The “Spicy” Myth

“My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, your’re going to have taco trucks on every corner”

Such were the words of Marco Gutierrez, founder of Latinos for Trump. The phrase “taco trucks on every corner” has taken over social media, with many professing their love for tacos and discussing how delicious it would be to actually have tacos in every corner using the hashtag #TacoTrucksOnEveryCorner. The phrase has also motivated the actual spread of taco trucks, under the initiative to “Guac the Vote”, using these trucks to register new voters.

While the last piece of Gutierrez’s quote has been the one catching the most attention, I was more taken aback by the first part. The notion that Latino culture is “dominant”, “imposing” and “causing problems” is in line with common stereotypes of Latin Americans being passionate, loud and belligerent. These stereotypes are also encompassed by the often ascribed adjective: “spicy”.

Cristen Conger, from Stereotypology, explored how our culture was reduced to a jalapeno pepper:

The “Spicy” stereotype is not only the product of racism or a lack of interest regarding the richness in history of the region that comprises most of what is called America. The stereotype is also promulgated by many of us in the community, as seen in Gutierrez’s response to the backlash regarding his statement:

“I really didn’t mean to ridicule my fellow Mexicans and their jobs. I misspoke, I used poor [phrasing]. I wanted to describe something and I didn’t use the proper words to do it. But in my community we are also very sensitive, we Hispanics are very emotional, so I guess I hit a nerve.” (From interview with GW.com)

The homogenization Latin American cultures as “spicy” is also expanded to our food, as noted by Puerto Rican cookbook author, Erisbela Garriga, during a recent exchange:

“I’ve been approached several times to answer the question about the differences between Mexican and Puerto Rican food. Mexicans were among the first Hispanics/natives to have lived in this continent for centuries including parts of Texas and California former territories of Mexico. Puerto Rico was discovered in 1493 and was a Spanish colony until 1898, when it was transferred to the United States under the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish American War. What makes our food different from Mexican and other Latin American countries is the seasoning. The base of our Puerto Rican dishes is sofrito which is a blend of spices and herbs such as garlic, onion, oregano, cilantro, culantro, and sweet and bell peppers. Some cooks add cumin, basil and other aromatic herbs. Also the adobo which is a paste that we prepare with garlic, oregano, vinegar or lemon juice, annatto oil (a combination of olive oil and annatto seeds) to marinade or rub meats. The main staple of Mexican food is the use of corn and chiles as their base ingredient. Their food is spicy hot, at the point that, sometimes, you cry when you eat it.

There is a misconception that all Spanish/Latin food is cooked Mexican style. However, Latin American foods are so diverse and rich in different flavors and spices (not all of them hot spice). When you watch some of the food channel programs, almost all of them treat Spanish/Latin food as Mexican. It seems that there is no difference among the various Latin cuisines such as Peruvian, Colombian, Argentinean, Dominican, Cuban and Puerto Rican. Even when some of the chefs are judging, instead of tasting the food the way it is served in that country, they usually make comments that it needs some “hot pepper”, jalapeños, to kick it a little bit with some hot sauce, etc. Not all Spanish/Latin food use the jalapeños to give food a good taste. It is a matter of regional preferences and judges should be aware of that. The notion that Latin food is expected to be spicy hot keeps adding to the many misconceptions of what a Latin dish should look and taste like.”

Mexican food is popular in the United States. This has been evidenced lately in the responses to Gutierrez’s remarks. The long history of the Mexican community is evident in the merging of foodways at the border, including the creation of the Tex-Mex cuisine as representative of this blend. Still, we need to recognize the heterogeneity of the community, and its growing diversity in the United States.

Soda and happiness during the holidays

Catching up after a Christmas visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this interesting post in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics Blog, Christmas health advocacy, Mexican style. Mexico has been at the forefront fighting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including implementing a soda tax, which has decreased soda consumption in the country. These efforts have been in response to Mexico’s high obesity rates and incidence of related health conditions, including diabetes.

The latest in these health advocacy messages target drink choices during the holidays, including an ad featuring Santa Claus. The video shows Santa apologizing for “being part of a company that denies information to the consumer and takes advantage of children”, ending with his resignation from the company and a plead for children to “stop drinking these drinks”:

This ad, along with the active government role in addressing soda consumption, stand in sharp contrast with my recent observations during my short Puerto Rican Christmas. The island, like Mexico, also suffers from high rates of obesity, and diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability. Yet, little, if any, public health initiatives or advertisement is seen to combat this. On the contrary, companies like Coca-Cola, are enjoying the benefits of more sales! This recent trend is related to their newest campaign, “Share a Coke”, where consumers are able to find their names or family names in the bottles. This simple addition has reversed the downward sales trend for the company. And – of course – Puerto Rico got an adapted (or creolized) version of this campaign:

Source: El Vocero

Source: El Vocero

The campaign includes the most common last names in Puerto Rico, colloquial nicknames (for example, “Panita” and “Jevo”), as well as positive emotions such as “love” and “happiness”. Quoted in a local newspaper, Puerto RIco’s Coca-Cola marketing director underscores the role of this soda in “uniting people for more than 128 years to create moments of happiness” (my translation). Yet, the same moments of happiness can be achieved over an icy cold glass of water, lemonade, or an equally cold Medalla (the local beer, in moderation).

The “Share a Coke” campaign was rolled out in September of last year (2014), about two months after the local health department published a page-long ad against sodas and sugar sweetened beverages, featuring the familiar image of the drinks alongside a multitude of sugar packets,

Source: Radio Isla

Source: Radio Isla

Not surprisingly, this ad was received with criticism from representatives of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Sadly, the opposition was also shared by members of one of the main political parties, the (pro-statehood) Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), claiming “negative effects for the consumer”. Similar opposition can be found from a proposal for a soda tax of 14 cents per liter in the island. In the end, push-backs like these, masked as being in favor the consumer, are unfortunate examples of the political barriers facing public health, despite the deleterious effects for the population.

A Delicious Super Hero

Oh!, y ahora,  ¿Quien podra defenderme?
¡Yo! ¡El Chapulin Colorado!

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado.

Roberto Gomez Bolanos (Chespirito) as El Chapulin Colorado

With these words, a new adventure of El Chapulin Colorado started each morning. This Mexican television series evokes memories of childhood to many of us who grew up in Latin American homes. I remember sitting down eating breakfast in front of the TV waiting to see the next conundrum this superhero was about to “solve”.

As a child in Puerto Rico little did I know that Chapulín was more than the name of the superhero. The term is derived from the náhuatl chapōlin, used to refer to jumping insects, such as grasshoppers. In the island we call them esperanzas which occasionally found their way to our home, seen as a sign of good fortunes to come, according to popular lore.

I still watch the show but not as often. Nowadays I enjoy the chapulín alongside a glass of mezcal

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano

A glass of mezcal served with a side of chapulines and apples sprinkled with sal de gusano (Bar in Condesa, Mexico City)

These tiny critters are crunchy, with a salty and spicy taste, and light hints of lemon. And yes, their little legs may get stuck in your teeth, just as with any other food. Before reaching its place alongside a smoky and delightful glass of mezcal, they are washed, cooked in a comal, toasted and seasoned. They are also served in guacamole, tacos, or simply as a snack sold by street vendors in Mexico. Chapulines are sold alongside other insects like worms and tiny little fish similar to the ones you might find in a fishbowl.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

Snack vendor cart in Parque de Chapultepec, selling a variety of nuts along with chapulines, small fish, and other snacks.

The idea of eating insects may evoke feelings of disgust in many of us. Insects are viewed as dangerous and dirty. Eating them, outside of their cultural context may be seen as a dare (remember Fear Factor?), or as a sign of being an adventuresome, cosmopolitan, culturally sensitive eater. Chapulines have fallen in the realm of the exotic and a “must try” alongside with Oaxaca as the foodie tourist destination identified with the traditional consumption of this insect.

Chapulines are more than a snack. They can be plagues, greatly harming food production. Eating them can be a coping mechanism to deal with their overabundance, while also bringing dietary variety and protein to rural areas (See for example, this initiative in Querétaro, Mexico). Nutritionally, chapulines are a wonderful and sustainable source of protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamin B.

International nutrition organisms are promoting the consumption of insects as an excellent source of protein, as they are a sustainable source of protein, compared with cattle and other common animal flesh sources. Just last year, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization put out a report promoting the worldwide consumption of insects leading to a recent conference in the Netherlands promoting their potential to feed the world, along with a cookbook.  This new push has even generated the peer-reviewed Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, to start publication in 2015.

Could the chapulín move from an exotic accompaniment to my mezcal to the central piece of my dinner? Perhaps, with some guacamole and freshly made tortillas. Could I move beyond the toasted chapulín to stewed worms? That is another story…

Despite my current hesitation, insects are indeed part of the conversation for the future of food and for combating food insecurity. With population growth and worldwide increase in incomes, the demand for animal protein is ever increasing. The often quoted estimate of 9 billion people by 2030 along with increasing concerns over livestock production and the pollution of natural resources that comes with it calls to alternatives to our current dietary habits, and notions of what is “good” to eat. Insects can be part of the answer. Perhaps the Chapulín Colorado is a real-life hero after all.

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado

Click on image for a short video of El Chapulin Colorado – Enjoy!