Skip to Content

The Migration of Mexican Cuisine

By Bo Méndez

Posted on September 17, 2020

Old Mexico Restaurant
Old Mexico Restaurant [Old Mexico Restaurant, 115 Montague Street, Brooklyn Heights.], 1959, V1974.4.295; John D. Morrell photographs, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! This month-long observance encourages Americans to recognize and celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of communities who trace their heritage to Spanish-speaking populations from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, as well as Spain itself.

Hispanic Heritage Month begins every year on September 15 and extends through October 15. Its unique timeframe comes from the fact that September 15 marks the date of independence from Spain for five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. September 16 is Mexico’s Independence Day, and Chile’s is September 18.

This photograph was taken by John D. Morrell in 1959, and depicts the Old Mexico Restaurant, advertising “Genuine Mexican Food” in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Now, I know what you’re thinking: a photo of a single restaurant does not a Hispanic Heritage make. But the presence of foodways and businesses that reflect culinary traditions is a compelling way to see the influence of ethnic communities as they migrate and help shape their neighborhoods. Plus, as someone of Mexican-American heritage, it’s always interesting to me to see the ways our food is interpreted over time.

While we don’t have much about the Old Mexico Restaurant in our collection, some digging on restaurant review sites indicates that the business shuttered some time ago. Reviewers are split as to the quality of the food, though some say it was the best place in the neighborhood to get paella (a dish of saffron-spiced rice, chorizo, chicken, and/or seafood), which is a bit odd as that is a dish more associated with Spanish cuisine than Mexican fare. We also can’t assess for sure whether the owners of the restaurant themselves identified with Mexican or other Latin American communities, but the presence of this restaurant’s image in our collection did get me thinking of a unique historical tool created recently by researchers and historians at Long Island’s Stony Brook University.

A screen shot of Stony Brook University's interactive Storymap,
A screen shot of Stony Brook University's interactive Storymap, "The Mexican Restaurants of New York City"

This tool is a “Storymap” that helps to visualize the proliferation and makeup of Mexican food restaurants in the five boroughs, as well as the growth of Mexican enclave communities in neighborhoods around the city, as points of data on a map of NYC that changes over time. According to their research, there were over 2,500 Mexican restaurants in the country in the 1980s, but only 150 in the Northeastern United States. As of this summer, there are 301 in Brooklyn alone, and 977 in New York City overall. This rapid increase has been shaped by an overall desire to explore ethnic cuisine, the experiences of people who had traveled to Mexico or places with Mexican-inspired food, and the movement of those who had grown up in cities with more Mexican culinary influence, such as my own native San Antonio, to New York. It was also shaped by the influx of immigrants from Mexico.

At the time of the 1980 census, 24,000 New Yorkers identified themselves as Mexican. By 1990, that number had blossomed to 62,000 and Mexicans were the fastest-growing Latinx population in the city. Naturally, with these immigrants came both culinary traditions and entrepreneurial efforts ranging from the casual to the high-end. The number of tamale pushcarts, panaderías, taquerías, food trucks, and other restaurants grew in relation. This reflects a growing national appreciation of regional Mexican food (like that of Puebla or Oaxaca) as well as general Mexican influence at a time when salsa sales surpassed ketchup sales, tortilla sales quintupled, fast food giants were drawn into the loving embrace of the burrito, and Mexican restaurants nationwide increased to 40,000 by 2010. The Stony Brook project continues to acquire data and make updates to tell a richer story of food, class, movement, and culture. To explore the map and its information, click here.

The value of this research is compounded during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as many restaurants are struggling to avoid closure, and workers in the food industry (many of whom are immigrants) from the front of house to the back of house; from delivery people to farmworkers face uncertainty. If you are able, and hungry, now is a great time to safely support a local restaurant, as putting food on your table can help these workers to put food on theirs. And if you come across a place offering some comforting, quality Tex-Mex (which is its own special category and a whole can of worms, trust me), let me know!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked