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Steven Alvarez, educator
Issue 65: On teaching identity, foodways, and cultural literacy through tacos.
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Steven Alvarez is a New York based professor of English who teaches a course called Taco Literacy at St. John’s University. His students explore history, migration, cultural literacy, identity, and politics through the lens of Mexican and Mexican-American food.
I chatted with Steven about his Taco Literacy course, why he thinks it’s important to teach these issues through the lens of food, and how he thinks about and teaches authenticity in Mexican food.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about your background?
Steven Alvarez: I’m Mexican-American and I was born and raised in Safford, Arizona. I'm the first one in my family to go to college and I went to University of Arizona, because in Arizona, if you graduate in the top five percent, you get a tuition waiver to go to university. That's where I first took my classes in Mexican-American studies and I got really curious and later on went to grad school in New York City, which is pretty much the exact opposite of Safford.
I did my PhD dissertation about this after school program and was helping Mexican children with their homework in English and helping parents. I met a lot of parents and oftentimes they would bring me food, but I didn’t think much of it — I was more the starving grad student then. But the food was really more than just food, it was a way of saying thank you, we see you, you see us.
I took a job at University of Kentucky and eventually got introduced to the Southern Foodways Alliance. Previously, my research was on language and literacy, bilingualism and community, but I started teaching a class called Taco Literacy based on the model of the Southern Foodways Alliance and thinking about the contributions of Mexicans.
Next thing I know, the class went viral, and I eventually brought it to St. John’s University in Queens.
The taco stuff is pretty cool. I enjoy it because it's another way of getting my research out about Mexican people and their contributions to the United States, as well as what the United States has given to Mexican food.
It's thinking about how food is grounded first and foremost in people and then how foodways are an expression of how we link together. Sometimes we disassociate from one another, but I think food ultimately unites us.
Brianna Plaza: On a high level, walk me through the Taco Literacy course.
Steven Alvarez: The way it first developed was really thinking about what students already know about Mexican food. And what students know is a range. There's the student who watches a lot of food TV. Then there are other students who only know about Chipotle or fast food chains. It's a way for us to begin.
I start out with what students already know, and from there integrate ideas about the names of foods, for example. I start with some research into the name of the food and where the word comes from. Then seeing how the words sometimes move and change.
And then we look at the ingredients themselves. Like a tortilla — are we talking about flour or are we talking about corn? Or a tamal? Is it wrapped in a corn husk? Is it wrapped in a banana leaf?
Then we really start thinking about some of the regional variations in Mexico and how those varieties connect to the United States. So for students to be able to understand, it’s about giving them a vocabulary to speak about regional differences and not lumping all Mexican food together. But ultimately, it’s about getting them to think about how food moves with people the same way languages do.
To really bring it all together, it's thinking about a few different things. On one hand, there's the macro level with issues of trade and migration, and you could argue genetic engineering and GMOs. But then there's the micro level where people experience food as a way of caring for the family, or preparing and sharing meals with those we care for and who care for us.
At the micro level, we use language as a way to promote stories in our communities and it’s what makes us human. So my idea was to link foodways and literacy and think about how food and language are expressions of our genius.
Brianna Plaza: Why do you think that immigration, trade — the issues that you just touched on — are important to be partially taught through the lens of food?
Steven Alvarez: Because it's so politically divisive otherwise. It’s easy to think about immigrants as faceless people, as hoards of masses who are coming to the US to challenge our sovereignty. But when you start to see people from the perspective of their faces — I mean at the level of their eyes — it's so hard to deny their humanity.
But first and foremost, we all eat. And more importantly, those xenophobes who will outright say they hate Mexicans or people from Central America — love our food.
You can't really love the food if you don't love the people. Part of it is, like I said, at the macro and the micro levels. And at the macro level the people are faceless and we don't know who they are. They’re a “they.” But when we see them at the micro level as our neighbors, we see that it's not a crime to want to make a better life for your family.
So you can say there are macro and micro reasons, but when it comes down to it, it’s the story of what you would do for your family.
Brianna Plaza: How do you teach about the disconnect between Americans’ love of Mexican food but their “otherness” of Mexicans?
Steven Alvarez: When you teach a class for a while and you have to have different lessons, you see what works and what doesn't work. It comes down to a few different factors.
On one hand, it's having people tell their stories. Hearing the stories of people who are farm workers and why they came here. Understanding that story shows their human side. I invite guest speakers and try to celebrate the folks who maybe, let's say, don't have a lot of formal education and who are some of the geniuses of food in terms of preparation. Or really going down the line about all the Mexican contributions that happened in order to get those avocados to you.
On another level, though, is to start thinking about some of the structural issues in terms of NAFTA and post-NAFTA. The deal has been renegotiated, but we start with a look at minimum wages.
Minimum wages in Mexico vary, but come out to roughly $12 a day on a good day. I ask students how much they make and then have them imagine that if you make $12-$15 a day, could you imagine going to a place where you can make $100 a day? And what if it was temporary and you had to live with other people but you could send money back to your family?
And they start to put everything in perspective and put themselves in the situation of the opportunity costs. Would you do it? Would you do it for your family? Would you sacrifice yourself if you knew it was going to be able to send your kids to school?
Really what I try to get at are their experiences eating Mexican food. The stomach is closer to the heart.
When I first got to Lexington, Kentucky, food wasn't what I focused on. But I was studying the neighborhood of Mexington and I was teaching classes about it and got a lot of resistance from the students. And this was before Trump.
So I invited Dreamers and immigration activists and different folks to my class and for some of the students, even some of the students who are immigrant students, it was a hard sell. They said why don't they get in line?
I took the students at the very end of semester on a field trip to the barrio and we went to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez and I told the students to get a couple tacos. First off, they saw the menu and they saw things on there like lengua (tongue) and that was new for them because chicken or beef is usually their norm. But they loved the tacos. They're like, "How do they make these tortillas? What do we do with the lime?" Then all of a sudden they were really curious about Mexican people. So I thought, "If I teach through food — something they're already curious about — then there's no way they can deny the humanity of others."
And those questions they had before — why don’t they get in line — if I explain it through the food, it makes it a bit more complicated. I was trying to hit certain points, but also starting where students were already curious and could immediately appreciate the contributions of their neighbors.
Brianna Plaza: There’s been a longterm narrative that “ethnic food” should be inexpensive. There are a lot of ongoing conversations challenging this notions, but how do you talk to students about these ideas?
Steven Alvarez: Part of it is understanding there's the fine dining, there's street food, and there's the in between. But there’s always been this idea that we have to have French cuisine. There are French restaurants all over Mexico, but in Mexico, anything that was “historically Mexican”, especially related to corn, was considered indigenous cuisine.
There are a lot of world renowned chefs that come from Mexico, but they're up against the stereotype of the Taco Bell taco — a cheap and fast product. A taco from a taco truck is also fast and also takes about the same time, but the overhead is different. We have to think about “quick fast food” versus “slow food.”
There’s also the idea of how social class relates to cuisine, which is not always applied to Mexican food. The stereotype is that it's fast food and it's quick and cheap. That if you're paying more than a few bucks, then you’re being robbed. But that’s also like Mexicans aren't worth enough to pay more for this, but we'll pay more for French food.
If you look at Pete Wells from the New York Times, he goes to taco trucks and recognizes that this food is complicated and it’s got history. I think to do that points out that whatever the tradition of the food, there’s a dignity to making it and that has a price. And I think that has more to do with thinking about it as the food of our neighbors.
One of my favorite things to ask students is about their favorite kind of taco. Sometimes they’ll say, “the one with the crispy shell,” and I am like hold up, that’s a tortilla. So we’ll go through the tradition of the tortilla and the fact that it had to be manufactured in that shell shape. These conversations put everything in perspective and give students a bit more context about what they’re consuming.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about authenticity (or not) when it comes to Mexican food?
Steven Alvarez: I think more on the “or not” side, but it's sort of like an unwinnable battle. Another way of putting it is that you can’t really get to the heart of what you’re looking for if you're just looking for “authenticity.” Rather, it’s more about appreciating what’s there and understanding what’s around you and putting that in context.
Everywhere is different, so I ask my students to do a little research before they go to a place and then really talk to people once they’re there. No one's more happy to talk about their food than Mexicans.
I ask them to note the difference between restaurants. Some food is spicier, some use corn instead of flour tortillas. It’s a really cool exercise for students to be able to open a map of their city and see, wow, there are all these taquerias here.
The idea is hopefully they start to go and see these neighborhoods and do some exploring. In one of my classes, I had a public health student who wanted to do a comparison between Whole Foods and the Mexican grocery store. He’s white and he asked me, “Is it ok if I go down there? I don’t speak Spanish.” I was like yea, why not? I told him to think about the perspective of someone who speaks only Spanish and who visits an English-dominated space. It was a good exercise and he wrote a really compelling paper about how the produce is better at the Mexican store. Plus, he got to learn a bit of practical Spanish - everybody wins!