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Life in Chains: Finding Home at Taco Bell
Taco Bell is the best Mexican food I ever ate. I will say this to your face over a plate of enchiladas suiza. You will shake your head at such transparent provocation. What a shocking thing to say at a restaurant that has the best tacos in New York City!
I won't even correct that assertion. There is no such thing as "the best tacos in New York City." There are only two kinds of tacos in New York City: adequate, and whatever is a little better than adequate. Unless we're talking Taco Bell. Which I will talk about, at length, even if you haven't asked a question that has anything to do with Taco Bell.
Yes, fast food is unhealthy. It preys on the poor by offering scientifically-engineered food products that are devoid of nutritional value, but are richly emotionally satisfying. These products are intensely tasty, and most of all, cheap. Why spend five bucks on groceries? What can you get for five bucks at a grocery store anyway? A stalk of broccoli and a jar of mayo? Since we're at dinner, and I'm busy proselytizing, I'm not currently able to fact-check the following statement, but I'm pretty sure you can buy ten tacos for one dollar.
Taco Bell tacos are crunchy, crispy, meaty sailboats of spicy chemical flavor. The Taco Bell Cool Ranch Doritos taco shell is the most important invention of this century. But we've come this far, and you're halfway through your plate of organic, locally-sourced, New York Magazine-celebrated Mexican tube casserole, so we have time to talk about Taco Bell. I'll order more chips and salsa. Now I'm going to hold up my fingers and wiggle them. This will signify we're flashing backwards in time.
THE FIRST MEAL I ATE in New York City was a corned beef sandwich at a diner. When it was unceremoniously plopped down in front of me, I said to the waitress, "Thank you, ma'am."
I had just gotten off the plane from Texas. I was polite because good manners are the best way not to get shot in Texas. Politeness was nearly beaten into me. The waitress looked at me with dead eyes and said, "What do I look like, your fucking mother?"
Then she stormed away, kicked open the kitchen door, and I'm pretty sure beat up the chef just because. What a colorful New York character, I thought. She is terrifying and I am weak, my thoughts continued. So that's why I gave her a fifty percent tip. It was an expensive lunch.
Over the next few weeks I experienced New York cuisine. I would call my mother back in Texas from filthy payphones and tell her about all the delicious foods I was eating: dim sum, oysters, meatballs. Do you remember what it was like talking to someone on a pay phone? They always sounded so far away. As if one of you were standing at the bottom of a deep dark hole. There was a time when New York's only social network was a series of coin-fed boxes on the street connected by miles and miles of wires.
I'd end every conversation with my mother enthusiastically. I was going to gorge on kielbasa and pierogies! A job interview at a prestigious magazine company was coming up! It sure was a good idea to move to a city that didn't really want me there!
Parents lie to their children about the cruelties of the world, and children grow up to return the favor to their parents.
None of these things were true. Parents lie to their children about the cruelties of the world, and children grow up to return the favor to their parents.
This was the mid-nineties, a time when New York still went out of its way to make twenty-three-year-olds cry in public. I lived in an SRO and shared a bathroom with a ghost that left great gobs of green phlegm in the sink. I wasn't eating oysters; I was eating foods that didn't cost more than a dollar. Pizza slices, hot dogs, knishes.
My mother would finish each call saying, "Be safe, mijo." As a kid, I used to be so embarrassed when she'd call me "mijo" in front of my friends. It was bad enough that she looked different than me, but she also spoke in another language, a weird one.
AS THE WEEKS GREW COLDER, I found myself blowing warmth into my hands like a forgettable Charles Dickens character. My work skills qualified me to answer phones or enter data into glowing green computer screens.
Then I moved to Queens. SROs are inexpensive places to die slowly, but moving to Queens is still cheaper. Queens is where America walks the talk. In school, we were taught that America is a country of immigrants. It's a nice idea, especially in comfortable suburbs where the lawns are mowed by workers who immigrate into the neighborhood at the crack of dawn and immigrate somewhere else by the time you get back from work.
Queens is an entire country of immigrants in 178 square miles. Hello, you're from Greece? Morocco? Bangladesh? Croatia? Senegal? I grew up in Virginia, but my family lives in Texas now. I guess I just emigrated from Texas to Queens!
In Queens, I found a small apartment with a toilet under a staircase buried deep in the borough. My neighbors were a large family of Mexicans. That large family probably would have liked an extra room to spread out. Which is probably why they always seemed to really, really hate me.
My mother spent years trying to get me to learn Spanish, but I never wanted to take the time. Besides, who was I going to speak Spanish with in Virginia? To most Virginians in the 1980s, Mexicans were just the guys who Clint Eastwood shot in the movies. If I had learned Spanish I could have turned to this family and said "My good friends, stop hating me. I am lonely and hungry. Also, I am half-Mexican!" Then we'd fiesta?
Those were dark, cold days. Some people called those days "winter," but not me. My phone calls home became more infrequent. I couldn't keep up the cheer. Every young person's mettle is tested when you move to New York. There were times I thought I should just pack up and die, which was just my way of saying move back to Texas.
There were times I thought I should just pack up and die, which was just my way of saying move back to Texas.
Then, one weekend, instead of playing the game "Sleep All Day Because Sleeping Is Free," I went walking through the streets looking for somewhere to spend three dollars. I was hoping to find a street-meat cart that served something more than charred gristle on a stick.
And that's when I saw the most marvelous sight. Glowing! In the distance! Right there on Steinway Avenue! It was something I had never seen before. A fast food restaurant that combined two famous brands into one mighty, delicious Frankenstein's monster of empty calories. I beheld a restaurant that was, simultaneously, a Taco Bell and a Kentucky Fried Chicken. This didn't exist in Texas. But here, in New York City, these two franchises were turned into a two-headed snack shack.
Suddenly, I knew that everything was going to work out. I was home.
IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, I had a stand-up routine I'd perform on the playground for my white friends. I'd tell them that I was what you'd get if you crossed a redneck with a wetback: a wetneck! Pause for laughter. My mom is Mexican-American, you see. My dad is a white guy. Which means when I grow up, I'll drive a truck and steal my own hubcaps. You know why Mexicans don't barbecue? Because the beans fall through the grill.
This was how I survived, because racism is easy. That's why it's so evil. Judging other people on the color of their skin is, literally, the least the human brain can do. Racism is the opposite of imagination.
I made fun of myself in order to keep my white friends laughing, because sometimes all laughter does is reinforce tribal integrity. I wanted to be part of their tribe, because my tribe—half-breeds—was a small one at my school. We numbered uno. And we were secret.
After all, I was white. My brothers were darker, like my mother. But me? I looked like a chubby little butterball. I was a spy under deep cover. No one suspected that I was different. Until they met my mom. My funny, feisty mom who loves books and paintings and movies and her family. She would passionately defend me when my teachers would question why I drew nothing but monsters. "He's an artist," she'd say.
During one of my birthday parties, to which I invited my friends from elementary school, I was asked who that brown lady serving cake was. I said she was my maid.
My mom and I were always followed by floorwalkers at department stores. Once she spoke up when a man cut in a grocery store line, and a racial epithet was muttered. When I got older, some people assumed I was the younger boyfriend of a foreign woman, not her son.
I remember asking my dad once if I was white, and he told me I was one half him, and one half my mother. Simple.
Many years later, when I was an adult, I would admit my birthday party betrayal to my mother. She laughed at my confession. She had always known I was ashamed of her.
I remember asking my dad once if I was white, and he told me I was one half him, and one half my mother. Simple. Then for dinner, mom made huevos rancheros. That was one of her quick dinners. The next night we probably had eggs again, only this time with biscuits and gravy. She was a good family cook. Nothing fancy. Big portions.
My dad was a Depression-era kid from the South, so he ate chicken wings like they were going to flap away from his mouth at any moment. He had terrible taste in food, but that's because when you grow up hungry, you'll happily eat food that tastes terrible.
My mother dutifully learned the Dixie dishes of his childhood, including exotic fare like spaghetti. Once upon a time, I think, spaghetti must have been an alien cuisine in lush, banjo-loving places like Louisiana. But what does a Latina from El Paso in the sixties know of such things? So with a little sleuth work, she invented DeVore Spaghetti. DeVore Spaghetti features a spicy salsa broth, boiled meatballs, and cheddar cheese. It is delicious because it tastes like everyone is home for dinner and we're all silly and happy.
She would also make the food of her own childhood. Flautas, soup studded with tiny albondigas, quesadillas. I loved a simple dessert that consisted of a tortilla fried in oil, then dusted with cinnamon and a drizzle of maple syrup. Her tamales were—they are—perfect. My favorite meal on Earth is my mom's chiles rellenos. A chile pepper stuffed with cheese is what a poor family makes when they can't afford meat because the chile flesh becomes tender, like a slow-cooked cut of beef.
Mom wouldn't always eat my dad's beloved foods; she hated the fried gizzards he'd beg her to make. But she loved my old man dearly, and never complained when he'd ask her to make beef tongue. I'd stare at that slab of meat and imagine a field of tongueless cows trying to moo.
She was also the kind of mother who never ate with her family. She was a tornado of knives and skillets and wooden spoons. But once the food was served, she just kicked back with a glass of milk. Sometimes she'd sit with us. If we were at a restaurant, she'd order something modest. She didn't adore food the way my dad did, and not because she didn't also come from humble beginnings; she was raised on the Texas border by a father whose rifle was used to shoot at wild dogs.
But she did love Taco Bell. A summer break treat was a quick trip to Taco Bell for tacos and burritos and a styrofoam cup of pinto beans, salsa, and cheese. When my mom was a kid, fast food was the dream. Imagine—literally anyone could afford to eat out! And not just boring and bland diner food, but high-tech food that was exploding with rainbows of taste-bud melting mystery powders! Food that you could eat not just at a table but in your car, the chariot of the future.
Taco Bell was easy, and inexpensive, and it was shamelessly Mexican. Emphasis on "shameless": its garish facsimile of an entire nation's culture was seemingly dreamed up by the type of white person who gets drunk on tequila and wears a sombrero for comedic effect. It was still Mexican, though. In fact, it was both Mexican and American. All under one greasy roof.
But even though the restaurant's cartoonish decor bordered on offensive, it was still a temple to a people and a cuisine that America couldn't ignore. Taco Bells were everywhere. In every strip mall. Off every highway exit. Even the racists, the immigrant-haters, the people who'd laugh at my elementary-school stand-up comedy routine would run for the border.
You can laugh or sneer at Taco Bell. Shake your head at its high fat and salt content. Go ahead and lecture on what true Mexican food is. My mom would probably just roll her eyes at you, and take a broken yellow shard of crispy taco shell and use it to scoop up the pintos, cheese, and salsa.
I stood before that Taco Bell-KFC hybrid in Queens and felt like I had come home. I went inside and ordered biscuits and a taco for three dollars, and filled my stomach. Finally, I thought to myself, a restaurant that represented my upbringing. My heritage. Maybe I wasn't the only person in Queens who silently ate at a Taco Bell-KFC and remembered parents who lived so far, far away.
WE ARE NOW BACK in the present. So here we are, you and me, eating enchiladas at this restaurant. I think it's a little easier to be biracial today. I hope it is. I still can't believe the President of the United States knows what it's like to have a mother who looks different.
Taco Bell is still the best Mexican food I've ever eaten. Because when I eat it, I'm sitting with my mom, and her hair isn't gray, and my father's brutal death from cancer is so many years away, and she is so beautiful and I am so young and safe.
Just one bite of a seven layer burrito—not six, not five, but seven unbelievable layers of goop—and we're laughing because I won't stop saying "Yo Quiero Taco Bell," and she wipes guacamole off my face and says, "Oh, mijo."