By Larisa Lara – Winning essay at the IBER-RUTAS International Kitchen and Migration Essay Contest 2017 (free form mode). December 2017
Link to Larisa’s original article in Spanish: El nexo entre gastronomía y migración: el caso de la diáspora mexicana en Europa
Gastronomy is a symbol of national identity that produces pride, happiness and well-being. The aromas, ingredients and flavors of certain dishes trigger memories with the family and pleasant memories with friends. Undoubtedly, traditional food is a platform that juxtaposes feelings of nostalgia and great joy. These feelings intensify when living outside our country of origin.
Living abroad has a great impact on the way in which national gastronomy is valued. Being a migrant, the dishes of the place of origin become a symbol of identity, culture, and tradition. In order to access national cuisine, migrants must sometimes learn to adapt the ingredients and resources available in the city that hosts them in order to successfully cook their national cuisine.
However, the strategies that migrants develop in order to prepare typical dishes from their country of origin are not limited to the resources available in the country where they have emigrated. In effect, migrants have developed transnational tactics to access ingredients, ideas, techniques and recipes to be able to specify their traditional dishes. For migrants, gastronomy has become a reason to maintain and continue feeding social and economic relations with their countries of origin.
This essay presents different strategies that Latin American migrants living in Europe have established in order to prepare the food that connects them to their roots. The essay presents examples collected from interviews with Mexican migrants living in Bratislava, Paris and Brussels. Specifically, the essay explores how the national gastronomy has shaped the migration and life strategies of three Mexicans in Europe. Based on their life stories, this essay reflects on the impact that traditional Mexican cuisine can have on the way of migrating, access to employment and the identity of migrants. It is worth mentioning that the names of the participants have been changed to protect their identity and privacy.
A corner of Mexico in Bratislava
A few steps from the central square of Bratislava, there is a Mexican restaurant that serves several of the most traditional dishes such as tacos, enchiladas and guacamole. All the dishes are prepared with natural products and seasoned with authentic homemade flavor. The restaurant is run by a family originally from Mexico City, which has managed to settle in Slovakia and replicate Mexican recipes with which they grew up in their country of origin.
Their restaurant and their mobility strategies reflect the strong attachment they have with Mexico. The Rodriguez family decided to move to Bratislava to start a new business because of the economic opportunities and the immigration system in that country. María, the owner of the restaurant, decided to migrate to Slovakia for its migration rules for foreign entrepreneurs. Once installed, she dedicated herself to finding markets and ways to obtain authentic Mexican ingredients to elaborate her traditional dishes. Due to the lack of materials and ingredients in Bratislava, Maria and her family chose to import products from Vienna, Austria.
The Rodríguez family has an important network of personal and professional contacts in Vienna, which allows them to access authentic Mexican ingredients. For example, thanks to this transnational network, the family has access to European nixtamalized tortillas that they use as the basis of most of their dishes.
In addition to cooking, one of the great pleasures of the Rodriguez family is to welcome Mexicans, who praise and recognize the authentic flavor of their food. Arturo, the owner of the restaurant, said he has had Mexican clients traveling from Holland and other countries to eat at his establishment. Positive comments from the Mexican diaspora in Europe encourage both Maria and Arturo to continue cooking Mexican dishes. On the one hand, the tradition of its cuisine manages to connect both entrepreneurs with their roots. On the other hand, recognition by the Mexican community makes them proud and motivates them to continue creating dishes.
The story of the Rodriguez family reveals several interesting aspects from a sociological and economic point of view. First, because the family decided to settle in Bratislava because of the structural and political opportunities arising from the Slovak migration regime. Second, the family of entrepreneurs has managed to create transnational commercial networks for the supply of their ingredients. Finally, this example demonstrates the importance that Mexicans give to their gastronomy when traveling from other countries to eat authentic enchiladas or tacos in Bratislava.
Making tacos and burritos in Paris
Ernesto is a chef and manager of a taqueria in the north of Paris since 2012. He is originally from Monterrey and for six years he enjoys cooking Mexican food in France. Mexican cuisine has allowed him to: access a job, maintain relations with the Latin American diaspora and remain connected to his place of origin through the preparation of authentic Mexican tacos and burritos.
Ernesto was able to migrate to Paris due to his culinary talent and the support of the Mexican community in France. Thanks to his creativity and great passion for cooking Mexican dishes, he managed to obtain an entrepreneurship visa to work in the French capital. The self-taught manager and chef learned to cook watching his mother and family, however, in Paris he acquired much more experience and now experiments with new ingredients to create innovative dishes.
Ernesto has also given to the task of decorating the small restaurant with Mexican elements that create a very familiar and close to his homeland. In addition to the objects, the employees who work in the taquería have managed to recreate a Latin American environment. Indeed, all restaurant employees are of Latino origin and enjoy learning new Mexican culinary techniques from abroad. During the preparation of food, Latino migrants joke and cut ingredients to the rhythm of Latin music. It is interesting to note that this small group of migrants keep certain cultural traits alive by working together, for example: humor, cuisine, and Latin American music.
In addition to enjoying the work environment, Ernesto confessed that what he likes the most about working in the taquería is to be able to cook and offer food that “does taste like Mexico”. For him, it is very important that restaurants abroad prepare authentic Mexican food.
The Paris taqueria served by Ernesto is a place where you can observe concretely the links between gastronomy and migration. In the first place, Ernesto managed to move to France for his culinary gifts. Second, the taqueria is reputed to be one of the few places that serves authentic Mexican food in Paris. Many of the restaurant’s customers are Mexicans looking to satisfy their cravings for tacos and sauces. Finally, the restaurant has become a source of employment for other migrants of Latin American origin. For Ernesto, it is important to have a fun and friendly work environment, which is why he has chosen to hire Latin American chefs.
Mexican appetizers in Brussels
Gabriela is a Mexican migrant who has lived in Belgium for more than ten years. She recently opened her own restaurant in one of the most multicultural neighborhoods in Brussels. Gabriela is an enterprising woman who had the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant because there was no establishment that offered all kinds of authentic Mexican snacks. In the menu of Gabriela’s restaurant, you can find tamales, tacos, quesadillas, empanadas, flavored water and cocktails made with tequila.
Before opening her premises, Gabriela had the support of the Mexican community to do masonry work, paint murals to decorate the interior of the establishment and to promote the restaurant. From her business, Gabriela was able to offer employment to several Mexicans who were willing and happy to collaborate in the opening of the first Mexican restaurant in the European capital.
Once the restaurant was opened, Gabriela dedicated herself to offering a wide range of Mexican food. For her, the most important thing is that her food transport to Mexico to anyone who consumes it. On several occasions, the Chiapas entrepreneur has received excellent comments from her satisfied Mexican clients and is excited to have access to Mexican homemade food.
Without a doubt, one of the most original aspects of Gabriela’s restaurant is decoration. The walls of the place are decorated with designs by Mexican artists and vibrant colors that convey the Latin American warmth and joy. In addition to the decoration, Gabriela believes that Mexican festivities are important to keep traditions alive even from abroad. In the month of November, Gabriela took the initiative to organize a party to celebrate the Day of the Dead. As part of the ritual, the entrepreneur cooked pan de muerto, installed an altar and organized a costume contest.
The example of Gabriela’s restaurant is important to highlight certain aspects that amalgamate gastronomy and migration. Both the initiative to open a restaurant and the food and snacks offered have brought together the Mexican community living in Brussels. On the one hand, the opening of the restaurant offered employment opportunities for certain Mexicans. On the other hand, the appetizers available on the premises attract Mexican customers who miss the typical flavors of their country of origin. Finally, the celebration of the Day of the Dead reveals the importance of Mexican food and traditions. Despite the distance, members of the Mexican community gathered at Gabriela’s restaurant to eat the traditional bread of the dead and remember their loved ones.
This essay presented three life stories to analyze the links that exist between gastronomy and migration. From these three cases, it can be seen that the gastronomic initiatives of Mexicans in Europe have created opportunities for mobility and employment for their own community and for the Latin American community. Likewise, it has been observed that members of the Mexican diaspora continue to reaffirm their identity from abroad with pride and determination. Finally, through the consumption of national dishes, Mexicans continue to delight in the flavors with which they grew up and creating spaces of coexistence.