities can see what is happening and we can call it out directly or we can take these instances and make fun of them as if to hold a mirror to the communities who think they are ‘discovering’ something new and show them how ridiculous it is.”
Of course, Latinx food isn’t the only cuisine that’s been culturally appropriated by white women in recent years.
Just last year, a white food blogger was widely criticized for mislabeling an original noodle dish she made as the Vietnamese noodle dish pho.
In 2019, New York City-based nutritionist Arielle Haspel was trashed for opening a Chinese-American restaurant, Lucky Lee’s that offered “clean” Chinese food.
“We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it. You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day?” an Instagram post for the restaurant said. “Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty.”
The restaurant shut down eight months after the controversy.
Cuisine from Latin countries has a long history of getting ‘food gentrified’
Lots of ethnic food gets lifted but food originally from Latin American countries arguably gets the most egregious pickup.
The gringa-fication of Latin American food on social media may be new, but this kind of food appropriation has been going on for centuries, according to Kim Caviness, the founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of FamiliaKitchen.com.
“Gustavo Arellano, in his great book ‘Taco USA,’ chronicles how in 1962, Glen Bell riffed on the tacos of the Mexican restaurant down the street, Mitla Café, and turned his own restaurant, Taco Bell, into the defining taco experience for millions of Americans,” Caviness told HuffPost.
He became a millionaire, added Caviness, who’s originally from Puerto Rico and now lives in Chicago, Illinois. “The Mitla Café owners did not,” she said.
More recently in 2017, there was the Pacific Northwest saga of Kooks Burritos in Portland, Oregon. Two white women opened up a pop-up restaurant based around their handmade flour tortillas, which they learned how to make after an impromptu getaway to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico.
Bowled over by how delicious the tortillas were in the town, the travelers told the Portland paper Willamette Week that they tried to “pick the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever” to get the recipe.
The Mexican women shared a bit but didn’t give away all their secrets, so the Portland women “peeked into the windows of every kitchen” and eventually figured out how to reverse engineer the recipe.
The restaurant shuttered soon after the controversy.
The other side of “discovering” foods is when non-Latinos set out to “elevate” dishes, like British chef Gordon Ramsay did last year. Ramsay decided to improve pegao, the “crackly layer of rice at the bottom of Puerto Rican’s national dish, arroz con pollo,” Caviness said.
“What Ramsay actually did was make goopy fried rice and piss off Boricuas by declaring that our national dish needed fixing,” she said.
When non-Latino people “discover” or “elevate” traditional dishes in such a blatant manner, “it feels like they’re stepping on our heritage and national identity,” Caviness said.
In some respect, food gentrification feels like “colonialism all over again,” said Kathryn Sampeck, an anthropology professor studying pre-Columbian practices and colonialism at Illinois State University.
“It’s this idea that the originators are incapable of recognizing how much value something has and that the ‘discovery’ needs a discoverer ― usually
white ― to manage it usually by selling it,” Sampeck told HuffPost.
Claiming a discovery often involves a name change, whether it’s “spa water” today or “chocolate” thousands of years ago. The word originates from Nahuat, an indigenous language of Central America and Mexico, said Sampeck.
“I’ve traced the history of the many forms of chocolate, which started out as a special drink and a regional specialty of what is today eastern Guatemala and western El Salvador,” she said. “Then Europeans would have fiery debates about who made the best chocolate: France, Spain, or England?”
Culinary appropriation is a ‘missed opportunity’ for cultural appreciation
The issue here is not that chocolate or agua fresca can’t be changed or can only be made authentically by Latinx people.
It’s great (not to mention delicious) when cultural food exchange happens ― everyone should be able to enjoy, make and appreciate cultural dishes. But healthy cross-cultural relations and exchanges need to happen in conditions of equality, Zilkia Janer, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University, told HuffPost.
“It would have been nice to have aguas frescas introduced to a larger audience in a way that credited the Mexican-American and other Latinx communities as equal partners,” Janer, the author of the forthcoming “The Coloniality Of Modern Taste: A Critique Of Gastronomic Thought,” said. “The issue is that they were presented in a way that erased the agency and creativity of Latinx people.”
More problems arise when the food culture of marginalized communities gets “exploited as raw material for the intellectual and monetary profit of people who are better positioned to get book and television contracts and to market their products,” Janer said.
And with the “spa water” TikTok controversy, the content creator could have done a little research and made a video that spread the word on how delicious agua fresca is while still sharing its origin story.
“Instead, the video erased the connection to Latinx communities,” Janer said, “It just feels like a missed opportunity.”