With U.S. Taco, company may have Día de Cultural Appropriation

Taco Bell wants a piece of the fast-casual dining market, so it’s stepping into a war with Chipotle. In the process, the company may have landed itself in the middle of a culture war.

Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, is offering a new restaurant, complete with rock music and a glass-walled kitchen (the better for “food theater,” says Yum! Brand’s Jeff Jenkins), called U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom. So far, the most visible symbol of Taco Bell’s new upscale, higher-priced cousin is its hard-to-miss, hot pink sugar skull logo, a nod to the sugar skulls of Día de Muertos. 

, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30: (Photo by William Booth/The Washington Post) MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30: Hundreds of fantastic mythical surreal paper mache creations called Alebrijes have filled the Zocalo, the grand central plaza in the heart of the city, one eve of Mexico's fabled dia de los muertos/day of the dead celebrations. (Photo by William Booth/The Washington Post)
Hundreds of  mythical surreal paper mache creations called Alebrijes fill the Zocalo, the grand central plaza of Mexico City, on the eve of Day of the Dead celebrations.
(Photo by William Booth/The Washington Post)

Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is a celebration that originated in Mexico and has spread throughout Central America and many other parts of the world. It’s not a day of mourning, but rather, a holiday observed yearly during All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day (Oct. 31-Nov. 2). It offers a time to honor late family members and friends with private altars (ofrendas) that welcome their spirits. Participants stack the altars with offerings, usually marigolds, candles, favorite food, drinks, sugar skulls, and possessions of the departed. There are parades and festivals that culminate in trips to cemeteries and churches to pray for the dead. It’s a tradition that experts say goes back thousands of years.

Not everyone is happy about the appropriation of the sugar skull, a spiritual artifact that appears to be completely divorced from its original meaning. Call it faux worldliness.

Said Hyperallergic’s Laura C. Mallonee:

The sugar skull — made from sugar cane and decorated with colored icing — is its most famous emblem, and U.S. Taco Co. has adopted a hot-pink, die-cut version as its logo. It’s a strange appropriation of a deeply Latin American symbol for a restaurant that will — stay with me — feature Mexican food inspired by traditional U.S. cuisine — think philly cheesesteak, fried chicken, and lobster roll tacos … because we all know Americanized Mexican food could stand to get a little bit more Americanized.

Mallonnee notes that U.S. Taco’s new logo also bears a striking resemblance to the logo for Lacalaca, a Mexican restaurant that opened in San Salvador two years ago. Lacalaca integrated its Día de los Muertos inspiration, which it displayed in this Facebook post. The Spanish caption text says, “Celebrate the day of the dead and departed saints with us, we have all the atmosphere, music, entertainment and fabulous food for everyone!”

 

Yum! is planning to test the spinoff in Huntington Beach, Calif and will probably expand the eatery’s locations if it does well. So far, the company hasn’t released a complete menu, though Nation’s Restaurant News reports a sampling:

On U.S. Taco Co.’s menu are offerings like the “Winner Winner,” which features Southern-style fried chicken breast with “SOB,” or “South of the Border” gravy, roasted corn pico de gallo with fresh jalapenos and fresh cilantro in a flour tortilla.

The “One Percenter” features fresh lobster in garlic butter with red cabbage slaw and pico de gallo on crispy fry bread.

The “Brotherly Love,” is a nod to the Philly Cheesesteak, with carne asada steak, grilled peppers and onions, roasted poblano queso and cotija cheese (rather than Cheez Whiz), and fresh cilantro in a flour tortilla.

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2006 file photo, a man stands in front of an art piece of painted skulls in Mexico City's Zocalo plaza during Day of the Dead festivities. Day of the Dead, a colorfully macabre celebration harkening back to the Aztecs is observed on the Catholic All Saints' Day. "El Dia de Los Muertos" is when families take picnics to the cemeteries to decorate the graves of departed relatives with marigolds, candles and sugar skulls. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
A man stands in front of an art piece of painted skulls in Mexico City’s Zocalo plaza during Day of the Dead festivities. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

The restaurant also plans to offer craft wine and beer, and something called a Mexican Car Bomb; sort of like an Irish Car Bomb, but with ice cream, tequila caramel sauce, chocolate flakes replacing the Irish cream and whiskey.

Greg Creed, Taco Bell’s chief executive told Nation’s Restaurant News the company was hoping to reach food yuppies who are “edgy in how they live their lives but not necessarily in how they eat.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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