Want to track Latino influence in the U.S.? You could do worse than walking the aisles of your local grocery store.
Starting today, September 15th, and lasting until October 15th, the United States will be recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month. There will be festivals in cities throughout the nation to celebrate all of the contributions Latinos have made to this country. One of my very favorite ways Latinos have forever changed the USA? Food.
When I was a kid, my exposure to Latin American food was minimal and not very authentic. Sometimes my school cafeteria had taco day, and to be honest, I didn't much like those crunchy yellow shells.
In middle school Spanish class, we made Mexican hot chocolate, spiced with cinnamon and topped with whipped cream. At Sea World and Disneyland, I ate churros for the first time. Sometimes my mother would buy salsa and tortilla chips instead of potato chips at the grocery store.
Then in high school, my older sister took my younger sister and I with her to eat at Chi-Chi's on more than one occasion. For those that don't remember, Chi-Chi's is the now defunct Mexican chain restaurant that was famous for fried ice cream and a wait staff who performed a clapping, shouting version of Happy Birthday at one's table. (Apologies for all the times we lied and said it was a friend's birthday just to embarrass them.)
When I got older and married a man from El Salvador, I found that there was life beyond fake Mexican food - Pupusas, curtido, yuca frita, frijoles molidos, tamales. Soon I was seeking out any and all Latin American food - tacos, (real tacos de carnitas, or even de lengua), paella, ceviche, tostones, pozole, ropa vieja, pasteles, albondigas, arepas - no Spanish-speaking country went unexplored and there were few things I wouldn't try, (though tripas are one of those things.)
Eventually it wasn't enough to simply eat these foods – I wanted to make them myself, but years ago, finding the ingredients to try to cook my husband's favorites proved difficult. Not even the Latino Market had what I needed much of the time.
These days, even regular grocery stores in small towns have been taken over with love for Latin American food - whether its authentic items like hot sauce or cheese made in Mexico, tropical fruits, and corn husks for wrapping tamales - to American products with Latin American-inspired flavors like dulce de leche ice cream and jalapeño potato chips. There are even faux Latin American food items like "breakfast burritos" to spice things up when a bowl of cereal doesn't excite you.
Latinos have contributed to this country in so many ways - adding sabor and variety to the foods we eat each day is just one them. I raise a toast, with my glass of horchata, to Latin American food in the United States. May the tortillas forever be plentiful, and the pico de gallo always fresh. Buen provecho!
Tracy López is a bilingual writer living outside the Washington DC metro area. She is the founder of Latinaish.com.