back to news March 26, 2019

Paloma Martinez-Cruz's new book explores the politics of representation, food production

With Food Fight!: Millennial Mestizaje Meets the Culinary Marketplace, Paloma Martinez-Cruz, associate professor of Latinx cultural studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, takes a provocative look at the politics of food production, marketing and cultural representation.

In the course of the book’s thought-provoking, rigorous essays, Martinez-Cruz takes the reader on a journey from “authentic” Midwestern Mexican restaurants to the farms and fields where laborers work for often egregiously low wages and exploitative working conditions to track how exactly that food on your plate makes it from farm to table.

“We’re using food at the center of raising awareness,” Martinez-Cruz says.

The production and distribution of food is not the only thing on Martinez-Cruz’s mind. She examines the appropriation of Latinx bodies and food by predominantly Anglo restaurateurs in a form of “culinary brownface.”

“Calling it ‘culinary brownface’ was important to me. Similar to blackface, brownface is a performance of Latinx culture for a predominantly white audience," she said.

These issues play out in these contact zones where predominantly white consumers encounter heritage cultures and culinary tradition, often filtered through performative gestures or a refocusing designed to fit the consumer’s point of view, what Martinez-Cruz calls the “Cabo Wabo or Señor Frog thing.”

While Food Fight! tracks these issues and how they play out in the cultural sphere, the work also digs deep into innovators and activists who are upending this system of production and consumption.

Homegirl Cafes and Homeboy Industries are using food and culture as a diversion program,” she says of these groundbreaking Los Angeles-based businesses providing training, support and employment for previously incarcerated and/or gang-affiliated men and women. It is within these spaces where the food and culture are utilized to forge new paths of identity, economic power and placemaking while also flipping the script when it comes to damaging stereotypes or perceptions. It is a reclamation of space and culture meant to empower.

Martinez-Cruz wants the reader to think twice about what’s on their plate and how it got there or to pay mind to how particular images are circulating within the cultural sphere. Ultimately it is to work toward a greater understanding and empathy of the impacts of these forms of cultural appropriation.

“People should eat whatever they want. People should eat Hormel chili with Frito chips on top of it if that’s what they want to eat," she said. "There just needs to be a layer of where we’re pushing back against things that feel like cultural defamation, and I would love to see a dialogue about that.”

She continues, “You can start conversations even if you’ve messed up. Whatever you can do, consider doing.”