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Taco plate

Photo by Xueying Chang

  • The Social Power of the Taco

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    The taco is not just a dish. It is a way to eat.

    I remember my childhood in Guadalajara, how after a family meal when everyone else had left the table, I would climb into my father’s lap to share the last tortilla. He would pour honey on a plate and cut the tortilla in half: one part for him and one for me. We would each fold our half in the shape of a taco and slide it through the honey. Although the taste was very satisfying, half a tortilla was never enough, so we would heat a couple more in the clay comal. This moment of tortilla complicity was our little pact and my prize for finishing my lunch. Even now, as strange as it may sound, honey tacos remain my favorite dessert.

    Raised in the Mexican countryside, my dad’s relationship with tortillas has endured. He will not eat a meal without them. As a child, I was used to a very traditional way of eating, but many things changed for me. As I grew older, I developed my own criteria and became influenced by the globalized “foodie” culture.

    Last year, I documented the indigenous Wixárika community of San Andrés Cohamiata. Located nine hours north of my hometown, in the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, TateiKie is well known for both its singular cuisine and its historical resistance to westernization.

    Mexican food pop-up in Hyattsville, Maryland
    At my grandma’s house, I learned at a young age how to work masa, usually for making tortillas or tamales.
    Photo courtesy of Diana Gabriela Pérez Valle

    The food protocol of the Wixárika reminded me of my family’s own mealtime traditions. In the center of the table stood a bowl of hot sauce and a steaming pile of tortillas wrapped in a cloth napkin. After adding sauce to the main dish to make it spicier, one grabbed a tortilla, folded it into a taco, and slid it across the plate to pick up the stew. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner: every stew ends up captured in a taco. In this way, the tortilla replaces the fork and the spoon, and illustrates the importance of the taco to Mexican culture.

    The taco belongs to the streets. I realized this after returning to the big city where it serves as a cultural equalizer for today’s highly stratified Mexican society. Mexico loves the taco. All socioeconomic groups gather around the taquerías, both restaurants and food stands, so that the words échate un taco (“let’s have a taco”) taste like a truce. Even so, the taco’s simple design has not precluded it from landing on the menu of Michelin-starred restaurants.

    When I arrived in Washington, D.C., last year as a student intern, I noticed a fervent online debate within the local Mexican community: where could one find the most authentic taco? I noticed that in D.C., one could find the bourgeois taco, the gentrified taco, the American taco, the party taco, but could one find the authentic taco?

    An Unpretentious Taco

    In a backyard of the suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland, fried tacos toss in the bubbling oil of a fryer. A woman in constant motion flips quesadillas in a flat, round pan, a comal, while another crushes corn dough balls in the tortillero. Vapor rises from huge pots of atole (traditional corn drink) and champurrado (the chocolate version). Another cook heats shredded pork, carnitas, in a copper pot. Serving dishes sit on tables covered in plastic tablecloths decorated in the floral patterns and fluorescent colors common to Mexico.

    This is an underground Mexican buffet.

    Mexican food pop-up in Hyattsville, Maryland
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    Two families began the business twelve years ago. One family, who prefers not to be named in this story, specialized in carnitas tacos. The second, led by a man named Francisco, quit their jobs after suffering mistreatment by restaurant owners. Francisco’s family specialized in tamales and atole. Together, they cooked in the garage of their rented house and sold breakfast tacos and tamales to the area’s teeming Mexican community.

    “It is the need to move ahead, and because one arrives empty-handed from crossing the border,” says Francisco, age twenty-nine. “My father is ill, and my mom has no papers, so it is difficult to get money to provide.”

    They began by spreading the word among the community. They were so successful that, when their landlord asked them to leave because he was selling the house, they were able to buy the home across the street. There they installed the business in the basement, where it remained for several years.

    Mexican food pop-up in Hyattsville, Maryland
    At this pop-up, tacos are the most popular menu item.
    Photo by Xueying Chang

    The heat emanating from the pots was so overwhelming that they moved to the backyard. That is where they make fried and barbacoa tacos, carnitas, quesadillas, gorditas, atole, tamales, and now even shrimp cocktails. The line for tacos is endless. They are served in small portions, so eaters can taste a bit of everything. The customers are mostly Mexican workers.

    Among the staff, the feelings of solidarity are very strong.

    “My parents who cook tamales and the taco makers have become compadres,” Francisco says. “We feel comfortable, at home. There is trust and support. Here, with $20 you feed five mouths, a whole family. We are also doing it for the community.”

    The carnitas takes time to soften, so the kitchen staff begins work at 2 a.m. with service at 5 a.m. On weekdays, service ends at 8 a.m., extending to 2 p.m. on the weekends.

    “We serve the workers that get up early, and many people from bars—bartenders or busboys—and those who go to discos to have fun too. Sometimes they get tipsy and come here to eat some taquitos to fix things,” Francisco says, referring to the well-known, mythical anti-hangover powers of barbacoa tacos.

    As he cooked, Francisco compared the colors of the Mexican flag to the colors of taco: green for cilantro, white for onions, and red for sauce, referring to both as strong elements of Mexican identity.

    Within the community of this popular suburban pop-up, the taco is neither gentrified nor exoticized. The fonda (informal restaurant) is laid out in the same way as those in Mexican neighborhoods. The result is an authentic and unpretentious taco experience.

    The Playful Essence of the Taco

    It is common for the natives of a country to maintain a certain skepticism when they learn a foreigner will prepare their national dish. Even before the plates arrive, he may inquire how it is possible for a chef to extract the essence of a recipe when he is not connected to the food through the sentimental ties of family stories and childhood memories. At Taco City in Southeast D.C., Juan Jiménez shows that no matter who prepares it, or where, a taco remains authentic when it keeps its playful essence.

    Born in La Unión, El Salvador, Juan arrived in D.C. at the age of ten. While in high school, his family fell on hard times, so Juan helped by working in restaurants.

    “In the kitchen, you will never lack food,” Juan says. He began in 1994 as a busboy at chef José Andrés’s prestigious tapas restaurant, Jaleo, and went on to make some very close Mexican friends in the restaurant business. In himself, he recognized a passion for people and a satisfaction in feeding them. Despite obtaining a degree in physical education, he opened his own restaurant. In a city like D.C., where so many culinary worlds converge, Juan found himself fascinated by Mexican cuisine.

    One of the characteristics of Mexican gastronomy is that its most distinctive dishes are often presented in small portions. This is similar to Spanish tapas, but at more affordable prices. Essentially street food, the popular garnachas or antojitos are small plates based on corn, almost always fried, and vary by the stew that accompanies them. The taco emerges from this same logic; it’s also based on the corn or flour tortilla, a stew, and sauces or vegetables. This simple process and cheap price allow for the playfulness: endless combinations of ingredients for chefs, and many combinations of menu items for patrons.

    Octopus and al pastor tacos at Taco City
    By recommendation of the chef, octopus and al pastor tacos at Taco City.
    Photo by Diana Gabriela Pérez Valle

    The taquería combines two aspects that marked Juan’s early days in the kitchen: his predilection for Mexican cuisine and his fondness for the practicality of tapas.

    Guided by close friends from Mexico, he began training his palate to identify truly authentic flavors and concepts. Juan, like most people involved in Mexican cooking, finds that the biggest problem this cuisine faces in the United States is that it’s often confused with Tex-Mex. He recalls a frequent line from customers:

    “‘Give me sour cream and cheese in the taco,’ they say, and I’m thinking, how? That is not an authentic taco.’ So, I sometimes say, ‘By the way, I make authentic tacos. I might give you cream and cheese on the side, of course, but we serve it this way...’ Then they’ll think twice. But you’re letting them know. If you are not educating the customer, you are just giving them something to eat. So, we have to go further.”

    Providing an authentic flavor and concept gives Juan the confidence to talk with people, to expose them to a true Mexican cuisine.

    “The tacos are delicious in Mexico because the taquerías there are like, ‘What do you want? This here? And that? Fua!—a pineapple flying onto the plate. Cilantro, onion, you pour the sauce, and that’s it! There are no complications. But Americans are not like that. They like detail, explanations of the flavors, and they ask how you cooked it. Education is very important here. It is more demanding. Here the taco is the closest many can get to Mexico.”

    Irma’s Purpose

    Born in Mexico City, Irma Chavez first came to D.C. at age twenty-one to work as a babysitter. Overworked and underpaid for almost a year, she quit.

    Before, in Mexico, she had started as a secretary with aims to move into administration. But in the United States, because of her immigrant status, it was difficult for her to be formally hired. Instead, she found work in one of the few places available to undocumented immigrants: a restaurant kitchen.

    Away from home, and disappointed by the Mexican food available in the United States, Irma longed for the food of her mother and grandmother, and of mercados and taquerías. She dedicated herself to learning the recipes of her homeland.

    “I didn’t know how to cook,” she says. “I’d spent $500 on phone bills, calling my mother to be told how to cook this, how to cook that. And I had her on the phone and told her, ‘It doesn’t taste the same!’ So she would tell me what I’d missed.”

    In 1992, she remembers, the Mexican population in the D.C. area was sparse. Mexican products were hard to find even in Latin American grocery stores, something she’s happy has changed over the years.

    Irma gained resident status when she married a U.S. citizen. In 2000, she was employed as a meeting planner, returning to the administrative field. But by that time, she had fallen in love with cooking.

    Irma Chavez
    Irma Chavez (left) at the MGM City Recipe Showdown
    Photo by Diana Gabriela Pérez Valle

    Cooking is a game of chemistry, where love and commitment are essential ingredients. With this in mind, Irma began cooking and bringing beef tongue and fried tacos to her office for special occasions as a gesture of empathy and gratitude. Her co-workers, fascinated by the flavor of true Mexican cuisine and how it differed from the popular Tex-Mex, began to ask her for cooking classes and hired her to cater important events. Inspired by the support of her community, she won the MGM City Recipe Showdown contest at National Harbor and went to compete in the Final Recipe Showdown in Las Vegas in 2018. She now runs a catering business.

    Irma draws her inspiration from people like activist Cristina Martínez, a Mexican immigrant based in Philadelphia. Cristina’s barbacoarestaurant caught the media’s eye, after she appeared in several episodes of Netflix food shows like Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious. Irma also learned from the example of Pati Jinich, a Mexican chef who teaches traditional cuisine on her own PBS show.

    Now, Irma, herself a role model within the D.C. Mexican community, represents hundreds of women whose migration stories have a close relationship with the kitchen. She feels free to tell her story, having gained legal residency, but understands that unlike her, many women are silenced. Her purpose, besides opening a restaurant that recovers the Mexican gastronomic tradition, is to empower immigrant women by forming community through cuisine.

    Authenticity and Identity

    If a taco consists of a simple base of ingredients obtainable almost anywhere, and cooked by almost anyone willing to learn, then what is the purpose of looking for an authentic taco in D.C.? Sure, the taco brings with it the taste of home, but there is something more. Back in Mexico, we speak without traces of elitism when discussing tacos. Abroad, we seek this same feeling of cohesion.

    The taco is a synthesizer of Mexican culture. It’s one of those dishes we choose to carry with us when we cross borders, and that is because of its versatile and simple essence. The authentic taco carries with it a socializing power that forms a temporary truce between the haves and have-nots. The taco’s power as a self-contained symbol of not one, but many cultures across Mexico and its diaspora reaffirms the deserved place of traditional Mexican foodways in modern gastronomy.

    Diana Gabriela Pérez Valle is a cultural anthropology student at Universidad de Guadalajara and a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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