No to the Plundering

By Mayra Turchiano

I am a simple woman that likes to give it to people straight (derecho). But by some higher power, the writers of SocRogueScholars have asked me to contribute to their blog. In particular, I want to write about a most concerning issue I came across quite recently: The sale of my cultural heritage and to a greater extent, my identity as a Mexican American woman.

Before I get to that part, I will tell you how I came about this scary revelation. I have worked in several libraries across North County, San Diego. As you may imagine, I love reading and have read countless books. If I was asked to select a book that best represents me, it would be Rain of Gold (Lluvia de Oro) by Victor Villasenor. Much like the author, I romanticize and simultaneously reject many aspects of my Mexican heritage and culture. It’s my culture and to a greater extent, my identity, so I believed I get to make whatever I want of it.

Rain of Gold

At least that’s what I blissfully thought, until one day I came across the 2014 Gold Medallion Awards honoring the best restaurants and restaurateurs in San Diego, during one of those slow days at the library. To my delight, several Mexican restaurants were among the awardees but as I looked further, it suddenly hit me that all the wining restaurants weren’t owned by Mexicans or Latinos. To many, this wouldn’t be a problem, but for me it is a symptom of the colonization of ethnic minorities. The appropriation of cultural heritages, customs, symbolism and identities by others for the sole purpose of profit. Bottom line, my cultural heritage and many others’ is for sale in the form of chic ethnic restaurants that promise you the most “authentic” cuisine. And while I am happy there are many aficionados of Mexican cuisine, I hate to see that while some are getting rich through the sale of my cultural identity, it is to no benefit to those it usurps representation: Latinos. Even the word “authentic” is very loosely used as what they are advertising as authentic is far from the word should mean. News alert: burritos and taco shells are an American invention created to suit the American palette.

Beyond the usurpation of my culture, what I find more offensive is the sad reality that the very people it pretends to represent are being exploited and perceived as disposable cheap labor. On one side, we are sold the mirage of the authentic Mexican cuisine that it’s exotic, tasty, and spicy  to the palette. Yet on the other side, Latinos are told that they are disposable and that their labor and sacrifices will not be rewarded through upward mobility. They can hold no higher rank than minimum wage dishwashers, waitresses, bus boys, cooks, or maintenance staff. In my eyes, that is a slap in the face telling me that my cultural heritage is worth exploiting for profit while its people are invisible.

This gross injustice has far more reaching effects than this particular situation, as most of the Latino food brands in the Unites States are not owned by Latinos or Hispanics. You are probably saying that this is a BOLD statement to make but as proof of it, I will name two particular books that have documented the appropriation of Mexican food by the “colonizers:” 1) Taco USA by Gustavo Arellano and 2) Planet Taco by Jeffrey M. Pilche.

tacousa-sm

This is a recurring theme in many ethnic minority cultures as demonstrated by the documentary, Good Hair, which explores the concept of what is socially viewed as good hair, and the impact it has on Black American women. That has led to the exploitation of black women’s insecurities through the sale of weaves and hair relaxers that is detrimental to the health of women and leads to the economic oppression of black culture. The hair industry is so prolific that it is a $9 billion industry in which all but one of the major brands is owned by whites. Once again, we see the colonization of an ethnic minority by telling them that there is something wrong with them and in order to fix it and be accepted, they must submit to Western standards. The way to do this is by modifying their bodies through the purchase of these products and services that are owned by the “colonizers.”

So enough is enough! There are limits on what you can take away from us. Our culture and identity are not for sale. Calling a ciabatta bread a telera does not make it a telera. Attempting to patent a cultural ritual like Day of the Dead is dead wrong, because it belongs to all of us and has been in existence longer than the company who wishes to exploit it. NO means NO to the plundering of people’s identity.

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