Column: Jill Biden and GOP are two sides of a breakfast taco

Dr. Jill Biden stood outside a packed hotel banquet hall this week in San Antonio and tried to inspire everyone by talking about her husband’s record on Latino issues.

Instead, the first lady joined a growing club: the pantheon of flattering politicians who tried to use Mexican food to win votes.

Speaking at the national convention of UnidosUS, a civil rights organization known for decades as the National Council of La Raza, the first lady hailed longtime president Raul Yzaguirre’s vision to create a non-profit organization that does not focus on a single Latino group.

“Raul helped build this organization knowing that the diversity of this community – as distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the flowers of Miami and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio – is your strength. she says, mispronouncing “bodegas.”

Biden laughed after delivering the line, as if expecting enthusiastic applause from the city where breakfast tacos — like breakfast burritos, except they’re tacos — are the gospel . Instead, there was nervous laughter and some applause. She smiled and moved on.

2022 being 2022, America didn’t.

Through her press secretary, the first lady quickly apologized “that her words convey nothing but pure admiration and love for the Latin American community.”

Republican politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Dan Crenshaw — you know, the guys whose party still backs a former president who said Mexican immigrants are “rapists” and Central American refugees come of “shitty country” — accused Biden of being out of touch with Latinos.

Democrats have remained largely silent and left poor Biden alone, like this last sad tortilla chip in a bowl.

The Assn. Hispanic reporters, meanwhile, criticized Biden for “a lack of cultural knowledge and sensitivity to Latino diversity” in the Alamo City. And then, in perhaps the most unintentionally funny quote of the year, he added, “We’re not tacos.”

But we are. We are also the bodegas and flowers that Biden used as metaphors to praise Puerto Ricans in New York and Cubans in South Florida — metaphors that NAHJ and Republicans had no problem with.

So why beef — or rather, chorizo ​​and eggs — with breakfast tacos?

In 2019, presidential candidate Julian Castro, right, chats with Rolando Cuevas and Alma Márquez over a plate of huevos rancheros during a campaign stop at La Parrilla restaurant in East Los Angeles.

(Michael Owen Baker / For The Time)

Mexican cuisine has long been a part of the presidential campaign, ever since John F. Kennedy accepted a 48-pound tamale as a birthday present from the San Antonio-based National Taco Council in 1961 “on behalf of the citizens of the United States of America.” ‘Latin origin’. “, according to the press release.

The primary season has long seen candidates from all parties do photo ops at Mexican restaurants, usually accompanied by local Latino politicians.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama hosted lavish diplomatic banquets featuring Mexican cuisine (the Gipper invited real Mexican chefs; Barry went with Rick Bayless). Jesse Jackson praised Democratic vice-presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 for his ability to “go from cookies to tacos to caviar very quickly, knowing that it’s just cultural diversity that makes up America.” Bill Clinton has been to the classic tex-mex cafe Mi Tierra in San Antonio so many times that he features a painting of a Slick Willie jogging wearing a – you guessed it! — Mi Tierra Café t-shirt.

Not all presidential administrations have succeeded in their combo-plateau policy. Richard Nixon once refused a giant enchilada from the National Taco Council. Gerald Ford bit into a tamale still wrapped in its wrapper.

Then there was Donald Trump’s infamous tweet in 2016 proclaiming, “I love Hispanics!” accompanied by a photo of him smiling over a gigantic taco salad.

UnidosUS president Janet Murguia told The New York Times, “I don’t know if any self-respecting Latino would even acknowledge that a bowl of tacos is part of our culture” — never mind that California Chicanos and have been enjoying taco salads for decades. .

Using Mexican food as a campaign ploy has always been as safe as grabbing a bagel in Manhattan, devouring a Philly cheesesteak in the City of Brotherly Love, or slamming a Schlitz beer in Wisconsin.

That was before 2020, when Trump — the most racist president in recent American history — not only didn’t lose Latino support from 2016, but increased it.

Suddenly, Republicans realized they had a chance to win the votes of Mexican Americans, who as a group have historically overwhelmingly favored Democrats, primarily because GOP officials have long labeled them as invaders. The recent victory of Mayra Flores — a Republican from South Texas who gushed about QAnon and who will not answer if President Biden was rightfully elected — as the first Mexican-born House representative only added to their feverish dreams.

This is why conservatives are suddenly doing their worst woke imitation and claiming that Biden and the Democrats are being racist for supposedly calling Latinos are tacos.

But that posture is also why the person who wrote the first lady’s UnidosUS speech threw away the breakfast tacos. They are a culinary touchstone of Texas, but especially of San Antonio, where the meal first won wide acclaim. (Don’t believe Austin.) The hope was that by shouting out this beloved local staple, Biden would be seen as savvy and much more in tune with Latinos than Republicans and would be able to maintain support from Latinos at a time when her husband desperately needs this.

The taco is no longer neutral. It has become a weapon in the name of possessing the other side.

Shortly after Biden’s apology, I called Jose R. Ralat, Texas Monthly’s taco editor and author of “American Tacos: A History and Guide” — the second-best book on the history of cooking. Mexican in the United States, after mine. . He took me on a taco tour in San Antonio in May that I’m still full of, but unfortunately didn’t include the breakfast tacos.

“My friends are like ‘meh’ about it all,” Ralat told me over the phone. “It’s not a controversy; it is a misstep. It’s the equivalent of a mother of a groom dressed in white at a wedding.

He criticized Republicans for being “dishonest and cynical”. But he also applauded Biden for setting himself up to fail.

“His big mistake was trying to lump an incredibly diverse cultural group into one thing,” he said. “It’s always impossible, and it’s always going to backfire.”

As for the laughable National Assn. of the Hispanic reporters’ statement, Ralat — who is a member — was even less forgiving.

“They’ve got bigger fish to fry, man,” he said. “They need to focus on diversifying newsrooms.”

Biden’s remarks notwithstanding, Ralat predicted that politicians will continue to eat and shout tacos through the midterms of this year and beyond.

“The taco is seen as an accessible topic to curry favor with Latinos as a whole,” he said. “And as we’ve seen, that won’t always work. But hey: at least they’re not corndogs.

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