George Boardman: Culture’s a web easily tangled
I’m reluctant to admit this, but I’m going to commit an act of cultural appropriation Wednesday right here in Nevada City. I just hope our local social justice warriors don’t find me.
My brazen act will consist of eating food and drinking beverages not associated with my English-German heritage. I’m going to enjoy this activity in the company of people who are not Mexican Americans, but I probably won’t be wearing a sombrero or serape … unless I drink way too much tequila.
Yes, I’ll be celebrating Cinco de Mayo, held annually to mark the defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puerbla in 1862, one in a string of French defeats that started at Waterloo. It’s one of the few victories over a foreign power Mexico can claim, particularly since it has been stuck in our shadow for so many years. As Mexican President Porfirio Diaz once lamented: “Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.”
But social scolds will insist that Cinco de Mayo as practiced in the United States is just a gringo marketing exercise to sell more beer and tequila — and without the permission of the people whose holiday we are appropriating, another example of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups.
As journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle explained in a recent article at ThoughtCo.com, which promotes itself as a source of useful information to students and educators, such interaction is not to be confused with what we might acquire from mingling with the hundred-plus ethnic groups that make up the population of the United States.
Rather, she writes, cultural appropriation involves “adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of the people who belong to that culture.” This would include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, etc.
I first became aware of this new effort to make white people feel guilty a few years ago when a video from my alma mater, San Francisco State, went viral. The video showed a Black woman berating a white man for wearing dreadlocks.
Locks are generally associated with Black culture in America, but they have been around since biblical times. In fact, it is probable that white people of that era wore them, but no matter. They’re off-limits to white folks now, as singer Justin Bieber is learning with his new locks-inspired hairdo.
Much of the outrage over cultural appropriations these days is confined to left-leaning media outlets and college campuses. As you would expect these days, some argue that cultural appropriation is a form of white supremacy. Here’s an explanation from the web site of WBUR-FM, the Boston affiliate of NPR:
“This is how white supremacy works. It always begins with the taking, an entitled grabbing of the cultural symbols of others. A sombrero? A serape? A kimono? Cornrows? They’re there for the seizing. And if such snatching is questioned, if we dare confront the audacity by which it plucks what isn’t its own, then there is intimidation and terror. White supremacy grabs and grabs — lands, people, continents, culture — for both power and hollow amusement.”
There are a couple of problems with this reasoning. As anybody who has followed the Proud Boys and others of their ilk on the alt-right, white nationalism is obsessed with keeping the white race pure, with making sure other peoples, cultures, traditions and values don’t pollute white identity. If the supremacists had their way, anything associated with Mexico would be kept south of the border.
As a practical matter, it’s almost impossible to disentangle distinct ethnic traditions regardless of where you go in the world. Take, for example, the beer that will be consumed at numerous celebrations Wednesday: Five of 10 top-selling foreign beers in America are brewed in Mexico, according to marketing data firm Information Resource Inc.
Mexican beer as we know it today was brought there by the Conquistadors and refined by German brew masters in the 1800s. Ninety percent of the Mexican beer we drink today is owned by outfits in Belgium (ABinBev) and the Netherlands (Heineken).
Tequila is a beverage Mexico can truly claim as its own, but I’m guessing the people who make it don’t object to the appropriation of the liquor by Americans to the tune of the 20 million 9-litre cases sold in the United States last year. That’s a lot of pesos going into the pockets of distillery owners and workers.
If you eat anything resembling Mexican cuisine Wednesday, it’s likely the meal will include ingredients manufactured by Goya Foods, the largest producer of Mexican food in the United States. With 4,000 workers worldwide and annual revenue of $1.5 billion, Goya is a classic American story of immigrants who turned their dream into a success.
But wait a minute: Goya was founded by a Spanish couple who came here via Cuba. Is that a case of cultural appropriation? That’s probably not a question that bothers the people employed by the company.
If you’re looking for a textbook example of cultural appropriation, look no farther than our very own Grass Valley. That’s where you will find the source of Jimboy’s Tacos, started here by Jim Knudson in the 1950s.
As the story goes, Knudson was introduced to tacos by friends who had just returned from a trip to Mexico. He thought the food stuff might be popular at his Grass Valley restaurant, Jimmy’s 49er Café.
Alas, the locals weren’t ready for an item they had trouble pronouncing, but Knudson was stubborn. In 1954, he built a food truck — a novelty then — to make and sell tacos, and found a market for them in the Lake Tahoe area. He opened a restaurant and decided to franchise the concept in Sacramento in 1969. There are now more than 40 Jimboy’s in California, Nevada and Texas.
What exactly are you appropriating if you create jobs to produce food that people enjoy? If Knudson needed approval to create this, who would have granted permission anyway? How are you dishonoring people by celebrating the cuisine of their culture?
All of this makes my head hurt. Pass the cactus juice.
George Boardman lives in Nevada City. His column is published biweekly on Tuesdays by The Union. Write him at email@example.com.
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