If you live in or have ever visited the state of Texas in the United States, you may have knowingly or unknowingly indulged in Tex-Mex cuisine, a staple go-to for a quick group lunch or meal to go. And while it has gained popularity over the years, there is still plenty of debate over what’s real and what’s not. To get the skinny (refried beans) on this, we asked Mexico native Graciela Juarez everything we need to know about what makes an authentic Mexican meal, and what doesn’t.
But first, there’s a story behind the term ‘Tex-Mex’, and it is literally all about stereotypes. “I believe Mexican immigrants who somehow through time traveled from Mexico and settled in Texas”, says Juarez. To her, it appears that some feel a little bit more privileged perhaps than most, because of their Texan roots. “To this day, even when you speak to people [of Mexican descent] who were raised in Texas, they make it very clear that they do things very differently from people in other parts of the country”.
And this difference she says spills over into the way food is prepared.
“Tex-Mex connotes a different style of cooking, a different way of speaking — it reminds me more of ‘Spanglish’”.
In other words from a strictly purist point of view, everything Tex-Mex is diluted, which explains a lot of why Tex-Mex cuisine is a slight deviation from authentic Mexican meals.
“It’s the same food, it is just prepared differently”, Juarez continued. “For example, I grew up with corn tortillas. My grandmother who traveled to Texas every season to pick cotton learned how to make tortillas using flour”.
So one would think that the ingredients were very different?
“I don’t know if the difference lies in the ingredients necessarily…it’s just different”. Juarez explains further, “I was in San Antonio for about seven years and the food was not that much different from what it is in Mexico in terms of the ingredients, even though there were some variations to the process. I guess it is what they would call ‘South West’ cooking, which is so different from what I grew up with”.
A more specific example is the way tacos are prepared. “They don’t deep fry Tacos where I come from. We just warm up the tortillas — if we deep fry them at all, they are called Tacquitos and they are usually rolled up”.
Juarez makes her feelings about places like Taco Bell very clear. “The Taco Bell Taco? God forbid we use ground beef in tacos!” she laughs. “When we make Tacos, we do use beef, but it is more of a pulled or shredded beef, and while you typically use any type of meat, poultry or fish you want, ground beef was a no-no”.
But Tex-Mex is so much more popular now than it has ever been, and it keeps growing. So why is it so popular? Some say that as more Mexican ingredients are accepted, demanded and available, the pool of Mexican cooks is more diverse than ever before, making the Mex in the Tex-Mex that much more vibrant.
And we would agree.
“It is definitely not popular in Mexico, but in the South West United States it is”, Juarez says. “It is good stuff, but it is derived from an original culture that has been combined with more Caucasian features – it has been ‘gringonized’”.
As alluded to earlier, the Tex-Mex culture goes beyond food, and is just as evident in the way people interact with one another or regard one’s identity. And, the older generation may feel very differently about it.
“If you go back as far as my mother, who was brought to Texas and lived there for about 12 years of her life, and then taken back to Mexico, I would say that back in her day, she felt discriminated against and even stereotyped”, recalls Juarez. “Coming up from the middle part of [Mexico], she says she felt discriminated against because she had a very limited knowledge of the English language…and obviously back then, if you weren’t from Texas, you were immediately assumed to be and treated as a non-English speaker”.
Juarez’s mother was able to adapt to the culture after a period of time, but assimilating into the Tex-Mex culture and way of life had a lot to do with the way she was raised. “My mother eventually met other people who came in from Mexico and learned through her experiences to be a lot more empathetic to those who were coming in to Texas”.
Juarez also felt the effects of the Tex-Mex culture as a young girl growing up in Northern California. She was born in Guanajuato, located in North-Central Mexico, the cradle of independence, since the whole movement of the country’s independence started there. She moved to the United States in February 1965 and settled in Marysville, California.
“Even as a child I felt the discrimination because I went to school with students of Mexican descent who moved up from Texas and they felt they were better because they were from Texas, regardless of the fact that they were as Mexican as I was and had the same needs I did”.
Before we ended our conversation, we just had to talk about Fajitas. “I actually didn’t know anything about Fajitas until I came to the United States. When I eventually had one I thought, ‘Well this is nothing more than meat cooked in sautéed onions, bell peppers and tomatoes’”.
So are there any authentic Mexican dishes that one wouldn’t find in the United States or other parts of the world? According to Juarez, there are several, but she describes her love for Chile Rellenos or Chile Anchos.
“I am well-traveled, but the only place I have ever found this prepared well, is home”.
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