Not all heroes wear capes. Some, according to an eclectic group of writers, activists, academics and others, are instead draped in tortillas.
Meet the International Taco Council, a nascent organization whose small mascot belies its big ambitions.
“We’ve always used food as a means of connecting with others,” says Serena Maria Daniels, the Detroit-based editor and founder of Tostada Magazine, an online publication focused on the voices of immigrants and people of color, who is the council’s inaugural president. “You might have a contentious topic, but when you sit down over a plate, it takes away the distance.”
The group’s manifesto — a statement guiding its founders as they figure out what, actually, the group is going to do — speaks of spreading the joy and “la buena palabra del taco,” or the “good word” of the beloved dish. “Just as the taco is a vessel for nutrition, flavor, culture, and history, the Taco Council will be a vessel to create a movement for empowerment one handheld bite at a time,” it reads.
The group was modeled after the Taco Council, an organization born in 1960s San Antonio that was known for stunts — such as sending President John F. Kennedy a 48-pound tamal to the White House for his birthday and, later, a 55-pound taco to President Lyndon B. Johnson — and founding National Taco Day. But the showmanship had a more serious purpose: reminding public officials and the public of the growing political clout of Mexican Americans and Hispanics more broadly, according to Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles Times columnist and author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” and the new group’s historian of taconalia.
“The group back then, they were chamber of commerce types, and they were trying to show the country, ‘Look, we have this food, and it’s delicious, and by the way, we want access to power,’” Arellano says. “Now we’ve got food journalists and activists, and all these other folks doing different stuff. We can highlight the story of the taco.”
The International Taco Council has been retooled to reflect the modern era. Unlike its predecessor, it isn’t just a regional concern, but a continent-spanning one. “We seek to connect individuals who are passionate about the taco and Mexican cuisines wherever they live en el mundo,” the manifesto reads, “be it Berlin or Beirut, Durango or Des Moines, Syracuse or Sydney.”
And then there’s the matter of the pranks for which the original group was known. Daniels is well aware that in the modern era, there’s no way to replicate those kooky novelty-food deliveries that once garnered headlines for the group, though the new group’s founders are insistent that “taco tomfoolery” will continue to be part of the approach.
After all, there’s no rolling up to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., with surprise deliveries these days. Instead, she’s thinking about creative ways to invite elected officials to break bread (or tortillas) and talk about community issues, whether that’s evictions or how to apply for food stamps.
Convening people around tacos is emerging as a goal. “We have to think about what we can do that is going to make a splash but also create a real opportunity to inform communities and call people in power to task,” Daniels says.
Like some of the group’s other founders, Daniels comes from the world of traditional journalism, with stints at the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit News. She realizes that the kind of exercise she’s contemplating would long have been considered activism in her field, but she sees her role as a modern journalist differently these days.
“It looks a lot different than a reporter going to an event and getting quotes from both sides and then filing a story from a newsroom,” she says.
Other ideas being batted around in the nascent group’s Facebook page and in group chats include giving a voice to the people who make and sell tortillas, and advocating for taco-cart sellers, who often face legal issues in cities around the country. Maybe a taco summit, a taco tour or taco merchandise to raise money for the council’s programming? All these ideas are in the mix — along with, of course, simply celebrating the taco and its many splendors.
If the council’s mission is more modern than its predecessor’s, so was its founding. Like many people fumbling their way through lockdowns and distancing, Daniels says she had been struggling with her mental health earlier this year. One place she found solace was in a room devoted to conversations about all things taco on Clubhouse, the social media site where users chat via audio.
The topics discussed in the Taco Life room — founded by Texas Monthly taco editor Jose Ralat — were sometimes lighthearted, with participants sharing their favorite fillings and memories of their favorite taquerias. But the conversation ran to deeper topics, she says, covering such things as the “abuelita principle,” the idea that only grandmothers truly know how to cook. “We tried to debunk that,” Daniels says. “Or we’d talk about things like, are flour tortillas authentic?”
She was surprised and delighted to see Diana Medina, an old friend from college, had entered the room. At some point, the conversation turned to the defunct Taco Council, whose history Arellano had chronicled, and the idea of reviving it took hold. Enthusiasm among the chatters was high.
Medina, a poet and educator in the Bay Area, took the lead on drafting the manifesto and helping to organize the loose group into something more formal. “At first, I thought this sounded like a fun thing, but I wasn’t sure if they were joking around,” she recalls. “All of the sudden there’s a Google doc, and Zooms, and now we’re having conversations about membership and Facebook groups. And you know everything becomes real when there’s a Google doc.”
Though she initially wondered whether it was just a lark, she was immediately drawn to the idea; she says that in her years of working with nonprofit groups, she has witnessed the power of tacos. In a previous job that involved outreach to parents of public school students in Los Angeles, she learned that it was easier to get people to attend events about advocating for their children or interacting at parent-teacher conferences if there was an incentive in the form of lunch from a local purveyor.
“Whenever there was a taco guy,” she says, “people would show up.”
Medina agrees that tacos have a way of breaking down barriers. Black and Brown parents bonded over them at those school events, she notes. And the very act of consuming them — by hand, of course, with the filling oozing onto your chin, maybe — is humanizing. “The way someone eats a taco — that requires you to embrace the full range of your humanity,” she says. “And once you do that, you can have different conversations.”
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