Seventy Years of Mexican Food History Featured in New Smithsonian Exhibition

“FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000” Opens Thanksgiving Week

Seventy years of Latino food history, from a circa 1940 tortilla press to California vineyard tools used by the Robledo family, are featured in “FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” opening at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Nov. 20. The exhibition draws on the museum’s Bracero farm labor collection as well as highlights new objects collected to show the influence of immigrants and migrants on the American table, including the diffusion of Mexican-inspired food into all corners of the country.

The 3,800-square-foot “FOOD” exhibition explores some of the major social and cultural changes in food and eating in America. Visitors examine the forces and factors that shaped these transformations, including immigrant influences; how new technologies affect food production and preparation, with a case study on commercial lettuce production; and the growth and expansion of the American wine industry.

Among the objects and stories that look at the expansion, commercialization and convenience of Mexican foods and flavors as well as aspects of field labor and production are:

Mexico TourismThe Sanchez/Bermudez Family Story of Tortilla Making
Born in 1874 in Guanajuato, Mexico, Concepcion “Concha” Sanchez immigrated to the U.S. and, in about 1912, her family opened a grocery store, The Mexican Mercantile, in Fillmore, Calif. Sanchez ground corn using an electric molino (corn mill) to make masa (dough) for tortillas and tamales. She placed balls of masa onto the conveyor belt, hand-cranked them through the rollers of a tortilladora(press), then dropped them onto a propane-fired comal to cook. The exhibition includes Sanchez’s molino and tortilladora as well as her blue gingham apron or delantal. The “La Rotativa” press dates from about 1923 but was bought and used by the Sanchez family in the 1940s.

The Cuellar Family and El Chico Restaurants
Adelaida and Macario Cuellar emigrated from Mexico to Texas in 1892 where Adelaida sold homemade tamales to help support the family. By 1940, two of her sons had opened a cafe in Dallas using their mother’s recipes. The restaurant became known as “El Chico,” which expanded into a chain of restaurants, offered franchise opportunities and even marketed its own packaged foods and cookbooks. Continuing with the original Tex-Mex staples such as nachos, enchiladas and tacos, they added regional specialties from New Mexico (sopapillas), California (burritos and fish tacos) andArizona (chimichangas) and reached back into Mexico for classic updates on foods, such as mole of Oaxaca. The exhibition’s “The Mexican Food Revolution” section includes a number of El Chicomenus and food packaging, the El Chico Cookbook and a red, green and white embroidered and sequined China poblana-style dress made in Mexico City about 1960, worn by Miss El Chico for promotional and special events at the restaurants.

The Velasquez Family and Azteca Foods Inc.
Art Velasquez and other Mexican American businessmen began Azteca Corn Products Corp. in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago in 1969 to bring traditional Mexican foods to consumers outside of their neighborhood. It is one of the early companies that began using food science to preserve corn and flour tortillas so they could be shipped to groceries and have an extended shelf life. The Pillsbury Co. bought the company in 1984; five years later, Velasquez and his wife Joanne bought back the assets and changed the name to Azteca Foods Inc. “The Mexican Food Revolution” section includes Azteca flour tortilla packaging from 1970 and a tortilla shell mold from 1987. The Azteca story illustrates how the tortilla moves from an “ethnic” food to a more popular everyday staple.

Mariano Martinez and the Frozen Margarita Machine
First mixed in bars along the California-Mexico border in the 1940s, the margarita—tequila, lime juice and orange liqueur—became a standard beverage in Mexican American restaurants. Frozen margaritas, blended with ice, became popular in the 1950s and 20 years later the margarita had surpassed the martini as the most popular American cocktail. In 1971, Dallas restaurant owner Mariano Martinez noticed that ordinary blenders did not deliver a consistent mix for frozen margaritas. Inspired by the 7-Eleven Slurpee machine, used since 1965 to make semi-frozen beverages, Martinez and a friend, chemist John Hogan, tinkered with Martinez’s dad’s recipe and adapted a soft-serve ice-cream machine to make margarita “slush.” The novelty was a huge hit at Mariano’s Mexican Cuisine restaurant.

The Bracero/Farm Labor Story
The Emergency Farm Labor Program, known as the Bracero Program (1942-1964), recruited two million Mexican nationals to work in the U.S. on short-term labor contracts. The exhibition uses lettuce (iceberg) as a case study to examine how produce was brought from the field to the table in the 1950s and ’60s. The lettuce hump, or small square wheelbarrow, in the “Abundant Harvest” section was used in California between 1960 and 1964. The section includes a hat, worn by Bracero Savas Zahvala Castro in the California fields from about 1957, as well as a short-handled hoe (1950s-60s) known as el cortito. It required workers to stoop during long hours in the fields and became a symbol of exploitive working conditions. Campaigns by the United Farm Workers helped inform Americans about agricultural labor practices and helped change attitudes about food production. A U.F.W. boycott lettuce poster from the 1970s and other materials are on exhibit in the “Good Food” section.

The Robledo Family and Winemaking
Reynaldo Robledo Sr., now a landholder and winemaker in Napa Valley, Calif., began his career in the industry through the Bracero program, migrating to Napa from Michoacan in the 1960s. Today, the Robledo Winery, which began in the 1990s, is one of only a handful of Mexican/Latino-owned wineries in the state. The exhibition features a stool from the winery’s tasting room that is evocative of a Mexican hacienda as well as a budding box and other tools used by family members.

Other Related Objects and Collections
The museum’s collections include Mexican-inspired molds and tools, such as the “Mexican Kitchen,” made by the Nordic Ware company, which shows how diverse manufacturers made products to help the home cook better replicate ethnic foods. While not on view in this particular exhibition, the museum’s Archives Center is home to the The Goya Foods Collection, which documents the history of the company founded by Prudencio and Carolina Unanue, who believed that there was an expanding immigrant market for the ingredients of Spanish cuisine. The collection dates primarily from the 1960s to 2000, though some materials are included from its earliest days in New York in 1936.

To learn more about the exhibition, visit


SOURCE Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
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Susie Albin-Najera
Susie Albin-Najera is the creator and editor of The Mexico Report, an award winning travel blog showcasing news, deals and resources for the modern traveler. Najera is a writer, author, travel blogger, marketing and public relations specialist and producer. Najera serves on the host committee for Maestro Cares, founded by singer Marc Anthony and producer Henry Cardenas; and on the advisory board for Corazon de Vida, providing aid to children in Mexico. She is also the creator of 'The Real Heroes of Mexico' showcasing community heroes in Mexico and producer of Latino Thought Makers. Najera has been recognized by the Mexican Consulate and Mexico Tourism Board for fostering positive relations between countries and her dedication to showcasing Mexico as a premiere destination. She can be reached at

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