These days, everyone is familiar with the magical goodness of tacos, but where did tacos come from? The best answer is that it appears tacos were first invented as a convenience food by Mexican silver miners. They were further reinvented by Mexican-Americans in the southwest US and then reinvented again when Taco Bell founder Glen Bell mass marketed them for a more Anglo palette.
The origins of the taco are really unknown. My theory is that it dates from the 18th century and the silver mines in Mexico, because in those mines the word “taco” referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. These were pieces of paper that they would wrap around gunpowder and insert into the holes they carved in the rock face. When you think about it, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really a lot like a stick of dynamite. The first references [to the taco] in any sort of archive or dictionary come from the end of the 19th century. And one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero—miner’s tacos. So the taco is not necessarily this age-old cultural expression; it’s not a food that goes back to time immemorial.
When did the taco first make an appearance in the U.S. and where? What groups were instrumental in making it popular here?
The first mention that I have seen [in the U.S.] is in 1905, in a newspaper. That’s a time when Mexican migrants are starting to come—working the mines and railroads and other such jobs. In the United States, Mexican food was seen as street food, lower-class food. It was associated with a group of women called the Chili Queens and with tamale pushcarts in Los Angeles. The Chili Queens of San Antonio were street vendors who earned a little extra money by selling food during festivals. When tourists started arriving in the 1880s with the railroad, these occasional sales started to become a nightly event. Tourists came looking for two things in San Antonio—the Alamo and the Chili Queens. Mexico was considered a dangerous place. The Chili Queens were a way of sampling that danger, but not at the risk of being robbed by bandits. The risk was that the food was hot—people described it as “biting like a serpent.” These women were also sexualized and seen as “available.” So the idea was that you would flirt with the Chili Queens. I think that image of [something] exotic, slightly dangerous, but still appealing has really persisted with Mexican food.
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