You would be right, and the pun would be forgiven if, in trying to put a number on how many Mexican restaurants there are in New York City you were to call that a tall order. And you would not be alone in your ignorance, since neither the office in charge of keeping track of the vertiginous ethnic flavors of this city—the City’s office of Food and Services of the Health Department, nor, for that matter, most of the online search engines, seem to know for sure what the number is. It is not that they are bad at counting; it’s just that they cannot keep a day-by-day account of an industry that seems to multiply overnight. With the overall number of the city’s restaurants put anywhere between 17 and 20 thousand by the city government, depending on the research tool of your choice, it cannot be surprising then that Switchboard.Com says that there are only 190 Mexican restaurants in the city, while Local.com counts 970, The Yellow Pages 318, including those near the NYC area, and that Google lists 11,800, give or take a few, since, for example, it counts El Cibao Restaurant, on Smith Street, Brooklyn, as Mexican, when it is, of course Dominican. This minor inaccuracy speaks volumes about what interests us here, for if you haven’t guessed it yet, Mexican immigration, both legal and illegal, is what this piece is about, not the math of Mexican culinary science.
If we do the math on the data provided by the 2000 US Census, it turns out that of the 2,160,554 Hispanics counted in the five boroughs of the city, amounting to 27.2 percent of the overall population, only186,889, a mere 8.65 percent of all Hispanics, were Mexican. Of course, given that the contingent of 400,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants entering the country every year is assumed to be composed largely of Mexicans, a big bunch of whom wind up in New York, these numbers probably don’t count for much. So it seems likely that the percentages should be anted up. At least in theory there should be a proportional relation between the numbers of legal and illegal immigrants in a city and the number of restaurants from a given country this city boasts. Only that, since no one ever gets to know how many illegal immigrants there are, the numerical relation of that proportion cannot be established. This does not mean, however, that the established number of restaurants cannot serve as indicator of the growth or decrease in number of immigrants from a given country, especially if that country’s cooking is internationally prestigious, a bill Mexico’s is proud to fit. The reason is not that immigrant Mexicans, even if illegally here, have a need to eat; it is that given that prestige, their kitchen always has a clientele on stand-by and therefore it can count on a healthy demand; with highly-skilled hands in good supply at a pay that’s never too high, you can afford offering reasonable prices, while profits are a sure thing, and since, as The New York Times recently reported, the workplace is the last place the immigration authorities go looking for illegal immigrants, it turns out to be a safe place to hide in broad daylight, or at any rate, in everyone’s sight. Call this The Trojan Burrito arrangement, which is a win-win thing for everyone.
And here is where Homer comes in. It is an old familiar story, which for this very reason gets easily forgotten. If you are a Greek, or Mexican, you know that the best way to take over an enemy’s fortress is to storm it from the inside; so if you cannot get a giant horse through its gate then you send in as best as you can countless thousands of Burritos (little donkeys, in Spanish), and see that they get the love of those being invaded, which, if they are Americans, is easily done with large quantities of cheese, beans, beef and rice. Then all your Trojan Burritos have to do is multiply, which seems to be what the untold numbers of Mexicans in the US cannot tell they are doing here.
But before you go patriotic on them and start calling for a Burrito boycott, remember that the Americans, not Mexicans, were the ones who first stormed the fortress and took by force the lands that Mexicans and their Burritos appear to be trying to get back. It all began a long while back in 1819 when the colonizing Spanish crown saddled the soon-to be independent country with the 1500 plus farmers who, headed by Moses Austin and Stephen, his son, settled in Texas, when it was still the largest portion of the Mexican Republic, and who later down the road were to rebel against it. Truth to be told, their rebellion, and its attendant consequences, were partially Antonio López de Santa Anna’s fault. For, after he seized the helm of the country, probably out of good faith, tequila-induced insouciance, and ignorance of what Robert Frost was eventually going to write—that good fences make good neighbors— took too long to even care how things would of necessity turn up, something he was soon going to regret. For these American immigrants to Mexico, by practicing their Protestant religion and by continuing to practice slavery in violation of the two conditions on which they had been allowed to come over, provoked, one might say knowingly, the violent, bloody attack by Mexican troops that gave the government of president James Polk the much-sought pretext the U.S. Army needed to cross the Texan border into Mexico, bringing about what in short order became the Mexican- American War. It was a set-up. Ever greedy for more lands then as today we are gluttonous for Burritos, after Texas we chugged New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Arizona, California and Nevada, and incorporated them, one after the other, into the Union. And so, John L. O’Sullivan’s tongue-in-cheek prophecy was fulfilled. Known as “Manifest Destiny,” published in The Democratic Review (1839) in his article “The Great Nation of Futurity,” O’Sullivan seems to have read the futurity part of his oracle somewhat wrong. America could glut all the lands they could scarf down, as they did, but at a price: its Civil War, that bled the country into renouncing slavery for good, and that almost did away with the Union as such. Then as now, Mexicans have ever known there is no such thing as a free lunch. By abolishing slavery in 1829, Mexico had shown that it was the Hispanic people, not the Anglos, who were already stepping into the future; it is not a small accomplishment that it did it shedding not even a pint of blood.
That Mexico lost more than half of its territory, including its most fertile lands, is a fact that naturally has never sat well with the Mexicans, and that never will, especially because it was the bad result of an act of good faith, a major component of the naive Hispanic idiosyncrasy. And so, their territorial loss, and the Guadalupe- Hidalgo treaty that made it official have never had the blessing of the Mexican people, rather, it is this loss that is central to their national identity. For Americans this might be a fait accompli, but for the Mexicans it is unfinished business. And this, besides the pedestrian explanation of the higher income, which is also true, is the real reason they keep coming: they try to make their identity complete through quietly repossessing their lands. That Mexicans are the enemy inside is what Samuel P. Huntington tried to say in his Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity— but did not dare. But if Mexicans are indeed the enemy, they’re an enemy that is getting a lot of love here: Taco Bell is an old Chihuahua with us and, as Slate’s Daniel Gross notices, Chipotle, the Mexican fast-food joint that is becoming ever more ubiquitous in NYC, is owned and operated by McDonald’s, and, at about $40 a share, is doing pretty well. It’s worth noticing here that while a regular two-piece Burrito has 331 calories, Chipotle’s has 1,100: as we did to the Mexican lands, now we do it to their food. Americans, we fatten everything touch.
History, Marx believed, repeats itself only as a farce. But that is false; it repeats itself as a burden. Next time you find yourself handling one of those Burritos, think that Menelaus did not send his horse to Troy without a reason.
Posted: April 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm