Robert Lemon is an urban and social researcher and documentary filmmaker. His films include Transfusión (2014), a series of vignettes on the cultural implications of taco trucks. He recently answered some questions about his new book The Taco Truck: How Mexican Street Food is Transforming the American City.
Q: The Taco Truck examines the relationship between taco trucks and the urban environments that they traverse. What led you to explore this topic?
A: I first encountered taco trucks when I was working for the City of Columbus in 2004. There were numerous complaints about the trucks popping up in neighborhoods. I started speaking with the owners, and I was fascinated by their backgrounds, the diverse cuisines they offered, and how they were creating Latino social nodes within the city.
Q: In your book, you use the term “taco truck space” to describe the unique way that taco trucks can inhabit an urban landscape. What defines this space?
A: I define “taco truck space” as an evolving cultural and culinary environment in which influences of local life continually converge with economic, political, and social forces at myriad scales. These spaces are shaped by and, in turn, express the uneven flows of capital between the United States and Mexico as well as immigration patterns and foodways from Mexico.
Q: You researched the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and Columbus, Ohio. What can differences in the way that city officials and urban planners respond to taco trucks tell us about those cities?
A: Different community groups all have their take on taco trucks. Their perspectives shape urban policy and, therefore, what sorts of street food practices are deemed acceptable or forbidden. Because taco trucks are lighting rods of controversy, each city has community groups that argue both positively and negatively about their presence. By looking at cultural conflicts from city to city, I can better decipher the diverse ways cities operate socially and politically.
Q: Readers might be surprised to learn that taco trucks have been around in the U.S. at least since the 1970s. What has contributed to their resilience, even as national rhetoric on immigration has fluctuated?
A: The United States is and will always be a country of immigrants. And the United States relies heavily on low wage immigrant labor. Taco trucks have endured because they serve a vital purpose, as they are necessary to feed inexpensive cuisine to a large immigrant working class. As long as underprivileged people keep coming to the U.S. from poorer regions of the world, they will continue to look for cheap eats along city streets.
Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel?
A: Taco trucks are vital social nodes for the Mexican immigrant working population and not just trendy spots to encounter traditional Mexican cuisines. Taco trucks have personal and deeply emotional meanings to many immigrants searching for memories of their homeland through food. These aspects of the truck cannot be disregarded. These are social spaces that foster conviviality and help comfort immigrants separated from their families, and eating at a taco truck helps immigrants experientially reconnect with loved ones still in Mexico.
Q: When you visit a taco truck, what is your go-to order?
A: Whatever the truck’s regional specialty is. I particularly like Jalisco style, carnitas tacos, and tacos rojos Potosinos.