Los Angeles

There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?

LA palm trees

I usually get annoyed when one topic takes over news and culture podcasts for the week (e.g., Girls, Sharon van Etten’s latest album, Baratunde Thurston’s book tour). This week I didn’t get annoyed by the excellent coverage of the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots (or Uprising, depending on how you saw the situation) on LA’s traditional and social media. Instead, I haven’t been able to get enough.

I was 11 years old during the Riots and living out in the suburbs 20 miles away from any of the action. I definitely was aware of what was going on. I knew the name Rodney King and had seen the video. Everyone had, but I didn’t know the excessive force used against him by the four LAPD officers was not an isolated incident. I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du. I’d never heard of the Watts Riots of 1965. Nor did I know anything about police* brutality, institutionalized racism in the justice system, redlining, de-industrialization, and a recession that hit the poor and working class communities of LA hard. (*In my mind, the police were there to serve and protect, and warn us about doing drugs with the DARE and SANE programs.)

Like millions of others, I watched the coverage of late April and early May 1992 on the news. I was scared and saddened. I didn’t understand why people were burning buildings in their own community. I don’t remember being worried that the burning and looting would reach East LA where my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins lived. I highly doubted that anything would happen in Hacienda Heights; though something did happen a town over.


I remember talking about the looting with some kids who lived down the street. I don’t remember the boy’s name, but he either bragged about looting or just said he wanted to be out there. I also remember watching Edward James Olmos doing a cleanup (I was a fan at the time). I think my cousin who lived in East LA went out to help.

Since I was a kid, I’ve read more about the Riots and talked to people who were closer to the action and/or remember it differently. I’ve also learned a lot more about the conditions that set the stage for such an uprising in LA. I’m not a clueless 11 year old anymore, naturally. I’ve had not-so-great experiences with police and been at marches/rallies that got sketchy. Luckily, I never took a rubber bullet to the eye or got pepper sprayed. I no longer live in the suburbs, but in an LA neighborhood that might have seen some burning and looting 20 years ago. It’s changed a lot in the 12 years I’ve been here. We even have a light rail line (Expo!).

A lot has changed in LA in 20 years. At the same time, we haven’t come that far, but it feels good to know that there are many in LA who are still working to effect change.

Ed at [view] from a loft has a great roundup of 20th anniversary coverage. More from LA Observed and KCRW and KPCC.

Comida, Mexico

Reviewing “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

Reading from his new book, Orange County: A Personal History.

A couple weeks ago I RSVP’ed to attend a book talk and signing to coincide with the release of Gustavo Arellano’s new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America at UCLA. I was looking forward to it as I enjoyed Gustavo’s two previous books (Ask A Mexican and Orange County: A Personal History) and couldn’t wait to read the results of his research on the popularity of Mexican food across the US. I follow him on Twitter and Facebook and he’d been dropping hints about his research and trips on both and in articles on the OC Weekly. Plus, is there any topic better than Mexican food and drink?

The quietness of El Cargadero makes me think of Rulfo's Comala

Anyway, I also like Gustavo. He’s a funny, entertaining and opinionated writer covering topics a lot of other journalists ignore. I’m also a fan because we share similar roots. Our mothers were both born in El Cargadero, a pueblito outside of Jerez, Zacatecas. His more autobiographical books felt like I was reading my own familiy’s history.

I never went to the book signing. That afternoon, my Dodger loyalty trumped my Cargaderense roots and pride. Who says Mexican immigrants and their children don’t acculturate or assimilate? Sorry, Gustavo. I ditched your reading but I did buy and read Taco USA. I went the e-book route since I didn’t want to wait for it to ship and didn’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America Review

Taco USA is a must read and worth the money you would have spent on dinner at your favorite Mexican restaurant or a couple of meals from your favorite taco truck. I read slowly, wanting to savor — sorry for the pun — the descriptions of a lot of new-to-me takes on Mexican food outside of Southern California. I was also disgusted by some of the many culinary crimes committed in the name of making Mexican food palatable to white Americans’ taste (see: canned tortillas… guácala!).

I always start with 4 tacos when I go to Martha and Emilio's
Back to the book, the first two thirds are a chronological history of Mexican food in the US. Gustavo recounts the heyday of chili queens in Santa Fe and tamale men from San Francisco to Chicago at the turn of the century. Even back then, ambulantes (street vendors) were a big part of the Mexican food culture, or what passed as Mexican food. I had no clue why cartoon characters crowed about “hot tamaleeees!” Now I know. Other things I learned: the taco (hard, fried style not the ones above) didn’t become popular nationwide until the 1950s-60s; why non-Mexicans are the most popular Mexican food writers and chefs; the origin of nachos; and why chicken, shrimp or veggie fajitas is a misnomer.

Tepeyac's Manuel Special

My favorite chapters were about the burrito and Mexican food cooked by and for Mexican people. I attribute that to my LA and California bias. Gustavo begins the chapter on the burrito by describing the Manuel’s Special giant burrito at El Tepeyac Café in Boyle Heights (East LA, for the LA outsiders).

El Tepeyac Café

I have a particular affinity for El Tepeyac even though a lot of people don’t think the food is all that great. My grandparents, Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni used to live right around the corner from El Tepeyac. Literally. During parties, we used to peek over the wall into the El Tepeyac parking lot. My parents met when they were part of the youth group at Assumption Church, which is across the street from El Tepeyac. It’s where they got married. My siblings and I were baptized there and several other aunts and uncles married there. My roots run deep.

how to make burritos - step 5: enjoy (or save in baggies for lunch the next day)

I started the burrito chapter, “What took the burrito so long to become popular”, with warm fuzzies. And then Gustavo went on to the Mission style burritos in San Francisco (my favorite burritos) and how they inspired chains like Chipotle. I’ve had two Chipotle burritos, both bought by someone else. I don’t get the hype. He also answered a baffling question about the origin of San Diego -berto suffixed chain restaurants. My favorite is the Adalberto’s by my tío Beto’s house in Chula Vista. Their carne asada nachos are amazing.

Chilaquiles at la Juquila (they made me cry)

Gustavo’s chapter on the rise of Mexican food made by and for Mexicans made me hungry and sad that my favorite Mexican restaurant on the westside shut down a couple years ago. I was introduced to Oaxacan food in the late ‘90s by friends and quickly grew to love their moles, enchiladas and chilaquiles. I didn’t know at the time that Oaxacan restaurants were still relatively new in LA. The westside outpost of La Guelaguetza closed down recently. It bummed me out. That was my go-to spot for taking friends from out-of-town for Mexican food they couldn’t get elsewhere. Sadly, I never tried the chapulines (grasshoppers).

Tapatío at a Cuban restaurant

The latter third of Taco USA focuses on Mexican food products and drinks in US stores. This was less interesting to me, except when Gustavo discussed the history of brands like salsa El Tapatio. I was used to seeing it on the table at home, but was surprised when I started to see it as a condiment in restaurants or as a flavor for Doritos. I also got confused by all the entrepreneurs making money off Americans’ tastes for tortillas, salsa, tequila and more.

My only criticism is that Gustavo doesn’t discuss one popular critique or fear of Mexican food: it’s unhealthy and fattening. He does discuss the xenophobic fears, e.g., Mexican food is dirty, too spicy, or it’s going to cause some unfortunate digestive issues. This one got to me when I was losing weight and would read “Going out for Mexican, help!” on the Weight Watchers message boards as if Mexican food needed to be feared. Yes, I know, there are a lot of popular Mexican dishes that are fried and/or very cheesy. I love some of those, but it’s just one type of Mexican food. I lost a bunch of weight without ever giving up my beloved tortillas, (both corn and flour, not the cardboard like whole wheat kind either), tortas and tamales.

A life without tortillas would just be sad. I think Oscar Zeta Acosta, the Brown Buffalo, said it best:

What value is a life without booze and Mexican food?

Gustavo is currently on a media and book tour. Check out his schedule here. For more on the book, you can find a short interview with Arellano on LA Bloga and an excerpt in the LA Weekly. He also was on NPR this week discussing the rise of tacos and the origin of Taco Bell.

Edited: The NYT reviewed Taco USA in the Dining & Wine section this week. It’s a great review and gives you more of an overview of the book and about Gustavo’s career as a food critic and expert on all things Mexican American. If you haven’t exceeded your 10 pages/month limit, go read it.

Cambios, Corriendo

Are you fit?

A couple years ago, Lori invited me to join her and her friend/pseudo trainer for a short trail run through the hills of Schabarum Regional Park. Even though I grew up in the area, I’d only run/walked the trails once before. R was running late and by the time he showed we has warmed up, stretched and were ready to get on the trails. Before we headed out, he sized me up.

“Are you fit?”

“Um… I guess.”

It was a strange question and I really didn’t know how to answer it. At that point, I was at/near my goal weight and had been regularly working out and running for a year. I was in a healthy BMI range for the first time in my adult life and could run 5-6 miles without stopping.

If “fit” meant keeping up with Lori and R on the trails, my answer was accurate. If it meant anything aside from running* — then and now — not so much.

Lately, I’ve been switching up my strength workouts. Rather than doing the routine I started in December (I’d added weight and reps since then to make it tougher), I attempted 30 minute strength workouts on the Nike Training Club app. I’ve done two workouts. Both have kicked my ass.

I tried both at home and after a few moves, I was sweating like crazy, breathing heavily and my heart was beating faster than when I do hill or speed workouts. Even though the moves are meant to be done non-stop without rest, I frequently paused the app to watch a short video demonstrating the moves and to take a breather. At one point during Perfect Score, last night’s workout, I got lightheaded and laid down on my mat. I’d only been doing the workout for 20 minutes. If I was running, I’d barely be sweating at that point.

Ten minutes later, I was done with Perfect Score. The woman hosting the NTC app congratulated me, but it was totally undeserved. I barely finished.

Despite feeling defeated, un-fit, and sore for a couple of days following each NTC workout, I plan to continue challenging myself. I love running and I’m pretty happy with my recent improvements. However, I know that if I spent all my exercise time just running it won’t be enough to improve my overall fitness and help me get back to my goal weight.

*I’d exclude flexibility. I think I’m okay on that one, but haven’t done any sort of test.

Familia, Payasadas

Gullible parents

The parents a little overexposed, but still looking good

When I put up the April Fool’s day post about a civil wedding, I didn’t bother informing my parents or siblings. They occasionally read my blog, but I didn’t think they’d read that day nor fall for the joke. I was wrong on the latter. My mom read it later in the week and called my dad a little confused. “Am I losing my memory?” she asked him.

He read the post and was fooled too until he got to the end. “You got us good,” he told me.

Silly parents.

Cultura, Familia

It’s all fun and games…

Cake time!

I spent Sunday afternoon in Ontario at a last minute birthday BBQ to celebrate Nancy’s birthday. As usual, hanging out with the cousins was filled with a lot of laughs, games, and an accident or two*.

Thoughtful Minel

Early in the afternoon, I played four square with the cousins and catch with the nephews. The nephews were a lot less competitive, but that’s probably because they’re toddlers and still getting the hang of throwing and catching.

Family vs piñata

Later, we had cake and strung up the piñata. After some swings by the few kids present, the adults took over. I got a couple of good hits, but mainly missed.

Calaca piñata pre and post

Even though I missed a lot, the guys didn’t. The piñata lost an eye.

Cause and effect

After Adrian beat up the piñata, tío Pancho threw candy from the roof. As I shot the photo, I thought the situation looked sketchy and backed up a little. Those candy scrambles are always risky, especially when the goodies are thrown from higher up.

Unfortunately, I was right. Adrian left the melee with more than some Snickers. Ouch.

Lesson: piñatas can be dangerous for adults too.

*The accidents don’t happen often. We’re not that reckless or clumsy.