The prediction was supposed to sound ominous. But to many listeners, it just sounded delicious.
“My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems,” warned Marco Gutierrez, founder of Latinos for Trump, in an MSNBC interview last week. “If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
In the days that followed, this culinary Cassandra was widely mocked, memed and hashtagged.
How silly and self-loathing must Gutierrez be, the Twitterverse asked, to fear-monger with flautas, to bogeyman with burritos, to alarm with empanadas? After all, any idiot knows that Americans across the political spectrum love Mexican (or at least Tex-Mex) food. Even Donald Trump has featured taco-based cuisine in his political propaganda.
Yet I understand why Gutierrez might have expected his warning of Mexican culture creep to seem scary.
In recent years, there has been a subtle shift, on both left and right, away from the idealization of the melting pot — the United States’ long tradition of mixing and matching from the many cultures and ethnicities that migrate to our shores. Instead, both liberals and conservatives have increasingly advocated a version of cultural autarky: You stick to the traditions of your ancestry, I’ll stick to mine, and we’ll all be better off.
Maybe some rare exceptions can be grandfathered in, among them tacos (and, presumably, bagels). But for the most part, the goal seems to be to maintain clear, pristine ethnic boundaries, for foods, languages, clothing and other traditions.
The motivations for this evolving preference differ depending on the political faction you’re talking about, of course. Those on the far left increasingly avoid engagement with other cultures’ traditions because they worry about “cultural appropriation,” or exoticizing or exploiting another people’s heritage. For the far right, this avoidance is based on fear of an invasive foreign influence, one that might contaminate true “American values.”
The rationales may be different, but the trigger can be the same.
Take, for example, yoga.
On the left, there is a recurring debate about whether practicing yoga in the West is a crass and offensive commercialization of another culture’s sacred tradition. Last year, a college famously canceled a yoga class for students with disabilities due to concerns that the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy.”
The story earned lots of public derision, especially on the right.
But several months later, a similar yoga controversy, this time stoked by conservatives, went viral. Parents of children at a Georgia public elementary school were upset that their kids were being taught “yoga and other mindfulness practices,” because they believed the lessons promoted a “Far East mystical religion.” The school apologized.
Recent years have produced similar brouhahas about whether serving sushi, or wearing kimonos, sombreros or hijabs, amounts to oppression, invasion or even just benign appreciation of other cultures’ traditions and innovations.
Many on the far left seem to prefer a vision of pluralism in which different cultures never borrow from one another, regardless of intentions. In this view, white people who wear braids, buy turquoise jewelry, don saris or sing along with rap lyrics are exhibiting both bad taste and bad faith.
Many on the far right likewise yearn for their own “safe space” for American values, or at least a specifically Christian-Anglophone version of those values. That means an insular country where everyone says “Merry Christmas” rather than the inclusive “Happy Holidays”; no automated phone system ever says “para espanol, oprima dos”; and non-Western clothing styles are not just discouraged but outlawed. In fact, in the wake of the recent French burkini debate, a YouGov survey found that 4 in 10 Republicans would support a U.S. law banning Muslim-style body-and-face veils.
For centuries, humankind considered the peaceful exchange of ideas, goods and customs a source of progress, a means of (quite literally) “spicing up” life. Many of the traditions that we today associate with specific ethnicities are themselves borrowed from elsewhere, thanks to centuries of trade. The potato, that staple of Irish cuisine, was originally brought to the Emerald Isle from South America, for example.
Which makes this recent creep of cultural isolationism both concerning and confusing. Perhaps that scare-mongering Trump surrogate could be forgiven for not realizing that, just as potatoes eventually became Irishized, many Americans already regard tacos as fully Americanized. Here’s hoping that this bit of confusion and inadvertent comedy slows the impulse to separate the ingredients of the American melting pot into its many parts.
Write to Catherine Rampell at email@example.com.