Taquerías of Southmost: Expressing Cultural Identity through the Business of Food
Photos by Chuy Benitez
Texas Folklife partnered with the Brownsville Historical Association (BHA) to conduct research and document the history of Taquerías in Brownsville and launch and promote an exhibit titled "The Taquerías of Southmost." The Southmost area of Brownsville houses approximately 33,009 residents and is located on the southernmost tip of Texas along the Rio Grande River and the politically charged border wall. The community that resides in Southmost is a tight-knit community of immigrant families who express their cultural identity in every aspect of their lives and take part in the transnational exchange that comes with living in the US while maintaining many of the traditions of their home country. Texas Folklife's research captured the stories of the residents of Southmost who through their Taquería businesses were able to build economic sustenance and also create an identity based on their home country and the new neighborhood that they now live in. "The Taquerías of Southmost" exhibit provides an entrance into the places where food tradition is maintained and a community is built through cultural exchange.
Texas Folklife's Executive Director Cristina Ballí and Media and Production Assistant Michelle Mejia interviewed Taquería owners as part of their research and recorded their stories of ingenuity and creativity. Among the stories recorded is one of Cipriano Mejia, a Matamoros Tamaulipas immigrant, who along with his wife Bertha Mejia own "Easy to Go Tacos" which was established in 1976 by Bertha's mother. They acquired the business in 1992 and since have continued to serve authentic traditional Mexican dishes such as tostadas, flautas and cueritos.
Although his business became a success, Cipriano is an example of the hardship that immigrant families face when coming to the US in search of opportunity and better living conditions. In Matamoros, Cipriano was certified as an accountant or banker but because he did not speak English he could not find employment in his field when he moved to Brownsville. His employment opportunities were narrowed down and he worked in a Dallas restaurant and as a truck driver for the Brownsville Sanitation Department before opening his authentic Mexican food business. Through his business which he says reminds him of a changarrito, a small soda and candy stand popular in Mexico, Cipriano was able to maintain part of his Matamoros identity and share authentic flavorful dishes with the Southmost community and its visitors.
Another inspiring story that was recorded thanks to Christina's and Michelle's research is of Yolanda Castillo, founder and owner of "Antojitos Yoli". In the 1980s, Yolanda purchased a trailer to place on her mother's plot of land in the Southmost region of Brownsville. Yolanda's talent with cooking, explained by the popular Mexican phrase "el sabor de su sazón" which translates to "the taste of her seasoning", led Yolanda to open her business which she named "Antojitos Yoli" to express the availability of Mexican food cravings in her establishment. She was able to expand her business through a chance encounter with a Wells Fargo employee that offered her a loan. Yolanda's successful establishments allowed her to both pay back the loan and reach more customers with the help and support of her family.
After conducting research and documenting the history of Taquerías in Southmost, Texas Folklife worked with Chuy Benitez a Chicano photographer born in El Paso, Texas. Growing up, Chuy was a transnational individual living on both sides of the US/Mexico border. He earned a Bachelor's in Arts at the University of Notre Dame and a Master's in Fine Arts from the University of Houston. Chuy spent five days in the area of Southmost, Brownsville photographing renowned Taquerías and conducting field work for the purpose of the "The Taquerías of Southmost" exhibit.
Professor of Anthropology Cecilia Ballí at the University of Texas at Austin writes of the cultural importance of taquerías in her essay for the Brownsville Herald, "A Mexican tradition, taquerías are not to be confused with restaurants, even the Mexican cafes that were already in Brownsville when the movement caught hold in the 1980s. Taquerías have their own character, purpose, identity. By American standards they are humble establishments, bare-bones businesses that prize affordability and simplicity while cooking up food that remind their customers of family and home. The Southmost taquerías fuse the Mexican taco stand model with the American to-go concept…The imprint of the Southmost taquerías on the city’s identity and soul is keenly felt. The risk-taking entrepreneurs who launched a taco movement thirty years ago have created a public space for Mexicans and Mexican Americans to identify positively with their roots and culture. Once “the forgotten part of the city,” Southmost stands as a model for an American social integration that takes cultural identities – powerfully and evocatively expressed through food – as a source for bridging people across races, ages and class. "
"The Taquerías of Southmost" exhibit sheds light on an often overlooked area in Brownsville that is filled with cultural richness and delicious Mexican food. The exhibit allowed the audience to engage in dialogues that touched on authentic food, cultural identity, the hardships that immigrants families face when coming to the US, and also the intersections of cultures and political undertones of a border town.
Taquerías of Southmost is a collaboration between Texas Folklife and the Brownsville Historical Association with funding provided by the National Endownment for the Arts which believes a great nation deserves great art, Texas Commission on the Arts, and Humanities Texas.