The Big "spicy" Apple: What if New York were a taco?
An interactive map allows you to track the past and present of Mexicans in the city through its restaurants. What do you think has happened in the last 90 years?
New York is known as the epicenter of hot dogs, bagels and yes, it may be the place where we can find the best curry outside of India, but historically, no one thinks of the city as a place where there are Mexican restaurants abound. In fact, it has only been since the end of the last century that culinary critics have begun to pay attention to a cuisine that until now in the United States was related only to epicenters in San Antonio or Chicago.
However, in a world with a constant flow of cultures and people, a taquería in Manhattan or Queens is not simply a taquería, it is a geopolitical phenomenon impossible to digest if we don't pay attention to history.
This is demonstrated by an interactive map made by Latinx historians from Stony Brook University, which shows the Mexican restaurants operating in the city from the 80s to the present, and does so in the five districts. A colossal work in growth and public access that Professor Lori Flores defined to Eater as "a digital love letter to Mexican cuisine."
In 1980, of the 2,500 Mexican restaurants in the United States, only about 100 were located in the northeast of the country. Today in New York City, there are almost 1,000, although they are still only 3% of the city's more than 27,500 food businesses (338 in Manhattan, 301 in Brooklyn, 203 in Queens, 126 in the Bronx and 43 in Staten Island).
They are the best and most delicious proof of the enormous growth of the Mexican population in New York since the end of the 20th century, in good part stimulated by an internal migration of Latinos from the south to the north, but also of the great Mexican migrations after the crises that marked the 80s and 90s — the devaluation of the Mexican peso, the 1985 earthquake in Michoacán and Guerrero, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
However, there have always been pioneers, such as Don Julio's, which opened its doors in 1929 becoming a rara avis in the city's gastronomic scene.
And make it visible, because it exists and is very good even in the land of hamburgers. One of the most interesting points of the study also takes the majority Mexican neighborhoods in the past and at present as a reference and considers the price variable.
In spite of the richness of its ingredients and its complex elaboration, nowadays Mexican food is still seen as something "cheap" — street food — the ugly sister of sushi, and there are still very few haute cuisine restaurants where you can taste the countless dishes of a country as huge and culturally varied as Mexico.
This is curious and speaks volumes about the plight of the Latino community in the United States even today. Especially because, according to a study carried out in 2004, more than 40% of Mexicans living in New York were in the food industry and a large part of them came from Puebla (75%) — why didn't they start? We all know the answer.
But apart from that, it allows us to reflect on other phenomena, such as the way in which the clichés about a city continue to be well supported no matter how its population changes and our responsibility to make visible the richness and cultural diversity of a place and the contributions of the Latinx population. Not only is it a matter of a good appetite, or having a wide variety of food sites from different countries, but projects like the interactive map focus on the challenges and difficulties of Latinx entrepreneurs in the food sector to keep their businesses going in the midst of the COVID pandemic and survive the quarantine closure and the crisis that is coming.
Because many Latino restaurant owners have reportedly had difficulty receiving Paycheck Protection Program benefits — many more than non-Latinos — and closing their doors during the pandemic, and because, in light of the data, there has been an alarming number of Latinx, particularly Mexicans, killed by COVID working in the food industry.
So if you ever hear anyone complain again that it's impossible to get a good taco, an enchilada or a quesadilla in New York City — making their list of dishes very simple — show them the map and meet them to eat in those places. Know that eating is also a political act.