Taco Literacy in Taco USA, Quote Tamales, and Fajitas

We started Taco Literacy today stopping to let everyone give their dos centavos about the book so far, what it’s getting us to consider about Mexican food, and where future research projects might head.

For me, it was refreshing to hear how critical and creative the Taco Crew was moving through ideas about corporate restaurant domination, the restaurant forms of capitalism, appropriation, genetically modified foods and organic products, lingering questions about authenticity, the history of canning and selling Mexican food for a larger US audience in the mid-twentieth century. Wow, that’s only in the third week of class! The students are bringing some serious, important ideas, and I wanted to hear them, and also give them the opportunity to hear the classmates. Ultimately, it’s to celebrate how much they are bringing to the content.

Orale pues, Taco Crew. 🙂

That left us still some time to get back to our discussion of Chili, and also to practice the PIE paragraph, ahem, I mean, Quote Tamale, from Taco USA, which we started last week in class.

We started with a quote, which is one that really hits on some of the major themes of the book, at least as how Arellano paints the history of Mexican food in the USA.

Here’s the steps I covered with students for thinking about how to make these tamales:

A Taco USA “quote tamal”: writing body paragraphs that cite and analyze evidence from a text. 

To review, the process: 

  1. First, we found a quote that we knew was significant, and that we could interpret to relate to themes in the book. 
  2. Then, we did some free-writing responding to the quote. TRICK: use some of the terms from the quote to explain the quote, so find KEY PASSAGES or KEY WORDS. 
  3. Start putting together the paragraph, start with the E section. Use material you generated, but also return to key words in the text, define them if necessary.
  4. As you have the I and E done, work back to the P, moving to introduce the quote, the point of it, and setting it in context. You could probably again draw from material you did in your free writing

The quote:

 Chili con carne, now plain ol’ chili, was a harbinger of things to come for Mexican food. It was a Mexican dish, made by Mexicans for Mexicans, but it was whites who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer to the point that the only things Mexican about it was the mongrelized Spanish in its name. The Mexicans, meanwhile, shrugged their shoulders and continued cooking and eating their own foods, all the while ostracized by Anglos who nevertheless tore through whatever Mexicans put in front of them (Arellano 37)

I highlighted in bold some of the key terms, based on things we had already discussed in the opening of class.

Students generated about two pages of E responses, to which I cut and sewed this together with four different voices, responding to the quote:

This excerpt speaks to how Mexican food began becoming culturally appropriated without the Mexican community seeing that it was undergoing it. It definitely is interesting to see the narrative of carne con chile and how it’s changed over time to chili because of American interests. However, the white people who adapted chili changed it so much to their own liking that their version of chili is so different from what it was originally. This reinforces the long held pattern of people with privilege, aka white people, taking from the cultures that aren’t theirs and not giving those cultures credit. Again, white people get rich off of taking the Mexican culture and changing it, while the Mexicans remain oppressed. I feel that the reason behind Mexican people often choosing to remain silent is an attempt to avoid making their oppression worse.

Then, I turned back to the P section, and we, as a class, wrote a P to introduce the quote:

In Taco USA, Gustavo Arellano argues that America has taken Mexican foods and adapted them to an American cultural palate for mass consumption. The profits from these ventures are generated from the appropriation of Mexican cuisine, culture, and, even, language. The case of chili in the United States is the first example Arellano uses to demonstrate this cycle in his history. Arrellano writes: 

That’s all out of order, but then, taco magic, we put the product together on our Google doc.


In Taco USA, Gustavo Arellano argues that America has taken Mexican foods and adapted them to an American cultural palate for mass consumption. The profits from these ventures are generated from the appropriation of Mexican cuisine, culture, and, even, language. The case of chili in the United States is the first example Arellano uses to demonstrate this cycle in his history. Arellano writes:  

Chili con carne, now plain ol’ chili, was a harbinger of things to come for Mexican food. It was a Mexican dish, made by Mexicans for Mexicans, but it was whites who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer to the point that the only things Mexican about it was the mongrelized Spanish in its name. The Mexicans, meanwhile, shrugged their shoulders and continued cooking and eating their own foods, all the while ostracized by Anglos who nevertheless tore through whatever Mexicans put in front of them (Arellano 37)

This excerpt speaks to how Mexican food began becoming culturally appropriated without the Mexican community seeing that it was undergoing it. It definitely is interesting to see the narrative of carne con chile and how it’s changed over time to chili because of American interests. However, the white people who adapted chili changed it so much to their own liking that their version of chili is so different from what it was originally. This reinforces the long held pattern of people with privilege, aka white people, taking from the cultures that aren’t theirs and not giving those cultures credit. Again, white people get rich off of taking the Mexican culture and changing it, while the Mexicans remain oppressed. I feel that the reason behind Mexican people often choosing to remain silent is an attempt to avoid making their oppression worse.


Now that is a serious Quote Tamal. The Taco Crew, like I said, they are doing the work!

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We finished up class speaking about fajitas, and how that word changed to an English meaning, taken from Spanish. That is, the word translates into “little belt,” “fajita” being the diminutive of “faja.” In Spanish, this refers to the cut of beef called skirt, a thin piece that somewhat resembles something like a belt. That cut of meat was one not always prized by ranchers, and fo for this reason it was of the “scraps” that fell to Mexican workers, who pounded this cut of beef, marinated it, then grilled it–loosely to what we would recognize as “carne asada.”

We read about the famous fajitas of Texas, born in 1969 at a steak spot called Round-Up (Arellano 132), started the sizzling platter that became the event known as “fajitas.” A few years later, fajitas made their way to Ninfa’s, in Houston. Ninfa’s is the spot that popularized fajitas and made them a spectacle, an experience, or the sizzling platter that in English means “fajitas.”

Wait, so fajitas no longer means skirt steak? No, actually it means something different in English. According to Arellano:

The craze for fajitas became such that restauranteurs marketed nearly any meat as fajitas: Shrimp fajitas. Steak fajitas. Vegetarian fajitas, nothing more than strips of sautéed onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, jalapeños, an zucchini. [. . .] As long as guests had the opportunity to see a waiter bring a sizzling platter of something to their table and warn them that the platter was hot, that was a fajita. (133)

So “fajita,” like “chili” comes to have its own meaning in English, as the dish becomes American, or maybe it actually always was. I mean, it was always undeniably Texas, so that’s where we have to start.

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