Why The History Of The Taco Is Vital To The Current Food Conversation

“It’s interesting because in Mexico we all eat corn,” Gustavo Arellano tells me, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. “That’s the foundation of our cuisines. The taco comes from tortillas. Tortillas come from corn. And the corn comes from us.”

Arellano is a taco master and the author of the acclaimed book Taco USA. When I reached out to him to talk about his favorite topic, I knew our conversation would start with maize, or “corn” as it’s colonially known. As Arellano notes, corn is at the root of what we know as “Mexican food.” But with pre-colonial foods entering the mainstream culinary conversation — thanks in part to shows like Chef’s Table and David Chang’s Ugly Delicious — it’s grown clear that corn and the cultures that relied on it weren’t governed by imaginary borderlines until quite recently.

Meaning that corn, the taco’s building block, is Mexican but not only Mexican. It’s Indigenous across the Americas.

“Most people just don’t think about the immensity of the Indigenous agriculture that was happening before colonization,” says two-time James Beard award-winner Chef Sean Sherman, of The Sioux Chef group. “The history of corn can be traced to huge advancements in how Indigenous people were living sustainably and it offers a lot of clues to the past.”

I should back up a little. My own desire to understand the expansive, inclusive history of the taco began with a simple Google search. I’d typed in “American Food” while looking for a photo and the only three items that came up were hamburgers, hot dogs, and pizza. To me, an Indigenous person from the Pacific Northwest, the fact that pre-colonial foods like the taco were missing felt glaring. I know through growing up around Indigenous communities how important corn was/is for Indigenous cultures from the tip of South America to the tundras of Canada. Yet the corn tortilla somehow isn’t American?

In this era of kids in cages and arguments over who is and isn’t an “immigrant” to this land, unpacking this omission feels like a chance to discuss the idea of borderlines in general. The border between the U.S. and Mexico or even the U.S. and Canada or Mexico and Guatemala are all extremely recent inventions by settler-colonists. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Texas, and parts of what is Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma used to be colonial Mexico, remember, and not particularly long ago. A border was put in place on paper only after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, ending the Mexican-American war. Still, there weren’t any border checkpoints on roads until the United States Immigration Act of 1891 implemented them on the southern and northern borders of the U.S.

All of that is before you even get to the fact that the Indigenous people on either side of that modern (and very) made-up line were often from the same communities and cultures with shared histories, languages, and cuisines. The idea that something as crucial as the taco stopped belonging to one group of people and became only someone else’s because some colonialists drew an imaginary line is a tough pill to swallow. It shows how narrow our thinking about food (and the world) can be. Especially when you consider that people have been living in these lands for well over 50,000 years, according to the current archaeological record.

Tracing the story of this single, iconic item offers an entry point to the resurgent conversation of Indigenous food, highlights the absurdity of asking food to follow inked lines on maps, and champions the taco as the ultimate “fusion dish.” Not to mention motivating you to expand your thinking around something we all feel like we know.