Culture clash: Cincinnati area food truck name highlights differing views of Hispanic identity

CINCINNATI - From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Hispanic Heritage Month activities offered opportunities to recognize Latinos for their contributions to the Tri-State and throughout the country. A story about local eateries brought to the surface a conflict that's been on a slow boil.

Joseph Garcia is a third generation Mexican-American from Texas. Eight years ago, he moved from Houston to Northern Kentucky, where he began operating a food truck called Texas Joe “The Legal Mexican.” In September, Garcia told WCPO the name stems from his experiences with stereotypes.

While Garcia takes a lighthearted attitude toward stereotypes about his heritage, Alfonso Cornejo, president of the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA,  does not share his perspective.

Born and raised in Mexico, Cornejo was head of human resources for Procter & Gamble in Mexico City 25 years ago, before taking a position with the company’s international personnel department in Cincinnati.

Now the head of his own consulting firm, Cornejo said he and other chamber members find the name of Garcia’s food truck insulting and want him to change it.

“(Garcia’s) intentions might be to be funny, but it’s not funny,” Cornejo said, adding that while Latinos are culturally a positive, relationship-based people, the name sends the message that they are not welcome here.

“I think it’s just disrespectful (to the immigrant community) for a business to make money off of saying they are ‘the legal Mexican,’ as opposed to ‘the illegal Mexican,’" said George Fee, a member of the Hispanic Chamber Cincinnati USA board of directors.

After initially agreeing to comment for this article, Garcia declined to respond to the specific concerns cited by Fee and Cornejo.

"There are enough haters already"

Latinos make up about 16 percent of the population in the U.S., according to 2010 U.S. Census data. In Greater Cincinnati, about 2.6 percent of the population is Latino.

About 55 to 65 percent of the Tri-State’s Latino population has roots in Mexico. The rest of the Latino population is made up of individuals with ties to Central and South American countries, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Some have lived in the U.S. their whole lives.

In their efforts to encourage entry into the business community, chamber members try to promote civic pride and respect for others, concepts that are counter to the message the food truck’s name sends, Fee said.

According to Cornejo, the Garcia's food truck could foster hatred.

“I just don’t want him to be promoting hate within the community. There are enough haters already,” Cornejo said. “We want him (Garcia) to be successful. We just don’t want him to be successful insulting other people."

Customers weigh in

While some chamber members would like the truck renamed, customers seem undeterred.

“It’s catchy,” said Mike Barrett of Kenwood, who visited the truck at the Cincinnati Street Food Festival in Walnut Hills on Oct. 12. The name brought to mind thoughts of Tex-Mex food, which attracted he and his wife, Maria, to it.

Cassie Schimmoeller of Clifton, who bought a quesadilla from Garcia, said the truck’s color initially caught her attention.

“It’s bright and yellow, and I’m kind of tired so it drew me to it,” she said.

When she noticed its name she was, “kind of surprised and kind of amused.”

To some customers, like Cyndi Hunley of Hamilton, the truck’s name implies as much about the food as the owner’s cultural background.

“I thought it sounded authentic,” she said.

Differences and diversity

With differences ranging from citizenship status to skin color to country of origin, lifestyles vary for Latinos living in the U.S., said University of Cincinnati sociology professor Sarah Mayorga-Gallo.

“All these things can affect how they experience their lives. How the world has responded to you impacts how you respond to the world,” she explained, adding it is understandable that individuals with different experiences will at times have conflicting perspectives.

Even the way individuals describe themselves can reflect differences in social and political identities, she explained; for example. the term "Mexican" refers to someone who is from Mexico. "Mexican-American," on the other hand, is typically used to describe an individual who grew up in the U.S. but wants to identify their family’s country of origin, Mayorga-Gallo said. The term is most commonly used by the third and fourth generation. Mexican-American also can be used to describe an individual with one parent from Mexico and the other from the U.S.

National origin tends to be important to immigrants and first and second generation Latinos in the U.S., Mayorga-Gallo said. One reason: because those who immigrated to the U.S. are often more likely to be stereotyped and questioned about their legality as citizens.

“The important thing is to understand where both individuals are coming from and that both are entitled to their opinion."

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