During the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle, a Latino supporter of then-candidate Donald Trump issued a warning on national television—which quickly went viral—that if Latino culture went unchecked and became too “dominant” in the country, Americans would have to confront “a taco truck on every corner.” The numerous tongue-in-cheek internet memes that resulted, along with social media pleas for this culinary reality to manifest, made clear that Latin American food is not only tolerated in the United States but much beloved. No longer produced just for particular ethnic or immigrant groups’ tastes, this cuisine has permeated and transformed the national culture. Paradoxically, however, Latinx food workers of all kinds—from farmworkers to restaurant workers to street vendors—continue to experience intense discrimination, criminalization, invisibility, and exploitation in the United States. This treatment is only compounded by many of these workers’ vulnerabilities as racial minorities, immigrants (oftentimes undocumented), and “back of the house” workers or laborers in the informal economy. Americans have come to appreciate and demand Latinx food and foodways, but have a much more fraught relationship with Latinx people’s visible presence in the country and their labor in varied foodscapes.
My new book project traces the history of Latinx workers (citizen and immigrant) in the U.S. Northeast’s food industry, their treatment within that industry, and their sociocultural impact upon the region through systems of food. Though various communities of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, and Central American descent have lived in the Northeast for decades, or even centuries, the U.S. Northeast has been severely understudied in Latinx history. While working in the food industry is certainly not the only way in which this population has transformed the Northeast, I believe it is a particularly illuminating vantage point. Using this analytical window, my book presents the tandem stories of how the U.S. gained an appetite for Latin American food and Latin American food labor over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Farmworkers and other kinds of food workers have been historically neglected in national protective labor policies concerning a minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, and occupational safety. This legislative neglect is only made worse by the fact that certain spaces of food work are designed to be less visible or completely invisible to consumers. As the food worker demographic has become overwhelming Latinx, guestworker, and undocumented in this country, this kind of labor is now heavily coded as “immigrant” labor and placed out of many citizens’ sights and minds. My book provides a useable history of how the nation came to see and desire Latin American food over time, but un-see and marginalize people of Latin American descent in spheres of food labor such as fields, farms, restaurants, street vending, processing factories, and warehouses. The resulting moves these workers have made—to make themselves seen, heard, and treated better—are what captivate me.