Mexican Foodways in Michigan
"As you unwrap those delicious, steaming, freshly-made tamales, gift-wrapped in corn shucks, that have kept human beings alive for more than seven thousand years on this continent, think about the things that last beyond nations, beyond languages, beyond flags.”
Ellen Riojas Clark & Carmen Tafolla
Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization
It’s important to understand how young national borders truly are. Borders like the one separating the United States and Mexico today are recent creations, barriers marking the history of colonial intrusion into Indigenous peoples’ way of life.
Indigenous people have been migrating across the hemisphere since time immemorial, bringing into contact a diverse range of food practices, music, language, and other ways of being. Culture is not something that can be contained within borders. While the very concept of a “border” implies a deep distinction between the two countries, the food systems in the US and Mexico are actually deeply intertwined. Despite the racism Mexican-Americans experience, Mexican food is among the most popular cuisines in the US. Restaurant and agricultural industries in the US are greatly dependent upon the labor of Latines. And Mexico’s food system is being transformed by transnational policies that further Americanize traditional approaches to producing food.
Food is also a central aspect of cultural identity. It has the power to connect us to a place, to a people, to a history, even in the midst of migrating to new places. This is why food is an important element of immigrant experiences. Through food, immigrant communities are able to share common memories and create community.
This been true for our own organization. At our first retreat in 2016 (at the time we were called MICCA), we made plenty of time to cook and eat together. For us, this was *as* important as taking time for strategic planning, creating bylaws, or any other “official” business we planned to do. We made tamales de mole together. The mole was made by and shipped to us from Oaxaca by the mother of Connie Rojas, a current board member of Masa. The time spent cooking and eating together was key to the formation of our organization because it allowed us to participate in an experience where we shared different parts of our own Mexican cultures, and to build relationships with one another. We became close very quickly and formed deep bonds, many of which we continue to keep today.
Of course, we did not know at the time of our retreat that one of our dear co-founders, Maximilian Monroy-Miller, who is holding the tamal in picture above, would pass away weeks later at the age of 37. Max maintained many qualities that still guide me (Santos) today. He was known for having big energy, and for sharing contagious laughter and light with the world. People share stories of his ability to make those around him feel truly special, particularly by identifying and highlighting the unique talents of those he came into contact with. Max was a genuine person, and he excelled at forming connections.
There are many things binding together our organization, Masa Center, and there are many memories that keep us connected to Max. But food facilitates these connections as much as anything else. Food tells us something important about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. It is why we named ourselves after an important cultural food (masa, like the dough) because we aim to honor our cultural roots and to nourish our communities today toward a brighter future. Masa cannot be contained by borders. People across the Americas use it for a variety of specialty and everyday foods, such as tortillas and tamales. It is part of who we are, and it showcases the beauty of both our similarities and our differences.
A WORKING HISTORY OF MEXICAN FOOD IN BATTLE CREEK
In many ways, food tells the history of Mexican and Latin American people in Battle Creek. Many of our families came here through our work in the agricultural sector. Many of us have opened restaurants here as our livelihood. Food continues to be a central element of the celebrations and ceremonies we hold that bind together our communities at quinceañeras, weddings, and festivals. There are solutions within our ancient foodways to many of the modern problems we face related to health, equity, and climate change. This is something we discuss in more detail here, in a discussion about our work with Alberto Guerrero, co-owner of Mango Fruit and Smoothie in Battle Creek.
To showcase Battle Creek’s rich history of Mexican cuisine, we are building a repository of archival documents highlighting the many restaurants that have existed in the city through the years. And we will continue having conversations, publishing writing both on the history and future of Latine people and our foodways in the region, as we believe both are needed in order to build a future that is truly equitable.
Below is a video presentation that further details local Mexican food within its broader social and political contexts.