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Food, Culture, and Identity: Lessons from the Coronado Tortilla-Throwing Incident

by Nathaniel Dela Cruz
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A Smithsonian Magazine article talks about how the oldest cave painting in the world found in Sulawesi, Indonesia depicts prehistoric humans gathering around to cook and eat. Fast-forward to today: family, friends, and neighbors gather around the grill for a cookout. 

Notice that there is always food when we celebrate with family and friends for important events in our lives like weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and personal milestones. What’s more important is that this does not change, even in tough times. When there is calamity or disaster, people in the community come together and start making and sharing food for those who are hungry and have nothing to eat. The February winter storm exemplified how Texans reached out to help the cold and hungry is a testament to that. 

That is the power of food. It brings people together, starting from the basic unit of society: the family.

Food, like tortillas, is central in the bond that binds generations of families together, through the handing down of family recipes and the rituals of preparing and cooking. “Tortillas, and the process of making them, has always been a very special and important part of my life. It is not only our family trade, but a family tradition, one I am very proud of,” said Claudia Vazquez, a third-generation tortilla-maker and one of the owners of La Nueva Puntada, a neighborhood tortilla factory and Mexican restaurant.


That is why it feels deeply upsetting when food is involved in incidents that create a divide among the people.

Tortilla-throwing in Coronado

Weeks after the infamous tortilla-throwing incident at the end of the CIF Southern California Boys Basketball Division 4-A Regional Championship match between host Coronado High School and the visiting Orange Glen High School, it feels like it is already a foregone conclusion that throwing tortillas towards the visiting team, majority of which are Hispanic, is racist, regardless of the intention. 

Basketball. Throwing of food. High school kids. This reminds Texans of the 2018 Whataburger incident. After Clear Lake Falcons defeated Clear Brook Wolverines, a food fight ensued later in a burger restaurant in Houston. Whataburger was also the setting of the food fight following a game between Brandeis High and O’Connor in 2013 in San Antonio. But this is just rivalry, the misguided bravado of immature young people getting the best of them.

Coronado was different.

Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey explained that what happened was an “unsportsmanlike conduct that was racially insensitive” but, according to him, not really “racially motivated”. Conversely, California state Sen. Ben Hueso urged the CIF to condemn this act of racism swiftly and definitively. The Coronado school board described the tortilla-throwing incident as “egregious, demeaning, and disrespectful.” 

Vazquez agrees, “I would feel offended. Tortillas are a very important part of our culture, and throwing them in any context is disrespectful. It was clear to me that the action of throwing tortillas at the opposing basketball team was meant to be a disrespectful, taunting, and racist act to demean and demoralize the players, who are from a predominantly Hispanic school.” 

Even Gustavo Arellano, who, in his LA Times column, noted how in the long history of tortilla-throwing (which he outlined for the sake of historical reference), this one sticks out like a sore thumb after things took a turn towards racism. Luke Serna, the Coronado High School alumnus who admitted to bringing tortillas in the venue for an after-game tortilla throwing should Coronado win, said he had no racist intention. But Coronado school board president Lee Pontes pointed out that the intention was irrelevant because “the ethnic implications are unavoidable; they’re undeniable.”

 

A racist act set against the backdrop of fragile race relation

What happened in Coronado, California can happen anywhere. It can happen here in Texas. These two states share many similarities. Both California and Texas are major agricultural states in the US. Work in the agriculture sector is one of the reasons why many Mexican immigrants settled in California and Texas. This explains why the Hispanic/Latino population in California accounts for 39.4% of the overall population according to a 2019 census, nearly identical to the Hispanic/Latino population in Texas which is at 39.7% according to an April 2020 census

Another thing these two states have in common is the continuing problem of racism.

The tortilla-throwing incident in Coronado is just the latest in the long history of race-related problems and aggressions in California, dating to as far back as the 19th-century leaders refusing to ratify the 14th amendment in 1868 which is important in social equality, to a Palmdale teacher making racist comments about her student and the student’s parents and a mass shooter who killed 8 co-workers in San Diego after making racist remarks, both happening in May.

In Texas, racism remains a serious problem as well, which explains why Texas became “the birthplace of several Latino civil rights groups” like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the American GI Forum. Race relations remains a fragile matter in the Lone Star state, and incidents that fan the flames of racism are making things worse. 

Whataburger, a San Antonio hamburger chain, settled a lawsuit after a general manager specifically instructed to hire white employees, not black. Whataburger again made the headlines after firing an employee who wore a facemask that says Black Lives Matter to work.

August 3 marks the second anniversary of the El Paso shooting targeting Hispanic and Mexican-American, which Dani Anguiano of The Guardian describes as “the worst hate crime against Latinos in modern US history” 

While there are many obvious acts of racism, there are instances also that threaten to negatively affect race relations and race equity in the state, like the recent laws affecting education and immigration.  In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed  House Bill 3979, what many called the “critical race theory” bill which threatens to limit the “honest conversations about race and racism in American society” and there are those who fear this could “whitewash history“. Another thing people are fearful about is how the recent immigration law in Texas that went into effect on September 1, 2017 can “destroy the relationship between local law enforcement and immigrant communities“.

Indeed, the racist act of throwing tortillas on Latino high school students is cause for concern in a time of unstable race relations, growing racial animosity perpetuated by hate groups, and rising hate crime. Associated Press (AP) reported in July this year that hate crime in California is up 31% in 2020. NBC reports that “hate crimes against Latinos increased in 2019“, and this is part of a nationwide problem as reported by The New York Times: “hate crimes in U.S. rose to highest level in more than a decade in 2019“. This is an important reminder about the problem of racism and how bad things can get if the problem is not nipped in the bud. 

Amidst all of these stressful experiences living in racial tension, there are opportunities like sports that could foster good personal and community values and improve race relations. Unfortunately, someone found a way to tarnish what should have been an opportunity for young men to showcase sportsmanship (an important stepping stone towards developing tolerance and acceptance), using food and disparaging its cultural value.

Teaching moment

This is a message everyone must have heard at least once in their lives: don’t play with your food. Throwing food is immature, wasteful, and, at worst, it is demeaning to the value of food, and to the people who consider this food sacred. Tortillas are an integral part of Mexican culture. If you utilize food as a means of heckling or disrespecting a group of people, you, in essence, are disrespecting a foundational component of culture and identity. It is important to educate the people about this sensibility (and how it applies not just to tortillas but to food from other cultures as well) to avoid repeating this unfortunate incident.   

Charles Fischler, in the article Food, Self, and Identity, wrote: “Food is central to our sense of identity.” This means that the influence of food on a human being transcends the basic scope of nutrition and eating pleasure; food is an important component in his/her sense of self, the sense of belonging to a community. Geetha Reddy and Rob M. van Dam in Food, culture, and identity in multicultural societies: Insights from Singapore wrote: “Social interactions around food (both cultural events and social eating) were fundamental in the construction of participants’ cultural and ethnic identities.” 

Incidents that disrespect food undermines the importance of food in cultural and personal identity. In this case, it was the tortilla. When there was unrest in Mexico because the increase in the price of corn threatened to affect the local production of tortillas, El Colegio de Mexico historian Lorenzo Meyer called the tortilla the sacred bread of the people. He was quoted in a news article saying “You can play with the price of oil. That’s easy. But not the tortilla.” The same is true in France where the price of baguettes is monitored by consumer associations, underscoring the importance of bread to people in different cultures. 

This is proof that bread – and food, in general – is an important cultural component, and the tortilla-throwing incident in Coronado puts the spotlight on the lack of understanding and appreciation of the nature of food as a component of cultural and personal identity. Vazquez hopes that by explaining the relationship of tortillas – Mexico’s national bread and the “nation’s very soul” – to Mexican cultural and personal identity, she can help educate and give invaluable and informative insight.

“Corn, the main ingredient in tortillas, has been the base and foundation of Mexican gastronomy since the Prehispanic Era. Our Olmec, Zapotec, Mayan and Aztec ancestors (among others) domesticated corn from a grass called teocintle approximately 10,000 years ago, and it has been an intrinsic part of our culture since then. Tortillas, and the corn they are made from, were sacred symbols of strength and life for our ancestors,” Vazquez explained.

Vazquez added: “Now tortillas are a basic part of every Mexican’s diet, and more than that, tortillas are an important part of life; the ritual of making tortillas from scratch to feed our families, and the learning of this process from one generation to the next, is still considered a very important, if not sacred, rite of passage. For Mexican people, tortillas are tied to our beginning as a culture. They are not merely just food to consume, but a symbol of our proud Mesoamerican roots.”

Our relationship to food

It can be argued that this incident also exposes the problem in the modern individual’s current relationship with food. Has commercialization and commodification stripped away the identity of food and severed it from cultural and personal identity? Commodification transformed food. Grocery and supermarket shelves filled with instant and ready-to-eat food sends the message that food is just a commodity, nothing more. Buy, eat, repeat. 

 

Food was stripped of its cultural value. This is why people allegedly don’t see anything wrong with tossing tortillas like a Frisbee. What they see is a white aerodynamic disc light enough to take flight and soft enough not to hurt anyone, nothing more. There is nothing beyond its commodified self.

Blame it on the effects of mass production on human behavior, or the evils of capitalist enterprise; nonetheless, what we do with commodified food – and the message we send out using food – is still our responsibility. We are accountable and answerable every time we use food in a manner that is unacceptable, and not just racist acts. Anything irresponsible and wasteful should be condemned, not when the world is fighting a formidable enemy: global hunger. 

The potential to use food in acts of racial aggression is just one of the many pitfalls resulting from man’s current relationship with food. Food wastage is another. According to Feeding America, “108 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States” annually, and that “$161 billion worth of food” is thrown away each year, contributing to the problem resulting in “nearly 40% of all food in America” going to waste. So the next time you feel like playing with your food, think about this: hunger remains a major global problem. In 2019, the World Health Organization reports that “world hunger is still not going down after three years” and “more than 820 million people are hungry globally.” 

Even if throwing tortillas is meant to be a harmless, non-racist act, it adds to the growing (and disturbing) problem of food wastage. Last year, social media was flooded with different videos of people throwing perfectly good food like plantain and coleslaw (even throwing cheese on a baby’s face) and memes that carry the same message, and it was appalling. And just like the case of tortilla-throwing, some don’t see the problem in throwing away perfectly good food. In an article, Eater best explains why this is utterly irresponsible and alarming: “These posts portray an exploitation of a certain privilege: that of reliable access to good, healthy food — and the freedom to waste it in order to get attention on social media.”

If you can afford to throw away food for fun, why not use the money to help feed the hungry? Flying tortillas could be fun to watch, but helping feed the hungry promises to be a more rewarding experience, minus the risk of committing a racist act. 

You can donate to organizations working to address hunger – AARP, Action Against Hunger, Bread for the World Institute, Feed My Starving Children, Feeding America, Food for the Hungry, The Hunger Project, Meals on Wheels, Mercy Corps, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, No Kid Hungry, Rise Against Hunger, World Central Kitchen

 

To help fight hunger in Texas, donate to Feeding Texas and/or East Texas Food Bank. If you want to get involved with the efforts of North Texas Food Bank, here is the link that will show you how you can help. You can also contact Megan Hoag of the Texas Hunger Initiative.

And with the operation and production of food businesses affected by the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is prudent to avoid activities that result in food wastage. “We were not untouched by the pandemic and we continue to face the challenges that many small businesses around the country are facing; surging prices in raw materials, difficulty finding labor, and lower sales. Despite these challenges, we strive every day to serve our customers and stay open. We are beyond thankful that our business survived through the pandemic,” Vazquez said.


Moving forward

If there is a silver lining in this pall of gloom, it is the sentiment of leaders and policy-makers focused not just on punishment and penalty, but also growth, learning, and continuing the work to fight racism through cooperation and education. 

This is the message the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) is sending with the sanctions imposed on Coronado High School, which was stripped of the division regional championship: no school holds the title this year. The school’s athletic program is on probation until 2024. The boys basketball team cannot host postseason games until 2023. Attending and completing a workshop on sportsmanship is required of all Coronado High administrators, athletic directors, coaches, and student-athletes. A game management training is required of the school’s administrators and athletic directors. All of these should be completed before Coronado High can host any postseason contest. 

The most important of all is CIF encouraging both Coronado High and Orange Glen to “work on community service projects together.”

Vazquez shares the same sentiment. “I was saddened by this event because it took place in a high school, where these experiences affect the impressionable youth that we should be teaching to be tolerant and respectful toward other cultures and races, and instead they are learning the opposite. I hope that everyone involved can take this as a learning experience and become more accepting toward one another,” Vazquez said. 

In the aftermath of the tortilla-throwing scandal in Coronado, California that raised the issue of racism, it is important to remember that even in the age of mass production that turned food into a common commercial consumer item valued only for its role in alleviating hunger and providing nutrition, still, many types of food have retained the sacred and symbolic qualities that make them an important component of cultural and personal identity. And businesses  – particularly small, local businesses, artisanal businesses, family-owned and operated businesses – are making sure these connections that bind people, food, and culture together remain present and strong.

“I feel proud that cultures from all over the world are beginning to embrace this food. From tacos to chilaquiles to flautas and many more, tortillas are the base of our rich, beautiful, ancient gastronomy. They are so much more than merely a snack or fast food, they are the heritage that was passed down to us from our ancestors,” Vazquez said.

About La Nueva Puntada

Vazquez’s grandfather opened the first and original La Nueva Puntada in the late ‘60s in his hometown in Zacatecas, Mexico. It was the first neighborhood tortilleria in Zacatecas. La Nueva Puntada soon became a family business, and when Vazquez’s father and his siblings immigrated to North Texas, they too opened a tortilleria and restaurant and it continued to be a family business. “When I was just 21 years old, my father helped me open one in Irving. That was more than 15 years ago and we are still thriving,” Vazquez said.

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