Thursday, December 15, 2022

Chicanonautica: Kitsch, Stereotypes, and Mexican Restaurant Decor

by Ernest Hogan

One of the highlights of the California Guajalote Day trip, besides seeing my family, was Sancho’s Tacos. The food is excellent, but the decor–¡GUAO! Mexican restaurants often go out of their way to create an atmosphere—dare I say environment?--that deliberately clashes with that Anglo culture that they are located in.

Sancho’s is a masterpiece of this particular art form–creating a walk-thru construction welcoming the customer to a wonderland of Mexican food. (I was about to use the word cuisine, but that’s French. Leave it for the pretentious “Latin inspired cuisine” joints.) The colorful, cluttered wraparound, walls&ceiling mural, studded framed paintings, all in an Ed “Big Daddy” Roth/Ratfink style that manages to create a visual Chicano accent creates anticipation for the meal, enhancing the mouth-watering aroma of the cooking. It’s cartoony and festooned with wild lettering.

It takes what you often see in Mexican restaurants–of which I have seen a lot, a step further. It also illustrates something about Chicano culture, identity, and self-image. Could you imagine a black soul food or Asian place committing such acts of self caricature? But here they are. Why?

It seems that at this end of the Latinoid continuum spectrum, we are not afraid of making fun of yourselves. Maybe it’s because we don’t take ourselves too seriously, or have the same relationship with our food. Most of us come from a working class, barrio background.

There is a reason why the Sancho’s Tacos art looks like that of the Lowbrow Movement.

It’s an appreciation of kitsch, which is, to steal from Wikipedia: loadword from German, is a term applied to art and design that is perceived as naïve imitation, overly-eccentric, gratuitous, or of banal taste. [. . .] However, since the emergence of Pop Art in the 1950s, kitsch is sometimes re-appreciated in knowingly ironic, humorous or earnest fashion.


Compare this to Wiki’s definition of Rasquachismo: a theory developed by Chicano scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto to describe "an underdog perspective, a view from los de abajo" in working class Chicano communities which uses elements of "hybridization, juxtaposition, and integration" as a means of empowerment and resistance. 

And plug this into  mestizaje–a 20th century term for race-mixing that Wiki says is used by scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúla as a synonym for miscegenation, but with positive connotations.

I have noticed we mostly see it in Aztlán, restaurants up in Sasquachlandia, or even Utah, where Mexican restaurants are still a new phenomenon, are colorful, but not as outrageous.

And south of the border, things Chicano activists find offensive are just seen as funny. 

I once posted the a picture of the Frito Bandito. This confused Polo Jasso, creator of the brilliant comic strip El Cerdotado. When I explained about MeCHA banning the Bandito, he thought it was all funny. 

In Mexico, and even in a book, I’ve seen murals in restaurants in Mexico of pigs merrily slaughtering humans. People were expected to get the joke, and look at them while eating their pork carnitas. This was back in the early Seventies. Somehow, in a few short decades, they all disappeared. I keep searching on Google, but can’t find them, and no one else seems to remember them. Guess they were considered to be in bad taste.

If anyone reading this remembers them, or better yet has a photo of any, please let me know.

Meanwhile, I hope that the owners of Mexican restaurants keep supporting the arts.

Ernest Hogan is already busy with 2023 stuff even though it hasn’t arrived yet.

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