Class Guest: Beatris Zapata of Taqueria Coatzingo, NYC

Today, we had the honor of welcoming Ms. Beatris Zapata to Taco Literacy to speak about her family’s restaurant, Taqueria Coatzingo. Beatris also came bearing gifts, tamales de mole.

Let it be known, there were a couple of students who had never tried a Mexican tamal before. Upon questioning, I think we have some new fans.

Beatris covered a lot of ground, from giving us some of the history of her family’s restaurant, to the history of the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, and also some insight into the restaurant industry. Beatris’s family hails from Coatzingo, Puebla, a small city in the center of the state. Students asked a lot of questions about authenticity, the different clientele at the restaurant, and how Mexican food is a part of her identity.

Richey initially broached the question of “authentic” food, and how Beatris described this. Beatris spoke about how she recognized authentic food grounded in family relationships, or what she described as the cooking of her grandmother, as well as folks who share a kind of history, identity, and relationship to Mexico. I followed this up, asking her thoughts about folks who are not of Mexican descent cooking Mexican food, using the example of Rick Bayless, whom we’ve been working through the entire term.

I think how Beatris answered this was telling. She said it’s fine for folks to cook Mexican food who don’t identity as Mexican, as long as they “do it with respect.” Beatris, then, pointed out how the idea of selling “gourmet Mexican food” was strange to her, though such food is fine, as long as the folks doing so stay respectful to the culture and traditions of Mexican people. This seemed to reinforce some of the points we made about those restaurants that appropriate Mexican food, divorcing the food from the people, history, and culinary traditions. The kind of respect Beatris spoke about is exactly what we aim to do in Taco Literacy, honoring the people, history, and food of culture.

I was impressed with how Beatris spoke with authority of her lived experience in the restaurant industry, how she grew up in the taqueria, but also how she came of age there, established friendships, remained grounded in her culture, and how she built community through food that extended transnationally. I also found it insightful when sh spoke about how folks in her family found their ways to NYC, worked at Coatzingo, then eventually went on to open their own restaurants. This narrative, of family reunification, then building a chain of restaurants is a common one, and one way we can find multiple spots that use the name Coatzingo as a tag of identification, but also of remembering a place that roots the folks here, in Queens, to folks there, in Puebla.

We finished class giving a quick review of some of the first chapter of Planet Taco and speaking about the Spanish colonial racialized caste system, mentioned on page 31. We explored the painting “De indio y basina, zambayga”.

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The tamales in the image are what Pilcher focused on, as race, colonial racism, and food became interwound. As the chapter pointed out, the caste system also translated into foodways, with “wheat bread” being associated with European racial “purity” and corn associated with “backward” indigeneity. This corn/wheat divide plays out in tortillas, which we’ll speak more to later in the semester when we read Tortillas by Paula Morton.

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