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cultural appropriation

Who Owns Elotes?

In my kitchen there is a piece of art that I bought from someone called Old Chola. It’s a picture of elotes. I bought it because it’s a local artist who made a beautiful screenprint of a food that’s marked some of the greatest days of my family’s lives. Some people would say that elote is corn. Others would say it is street corn. Still others will say that calling it street corn is offensive because that’s just how corn is served in Mexico and that I’m guilty of cultural appropriation.

I know what cultural appropriation looks like. It looks like this:

And like this: 

And like this:


I’m not convinced that for kids growing up in the Southwest that Mexican and Central American cuisine and a love of it is cultural appropriation. I have two kids who played sports in the park more days than not and I assure you that not a weekend went by without three of us having elotes. Mr. G is a New Yorker and he doesn’t adore spice the way the kids and I do.

Do elotes belong to my children as they have been part of their diet since they had teeth? What about chicharrones or fruit cups with lime and chili (no salt for me please)? Everyone knows that these are foods that are best purchased from street vendors. Do we have to be Latino for elotes to belong to us? I share my bagels with you and watched as they were turned first into white bread and next into glittery rainbow things.

I understand the struggle of being first generation. I know what it is to have an American family that isn’t quite American. A family that speaks one language at home and another on the street. A family with different food, a different religion, strange music and yet still we are all American.

The Trumps and the Babybels and Happy Fruit in a Bag o’Crap of the world tried to take your culture and try to sell it to you in really annoying ways. I can’t tell you how many eye rolls I want to give during the winter when I’m told that Chanukah came early or late that year. It comes at the exact same time every year, the 25th of Kislev, and it is no more the Jewish Christmas than Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day. Please don’t wish me Happy Passover. It’s not Easter. There are no greeting cards for Passover.

That border between the US and Mexico? It’s a wobbly thing and people have been criss crossing it since before you and I were born. You’ve brought your food and your art and it’s been here for enough generations that it’s become our food and our art. There is a Mexican American culture that Los Angeles and other cities have embraced and need. We love your music and your elotes. We don’t want to live in a world without jalapeños and every child in Los Angeles knows that there are Cholula families and there are Tapatio families. We have artwork for Dia de los Muertos because it surrounded us as children and it evokes a strong response. A smile, a feeling that we are home.

How can it be cultural appropriation if it’s our childhood too? At some point it’s just culture.

If there’s one thing that Donald Trump has done, it’s to bring to the forefront a national discourse on Mexican culture. Nowhere was that more evident than the web on May 5th. We know that whatever sort of taco bowl Trump had in front of his smug face was nothing like Mexican food. We know that May 5th is not Independence Day for Mexico and that getting sloppy drunk is more a frat house tradition than anything else.

We don’t have to be Mexican to have an opinion. We don’t have to be Mexican for elotes to be part of our culture. We’re not stealing your elotes, we’re just joining you at the table.

Update: If you have never tried elote this is how it is done in Los Angeles – typically with margarine and not butter