Burrito Business Ethics: Cultural Appropriation or Ordinary Competition?

business_ethics_highlights_2In the wake of cultural-appropriation outrage over a Portland, Oregon breakfast burrito pop-up restaurant run by white people who learned to make flour tortillas by quizzing Baja California women about their techniques, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America and ¡Ask a Mexican! author Gustavo Arellano seeks to inject some much-needed context into the debate over culturally-appropriated foods. He points out that (i) so much of what we think is “authentic” [insert cultural or national group here] food is itself the product of cultural appropriation, (ii) competition in the restaurant industry is primarily imitative-adaptive, and (iii) the development of Mexican cuisine is a tour de force demonstration of the first two facts.

Two quick thoughts about the food-truck cultural-appropriation flap:

(1) We have two, diametrically-opposed models of the competitive market process. In one, markets begin in competition among many sellers and end in monopoly (or oligopoly). In the other, markets begin in monopoly and end in competition among many sellers. Under which model is appropriation a problem? Which model is closer to empirical reality?

(2) The claim that cultural appropriation is wrongful or harmful seems to rest upon a peculiar view about intellectual property. In this view, members of a particular culture have a collective intellectual property right to exclude non-members from appropriating their recipes (etc.), but no member of the culture may exclude any other member from expropriating his or her recipes (etc.). Is this view tenable? >>>

LINK: Let White People Appropriate Mexican Food—Mexicans Do It to Ourselves All the Time (by GUSTAVO ARELLANO for OC Weekly)

… One of my personal highlights was discovering the restaurant that Glenn Bell of Taco Bell infamy had cited in his autobiography as being the source of “inspiration” for him deciding to get into the taco business. How did he get inspired? He’d eat tacos the restaurant every night, then go across the street to his hot dog stand to try and recreate them.

Bell freely admitted to the story, but never revealed the name of the restaurant …: Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino. … [W]hen I asked [Mitla Cafe owner] Montaño how she felt that Bell had ripped off her family’s recipes to create a multibillion-dollar empire, I expected bitterness, anger, maybe even plans for a lawsuit in an attempt to get at least some of the billions of dollars that Taco Bell has earned over the past 50-plus years.

Instead, Montaño responded with grace: “Good for him!” She pointed out that Mitla had never suffered a drop in business because of Taco Bell, that her restaurant had been in business longer than his, and “our tacos were better.”

But also laughable is the idea that white people aren’t supposed to—pick your word—rip off or appropriate or get “inspired” by Mexican food, that comida mexicana is a sacrosanct tradition only Mexicans and the white girls we marry can participate in. That cultural appropriation is a one-way street where the evil gabacho steals from the poor, pathetic Mexicans yet again.

What these culture warriors who proclaim to defend Mexicans don’t realize is that we’re talking about the food industry, one of the most rapacious businesses ever created. It’s the human condition at its most Darwinian, where EVERYONE rips EVERYONE off. …

And no one rips off food like Mexicans.

The Mexican restaurant world is a delicious defense of cultural appropriation—that’s what the culinary manifestation of mestizaje is, ain’t it? The Spaniards didn’t know how to make corn tortillas in the North, so they decided to make them from flour. Mexicans didn’t care much for Spanish dessert breads, so we ripped off most pan dulces from the French (not to mention waltzes and mariachi). We didn’t care much for wine, so embraced the beers that German, Czech and Polish immigrants brought to Mexico. And what is al pastor if not Mexicans taking shawerma from Lebanese, adding pork, and making it something as quintessentially Mexican as a corrupt PRI?

What do you think?


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