I’m tired of Mexican food being seen as ‘cheap’

Photo of tacos
Catherine Wallin/File

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In the United States, Mexican food tends to generally be thought of as cheap street food. It’s seen with prejudice that often parallels the xenophobic and racist bias many Americans have toward the Mexican community. The belief that this cuisine is both dirty and easy can be seen as a direct reflection of the way that Mexicans are often perceived in America: dirty and lazy, without any class. The concept of Mexican that is elegant, beautiful, complex and rich with thousands of generational-old recipes is unfathomable within mainstream American culture. Big corporate chains, which profit off of Americanized Mexican food, further contribute to this falsified image of Mexican culture and food. They strip this cuisine of its authenticity and its deep cultural roots that can be traced as far back as the Aztec civilization. They reduce it to cheap tacos and burritos. 

Much like how Mexican food is reduced to irrelevant and pathetic attempts at “authenticity” in America, the Mexican community in America is also reduced down to irrelevant and pathetic labels and generalizations. Because Mexicans are seen so poorly in America, our food is seen as worth nothing more than a few dollars. The cheap price of our food is a reflection of how the rest of the country sees our worth and the way that we should be treated. But the reality is that Mexican cuisine can be something of elegance and class. The core ingredients, although simple, have the ability to become a complex mouthful of flavor and spice. Some of the main traditional dishes require patience and specific technique — the kind of technique that can’t be written down on a piece of paper. It’s the kind of technique that is passed down through feeling, love and practice. The way my grandmother would cook in the kitchen may have been fast, resourceful and affordable, but the way she moved was with such grace, such patience, such passion. It was not just plopping whatever ingredients from the grocery store aisle into the cart for a burrito bowl. 

It is incredibly frustrating that my culture, among others that are often perceived as “lesser” than European or white communities, not only have to deal with themselves as people being disrespected and reduced to racist perceptions but also their food and their culture as well. I can’t tell you the number of times I would bring lunch to school only to hear other kids say, “Ew, why does it look like that,” “That smells so bad” or “Are you really going to eat that?” Coming to a new country takes so much from immigrant families. You leave behind a world that this new American one not only doesn’t understand but disrespects. You cling to the things that remind you of home, one of which is often food. Then, that too is taken away. It’s mistreated by a community of people who place and impose their own judgment and misconceptions upon it. Mexican food’s only quality shouldn’t be “cheap,” it shouldn’t be “easy” and it shouldn’t be dismissed as a cuisine deserving of little respect or admiration. It is wonderfully flavorful, brightly colorful, smokey and fresh — able to be a delicacy if only it was treated as such. 

Contact Paloma Torres at [email protected].