Taco Trucks of Houston: Taking a Bite Out of Social Injustice by Youssef Martinez

Long ago, I was a red-faced little boy who had just arrived in the United States from Mexico. I was flushed with culture-shock, and I missed my mother and her cooking with all my heart. I longed for home, and most of all, I longed to be seated with my family at the dinner table, eating the wonderful food that my mother used to prepare for me. In America, my father tried his best to mimic her cooking, but he could not prepare anything that did not come in a box, despite his very admirable efforts. I had arrived in a small, Midwestern town that had very few Mexicans, and I spoke no English at all. For months, I had no friends, and desperately lacked the food that reminded me of home.

After a year of searching for authentic Latin American food, like my mother used to make, I had still found nothing but Taco-Bells and other Americanized spinoffs of Mexican food. It all tasted the same- fake and mass-produced. It is no surprise to any Latin American that ground beef in most dishes is unthinkable, as is the use of flour tortillas or American cheese slices. That is not Mexican food, and it bears no resemblance to what Latin Americans grow up eating. I was a very homesick child; unhappy, lonely, and desperately hungry for the cuisine of my homeland, I slowly grew more and more disillusioned with my new ‘home’.

I met and interviewed a man named Byron, who, although an adult, feels just as homesick as I did when I was barely a child. I outgrew homesickness because I transitioned into American culture, having learned to speak English through grade school, and having made friends. However, he has not outgrown homesickness because, due to his inability to speak English, he is limited to only live on the fringes of society, mostly in isolation or with other immigrants. He is originally from Ecuador, and only speaks his native tongue. He has few friends, and lives a thousand miles away from his family and his beloved ranch.

I asked him why he remains in America, rather than taking his savings and returning to Ecuador. He explained that he deeply misses his eight children and his wife, but added, “We all have people we miss. We all have people that we can’t see. That’s life. That’s always been life. And you know what? No matter what you do, that’s always going to be life. So, I do what I should. They have a house; you know? They aren’t renting, and my daughter is in a good school. This little taco-stand paid for it. I own two of these, but I run this one. Anyhow, my daughter, she’s in a great college there, and she might come on a visa here. This is what it’s all for. I could go back but I’d run out of money in five years or less. No, you should put your priorities in the right order. Is it about you, or about your kids and your wife?”

Byron told me that he has almost nothing that reminds him of home. Most Hispanics he encounters are not even from Ecuador, and therefore, even in his own community, he has few prospective friends. However, he added that his restaurant brings him a bit of home every time that he opens shop. Because Latin cuisine varies greatly from region to region, often to the point of having little resemblance from one place to the next, Byron makes his own food, in his own way. Because of his sole command over the design of his cuisine, he, and other homesick immigrants from provinces neighboring his own, always find a taste of home at his taco stand.

This type of location-based cooking can be a real help to homesick immigrants, as it once was to me. After all, Latin Americans are not just from Latin America. They are each from individual countries, states, provinces, and towns, each with a unique style of cooking, and with a very distinct cuisine. Long after I had already given up on finding the food that I pined for, I encountered a restaurant which was owned by a man from my homeland, and therefore produced the very distinct cuisine which I grew up loving, (and which I was unable to locate at more mainstream establishments).

This happened when, one day, my father and I pulled into the parking lot of an auto-parts store. I sat in the care while my father went in. At that time, we had no A.C. in our vehicle, so the window was rolled down to permit a breeze to flow through. I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes. Suddenly, I smelled something wonderful. I knew what it was, but I refused to get my hopes up until I was sure. The aroma became unmistakable; herbs and spices infused with an earthy odor, the fragrance of fresh, healthy beef being seared to a fatty crisp, the bursting aromas of freshly sliced lime and radishes, and the lingering scent of grilled baby-onions. The smells of my homeland were now here, in America! I was ecstatic.

I lunged forward and looked to my right. There I saw a large, white, box-truck, which was so old and scuffed-up that I immediately assumed it was in the parking lot because it had broken down there. Suddenly, a little window slid open and a man with a white hat and a white apron leaned out of the window and yelled something. Another man stopped the conversation he was having and quickly walked over and grabbed a little white bag from the window sill. He opened it, and did not even move a step away before he began to eat. There, half-wrapped in tinfoil, I saw some of the food from my childhood; black beans with jalapenos and crumbling cheese, beside a bed of rice and fried plantains with cream. There were also a couple of tacos, made with real corn tortillas and beef chunks. This man also had other, much more complex Latin dishes available like rice-stuffed egg-battered peppers, and a dish made from chocolate and almond-cream, poured over chicken, as well as a hearty Mexican stew made of beef and various delicious vegetables. I could smell it all, and I was overjoyed.

I had never paid attention to a taco truck before, and in all honesty, I didn’t know what they were. So, this man struck me as being quite interesting. He was not wearing a uniform with a name tag. His truck did not have a company logo, or a brand of any kind, anywhere. He did not seem to be part of some large corporation or chain. In fact, he looked just like many of my neighbors in Mexico. I determined that he was just a normal person, and that he had made this wonderful little business all on his own. I felt proud of him, though I did not even know him.

When my father came out of the store, I rattled off about what I had seen and a look came over his face as if to say, “Oh yeah, the taco-trucks… Why didn’t I think of that?” My father had no cash on him, so he knew that he would not be able to buy anything for me to eat at that time, until we went home and got more money. He took me to the window to ask the man inside at what time he would close. Because my father is of Irish descent, he has white skin and blue eyes, so the man in the truck replied in broken English, “I close ten minutes. Maybe twenty. When the sun is gone.”

To the man’s surprise, my father began to speak Spanish and a friendly conversation ensued. I listened and learned, and in overhearing their conversation, I became fascinated by the man’s story. He had left his wife behind, and was only able to send for her after working many years. He told us that he had become tired of working physically exhausting jobs for someone else, and so he saved his money and started his own business. He explained that he had never had enough money for his family, despite working many, many hours. He had much to say on the willingness of some employers to abuse illegal immigrants, as well as those immigrants’ unwillingness (or inability and lack of options, as I see it) to defend themselves.

I listened as they spoke, concerned, as I was at that time a young immigrant myself, and I wondered if that type of mistreatment would be all that awaited me. However, I was also eager to find out if I would finally get to eat the some of the food from my childhood that was sizzling just a few feet away from me. Finally, I interrupted and asked if there would be enough time to get cash to pay the man for a plate of food. My father explained that it would be impossible to do, for there was simply not enough time to go home and return. Though I knew it was true, I was saddened.

We said our goodbyes, promising to come back tomorrow to buy everything on the menu, and then turned to leave. As I began to waddle away, I heard a rustling noise, and then I heard the man say, “Mijo, aqi.”, (which means “Here, son.”). I turned and found the man stretching his arm out past the little window of his truck. He handed me something warm that had been hurriedly wrapped in a piece of foil. I opened it and beheld in my grasp, for the first time in a year, a little piece of home. It was reminiscent of my childhood, of my earliest memories; of my friends, of my mother’s cooking, and even of my mother herself. I was impressionable and very young at the time, and I am told by my father that I ate the first taco through tiny sobs. I don’t recall, but it is certainly possible.

At that time, it meant so much to me. But of course, you may think, “It’s just a taco! What baby would cry over a taco?” This was less about the food and more about what it represented to me, especially as a child. Not only had I finally found my homeland’s cuisine (1,000 miles away from home), but I had also met a man who had the same background as I had, and who was very kind and enthusiastic, as well as hopeful about all immigrants’ place in American society.

However, what he told me about the limitations placed on immigrants by society, as well as about their inability (or unwillingness, as he saw it) to respond accordingly, rings true to this day. Although stereotypical, it is true to say that immigrant Hispanic men are usually seen working in backbreaking construction trades such as concrete work, drywall installation, or exposed to the elements doing lawn care, or some similar trade labor. The women fare no better, generally employed as babysitters, housekeepers, or maids, (as my own mother is). What choice do most of them have?

Consider also that Hispanic culture places a huge emphasis on the importance of food, which can easily become neglected in the rush of American life. This loss of tradition leads to a deterioration of the Hispanic immigrant’s cultural identity. Personally, I can recall nothing in my childhood which received more time and attention than did cooking, and I can recall no happier, more affectionate moments in my youth than those spent sitting around the dinner table with my parents, with a plate of food before me. Immigrants often find that one of the things that they miss the most about home is the cuisine that they grew up eating, but have left behind.

Therefore, life in America can often be very disillusioning for Hispanic immigrants in two key ways; immigrants find that they work long hours for very low pay at unfulfilling jobs, as well as that they have been torn from the cuisine that embodies the spirit of their homeland and the culture of their people, which they cherish so deeply.

However, despite some people’s misfortune, those who have fought for their citizenship and won have managed to make some tremendous moves in the right direction. Not all Hispanic immigrants have been prevented from progressing; hungry for a taste of home and disappointed with their career prospects, some Hispanic immigrants have found the solution to both problems in a single entrepreneurial leap of faith. Known to most as the iconic ‘taco truck’, mobile food catering businesses are accessible, realistic business opportunities which allow immigrants of all walks of life to express themselves and their culture through the culinary arts, as well as to forge a new career path for themselves; one that brims with opportunities and the prospect of financial independence. I will discuss the beneficial nature of these businesses in a moment, but let’s first look at some of the negative effects of Hispanic immigrants’ lack of employment options, as well as the potential causes of this.

Why should so many Hispanic persons be gardeners, gas station clerks, or maids, or be employed in some other entry-level positions? It is a profoundly harmful thing to the Hispanic immigrant community for there to be so few career options available to them. To be clear, there is nothing wrong, in the least, with being a maid or a gardener, or a gas station clerk, if one has chosen to lead that life. However, if Latinos simply choose these cookie-cutter careers because they are unable to acquire anything else, perhaps due to a serious language barrier, or discrimination, then there is something profoundly wrong taking place. It is no secret that immigrants face a major language barrier, but a lesser known difficulty is that foreign education rarely stacks up to that of American universities, which reduces many educated immigrants to positions normally reserved for non-educated citizens. The joke about a janitor who used to be a surgeon in ‘his land’ is not far out. Hispanic immigrants are disenfranchised from the start, stuck with the ‘left over’ careers that everyone else has passed up. Therefore, there is very little diversity in career options for Hispanic immigrants.

Naturally, this leads to stereotypes, labels and clichés, to abound. For example, many Hispanic immigrants have casually turned a blind eye to such offensive clichés as that of Family Guy’s ‘Mexican Maid’ character, which depicts an elderly Hispanic woman who speaks only broken English and is presented as being incapable of doing anything other than house chores. Stereotypes like these have been ruthlessly hammered into American culture, and have themselves been accepted by many Hispanic immigrants, who awkwardly blush, chuckle or look away when confronted with such caricatures. They do not know what to say: in the land of liberty, they are the unfortunate punchline to a joke that they do not even understand.

Furthermore, the condition of the Hispanic immigrant community has deteriorated from these unresolved issues. Over the course of decades, on a national scale, Hispanic immigrants’ acceptance of such cultural stereotypes has resulted in a community of immigrant workers which is arguably the most oppressed, belittled, and disenfranchised of all the working classes found in America. Despite the lack of recourse on the part of most, some immigrants have become discontented, and have instead chosen to humbly, but sternly, stand up in the face of these insults.

They are the diamond in the rough; a widespread group of immigrants who have chosen to empower themselves through their entrepreneurial skills. They have done this by starting small businesses, the most interesting of these being taco trucks. Admittedly, these tiny establishments seem unsuspecting, dull, and unimpressive, in nearly every regard. Profits for taco truck owners are mediocre at best and the work is barely different than fast-food. The owners occasionally slave over a hot stove for hours, and are often over-worked during peak rushes such as breakfast and lunch. Often, the trucks themselves are hideous, with chipping, peeling paint, and exposed metal patches, worn and rusted. Honestly, looking from every angle on the outside, a taco truck can quickly seem to be nothing more than a failed attempt at a ‘real’ restaurant.

The unimpressive, superficial appearance of a taco truck is deeply misleading. When one is on the inside of the truck and looking out, it is an entirely different view; it is a wonderful one because the person working inside is engaged in an artful act of escape from hard labor. The very existence of a taco truck means that whomever is inside has successfully escaped from the life-draining drudgery of twelve-hour shifts in the sun, swinging a hammer or digging a ditch. Whomever is inside the truck is no longer subjected to the will of a cruel, (sometimes racist), boss, or to the stresses of facing an impossible workload.

These small businesses give back greatly to their community and provide fulfillment to their owners. They provide homesick immigrants with the dishes that they know and love, thereby encouraging and edifying them on their journey. They foster conversations friendly, meaningful dialogues, and new friendships. The owners themselves find that rather than being stifled in their cultural identities, they are empowered to be artistic, and expressive of themselves and of their cultures in many creative ways. Rather than slowly watching their heritage and traditions dissolve into a fast-paced life filled with countless hours of unfulfilling work, they can develop themselves and their identities more than ever. For example, they may suddenly choose to add a festively decorated fruit drink to the menu for the holidays, or perfect a new dish that catches on and brings in revenue.

These small establishments also pose big challenges to the socioeconomic molds of what immigrants are expected to adhere to. Opening a taco truck (or any other immigrant owned business) is something of an act of confidence in one’s own value and worth as a person. It is like telling your boss that you value yourself, and your family, too much to needlessly endure hardships at work for chump change. It is a bet on yourself, but it is wonderfully rewarding when it works out because it means new opportunities for entire families.

These views are confirmed by a man whom I interviewed named Jairo, who is a taco-truck owner in Spring, Texas. Jairo used to work at a dead-end job at a factory, and before that, in construction. He saved his money and eventually bought a trailer, which he converted into a taco stand. I found my eye drawn to his stand because of the way in which it was plastered with goofy, comical stickers and tropical décor. As he prepared my fried plantains, I was allowed inside to ask him about his work. Everything inside his truck was perfectly in order. There were no stains, spills, or bits of garbage. He decorated the inside just like the outside; Hawaiian-themed. It seemed to be a well-ran operation, and he took great pride in it. There was an atmosphere of calmness, although Jairo himself exuded a positive, cheerful attitude. He prepared a plate of fried plantains with Mexican cream for me as we talked.

I asked him how he felt about being a taco truck owner, and whether he cooked with passion or if he did it just for money. He replied in Spanish, “Son, of course I’m very passionate about my food. You see the smiley face sticker on the window?” He leaned out and wrapped his arm around the glass to point at an enormous, yellow, smiling face sticker and said, “That’s a man who wants to be here. That sticker doesn’t have to be there. But, food is everything, and if you can make your living with food? It’s much nicer that way. If I didn’t earn money, I couldn’t afford to do what I love. It’s great. I mean, when I was a kid, I was fat! No toys, no playing, no nothing. I just wanted to be in the kitchen with Mama, and we’d cook all day. She showed me how to cook. Dinner was the best part of the day. I grew up cooking and being around food. Some people, they don’t have that. They have money and other stuff; I think that’s fine. But they don’t have that connection to food.”

After listening to my father tell me about what the man in the white hat said, as well as listening to Byron, it was Jairo’s words that most impressed me. When I asked Jairo how he felt about his business, he said, “It’s everything I push for. I mean, I know it’s a small, little business. There’s thousands of them. It’s nothing to a high-roller. It’s only just a little taco-truck, but it’s my taco-truck. I keep what I make, and it goes to my family. It doesn’t go up the ladder to make some rich guy richer. It’s for my children. It’s actually for us.

He later stressed to me that making it to America is only half of the battle, and that if you let your passions and your entrepreneurial spirit mingle, and add some hard work, you can achieve many worthwhile things. He also told me about a documentary that recently came out about a man who practices brain surgery at John Hopkins. He attended higher schooling for something like twenty-one years, but was at first only an illegal immigrant who spoke no English and had no real prospects in America. Of course, there is a great difference between starting a taco-truck business and becoming a brain surgeon, but there are immigrants who have done both. I am thoroughly convinced that taco trucks are a step in the right direction for the Hispanic immigrant community to break free from unwarranted stereotypes and unjust socioeconomic boundaries. Also, the move up in society that Latin American immigrants experience by becoming business owners (rather than being perpetual employees) empowers and encourages them to be bolder, and to stand for themselves and their place in the world.

For example, in David Staff’s article, “Culinary Workers Build Taco Truck ‘Wall’ Outside Trump Hotel in Las Vegas”, a band of taco truck owners are seen taking a stand for themselves outside of a hotel owned by a man who has been openly critical of the Latin American immigrant community. Staff shows us that these Latin American workers are not content with the way in which things are moving politically in this country, as well as personally for their community of workers. They are irate over Donald Trump’s repeated threats to build a wall, as well as the Trump Tower’s management’s unwillingness to recognize these workers as having a unionized status. The article shows us a community of upset Hispanic business owners who have found that Trump’s comments “were offensive” (Staff 1). It also brings to light “an ongoing battle between the hotel’s management and the Culinary Workers Union, which represents roughly 500… culinary employees” (Staff 1). The article expounds upon these worker’s willingness to fight back in protest of Trump’s racism and to “make light of his promise to build a wall spanning the length of the southern border” (Staff 1).

However, there are other obstacles that require action, not just a voice. For example, in California, unjust legislation has been passed which has adversely affected the growth of the taco truck community. In Steven Greenhut’s essay, “California Takes a Bite Out of Taco Trucks”, we find yet another threat to the taco truck community. A tax agency called the Board of Equalization has been found to be “targeting and mistreating” (Greenhut 1) taco truck owners. This is being done through deceptive maneuvers involving unfair tax estimates, which are grossly unrealistic. The agency is “desperate for cash, and state officials are concocting unrealistic estimates of food sales and employing heavy handed tactics” (Greenhut 1). Essentially, the BOE is taking advantage of a disadvantaged small-business community which has, despite the BOE’s claims, always had a solid record of “paying an acceptable amount” (Greenhut 1). It should also be known that these workers and Greenhut are not defending the idea that they should be spared of taxation: on the contrary, Greenhut states that he is “not arguing that small businesses shouldn’t pay their fair share of taxes or comply with reasonable rules, but it’s a sad day when the state government treats them like criminals–or like a piggybank” (Greenhut 1).

As though beginning their lives in American society as the lowest of the low -the most disenfranchised of all American communities- were not enough, these underprivileged immigrants must now also weather a social and political storm that is centered around racism, fear-mongering, and the abuse of the poor by the wealthy.

Despite this, the Latin American community, specifically its immigrant population, has refused to back down and be bulldozed by racism, unfair taxation, or any other type of opposition that they face. These immigrants choose not to succumb to the stereotypes and demands laid out for them by certain members of society.

Instead, they continue to endeavor towards a better life in which they are self-sufficient, and able to do more for themselves and their families. I am happy to share in this often-over-looked community, because they have made something meaningful out of very little.

As I work through college, myself an immigrant, I find that I am impressed by their work ethic, and I often doubt that I would do what they have done to succeed.

For some immigrants, the promised land is never reached. Yet, others do arrive, but unfortunately settle, and work their lives away, hour by hour. Only a few, however, make it to America safely and then choose to give it one more push, to take ten more steps, and to make a wonderful life out of only opposition. In this way, my community has formed a brighter future where only hardship, and an all-all-too predictable future of conformity, once awaited us.

(This essay was a Stayton award winner in Fall 2016).

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Works Cited

David, Staff. “Culinary Workers Build Taco Truck ‘Wall’ Outside Trump Hotel in Las Vegas.”

Christian Science Monitor, vol. 12, no. 1, October 2016, pp. 1-2. Academic Search

Complete, doi: 10. 1007/s10903 015-7103-0

Greenhut, Steven. “California Takes a Bite Out of Taco Trucks.” Human Events, vol. 68, no. 27,

October 2016, pp. 1-3. Academic Search Complete, doi: 10. 1003/s20701-011-3203-0

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Taco Trucks of Houston: Taking a Bite Out of Social Injustice by Youssef Martinez

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