Is Tex-Mex Mexican Food? Mexican Food In Texas
Ordering a taco in San Antonio might not land you the same results if you order one in Brownsville, or El Paso.
A recent forum explored the different regionalities of Mexican food across Texas, and its cultural implications. Texas Public Radio’s Norma Martinez has more.
A bar that is a tribute to all things lucha libre – Mexican wrestling – might not be the first place that comes to mind to have a discussion on Mexican food. But then again, the downtown San Antonio bar El Luchador might have been the perfect place, with pictures of luchadores covering the walls, lucha libre playing silently on the big-screen TV. It’s uniquely Mexican.
Writer Leslie Téllez is the author of the cookbook “Eat Mexico.” She says Mexican food should be respected and given more consideration than just a quick drive-thru snack. "All of us love to eat tacos, all of us love to eat Mexican food," says Téllez, "but there’s a lot of issues related to Mexican food about identity, about class, about prejudice and racism. We want to just take Mexican food a little bit more seriously and move beyond the taco you put into your mouth to exploring what it means on a deeper level."
Mando Rayo, co-author of The Tacos of Texas, says Mexican food in Texas is incredibly diverse, from the western tip of Texas, to the panhandle, to the Rio Grande Valley. "So you have West Texas, you have the carnitas, the discada – basically a Mexican wok. You mix a lot of the red meats – steak, sausage, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes – it was really made to feed people out in the farms. When you’re looking at Corpus Christi, and along that South Texas area – Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley – you have the breakfast taco. Here in San Antonio, the tacos are medium sized tortillas. But when you go to Corpus, they’re a little bit bigger. When you go to Brownsville even Laredo, they’re BIG. In Brownsville, they’re pizza-sized. Medium-sized pizza... They’re huge!"
But when you start calling Mexican food “Tex-Mex,” you’re probably going to run into some purists who’ll turn their noses at the concept. Téllez says they’re being short-sighted. "I think the Texas/Mexican food scene is also astonishingly diverse. People tend to paint it as just ‘eh.’ Tex Mex doesn’t get any love. There’s this trend now to just dismiss Tex Mex as not being Mexican food. What you see is the sons and daughters of these cooks growing up and creating their own stamp on the food and blazing their own trail and creating their own path. That’s something that you’ll only see in these cities that have these 2nd and 3rd and 4th generation families having all of these memories associated not just with the Mexican culture but with their American side."
Mando Rayo says Tex-Mex is Mexican food. But he adds that some Mexicans might not feel that way. He says, "New immigrants and Mexicans coming to Texas, they really look at Tex Mex as watered down Mexican, or not ‘real’ Mexican food. Mexicans were here before Texas was established. And they were Mexican. When you ask people who have lived here for generations, and you ask them what they cook, they’ll tell you it’s Mexican food."
But there’s also a darker theme that was explored during the forum –Mexican food is universally loved, yet across parts of the United States, there exists a hostility towards immigrants and Latinos. Leslie Tellez has researched cookbooks dating back to the early 1900s, and she says nothing has changed. "You look at all the people who were writing these cookbooks in the early 20th century, and they were all white people. There weren’t any Mexicans who were able to tell their stories."
Mexican food, in all its shapes and forms, will continue to evolve in the Texas, and across the nation. Téllez and Mando Raya hope that maybe the Latinos who have been toiling in the back of the restaurants sweating over hot plates and flaming grills can shape its story for generations to come.