Raúl Guerrero & Mexican food in the United States

Against a hot pink background, a to-go box of food—including rice, beans, and a triangle-folded tortilla—are neatly arranged for an aerial photograph.
Raúl Guerrero, Chorizo Combo, 2004–2006.

I grew up in Southern California, just outside Los Angeles, throughout the late nineties, aughts, and teens. This time is laminated by its food. Moments where my mom prepped caldo on cold and stormy nights, overstuffed a steamer on Christmas night, or when I brought Thanksgiving dinner over to my “adoptive grandparents.”  Raúl Guerrero grew up outside San Diego in the decades prior, closer to the epic of my parent’s emigration. As individuals with Mexican heritage living in the United States, food became how we practiced our bi-nationality and resolved our positionality. 

I had the fortune of spending childhood summers in my parent’s hometown. Summer mornings in Mexico started with a run to the plaza for groceries. Our shopping bags hugged our precious cargo. Arms swung low under the bag’s weight, though we always left enough arm strength and change for a walk-home paleta. Dinner happened in the plaza’s portales with tacos del Güero, burritos de la Chaparra, or our friend “La Señora de las Papas.” My mamá made sure I experienced her Mexico through its people and the food they offered. Upon our return, a smaller selection of groceries constrained her. 

Tortillas were packaged rather than made to order at the neighborhood tortilleria. Mosaic corn cobs turned monochrome. Familiar brands disappeared from store shelves. These economic and geographic limits transformed popular recipes and fostered a third space: Mexican and estadounidense,1 yet not quite either. Living in both words felt like the middle length of rope in a tug-of-war game. Twisted recipes were attempts to retain our Mexican roots despite our transplantation onto United States soil.  

In a close-up photograph, hands carefully fold a tamale closed.
Making tamales de Pollo con Chile Rojo, December 2020. Courtesy of Gerry Peña-Martinez.

Guerrero’s paintings, dishes from local restaurants, showcases these attempts to reach back. My eyes bounce between rice grains, dive into a nearby pool of beans, take a cheesy bridge into chorizo, and hopscotch atop vinegary vegetables. The inclusion of each component charts a larger history. The flour tortilla and the eponymous chorizo are Spanish imports. Corn, or maize, is an indispensable traditional crop of Mexico. The Styrofoam packaging captures the fast-paced lifestyle of the United States, especially for the Latinx workers in predominantly physically demanding occupations. Each community donated to this dish, revealing the needs and circumstances of its people.

My sopa de arroz has frozen vegetables, indicative of my mamá’s need  to embed veggies cheaply and efficiently. When I made this recipe in college, I burned the rice at the first step and lacked a blender, fresh broth, or spice cubes. Despite these barriers, we have adapted to survive and accommodate a growing community, adding to this long mercurial culinary history of exchange, colonization, and commerce.

When we cook, we are “explor[ing] who we are through the food we eat, what exactly is American food, and what makes us American.”2 I felt like there was a singular item, a set behavior or dish, that would unlock my frustration. Yet, American-ness or any culture is not about conformity; it is a living, participatory identity.

1 Of the United States
2 Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi on Hulu


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Author: Gerry Peña-Martinez

Gerry Peña-Martinez is a graduate from Reed College with a degree in Economics-Art History. Their infantile interest in the arts has since blossomed into a commitment to broaden who feels welcomed in traditionally restrictive spaces.