Monthly Archives: March 2013

From Pig Food to Haute Cuisine

March 25, 2013

By Catherine S. Ramírez

Many years ago, a family I knew—let’s call them the Pedrazos—invited their parish priest to their home for dinner.  Like many Mexican Americans, the Pedrazos were Catholic.  Their priest was from Spain.  In all likelihood, he’d been assigned to their church to attend to its many Spanish-speaking parishioners.  The Pedrazos made tamales for him, a sign that they held their guest in high esteem, as tamales require a fair amount of work and Mexican Americans generally serve them on special occasions.  As I picture them readying themselves and their home for their visitor, I imagine Mrs. Pedrazo spreading the creamy masa and spicy meat filling over the wet cornhusks and carefully folding the ends of each hoja to create a tidy bundle.  I picture scores of tidy bundles.  Then I imagine the astonishment, disappointment, injury, and anger she and her husband felt when their guest refused to eat the meal she had prepared for him.  “No como comida de therdos,” the priest announced in his Castilian accent.  Since the tamales were made of corn and pigs eat corn, he wouldn’t touch them.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Today, it appears Spaniards’ attitude toward Mexican food has changed.  In 2009, the New York Times’ Andrew Ferren surveyed a handful of Mexican restaurants in Madrid and concluded that Spaniards had “come a long way in embracing the food of their former colonies.”[1]  The 2013 Páginas Amarillas, Madrid’s equivalent of the Yellow Pages, lists 103 Mexican restaurants.  11870, an online restaurant reservation service that functions somewhat like Open Table, tallies 104.[2]  The Spanish capital also boasts 85 Argentine, 38 Peruvian, 27 Cuban, 23 Colombian, 21 Ecuadoran, ten Venezuelan, four Uruguayan, and three Chilean restaurants, not to mention 20 restaurantes sudamericanos.[3]  Stores specializing in productos latinos, like Paraguayan yerba mate and mixes for arepas, savory Colombian cornmeal patties, dot the city. [Fig. 1]

Chirimoyas, a sweet, succulent fruit native to the Andes, can be found in just about any frutería.  And many supermarkets have a small section devoted to Mexican food, complete with flour tortillas, ready-made guacamole and salsa, and kit fajitas. [Fig. 2]

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Without a doubt, the fruits of empire are available in Madrid in huge part because of the movement of Latin Americans to the former metropolis.  According to a report published in 2010 by Network Migration in Europe, a Berlin-based think tank devoted to the study of migration and integration, a total of 2,365,364 people of Latin American origin lived in Spain in 2009.  Latin Americans comprised 37 percent of the foreign-born population, up from 24 percent ten years earlier.  Most hail (in numerical order) from Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.[4]  Relatively few are from Mexico, but of all the cuisines from Spain’s former colonies, Mexican seems to be the most prevalent and popular.  Why?

As the American daughter of a Mexican immigrant who won the Los Angeles Times Best Home Cook of the Year Award in 1992, my response to this question is a simple duh:  Mexican food is prevalent and popular in Madrid and many other places simply because it’s tasty.  This is a glib, not to mention biased, answer.  There are many reasons for the increasingly global demand for Mexican fare.  Like German, Italian, and Japanese cuisines in the United States (think hot dogs, pizza, and sushi), Mexican food has been assimilated, in the literal and sociological senses of that word.  For evidence of its absorption by and emanation from the American mainstream, one need only look at the proliferation of the Denver-based chain, Chipotle, which lays claim to restaurants in the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France.[5]  Despite atrocities “The Great Satan” has committed and continues to commit at home and abroad, Americana, be it in the form of jazz, Disney, Starbucks, or Mission District-style burritos, retains its allure in many places.  According to Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA:  How Mexican Food Conquered America, Mexican fare has even made it to outer space.  Since 1985, NASA has catapulted its astronauts into space with tortillas, which have proven more durable and less dangerous to sensitive equipment than bread.[6]  Tony restaurants like Chicago’s Topolobampo show that Mexican food has also drifted from its humble origins.  In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared “traditional Mexican cuisine,” along with “the gastronomic meal of the French” and “Mediterranean diet,” an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  This was the first and only time food made UNESCO’s privileged list.[7]

When I moved to Madrid in August of 2012, I was intrigued by the Mexican restaurants here and took it upon myself to eat in as many as possible before my return to the US the following year.  How is the Mexican gastronomic experience reinterpreted in its new surroundings, I wondered?  More concretely, who owns, works in, and patronizes Mexican restaurants in Madrid?  And what can the migration and assimilation of Mexican food tell us about the migration and assimilation of people, both in the US and elsewhere?  Along with an empty stomach, a full wallet, and an increasingly crammed notepad, these are some of the questions with which I’ve set out as I’ve explored Mexican cookery in my adopted city.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Like images of the Virgin Mary in tree trunks, Mexican eateries in the US tend to reflect migration patterns and shifting demographics.  However, the ones in Madrid—and, here, I’d wager to say in just about any other European city—testify more to that city’s elite cosmopolitanism.  In other words, Mexican restaurants in Europe signal the presence of American expats and/or well-heeled foodies.  By and large, the Mexican restaurants in Madrid have a trendier or more upscale air than their Latin American counterparts, many (but certainly not all) of which appear to be run by and for hardworking and thrifty immigrants.  For example, at Hatun Wasi, a Peruvian restaurant that recently opened in the working-class, immigrant neighborhood of Cuatro Caminos, the no-nonsense dining room consists of mismatched chairs, tables, and bar stools.  The floor is clean, but scuffed.  A simple blackboard in the window announces the restaurant’s hours and the prices of various specials. [Fig. 3]

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

A two-course menú del día or lunch special costs a mere three euros (around four dollars).  In contrast, Takeiros, a Mexican restaurant near my apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Ríos Rosas, offers a three-course menú del día for 11 euros (roughly 14 dollars).  Dinner runs around 30 euros (40 dollars), a hefty price for many madrileños, immigrant and native-born alike, in this moment of economic crisis. Where Hatun Wasi is a modest, if not barebones, joint, many Mexican restaurants in Madrid are bedecked with colorful decorations that scream ¡MÉXICO! (or, as the Spaniards spell it, Méjico), such as papel picado, serapes, and lucha libre masks.  At Takeiros, Mexican lotería cards cover the walls and metal tooling lampshades dangle from the ceiling. [Fig. 4] And except for the live mariachi music Thursday nights at La Herradura, one of Madrid’s more established Mexican eateries, salsa music dominates the playlists in the Mexican restaurants I’ve patronized here.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

All the meals in these restaurants begin with a small basket of totopos (what Spaniards mistakenly call nachos) and salsa.  The chips always taste a bit like reconstituted cardboard, a travesty given the ubiquity of mouthwatering fried food in Spain, most notably, churros, patatas fritas, and calamares a la romana.  And while the salsa, be it red or green, is usually flavorful, it’s never spicy enough for me.  Still, despite their less-than-promising start, the Mexican meals I’ve had in Madrid have been surprisingly satisfying.  I’ve enjoyed fresh green salads garnished with velvety avocados and tangy flores de jamaica.  Staples, like quesadillas, burritos, and flautas, can be found on nearly all menus.  However, unless I’m at a burrito or taco bar, I usually don’t bother with the more prosaic foods.  Instead, I go for more complex dishes, like pollo en mole poblanocochinita pibil, and albondigas con salsa de chipotle. [Fig. 5] Mexican beers, such as Corona and Pacífico, are widely available; Mexican sodas and aguas frescas, less so.  Impressively, Takeiros’ wine list consists exclusively of wines from Baja California.

A couple of Mexicans opened Takeiros in 2011.  They own three other eateries in Madrid, one of which, a take-away counter, also specializes in Mexican fare.  While the customers at Takeiros appear to be mostly Spaniards, the workers I’ve encountered there have all been immigrants.  Peruvian and Ecuadorian chefs have prepared my food to perfection and Argentinian and Mexican waiters have delivered it to me and put up with my many questions.  The dishwasher, like the waitress I photographed in front of Hatun Wasi, is a young immigrant from Romania.

I’ll wrap up with a brief discussion of Romania, what I’ve come to see as the Mexico of Europe.  Just as Mexico hitched its cart to the NAFTA horse in 1994, Romania, one of Europe’s poorest nations, joined the European Union in 2007.  While NAFTA failed to provide for the free movement of workers across Mexico, the US, and Canada, EU membership has allowed Romanians to move and work within member states.  Like many Mexican migrants in the US, many Romanians came to Spain, Europe’s leading country of immigration from 2000 to 2007, to work in the then booming construction, tourism, hospitality, and domestic-service industries.[8]  In 2008, they surpassed Moroccans as the largest foreign group in this country.[9]  Then Spain’s economic bubble burst and unemployment skyrocketed.  The Spanish government responded by trying to restrict Romanian immigration, a reversal of its commitment to admit rumanosas fellow members of the twenty-seven-nation EU.[10]  More recently, the prospect of Romanians and Bulgarians being able to work freely in the UK starting in 2014 has provoked protests in that country.[11]  To deter “an influx of unwanted people,” the UK’s equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security, the Home Office, has considered launching an advertising campaign in Romania and Bulgaria stressing Britain’s less attractive qualities, like its notoriously bad weather.[12]  Hardy, despised, feared, and here to stay, Romanians, not unlike Mexicans in the US, are the cockroach people of Europe.[13]

In physiology, assimilation refers to consumption and the body’s absorption of nutrients after digestion.  Like the Spanish priest who rejected the Pedrazos’ homemade tamales, Europe refuses to take in Romanians or to absorb what many of them have to offer:  their labor.  Indeed, it sees them as a contaminant, as the recent scare over horsemeat fraudulently labeled as beef has made patent.  When horsemeat was first discovered in frozen lasagna in British and French supermarkets earlier this year, Romania was immediately cast as the culprit.  French and British news media reported that new traffic laws banning horse-drawn carts in that country had led to the mass slaughter of horses and the subsequent introduction of horsemeat into the food chain.  Even though the horsemeat was ultimately traced to a factory in southern France, the perception of Romania as dirty, primitive and, therefore, thoroughly un-European endures.[14]

Fig. 6

Fig. 6

A Spaniard in LA.  Chicken mole, Romanian workers, and a Chicana scholar in Madrid.  Lasagna in France and Britain.  Clearly, people and food travel.  Far too often, the latter goes down more easily than the former, as the sign in the final illustration I’ve included in this essay indicates [Fig. 6].[15]  Whether or not people assimilate and are assimilated—incorporated, integrated, welcomed—depends on numerous factors, including access to citizenship and basic social services, particularly education and health care, possession of rights and protections as workers, and genuine tolerance and respect.



Catherine S. Ramírez, an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is spending her sabbatical year in Madrid, where she’s writing a book tentatively titled Assimilation:  A Brief History.

[1] Andrew Ferren, “Mexican Hot Spots in Madrid,” New York Times, May 5, 2009, (accessed March 18, 2013).
[2] (accessed March 19, 2013).
[3] (accessed March 18, 2013).
[4] Trinidad L. Vicente, Latin American Immigration to Spain (accessed March 18, 2013).
[5] “Chipotle Opens Restaurant in London, First in EU,” Denver Business Journal, May 10, 2010, (accessed March 19, 2013).
[6] Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA:  How Mexican Food Conquered America (New York:  Scribner, 2012).
[7] (accessed March 18, 2013).
[8] Michael Fix, Demetrios G. Papademetriou, Jeanne Batalova, Aaron Terrazas, Serena Yi-Ying Lin, and Michelle Mittelstadt, Migration and the Global Recession:  A Report Commissioned by the BBC World Service (Washington, DC:  Migration Policy Institute, 2009), 33-34.  Also see (accessed March 19, 2013).
[9] Ibid., 38.
[10] Raphael Minder, “Amid Unemployment, Spain Aims to Limit Romanian Influx,” New York Times, July 21, 2011, (accessed March 19, 2013).
[11] Stephen Castle, “Britain Braces for Higher Migration from Romania and Bulgaria,” New York Times, March 4, 2013, (accessed March 19, 2013).
[12] Sarah Lyall, “Welcome to Britain.  Our Weather Is Appalling,” New York Times, January 29, 2013, (accessed March 19, 2013).
[13] I take the term, “cockroach people,” from Oscar Zeta Acosta’s 1973 novel The Revolt of the Cockroach People (New York:  Vintage, 1989).
[14] Andrew Higgins, “Recipe for a Divided Europe:  Add Horse, Then Stir,” New York Times, March 9, 2013, (accessed March 19, 2013).
[15] This image is from (accessed March 19, 2013).All other photos here were taken by the author.

Challenging the Latina/o Achievement Gaps—Let’s Begin By Making School Relevant to Their Community, Their Culture and Their Lives

March 18, 2013

By Grace C. Huerta, Ph.D.

A 2013 study recently published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that reading scores among Latina/o middle-level students remain below the average of their white peers in such states as California, Florida, Illinois, New York, Texas and Washington. In fact, over the course of 30 years, Latina/o students in junior and senior high schools continue to see declines in academic achievement, standardized test scores, graduation rates and college attendance (Gándara, 2010).

What is this data really telling us? What is happening in our communities and public schools that keep this fast-growing minority group from closing the achievement gap and moving forward to college?

Undergraduate students from The Evergreen State College, sought to answer these questions as they conducted community-based interdisciplinary research in the town of Salish, Washington (a pseudonym) during the fall and winter of 2012-13. Our undergraduates, many of whom are bilingual, first generation minority students themselves, discovered that such questions are difficult to answer without understanding the larger context of a community.

Small Town, Big Changes
By visiting Salish’s city center, historical museum, industries, schools, tribal lands, churches, and health authority, undergraduates explored the history, culture, labor, and education in a Pacific Northwest town who has undergone demographic change—change that mirrors the ongoing struggles encountered by immigrants across America.

Salish’s economy was based on logging, shellfish harvesting and salmon fishing. These industries are now in decline due to international outsourcing, company restructuring, and the enforcement of tribal fishing treaties. Struggling against poverty, today Salish’s largest employers include the local casino and a subsidiary wood product company. Other seasonal industries have emerged, such as salal harvesting (floral greens), wreathe-making, oyster harvesting and tree planting, all of which draw a Mexican and Guatemalan labor force. These immigrants now have children attending the Salish public schools.

Learning A Community—Undergraduates at Work
Evergreen College students were eager to learn about Salish, a community they bypass on the way to weekends in Seattle or to the capital, Olympia. Given Salish’s invisibility, faculty identified this as an important site for a field-based study.

Using qualitative research methods, undergraduates analyzed historical documents, conducted observations, interviewed and videotaped immigrant advocates, educators, and Latina/o families and students. Evergreen students also tutored English language learners (ELLs), cooked meals for the homeless, supported a clothing bank, assisted in an adult literacy program and mentored alternative high school students.

The majority of our college students chose to mentor Latino/a and ELLs in four K-12 public schools. They volunteered at one dual language elementary school, a middle school, a junior high school and a comprehensive high school whose students included Mexican, Euro-Americans, Guatemalan and Native American students.

Undergraduates tutored elementary students who received content area instruction in Spanish and English. They worked with a faculty of elementary bilingual teachers who utilized student-centered and culturally relevant pedagogy. During their weekly school visits, Evergreen students observed a rich cross-cultural learning environment where languages, family traditions, histories and the arts held equal value along-side math, science, and state standards. By implementing a dual language program, these K-5 students were engaged by a curriculum and pedagogy that resonated with their lives (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).

Our undergraduates also met elementary bilingual school staff who were concerned with issues central to the immigrant community. For example, school advocates, educators and immigration lawyers from Seattle organized a community workshop regarding “The Dream Act” and immigration policy in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. Respectful of the families and their children’s needs, the workshop was presented and translated into three languages, Spanish, English and a Mayan dialect, Mam. At least 100 family and community members were in attendance at the elementary school. The undergraduates later recognized the importance of these collective educational efforts to support the concerns of the larger community.

Scratched Surfaces—Struggles at the Secondary Level
In contrast, our observations at the secondary school differed significantly from those at the elementary level. Gaining entrée into the predominately English-only, Salish High School was particularly challenging. Teachers explained they were too busy to accommodate our weekly visits. For those undergraduates who were able to observe ELL classrooms, they noted a predominant use of worksheets, homework assignments from other classes, with little culturally relevant content available to them. The teens often chatted amongst themselves, which later called into question the rigor of instruction they received. As our undergraduates collected data, it became apparent there were a number of variables that impacted ELL academic achievement in grades 8-12.

Figure 1.“The Dream Act” Community Information Meeting at Salish Elementary.

Figure 1.“The Dream Act” Community Information Meeting at Salish Elementary.

The college students noted how the popular media depicts minority students being saved by “supermen or women” who romantically buck the system in private or charter schools. And yet, our students reported in their interviews with faculty that they felt demoralized by the pressures they faced, such as the emphasis on standardized testing and the lack of resources. It was clear that the secondary ELL teachers had few opportunities for professional development and collaboration. Faculty isolation resulted in collateral damage where the teachers internalized these pressures, adopted low expectations, and essentialized ELLs as illiterate and incapable of any deep cognitive understanding. It was apparent to the Evergreen students that such cultural deficit thinking did little to help empower the high school students.

Our undergraduates also observed some educators who resisted external support, such as the tutoring or mentoring, fearing this would take time away from standardized test preparation. The introduction of culturally relevant pedagogy or dual language activities was rejected at the secondary level. Ironically, these were the same practices that proved to be successful at Salish’s dual language elementary school.

While secondary teachers emphasized content area instruction, our undergrads noted that the curriculum did not motivate ELLs. A common philosophical stance taken by educational administrators emphasized colorblindness. They were not interested in program models that affirmed diversity, such as through dual language classes, or the creation of supervised spaces for youth to develop a sense of belonging (Gándara, 2010; Slavin & Cheung, 2005).

Such initiatives were perceived to agitate students rather than empower them to critically think for themselves. When Evergreen students asked to take part in organizing a Latina/o cultural club, educators initially questioned why was there a need for such an organization? An administrator asked, “We don’t want to segregate students. Why couldn’t we have one big group that can get along?” At yet, it was at this time that our undergraduates dug in their heels, and became even more committed to attending after school mentoring sessions.

Over the course of a month, we saw the high school Latina/o Culture Club (a term generated and agreed upon by the youth) meetings increase from three students to five students, to 11 students, and to 15 students. Interestingly, some of the students who attended the club planning meetings were Euro-American youth who hold long-term cross-cultural friendships with their Latina/o peers. It was these same students who met while attending Salish’s dual language elementary school many years ago. A sense of school attachment and sense of belonging established through the extracurricular club seemed to lift student engagement. In fact, the teens were amazed to learn that our undergraduates attended a collage that was only 15-20 minutes away.

Figure 2. High school Latina/o Culture Club members enjoy some dulce while recollecting their days in a dual language elementary school.

Figure 2. High school Latina/o Culture Club members enjoy some dulce while recollecting their days in a dual language elementary school.

Meanwhile, without school funding, the club struggled to identify an adviser. As a result, the official status of the club remains uncertain. However, one science teacher visited a club meeting. She was visibly surprised to see sophomores, juniors, and seniors working side by side with college students, as they created art projects about their cultural backgrounds. One teen described how the club, with new friendships with the college students, shared laughter, conversation, and music and brought, “Relief from the stress of the day.”

Not a Panacea, But a Start
While our Evergreen students will continue to take part in the Latina/o club, as well as tutor in the dual language elementary school throughout the 2013 academic year, these initiatives alone are not a panacea for closing the achievement gap. But what we can say is there is a yearning, a need for connection to one another, to family, to culture. It is this lack of connection between communities and the institutional structures and practices of schooling which cause students to disengage from a system that often marginalizes them. The nurturing, affirming cultural practices evident in elementary settings are mostly absent from such as Salish High, whose families barely fit into the town’s history, culture, and fragmented economy.

Figure 3. Salish High School student works on his culture poster board with an undergraduate mentor from The Evergreen State College.

Figure 3. Salish High School student works on his culture poster board with an undergraduate mentor from The Evergreen State College.

It can be said through our initial fieldwork in the Salish schools that standardized tests scores just scratch the surface when addressing the educational inequities Latina/o students face. Similar outcomes are evident among secondary Latino/a students and ELLs nationwide as they experience inequitable access to core and advanced placement curriculum (Huerta, 2009). These students remain essentially parked in low-level classes, where a scripted and irrelevant curriculum are taught by a teacher workforce with low morale, with no opportunity for ongoing professional development and collaboration (Fry, 2004). Traditional high school program models, leaves little hope for disrupting the patterns of low academic achievement, graduation rates and college attendance among Latina/o students.

That said, our research does show how we can make some strides. When our undergraduates talked to Latina/o teenagers, they found that the youth wanted dual language instruction in their schools beyond the elementary level. The teens wanted a club to study culture and to learn about college. They were interested in the politics of “The Dream Act” and the possibilities for new immigration policies.

But space must be made within the community and schools for such engagement to take place. While the Salish community has taken steps in this direction, a systemic K-12 effort to disrupt what is not working in the public schools must be confronted. Collaboration with local advocates and mentors remains an approach that offers support to schools uncertain how to meet the needs of diverse communities such as Salish.


Brown-Jeffy, S. and Cooper, J. (2011). “Toward A Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An Overview of The Conceptual and Theoretical Literature.” Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter, 65-84.

Fry, R. (2004). Latino Youth Finishing College: The Role of Selective Pathways. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available:

Gándara P. (2010). “The Latino Education Crisis.” Educational Leadership, 67, (5), 24-30.

Huerta, G. (2009). Educational Foundations: Diverse Histories, Diverse Perspectives. Kentucky: Wadsworth.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2013). Mega-States: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation.Washington D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education.

Slavin, R. and Cheung, A. (2005). “A Synthesis of Research on Language of Reading Instruction for English Language Learners.” Review of Educational Research, 75, 247–284.

Dr. Grace Huerta is a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Previously, she was an Associate Professor at Utah State University. She earned her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Arizona State University and completed her undergraduate work at the University of Southern California. Her areas of research include multicultural education, qualitative research methodology and secondary ESL/bilingual education. She is the author of the book Educational Foundations; Diverse Histories, Diverse Perspectives.


Caty Escobar    April 6, 2013 at 6:54 PM

Great post! This really made me reflect on my own experiences in school and how I saw my community collaborate. I grew up in Maryland and in my elementary school there was a large Latino population. My mother felt very involved in my school life because there were interpreters available on-site, at PTA meetings, and during parent-teacher conferences. At times, the school would put together programs that targeted Latino families so that teachers could better understand their students’ family life and culture. I too had many resources available in elementary school that eventually vanished when I entered middle school and high school. My perspective on this poor transition is that because educators believe that a child’s early school years are the most important for development, more support should be provided during these years. Also, because there are less educators and counselors of an ethnic background in schools students’ opinions and voices are not heard. I believe change should occur within the educational system first to encourage multicultural discipline, bilingual education, and cultural services to students and parents. Your research shows that change is difficult when teachers are reluctant to cooperate and when resources are low. What these undergraduate students have done thus far is phenomenal and proof that mentoring is also needed in schools.