Migration, Food, & Cultural Exchange: Mexico & the United States

June 16, 2015

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
III. WORLD HISTORY F. Emergence of a Global Age, 1450 AD - 1800 AD: 2. Students will explain the consequences of the exchange of plants, animals, and disease microorganisms in both the Americas and Eurasia. 3. Students will explain the development of a world market of mineral and agricultural commodities.

I. US HISTORY B. Three Worlds Converge, 1450-1763: 2. Students will explain the consequences of the exchange of plants, animals, and disease microorganisms in both the Americas and Eurasia. 3. Students will explain the development of a world market of mineral and agricultural commodities. 


Scholars study food as an important and unique site of cultural exchange between people from different cultures and geographical regions. Food and dietary customs have followed migrants and changed the culinary landscape of their receiving countries. For example, although we commonly assume that the fortune cookie originated in China, they were actually invented and popularized by Asian immigrants on the west coast of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.

As people on the move introduced new foods to different parts of the world, migration influenced global food production, culinary traditions, eating habits, and gender dynamics. Food has also offered a way for migrants to maintain ties to their homelands. Recipes, imported products, and culinary rituals have provided imagined and real bonds between family and kin, and served as a symbol of comfort and stability during the economic, social, and political upheavals associated with migration. At the same time, immigrants also creatively modify their traditions as they interact with new ingredients, tastes, and market forces.


The following sources include a poem and newspaper article that deal with contemporary issues of migration and foodways. Its goal is to examine food as an assertion of ethnic identity and as a site of cultural exchange and contestation between countries and people.

  1. A 1991 poem about the melding of Mexican and American foodways by the late Mexican-American artist and activist Trinidad Sanchez.
    Sánchez, Trinidad Jr. "The Mexican Sangwitch." Poem from Why Am I So Brown. Chicago: MARCH Abrazo Press, 1991.
    PDF iconThe Mexican Sangwitch.pdf

    "The Mexican Sangwitch"
    by Trinidad Sánchez, Jr.
    Is it a tortilla with peanut butter and jelly,
    or jalapeños piled on Wonder Bread?
    Is it a coney made with tortillas,
    or a Kaiser roll smothered
    with salchiches y salsa mayonesa?
    Is it chorizo con huevo on whole wheat,
    or refried beans on white bread?
    Is it the patron saint of botanas,
    or a Mexican who can only speak English?
    Is it the same as an American Taco?
    Is it a Mexican playing tic-tac-toe?
    Is it carne asada on rye,
    or guacamole on toast?
    Do you really want to know why?
    Is it me inside of you,
    or you wrapped around me?
    Is it a güera dancing with two Mexicans,
    or two gringos putting the make on my sister?
    Is it a super sandwich, with the official
    ingredients labeled: HECHO EN MEXICO!
    Is it a plain sandwich
    made by authentic Mexican hands?
    Is it true Juan de la Raza invented it?
    Is it a moot question?
    Are you a lawyer or a poet?
    Does the judge really care?
    -Detroit 7/1990
  2. A 2007 Los Angeles Times article by Catherine Bremer on changing food habits in Mexico and the influence of United States style food culture on Mexican foodways.
    Bremer, Catherine. "Adios to the four-hour lunch; In Mexico, where the boozy afternoon food orgy was once common, a new crop of no-nonsense execs favors the quick power breakfast." Los Angeles Times. Nov. 26, 2007. (accessed June 25, 2008).
    Catherine Bremer, "PDF iconAdios to the four-hour lunch.pdf" Los Angeles Times, Nov. 26, 2007.

Discussion Questions

  1. Identify examples of ethnic formation and cultural exchange in the Sanchez poem. How does Sanchez employ food to represent and discuss facets of ethnicity, tradition, and change?
  2. What does the Los Angeles Times article reveal about the migration of eating habits and foods across national borders? According to Bremer, what role has the United States played in altering Mexico's culinary traditions?
  3. How might these documents be examined together to hypothesize about globalization's effects on culinary traditions and eating practices? Who mediates these culinary and cultural exchanges?

Suggested Readings

Gabaccia, Donna R. We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Pilcher, Jeffrey. Food in World History. New York and London: Routledge, 2005.

Wilk, Richard Ed. Fast Food/Slow Food: The Cultural Economy of the Global Food System. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2006.

Watson, James L. and Melissa L. Caldwell, Eds. The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating: A Reader. Malden: Blackwell Pub., 2005.