Jeb Bush's favorite food is tacos al carbon. Marco Rubio craves enchiladas. Hillary Clinton orders the chicken burrito bowl when she lunches at Chipotle. But does eating Mexican food make candidates more likely to support immigration policies that benefit Mexicans?
Latino writer Gustavo Arellano for years has argued that recent generations of Americans growing up on Mexican food have helped soften conservative views toward immigration. In California, home to the nation's most populous Mexican population, state GOP leaders recently urged members not to use the term "illegal immigrant," Arellano pointed out.
"I have always said it is proof of the coming winning over of America by Mexicans," said Arellano, editor of the alternative newspaper OC Weekly in Orange County, California, and author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America." "It doesn’t mean everything is hunky dory right now, but if people can convert someone’s appetite, it’s a first step."
A growing number of presidential candidates have heralded Mexican dishes while on the campaign trail amid an increasingly tense debate over immigration reform and illegal immigration. Their culinary choices underscore the rising influence Latinos wield over the nation's food and political preferences. But while some activists claim the popularity of tacos, burritos and other south of the border staples might persuade more Americans to embrace Mexican immigrants and immigration reform, it's unclear if lawmakers fighting illegal immigration will eventually be won over by their love of guacamole and spicy meat.
"The relationship between the acceptance of an immigrant group's food and the acceptance of the immigrant group itself is not a straightforward one. Americans were exploring Italian restaurants even as they created small, discriminatory quotas to exclude Italian immigrants in the 1920s," said Donna Gabaccia, a history professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough who specializes in international migration, gender and food trends. "Social, cultural, structural, acceptance can develop at very different rates over time. Which foods and which peoples will find acceptance--or when-- is often not obvious."
Asked last month what he would request the White House chef make for his first presidential meal, Rubio shared his appetite for tortillas. "Something Tex-Mex. I love Tex-Mex. I like enchiladas of every kind," said Rubio, a Florida Republican who has taken a harsh stance on illegal immigration. Bush, a former Florida governor who is married to a Mexican woman, confessed Wednesday he would break his strict paleo diet for tacos al carbon. Even Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner who has vowed to build a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border, has agreed to sit down with critics over a plate of beans and rice.
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Modern politicians are eager to show they care about border security and can appeal to immigrant communities at the same time, said Jacob L. Vigdor, a public policy professor at the University of Washington who specializes in immigration and ethnicity. What's telling, however, is that lawmakers find it safer these days to claim they like tacos rather than professing an affinity for, say, arugula.
"Maybe they want lobster, maybe they want filet mignon with blue cheese and a peppercorn sauce, but you can't say that," Vigdor said. "And claiming a food associated with the people is a way of saying that you understand the average family, you understand the average person."
Indeed, Mexicans and Latinos overall increasingly look like the average American. Mexicans make up about half of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants. They also represent a significant portion of the nation's legal immigrants and Latino population. There were 11.6 million Mexican immigrants in the United States in 2013, comprising about 28 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population. In all, more than 34.8 million Americans were either born in Mexico or claim Mexican ancestry, representing nearly 70 percent of all Latinos in the U.S.
Hispanics, already the largest ethnic group in the nation, are expected to grow from 17 percent to nearly 30 percent of the population by 2060, according to U.S. Census projections. They have helped determine national and local elections in recent years, especially in the swing states of Arizona, Nevada, Florida and Colorado. President Barack Obama won a second term after Latinos backed him over Republican Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012.
As more Latinos call the U.S. home, Americans food habits have shifted. Salsa is now more popular than ketchup, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns and Americans eat more tortilla chips than potato chips. In all, Americans consumed rice as a side dish an average of 24 times in 2013, up from 20 servings in 2003, according to NPD's National Eating Trend.
A candidate embracing Mexican food just makes good political sense, said James A. McCann, a political science professor at Purdue University in Indiana who has studied Latino voting trends. "Food is a great equalizer and it's a way to build a sense of empathy and familiarity," he said. "We want someone who is a person of the people. That helps bolster trust, so the food you choose, and if it's the food that a working person orders at a food truck, that is one way to resonate."
Richard Alba, a sociology professor at the University at Albany and the author of "Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration," said some Americans have unfairly associated Mexican and Central American immigrants with the drug violence that has plagued those nations in recent years. Sharing a love of tortillas might help erode some of those harsh stereotypes, he said.
"The spread of Mexican food and its growing popularity do indeed reflect a kind of penetration of Mexican culture into the mainstream," he said.
Mexican food has long held a political edge in the U.S. amid decades of heated debate over illegal immigration. Mexican slurs such as beaner, greaser, pepper belly and taco bender refer to food. President Gerald Ford embarrassed himself in April 1976 when he traveled to the Alamo in Texas and dug into a tamale without first removing its corn husk wrapper. After losing to Jimmy Carter in the general election, asked what the lesson of his defeat was, Ford answered, “Always shuck your tamales.” Taco Bell, the nation's most popular Mexican food chain, prompted boycotts in 1998 when it unveiled Dinky, a talking Chihuahua mascot some Mexican activists found offensive. More recently, a South Carolina restaurant was criticized in 2013 for printing and selling T-shirts with the slogan "How to catch an illegal immigrant" accompanied by a cartoon drawing of two tacos placed beneath a box trap.
"A hundred years ago, Mexican food was actually a metaphor for why we need to exclude Mexicans, that chili would give Uncle Sam heartburn," said Jeffrey Pilcher, a Mexican food historian and the author of "¡Que vivan los tamales! Food and the Making of Mexican Identity" and "Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food."
While it's no longer socially acceptable to refer to Mexicans by the food they eat, Pilcher warned that candidates showing off their knowledge of taco joint menus won't necessarily translate into progressive immigration policies anytime soon.
"It's not a guarantee for a respect for our differences," he said. "It's this kind of easy American multiculturalism where we eat their food, but we don’t actually want to eat with them."
In his research, Pilcher found that the first time the taco was mentioned in the U.S. media was in 1905, around the time Mexican immigrants first traveled to the U.S. to work the railroads and in the mines. In subsequent decades, Mexican food in the U.S. adopted “American” ingredients not found south of the border, including sour cream, cheddar cheese, hamburger meat and iceberg lettuce. Mexican restaurants became a popular fixture across the nation, even as immigration critics called for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.
"For a long time, Americans have loved Mexican food but hated the Mexicans who bring the food," said Arellano, who writes the award-winning syndicated “Ask a Mexican!” humor column focusing on immigration, labor and Mexican culture in the United States. "If you are dehumanizing what people eat, then you are probably not going to think much of the person who is eating that food. On the other hand, if the food is part of your everyday life, then you have a more open attitude toward Mexicans."
But even if more tacos doesn’t result in more Latino political power, that Americans are willingly ordering and preparing tortillas and other Mexican foodstuffs suggests at least one positive shift for Hispanic immigrants. "I don't agree that the acceptance of Mexican food guarantees that Mexicans will be accepted," Gabaccia said. "But it is very unlikely that Mexicans will be accepted in a country that does not accept their foods."