If You Give a Hipster a Burrito

The conversation about ‘cultural appropriation’ is one that pops up more in 2017 than ever, but it is still deep in the confusion stage.

Typically those called out for the theft of cultural items or practices are white celebrities or white college partiers who picked an offensive theme. At the least, we can agree that dawning a poncho and a sombrero to pose for a photo with your friend in a “border patrol” costume” is in poor taste. Unacceptable, actually.

Were we expecting to take the conversation to the giant Macbook-filled coffee shop that is the American Northwest? To Portland?

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National headlines introduce the story of two Portland women who traveled to Mexico and returned to start their own burrito business.

NICE!

People love a good burrito, especially one that doesn’t come from a greasy chain. But Huffpost‘s Carolina Moreno writes that it is the method the two burrito cart proprietors, LC Connelly and Kali Wilgus, used to get their recipes that raises questions.

In an interview with the Willamette Week, Connelly told her love story with a Puerto Nuevo burrito.

“In Puerto Nuevo, you can eat $5 lobster on the beach, which they give you with this bucket of tortillas. They are handmade flour tortillas that are stretchy and a little buttery, and best of all, unlimited.”

Did she say … FIVE DOLLAR lobster?

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It sounds like the founders of Kooks (oh, yeah, the burrito cart was named Kooks) had fun on their Christmas vacation. So much fun, in fact, that they had to learn how to make such delicious burritos themselves.

“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did … They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”

Let’s assume “tortilla lady” here means Mexican woman.

Let’s not assume that “the worst broken Spanish ever” means adding -o or -a to English words, but let’s not rule it out either.

This small business owner literally just said that they wouldn’t tell her their technique, though. She had to peek through the window like Russell Crowe.

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Kooks is closed now.

This is entirely because critics shined a cultural appropriation spotlight on the Portland cart.

Connelly and Wilgus were accused of theft of a cultural item or practice from a part of Mexico that I bet was full of white vacationers and burritos made specifically for them, and forced to shut down.

The top commenter on the Willamette article raised an interesting point, though.

“Are you all suggesting that Andy Ricker close Pok Pok? Should John Gorham close Toro Bravo? What about Expatriate? Should we force Kyle to stop serving Laotian tacos? Are you going to try and convince me you’ve never stood in line at Por Que No? Um, Bollywood Theater anyone? If learning how to make a food from another culture and selling it is now considered cultural appropriation, then why not take this issue up with the sucessful PDX businesses that have been doing this at a much larger scale for years, and stop harassing these two women struggling to start a small business. THX.” — Jen

I have never heard of Por Que No, Jen, let alone stood in line, but I see what you mean.

I’m sure the commenters thought that these ‘whiny SJWs’ wouldn’t set foot near a burrito cart because of the animal cruelty, but in the heart of Oregon bohemia anything is possible.

Her point is that Americans of all races and ethnicities would be hot under collar if Taco Bell went away. No one seems to bat an eye at the white cook at Pizza Hut. I certainly don’t.

If I go out looking for “authentic” Italian meats, though, and I find a place that boasts exactly that, I’d be a little suspicious if no one there was Italian.

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I don’t believe that Kooks itself or its founders are the problem.

The problem, assuming that cultural appropriation is problematic, is perhaps the boasting of an item or practice’s authenticity without the accurate representation of its true creator.

One critic wrote:

“Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.”

So I, a black person, am free to enjoy Mexican food. However, I am not to become the authority over that Mexican food in my community, especially not for profit.

A burrito stand in Portland is totally okay if a Mexican person in Portland is also okay. In other words, it would be wrong for me to allow my American neighbors to treat my Mexican neighbors like they don’t belong here while enjoying the parts of Mexico I can put in my stomach.

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Kooks’ story is an unfortunate one. Two white women from Oregon’s liberal bastion who most likely had no intention to “steal” anything (they actually developed their own recipe since they didn’t get all the exact information from Puerto Nuevo) will have to start over.

The conversation about cultural appropriation is in the confusion stage because it is more accusatory than informative.

I’m not here to throw Connelly and Wilgus under the bus—I cannot assume that they contribute nothing to culture or that their benefits were not shared with any Mexican people—but I’m not here to excuse the careless use of cultural items or practices for profit either.

It is a real thing that we could apparently learn a thing or two about before selling a Mexican burrito or “hand pie” (empanada), a black hairstyle, or an Indian garment, as though they’re all cute knick-knacks.

We’re all human.

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