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Fashion in American Popular Culture

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One of the paradoxes of the US is that although we constitute a melting pot where persons of all origins come together as one nation, we are also proud and sometimes fiercely protective of our differences. Those differences, as long as they last, make each group within the larger national identity unique and recognizable. No features of identity are more closely associated with sense of self than language and food. We identify ourselves through language and celebrate our community through food. Specific dishes mark special occasions -- those of Norwegian extraction can’t imagine New Year’s without lutefisk, and Mexican-Americans still consider making and eating tamales an important part of Christmas.

Yet when we define what foods are American, few think of lutefisk or even tamales. Although many so-called ethnic dishes are part of the great national fabric of foods, we don’t necessarily qualify them as American unless they’ve been around for a long time and are enjoyed by a majority. Every generation sees new foods come into style such as the inclusion of formerly ethnic dishes into the palette of American foods. Mexican food is a case in point.

Many Mexican dishes moved into Middle American cuisine during the twentieth century, and delicacies such as tacos, fajitas, or burritos are now widely considered simply American rather than Mexican-American. This is quite a phenomenon - I recall when a taco could not be had in Virginia, and few people in Salt Lake City had heard of an enchilada, much less eaten one. Today Mexican restaurants flourish in virtually every city, town, and hamlet of the US. Yet the phenomenon goes beyond the acceptance of Mexican food by Middle America.

While so-called Mexican cuisine conquers the prairies and the mountains, areas associated with Mexican food have long been the locus of primary culinary transmogrification. In other words, what is popularly believed to be food from south of the border might not be authentically Mexican, after all. The following story, a part of Texas folklore, is a good illustration.

Sometime around the Civil War a group of San Antonio women began cooking hot meals on Military Plaza for cowboys on the cattle drive between Matamoros and Montana. Legend has it that one woman, noting the Anglo cowboy’s love of meat, threw some beef into a pot of tomatoes and peppers. Her food became so popular other vendors quickly adopted her recipe. Soon the cooks in the plaza became known as the “Chili Ladies,” all dishing up a new concoction they named chili con carne. A great Mexican dish was born. Or was it actually an American specialty? The Chili Ladies were of Mexican heritage and San Antonio in those days more Mexican than Anglo. Yet it was still a town in Texas. The truth lies somewhere in between. According to Olves in El Diccionario de Mejicanismos (1959), chili con carne is gringo fare, a “detestable food passing itself off as Mexican."

Ay frijoles, what a condemnation! Yet Aztecs ate hot peppers in tomato sauce, so something very similar was enjoyed already in ancient Mexico. But on that fateful day in San Antonio, the dish underwent the first stage of a cultural mutation that would take it from Mexican, to Mexican-American, to American. chili con carne is a good example of what is referred to as “border cuisine,” a result of the blending of different ethnic preferences, customs, and availability of ingredients.

Another example of border fare is a certain crispy, filled, and fried tortilla. Although tortillas wrapped around a filling, often beans and hot peppers, were eaten by the Mayas, it wasn’t until someone dropped a burrito into hot oil in a Tucson, Arizona restaurant during the 1970s that the chimichanga was born. chimichanga, for those curious about etymology, has variously been translated as a word in Mexico meaning “whatchamacallit,” or as a name referring to the private parts of a burro.

No matter where the word chimichanga originated, it would appear that a double process occurs as ethnic fare becomes American food. As regional and/or ethnic cuisines move deeper into the heartland, they undergo what could be termed “gringo-ization,” a process whereby they become less ethnic and/or regional and more acceptable to palates accustomed to meatloaf or French fries. In the case of Mexican food, the chili pepper surrenders its seeds and sting, while sour cream and black olives pop up in tacos.

The second step of gringo-ization involves the disappearance, sometimes in just a few decades, of traditional dishes and food ways associated with a particular area or people. Both steps are a predictable result of the close proximity of different peoples where each absorbs the other’s characteristics, becoming progressively more alike. From this point of view, the unique border town of Laredo is a particularly pertinent focus of inquiry.

Originally San Agustin de Laredo, the town was founded in 1755, both the oldest independent settlement in Texas and the only Spanish colonial bastion on the north bank of the lower Rio Grande. Laredo became Mexican in 1821 when that country won its independence from Spain, then was named the capital of the Republic of the Rio Grande in 1840. Although the Republic of Texas split from Mexico in 1836, Laredo remained loyal to Mexico until it joined the United States in 1848.

Today the city is still approximately 95% Hispanic, a large portion of the inhabitants having roots that go back to the earliest days of the settlement. Citizens take pride in their bi-cultural, bi-lingual profile, and most Laredoans feel as much affection and affinity for Mexico as they do loyalty to the United States. With the sister city Nuevo Laredo directly across the Rio Grande, “on the other side” as is said locally, Laredo is an entity straddling two cultures.

As can be expected, a great part of the city’s connection to Mexico has been expressed in the linguistic and culinary habits of the area. In the past, Laredoans ate foods associated with northern Mexico: tacos, carne asada, frijoles al charro, tortillas de maiz, cabrito. There was for generations a rejection of gringo fare, thought to be unhealthy as well as oddly sweet tasting. However, as the second fastest growing city in the US, Laredo is in a state of flux, many customs undergoing transformation or disappearing altogether. Laredo is rapidly moving from traditional northern Mexican fare to border cuisine with its many and various influences, and the day when french fries supplant frijoles might be only one generation away.

In order to explore this phenomenon, I asked some of my students at Texas A & M International University to participate in a survey addressing how three generations in their family – grandparents, parents, and the students themselves – eat, and what language they speak.

Students from outside the area, when asked to name American dishes, cited meatloaf, corn on the cob, pizza, spaghetti, hot dogs, steak, hamburgers, and French fries. Local students, on whom this paper concentrates, included brand-name fast foods such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Burger King as American food. They insisted that not only fast food but even meatloaf or spaghetti is “gringo” fare, food associated with Anglo Middle America.

As far as language is concerned, we find the post-colonial pidginization that involves decreased fluency in the native language coupled with a growing urgency to master the new. Students’ grandparents often speak only Spanish, feeling no need for English. The parents speak a border mixture of English and Spanish, a local variation of Tex-Mex that doesn’t always translate outside the immediate area. The students themselves have mastered English, but struggle with Spanish both at home and in school. Interestingly, since this last generation was taught by persons of their parents’ generation, they’ve acquired English spoken with a Spanish accent, frequently using Spanish syntax and freely-translated idiomatic expressions. When asked if they will speak English or Spanish to their children, most opt for English, claiming they will discourage the use of Tex-Mex. They cite the necessity for fluent English in the professional arena, and the desire to “be like everyone else.”

The shift in food habits is equally remarkable. 87% of respondents claim a radical difference separates how their grandparents, their parents, and they themselves eat. The grandparents enjoy mole with rice, menudo, empanadas, tamales, and pan de leche. The grandmother cooks for her husband; the food she serves is largely traditional northern Mexican. Grandparents rarely get take-out. When they eat at a restaurant (usually as guests of younger generations), it is to celebrate occasions such as a graduation or a promotion. Places of choice are Mexican eateries.

The parent generation eats Laredo specialties approximately 60% of the time, and authentic northern Mexican dishes occasionally. The mother cooks for the father on week days “if she isn’t lazy,” as one respondent put it. They get takeout, usually hamburgers or fried chicken, approximately three times a week. The father barbeques on weekends while the wives gossip and watch the kids. Sometimes he makes carne asada, but just as often he’ll cook steaks, hamburgers, or even hot dogs.

73.9% of respondents claim that they, their parents, and their grandparents do not enjoy the same foods, or even eat the same way. “My grandparents eat some things with their hands,” says one. “When I eat frijoles, it’s with a fork, not with a tortilla.”

80% of respondents claim to like gringo food much better than their parents or grandparents do, and most eat some variation of American food every day. Asked if the frequent regimen of gringo fare is due to the mostly Middle American menu at the university cafeteria, students respond they eat this way by choice, even on vacation and away from campus.

86.7% of students remember foods eaten as children, dishes that haven’t been served to them for years, usually because their parents aren’t interested in them and older relatives have passed away. Examples include mole (again), beef tongue, corn soup, frijoles and rice, and pozole.

Several students report their parents are upset over the disappearance of traditional specialties; 33% of the students themselves either don’t miss them or never liked them in the first place. “It (mole) makes my stomach hurt,” says one young man. “Actually, I only ate that stuff to make my abuelita (grandmother) happy,” responds another. “I like KFC much better.”

73.9% of the respondents say the culinary portrait of their families has changed greatly over their lifetime – with each passing year more gringo food is introduced into the daily menu while traditional dishes are discarded or forgotten. Several students remember older female relatives making salsa using a stone mortar and pestle; their mothers now buy salsa in a jar at HEB. Many respondents no longer eat much salsa anyway. “Too spicy,” says Gloria. What do they plan to feed their own children? “Italian and Chinese,” says Rocio. “Foods from all over the world,” responds Adrian, “stuff like pecan pie, hamburgers, and french fries.”

When the current crop of Laredo students eat what they refer to as “Mexican” food, it tends to be from Taco Tote or Taco Palenque, local restaurants specializing in dishes such as the fajita, a Mexican sandwich comprised of grilled beef or chicken, roasted onions and green peppers, all folded into a flour or corn tortilla. However, the fajita as we now know it was introduced at Ninfa’s Houston restaurant on July 13, 1973. Therefore, even as Laredoans believe they’re enjoying traditional Mexican specialties, they’re in fact eating border dishes that have already undergone gringo-ization. This is something students instinctively know without actually analyzing the phenomenon – when asked if the “Mexican” food at Taco Palenque tastes like dishes their grandmothers cook, they say it’s very different. “Less tasty; not as much spice,” reports Gloria, the same girl who finds salsa too hot. Here it can be added that Taco Palenque, Danny’s, and Taco Tote, the three most popular Mexican eateries in Laredo, are in fact fast food places on the model of McDonald’s and Taco Bell. They are restaurants comprised of multiple franchises, characterized by uniform quality, serving standardized fare, with a predictable clientele.

Why are culinary and linguistic habits changing in Laredo? There seem to be three specific factors associated with the gringo-ization of the area: changing mores, the historical melting pot of America, and the influence of the media on food choices. Television floods the community with fast food commercials showing happy Anglo customers digging into burgers, baskets of crispy fried chicken, and servings of crunchy, golden French fries. Local students claim to be strongly influenced by these ads: 38% say they’ve tried a fast food restaurant as a direct response to a TV commercial. Others join friends or parents at gringo restaurants. Not one student has been treated to McDonald’s or Luby’s by a grandparent. Why do they go back for more? Gringo food is “sweet” they say (note that this is one of the factors the grandparents dislike about gringo food). It’s also “plentiful,” apparently a strong selling point for these youngsters whose ancestors cultivated the avocado as a rare source of fat. The idea that gringo food is unhealthy has been lost somewhere between the generation of my students and that of their grandparents. Another interesting point is that although 34.8% of the current generation still claim to prefer Hispanic food, 43.5% also say their favorite place to eat out is at a mid-scale steak house such as Tony Roma’s or Outback (chain restaurants yet again).

The second factor in the encroaching of gringolandia on Laredo culinary habits has to do with changing mores. As those fluent in Spanish grow scarcer with every generation, they also subscribe more strongly to other factors associated with mainstream America. This is not a conscious decision, merely a manifestation of the same phenomenon that has made millions of immigrants from many horizons into die-hard citizens of the USA. What is remarkable here, however, is that Laredoans resisted being American in the conventional sense for nearly 300 years, a characteristic now changing over the span of just a few decades.

Finally, there is the factor of mores. Mores in Laredo most specifically means the desire to be similar, a member of the group, someone who can attend a university function out of state without sticking out. In contrast to the melting pot factor, this reason is a conscious and deliberate movement towards assimilation into a community of like individuals. The phenomenon probably explains why many respondents choose gringo food exclusively when away from Laredo. “I already look Mexican,” says Roberto, a student whose school project took him to Oregon. “I didn’t want to eat Mexican up there too.” Others, as reported earlier, simply don’t like frijoles anymore, delighting in the opportunity for endless super-sized servings of French fries. Fully 64.3% claim not to miss border cuisine at all when away from home

So, what do these food, language, tradition, and mindset style changes mean? Every ethnic group in America has brought its culinary and linguistic traditions to these shores, and in most cases both are lost over the span of a few generations. If language is to endure, it must be consciously cultivated or else resurrected. Dishes that become American either appeal to many different palates from the outset, or mutate, like chimichangas or chili con carne, into a form less ethnically specific than the dishes that inspired them. What is different, and – to an extent – regrettable, about the situation in Laredo is again that the specificity of the area, culinary and linguistic, was observed and preserved for so long.

Looking out over my classes full of hopeful, ambitious students, I note something else: the choice of hamburgers and French fries over menudo, caldo de res, and frijoles is also changing the physical profile of the community. At one time slender, strong, and supple as stalks of maize in the hot prairie wind, Laredoans – a graceful mélange of Indian, Spanish, and Anglo bloodlines - increasingly display many of the ills associated with the foodstuffs of Gringolandia. 48% of my respondents say they are overweight, yet only 13% report an obese grandparent.

My final survey question involved sentiments students have about the transformations they have witnessed over their young lifetimes. Do they regret those changes? Are they nostalgic about the past? Do they look to the future with trepidation or with eagerness? One hundred percent are happy with the changes they have experienced. They look to a future when their own children and grandchildren will be fully integrated into Middle America, as gringo as chili con carne and chimichangas, and – possibly - as unhealthy as other lovers of french fries.

The media have of recent months paid a great deal of attention to the increase in our Hispanic population, predicting it will constitute the majority within the next twenty years. My Laredo students are obviously not representational of the American Hispanic population; as mentioned, people from this area have historically enjoyed a very distinctive identity. Yet, as Laredoans “go gringo,” other Hispanic communities across the nation are doing so at even greater speeds. Another factor to consider is that my students and others like them – the bright, the educated, the talented, the ambitious – will constitute the leaders of tomorrow’s Hispanic majority, thus of the nation as a whole. Where leaders go, the population follows. While the leaders of the future will probably be Hispanic, from Laredo and from elsewhere, they are certain to be as American as the language they choose to speak, and as gringo-ized as the foods they increasingly claim as their own.

February 2007

From guest contributor Annette Olsen-Fazi, Associate Professor at Texas A & M International University

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