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The ‘culinary brown face’ problem at Mexican restaurants


Birthday sombreros on the wall. Mustachioed caricatures on the menu. Should you believe the “Authentic Mexican Restaurant” sign outside?

In her latest book, Food Fight! Millennial Mestizaje Meets the Culinary Marketplace, Paloma Martinez-Cruz takes a hard-hitting look at inauthentic “Mexican” restaurants — from those with mocking tones to the “white savior” establishments.

Martinez-Cruz, an associate professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, discussed her book and gave some advice to consumers seeking authentic Latino cuisine.

Among the topics in your book, you describe appropriation or sharing of other cultures as acceptable, but misappropriation as disrespectful. Could you explain?

Misappropriation happens when you see a mocking tone, a looking down on another culture. It’s sampling of a culture without any other relationship with that culture. For example, when you see non-heritage cooks saying they’ve discovered a food style or when they straight-out mock the food that they’re selling and don’t bother understanding the food.

Chi-Chi’s, for example, is a major restaurant chain. Chi-Chi’s is slang for breasts (in Spanish). We can’t talk about multiculturalism if the only restaurant in town with “Mexican” food has a name that mocks people.

You use the term “culinary brown face” to describe the mocking restaurants. What does this term mean?

It means culinary racism. Racism in the ways that it’s advertised and served. I think people understand that black face is wrong. I want to make that connection.

An example is a restaurant with signs hanging from the ceiling that say "bailar en el bigote," and "bigote sucio" which mean "dance in the mustache" and "dirty mustache." This cuts to the Mexican bandit type, dirty mustache. There’s some room for growth.

I want people to understand that this is making fun of a culture. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.

You can have a Mexican restaurant that doesn’t try to reaffirm white supremacy and make money off Mexican people.

When is food being misappropriated vs. appreciated?

There are different layers. Some are using mock Spanish or being defamatory — Frito Bandito stuff, cartoonish ways of looking at Mexican people or Mexican food.

Then there are the white saviors. It’s the more upscale places where you see the white savior. Chef Rick Bayless, for example — you see him referred to as the savior of Mexican food. Or when the white owner of a restaurant says no one is taking Mexican food seriously, so he opens his restaurant. I call that the white savior way, or the (Christopher) Columbus effect: “I discovered this.” Those are signs of misappropriation.

Appreciation is different. There are Jewish Americans who have a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, Nopalito. They have a cookbook and they put their Mexican chef front and center. They’re crediting the people who make this food and developed this food by sharing their chef’s talent.

How can food consumers celebrate cultures without misappropriating?

It takes a little more exploring of neighborhoods where migrant people can afford to open restaurants. It takes time to go off the beaten path, but you’ll find the little spots and the food is fantastic.