Displays of mexicanness in New York: the case of mezcal.

“Mexicanness” has made its way into the city of New York, sometimes reflecting the role that Mexicans play–as a minority culture-in the larger economy.

Take the case of Casa Mezcal as an example.

Inside Casa Mezcal, “mexicanness” is expressed through a collection of objects that have been separated from its users and turned into objects of display. The wall behind the bar consists on a series of lockers displaying different elements that belong to rituals of Mexican life–like the Virgen of Guadalupe or soccer pictures. These objects perform the role of  “diasporic souvenirs” in that they turn Mexico into “an exotic place presented through its arts and crafts as usually admired by a foreign tourist” (Boym, 336). It is a place of nostalgic ready-made, a style that could easily be turned into a franchise.
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Casa Mezcal displays cultural objects without their users (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)

The restaurant sells “Mexicanness:”  to an elite crowd. Located on the Lower East Side, Casa Mezcal uses the aesthetics of fusion as a way of establishing a middle ground between the neighborhood’s gentrified culture and   Mexican. Fusion is, as Annita Mannur has stated, strategically deployed as a means to express a happy mixture between two cultures. In fusion, the threatening culture of the other is imagined as fully compatible–and able to mend– with the dominant one.

In Casa Mezcal,as in other places, the act of drinking Mezcal has also been separated from its users. Mezcal is an alcoholic drink made from the Maguey plan, which grows in some parts of Mexico. Until fairly recently, mezcal was an alcohol drank by the Mexican lower classes; Mezcalerias–the places where mezcal was drank– were often seen as dirty and dangerous places by the Mexican high class.Recently, however, Mezcalerias have mushroomed all across trendy neighborhoods in Mexico City. Mezcal has become chick among the Mexican middle and high class. In these places, like in Casa Mezcal, the consumption of the alcohol is deemed as a “cool”. Mezcal remains symbolic of the lower class but it has been sanitized of its original users. Knowing how to consume it–and consuming it–has become a display of cultural capital among the Mexican high class.

Unlike Casa Mezcal, Roosevelt Avenue is located far away from trendy Manhattan in Jackson Heights, Queens. The area contains a diversity of recently arrived immigrants from many countries, most of them settling there due to the cheap rents and the convenience of the subway lines. It is a commercial street, with many different businesses catering to the local crowd.The streets from 80th street to 90th are the Mexican parts.

As an immigrant enclave, Roosevelt Avenue is a world apart. Post of the signs are in Spanish drawing on events that are taking place in Mexico–like soccer and presidential elections

Consumption is a way of asserting one’s membership to a particular group. Commercial establishments–in seeking to cater to a client of a particular group or class– deploy diverse stylistic strategies. These establishments use media in order to frame their products so that they are attractive to consumers. Visual media and other forms of decor are thus strategically set up with this goal in mind.If they are successfully coordinated, the interaction of these elements produces a particular style. The idea is for the desired customer to feel identified with this style and feel encouraged consume the particular product.

Since sense and taste is culturally conditioned, a desired customer would recognize it and feel attracted to a style that speaks in his “language”. Since not everyone identifies with a particular style, style becomes a tool for filtering who is in and who is out. Thus, it is a highly selective resource. The act of consuming, thus, becomes an act of self-ascription because of the consumer’s attraction to a particular style.

In an intercultural context style is also deployed to allow for an encounter of the dominant culture with a minority.In order to frame this relation successfully, the establishment must deploy a certain in between style. The style must attract the desired customer and be culturally relevant to him. However it must also points out to the minority’s culture in a way that the consumer can relate to. In other words, the establishment deploys a certain style that is recognized by the desired customer as culturally other. If the style deployed is able to express this “otherness” correctly, then the desire customer might go as far as recognizing it as being authentic. Like in the case of an “authentically Mexican style”.

As spaces that mediate the relation between two cultures, restaurants are an important space for the consumption of the culturally other. This is particularly the case in the so-called “ethnic restaurants”.

These restaurants are categorized as “ethnic” because they capitalize on their ability to serve the food of a particular culture. According to Ruth Mandel this category of ethnic is problematic: “Dependent on a paradigmatic ethnic other, such artificial ethnicization attempts to achieve the desire ‘authentic’, ‘ethnic effect’.” (Ruth Mandel, p.96)

In order to communicate this otherness to the customer the restaurant deploys what–according to its customer—is the other’s culture’s style. As a result of this dynamic, ethnic restaurants often reify certain cultural stereotypes. If they didn’t, they would not be recognized as ethnic by their customers and would not be able to capitalize in their serving of a minority culture’s food. According to Ruth Mandel these forms of restaurants are in, just as long as the experience of the other “does not extend beyond the friendly staff of the quaint and colorful ethnic restaurant, when it remains tourist-friendly in a native village, when it stays in its safe, commodified place.” (Ruth Mandel, p96)

Ethnic restaurants often attract elite consumers because these type of costumer values cosmopolitanism. This explains why elite costumes are often willing to pay high prices for an “authentic” cultural platter.  These restaurants can charge extra because, according to Manalansan, they allow the consumer to travel “through facile travels across physical and ethnic borders” (Manalansan IV, 179).  The act of eating out, in these situations, becomes become a way of performing material and cultural capital. Eating out in these restaurants becomes synonymous with being “cosmopolitan”–a trait that is highly valued amongst certain groups. Elizabeth Buettner calls this trend the “ethno chick” trend in restaurants where food is framed in a style that does not question the consumer’s idea of the other and” acts as the non-threatening, ‘acceptable face of multiculturalism´” (Buettner, pg. 205).

Yet, as Zigmund Bauman proves, immigrants are often threatening because they often bring with them traces of a war-torn or poverty-stricken situation. Their presence makes us question the universality and stability of our daily lives. Our relation to them is full of tensions. The way their presence materializes in ethno-chick restaurants is one of the least threatening ones. Since they cater to a high-class crowd, these restaurants also attract high-class Mexicans.

In New York, there is a mushrooming of these ethno chick restaurants. As part of the emerging transnational elite, high-class Mexicans are also attracted to them. High class Mexicans also value cosmopolitanism and are able to engage in cultural tourism. But low-class and–often–illegal Mexicans are also found to be working in these type of restaurants. However, when the culture being capitalized by these ethno-chick restaurants is not Mexican culture, these “mexicanness” is often moved to the to the back. This creates an interesting situation where high class Mexicans come in contact with low class Mexicans but their contact is often mediated by another culture–the one that the restaurant is trying to display to attract an elite crowd.

Unlike Jackson Heights, the pedestrians walking through Fifth Avenue or Astor Place are not necessarily Mexican–they are mostly elites that live around Manhattan or a diversely mixed international crowd. Yet, in such spaces, there are posters that are allegedly introducing Mezcal–as an “alternative” drink–to this international crowd. What strikes as interesting in these posters is the way they are framed and the name of the brand.

Roosevelt Avenue’s migrants resist the homogenizing force of the dominant culture through the display of style. The infrastructure and the built environment act as homogenizing forces, betraying the presence of the dominant culture all around. Yet the immigrants refuse to accept such obvious evidence of the fact they are no longer home.

The posters are for a brand of Mezcal called “Mezcal Illegal”.  They depict a tattooed urban and-allegedly– Latina woman sitting in a decrepit area holding a bottle of the alcohol. Underneath it, slogans like “It is not tequlia, its mezcal” and “Mexico is Illegal” are used to promote the brand.

The interesting thing about this display of “mexicanness” is that it situates Mexican identity in a context of illegality. This illegality however, is “sanitized” from the illegal immigrants themselves.  The product is placed in such context that makes one think that, if one drinks this liquor, one is making contact with illegal immigrants and thus being “alternative”. Having contact with illegal immigrants in this sense is somehow deemed as “cool” or “out-of-the box”. (Mandel, 2008)

In order to actually come in contact with an atmosphere of illegality, however,  one would have to risk going to the immigrant enclaves or keeping contact with an illegal immigrant. Yet, with Mezcal Ilegal one can get rid of all the legal nuances of engaging in these types of risky behaviours. The poster is suggesting that, by drinking mezcal, one is jumping not only across cultures but also challenging one’s legal status. One is “bonding” with the illegal immigrant through Mezcal, but without the hassles of having an undocumented status.

In order to draw certain costumers in each of these places display a different form of “Mexicannes” onto the public. As a way of calling out to this potential buyer, each of these places displays their own type of ‘mexicanness’ strategically. The Mexican customer–either elite or lower class- would feel identified with this style and would be encouraged to come in and consume.

In this paper, I analyzed how Mexican identity is displayed in three different areas of New York City. By doing so, I was able to expose important underlying tensions. These forms of mediation provide a fertile ground for studying intercultural relations, in exploring the difference between each place’s “mexicanness”, I have showed each place’s situation in regards to the wider political economy of the city at large.

 

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