There's more to Tex-Mex than meets the palate

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Norma Cardenas

Tex-Mex” is said to be the most popular ethnic food in this country but it is a lot more complicated than a plate of tacos, beans and rice.

“The Tex-Mex brand of Mexican food is an expression of strength, creativity, resourcefulness, and performativity,” said Norma  Cárdenas.

At the same time, it is also a “vehicle for the expression of racial and class hostility. . . Food representations of Mexican-Americans have served to construct racialized images and to appropriate culture for the tourist and restaurant industry.”

A Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of ethnic studies in OSU’s School of Language, Culture, and Society,  Cárdenas is drawing on ethnographic work carried out in San Antonio—home to more than 700 Mexican restaurants—to write a book, The Reconquest of Tex-Mex: Representation, Identity, and Food. 

In her consideration of Tex-Mex food, which is the first full, book-length treatment of the subject,  Cárdenas aims to highlight the contributions of Mexican-Americans to American culinary history and to explore contradictory attitudes toward Mexican-Americans.  Her Fellowship efforts will focus on a key chapter in which she will “examine how Mexican ethnic restaurants define Tex-Mex and how they negotiate the tensions of cultural homogenization.”

San Antonio is a recognized tourist destination in large part because of Mexican-American culture. And yet, said Cárdenas, the predominant Latino/Latina population presents a problem for tourism because race and ethnicity are associated with underdevelopment and pathological behaviors. It is this slippage between the commodification of Mexican-American culture and the realities of that culture that interest her.

The term “Tex-Mex” to describe food first appeared in print in the 1960s, and was made better known by English-born Diana Kennedy, a Mexican cookbook author who derided the “detestable” culinary tradition as Americanized Mexican food. 

“After several iterations of Tex-Mex as Spanish, Nouvelle Hispanic, Nuevo Latino, Fusion Latino, and then rebranding as Southwestern with an elegant and refined new American regional cooking style, Nuevo Tex-Mex is back in vogue, thus resignifying identity,” said Cárdenas. Tex-Mex food is represented as exotic, slovenly, uncivilized, servile, “natural”— a characterization that Cárdenas says extends by analogy to Mexican-American people as well.

A good example of the cultural disjunction in the history of Tex-Mex food involves the signature dish chili. Chili stands were among San Antonio’s earliest informal public restaurants. Established by people of Mexican descent in plazas in the 1830s, they were shut down by city health officials, yet in 1896, German immigrant Willie Gebhardt founded a chili powder company based in San Antonio’s predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood of Westside.  His Eagle
Brand Chili remains a popular seller.

Another example of “appropriated” food is the familiar fajita. Originally backyard fare, fajitas are now served in restaurants as a choice dish with an “authentic” presentation.

Thus, said Cárdenas, fajitas have become a Tex-Mex imitation of Mexican food. The “complex, nuanced, and tenuous relationship between food, race, and space” was highlighted recently by a report that suggested corn tortillas—the emblematic food of working-class Mexicans—could be responsible for high cancer rates in the Westside area. “At the intersection of race, geography, and citizenship, the report had the potential to wreak havoc on local food production and consumption.”

By focusing on Mexican and Mexican-American manufacturers in the food industry, along with menu standards, specialties, descriptions, prices, décor, and terminology,  Cárdenas will argue that “Mexican restaurants blur the division between public and private spaces, serve a sense of belonging and repositories of culinary memory, and express pan-ethnicity.”