Who Eats at Taco Bell? is an odd title for a project in which the fast-food chain plays but an omniscient role. In the end, we do not actually aspire to know who eats at Taco Bell. The idea for the expedition was sparked in Gustavo Aguilar’s hometown of Brownsville, Texas, a small town—population 175,000 [of which 93% identify as Hispanic, Latino, or of Mexican descent]—with roughly 150-200 taquerias. And, yet, one Taco Bell continues to thrive. Que pasa?
So we hit the streets of Brownsville and asked, “Do you eat at Taco Bell?” We began to understand how the American diet—as much as it has been formed by the intermingling of different cultures—sheds light on the multiple ways that Americans have chosen to define what it means to be an American. Our interest was piqued further in generative ways when we read how author, lecturer, and nationally syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano characterized the moment when salsa sales overtook those of catsup as a kind of “Manifest Destiny of good taste.”
Given the ubiquitousness of tacos, and of ‘Mexican’ food more broadly—and the extent to which Americans eat vast quantities of Mexican-inspired food, much of it produced by white-owned corporate entities like Taco Bell—we began to flesh out how making tacos with people along the Lewis and Clark Trail [a trail forged by an expedition that played an important role in European-American territorial, cultural, and economic expansion across the continent] would be a powerful way to explore the paradox of how someone could harbor a disdain for ‘foreigners,’ but a love for their food, bearing in mind that this paradox is often connected to a kind of forgetfulness of how in the United States we are, in fact, “almost all aliens.”
But, sharing a meal together is also a way that people from varied backgrounds and histories have always been able to transcend difference and boundaries, and come together. By “breaking bread” with another person we invite an exchange, we share, and in so doing we help soften the ground for new relationships to form. Altogether, this expedition is designed to spark ideas and solutions, and strengthen relationships through participatory engagement with a range of critical themes today: Socio-economic mobility, cultural belonging, movement and borders, assimilation and appropriation, and new forms of cultural identity. How we—as a nation—respond to this contemporary cultural moment will be a marker of our capacity to learn from history and grow.