Growing up on the East Coast of the US between two pillars of Caribbean immigration, Florida and the tri-state area, infused my life with Latinidad. From the rich sounds of merengue, salsa, and Latin jazz to the flavors of maduros, lechon and frijoles negros, I thought I understood it all. I thought I had a handle on what comprises Latina culture. When I moved to the West Coast I realized I only had seen part of the picture. This realization has proven to be one of the most satisfying lessons I could ask for. In California, for example, so much is different when it comes to Latino culture. Accents and the cadence of language are different. Styles of dress and decor are different. And it may sound cliché to say so, but most surprising has been my discovery of Mesoamerican gastronomy. One case in point is a recent experience on Olvera Street, a quintessentially Latino space that bears little resemblance to the Latinidad within which I grew up.
Olvera is a gem of a street tucked away near downtown LA, not far from Dodgers Stadium and a stone’s throw from Chinatown. Dozens of brick and adobe structures housing restaurants and shops line Olvera while the street itself, which has been pedestrianized since the 1930s, contains rows of market stalls that sell handbags, shawls, toys, shoes, souvenirs, and the other usual accoutrements of a street market. Off to the side, a plaza features a gazebo on which a life-size Nativity scene has been staged for the holidays. There are street food carts selling spectacularly luscious fruit as well as permanent memorials to the settlers who founded Los Angeles, for Olvera Street is part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the oldest section of the city.
I was on Olvera Street a couple of weekends ago to meet a friend for brunch. This wasn’t to be any old brunch. It was holiday brunch Mexican-style, a truly singular experience. In La Luz del Dia, a cozy restaurant with exposed brick walls, large family-friendly tables, and plastic utensils, I stood in line to order my meal. On my friend’s advice I ordered up a plate of tamales and a steaming glass of champurrado, a traditional pairing for the holidays. An old woman in a festive peasant outfit comprised of a white blouse and full, colorful skirt insisted on carrying my tray to my table for me. So I just trotted behind her and sat down to my first sip.
Champurrado is more than merely extraordinary, it is like nothing that I have ever tasted. Masa, or corn meal, is soaked in milk, blended with water and chocolate, and flavored with piloncillo (cones of unrefined brown sugar) and cinnamon. The mixture, which is heated and strained, results in a comforting and, for me, exotic concoction. Even sipping the beverage from a Styrofoam cup I felt connected to an ancient América one that predated conquest by centuries and a culture with a richness all its own. Corn, chocolate, cinnamon: these are flavors of a New World that was old far before its “discovery” by Europe, or their installation into food courts across the modern-day US.
Champurrado and the traditions behind it serve as just one example of why UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, should hasten to heed Mexico’s petition to declare its cuisine a “Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. And, of course, champurrado is only the beginning as one might just as easily hold up a whole litany of comparable exemplars. From the fresh flavors of nopal, a salad made of prickly pear cactus, or the inimitable spicy sauce known as a mole which contains chiles, almonds and chocolate to the hearty pleasure that is pozole, a thick broth made with a special kind of corn called cacahuacentle, Mexican cuisine does indeed have much to offer the world.
In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro talked with Gloria Lopez of the National Council for Culture and the Arts, Mexico. Lopez outlined the criteria for admission to the echelons of UNESCO’s masterpiece status: there must be historical continuity, history, authenticity, originality, and use of local products. “The cuisines that fulfill all those criteria are only two or three in the world [e.g., China],” said Lopez, before adding that archaeological studies in Mexico have shown that, “five- to 6,000 years ago they were making tortillas in the same way that they’re making them now. The Spanish added to our cuisine, of course, but the unique indigenous history is still intact. The soul of Mexican cuisine has not changed for millennia” (8 December 04).
Now it is up to UNESCO to decide whether the bequest of the Mexican people ranks as a masterpiece of world culture. If so, UNESCO must also determine how best to protect the integrity of the cuisine. At a basic level, Mexico’s culinary traditions face risks from both the standardization of Mexican food and the loss of internal traditions due to migration and industrialization. As noted by Cristina Barros, an expert on the culture’s gastronomy, the cultivation of corn, a sacred plant that is central to Mexican food, is quite vulnerable to changes wrought by modernity. “Our cuisine is tied to the environment,” she explained, yet “Mexico is the fifth most diverse country in terms of biodiversity, but it is second in annual loss of forests and jungles” (La Jornada 8 December 04). It is possible that UNESCO may help motivate and execute preservation efforts on all of these fronts. In an article entitled “En manos de la UNESCO, ocho mil años de sabores y aromas de México” (In UNESCO’s hands, 8,000 years of Mexican flavors and aromas) La Jornada Arturu Cruz Barcenas reports, a guide to Mexican gastronomy, a tome of dietary information that weighs 40 kilos, was presented to the organization’s jury in October 2004.
That such a volume should have been amassed is a testament to the complexity and history of cultural practices that inform Mexican gastronomy. And it is this complexity that runs contrary to many people’s expectations when it comes to Mexican food, for despite the abundance of Mexican restaurants all over the globe, they are rarely placed in the same category as fine French or Japanese establishments. Burritos, tacos, fajitas, guacamole, quesadillas, salsa, tortilla chips and so forth have become so ubiquitous that what passes for Mexican food outside of Mexico is a poor approximation of what the country’s diverse regions actually have to offer. For example, mass-produced flour tortillas function as edible food containers, most prominently featured in the unfortunate evolution of the low-calorie “wrap”, rather than a fundamental form of nourishment.
Economist Jesús Puente Leyva contrasts this trivial use of the tortilla by pointing out that 75 percent of the energy that sustains the Mesoamerican population comes from corn, and much of this is consumed in the form of corn tortillas. Moreover, the multiplicity of ways that corn and other indigenous foods are prepared is nowhere apparent in what most of the world has come to expect from Mexican cuisine, that is, casual festive food to be consumed with a Corona or blended margarita. This disjunction between how elaborate Mexican cuisine is and how it is perceived as limited, simple, and basic, is precisely what Sari Bermúdez of the CNCA (Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes), also quoted in Barcenas’ article, hopes to change. In fact, Bermúdez insists that she would be prepared to stand in the aisles at UNESCO with tamales to share, if it would help convince the jury of the validity of Mexico’s claim for its gastronomical distinction (6 October 2004). In early 2005, after years of planning, research, and interventions (e.g., documentaries, cultural festivals celebrating the nation’s culinary history, etc.), people like Bermúdez and Lopez will learn whether their efforts have been triumphant.