Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border; Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food

An eclectic anthology of critical cultural studies, Tijuana Dreaming brings to life the tumultuous history of the border town’s shifting identity: the Prohibition-era booze-and-brothel magnet adjacent to San Diego, the late-twentieth-century booming free-trade zone of globalized assembly plants, and, most recently, the bloody site of today’s horrific drug-war violence. Some contributions are pedantic, and there is no balanced assessment of the region’s economic progress, but the volume’s overall high quality makes for a stimulating, if sometimes dense, read. Humberto Félix Berumen provides lucid “snapshots” of the diverse interpretations of Tijuana: as a paradise of illicit pleasures, as a border melting pot, and as a symbol of cultural postmodernism. Well-crafted essays by Teddy Cruz and Tito Alegría take the reader for a drive through the heterogeneous neighborhoods of San Diego and Tijuana, arguing that despite the tens of millions of border crossings per year, the contiguous cities are far apart socially and economically. Lucía Sanromán, Jennifer Insley-Pruitt, and Ejival expertly interpret, respectively, Tijuana’s vibrant arts, literary, and music scenes. Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s poetic essay captures the frustrations and paranoia produced among Mexicans by the behavior of U.S. Department of Homeland Security guards at border crossings.

Pilcher’s Planet Taco tackles one of the central debates in Tijuana Dreaming: Can there be an “authentic” Mexico in the context of mass migrations and rapid global economic and cultural change? Skeptical of nationalist claims, Pilcher, a prominent food historian at the University of Minnesota, argues that prior to the Spanish conquest, there was no such thing as “Mexican cuisine.” Rather, European explorers and colonists encountered an array of empires and tribes, each boasting its own rich culinary tradition. From the outset, indigenous traditions blended with cosmopolitan ingredients and recipes. A similarly refreshing fusion also drives the nueva cocina (new Mexican cooking) of such renowned contemporary chefs and restaurateurs as Patricia Quintana, Mark Miller, and Richard Sandoval. Pilcher’s proper emphasis on regional cuisines enables him to rescue the Tex-Mex taco from those elite Mexicans (often based in Mexico City) who reject it as a commercial invention: in fact, Tex-Mex cooking evolved organically in the border region, combining North American ingredients with Mexican sensibilities. Viewing food as a force of history, Pilcher imagines that “the thin edge of a taco may one day help bring down the militarized border.”

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