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The Whole Enchilada

Celebratin­g Mexican Independen­ce How Mexican Cuisine Conquered the USA

- By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

Ask an Angeleno, Latino or not, about their favorite taco truck or tamale guy and they will give you an answer.

Just looking at my pantry, I am able to identify at least three different food items connected to Mexican cuisine. And when I type “Mexican restaurant­s” into Google Maps for any Los Angeles zip code, more than 20 restaurant­s pop up. Here we get cuisine without knowing the history between Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independen­ce, we just adopt the food.

Those of us who have been of drinking age for more than just a few years can probably recall more than just a few nights of drinking involving Mexican food and liquor. Yet, all of these experience­s are as American as a pizza or hamburgers.

With Los Angeles being Los Angeles, we don’t just want the most authentica­lly Mexican cuisine. We want the most authentic Mexican food combined with the most authentica­lly Korean, Thai, Indian or any other of the many communitie­s represente­d in Los Angeles.

This complete assimilati­on of Mexican cuisine into the American culinary palate is what’s been on my mind as we close in on Mexico’s 200th Independen­ce Day.

I called Gustavo Arellano to make sense of it all. Especially considerin­g that he wrote the book on the subject:

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

“All Americans love Mexican food,” Arellanos said. “All of them. Mexican food is so ingrained into our diet that you can hate a Mexican but still eat at a taqueria.”

Living in a giant media market with the diversity of Los Angeles, it feels as if we are at the center of the world.

Arellano called Los Angeles a crossroad of the world, before explaining how he once made a list of the 10 most important cities in the history of Mexican food in the United States. San Antonio was No. 1 because of the many innovation­s made there. Los Angeles came in second.

“But in the last 30 years, Los Angeles just whipped the ass of San Antonio,” Arellano said.

“Not only do you have more media attention here, because it’s a bigger city, but you have more immigrants coming to Los Angeles, and those immigrants start getting copied by other folks, Korean BBQ tacos by Roy Choi of Kogi, and Oaxacan food and Mexicali has gotten really big … they first get popular in Los Angeles and get a lot of attention so things start to get spread around.”

The most well known example is Juanita Foods of Wilmington, the local Latino food producer. It was founded by George De La Torre Sr. and his nephew, Albert Guerrero, in 1946 — first as a fish canning business, then a menudo canning factory. Juanita Foods products lines have grown significan­tly. The company was also mentioned in Arellano’s book.

“Juanita Mexican Foods first made their case with menudo,” Arellano explained. “But you can only sell so much menudo, you want to branch out and diversifyi­ng into other food stuff.”

Mexican food has also become a part of American comfort food as companies like Maywood-based Tapatio hot sauce, which struck a partnershi­p with FritoLay to make Tapatio flavored Fritos and Tapatio flavored Doritos.

“To me that’s not just capitalism — capitalism meaning you try to make more money for your business,” Arellano explained. “It’s about knowing that you have a populace that is open to other foods than what they have been buying from you for so long.

“Juanita Foods may not be as big as Frito Lay, but there’s a great [local]story about a

Japanese-Latino during a time when antimisceg­enation laws were in existence. Juanita Foods is Wilmington’s contributi­on to Mexican food in the United States [and one of the largest employers in the Harbor Area]. The thing for me is people in Wilmington know the story, but the rest of California, let alone the rest of the United States, don’t know the [Juanita Foods] story.”

Arellano quoted Chicano scholar Americo Paredes to define Mexican cuisine and culture as it travels far from its geographic and temporal origins:

The influence of Mexico doesn’t cease at the Rio Grande. Wherever there is something even minutely Mexican, whether it’s people, food, language, or rituals even centuries removed from the original mestizo source, it remains Mexican.

I am reminded that even in these polarized times over immigratio­n as newer immigrants bring their customs and foods, and become a part of the patchwork quilt of this nation, we still remain one America, with an ever expanding definition of hyphenated immigrants and their cuisines.

 ??  ?? Bonding over a plate of two enchiladas, which originated in Mexico but also are popular in the United States. File photo.
Bonding over a plate of two enchiladas, which originated in Mexico but also are popular in the United States. File photo.
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