I usually make it a point to not go out to eat on Cinco de Mayo or El Día de la Batalla de Puebla, as it should be called, since the U.S. festivities tend towards perpetuating negative stereotypes of Mexicans. It’s a personal choice. I just don’t want to set myself up for general disappointment or being offended. This year was an exception to my rule and in the process I not only regretted my decision,
but wound up disappointed, angry at myself, and I lost my favorite burger place in the process.
The issue started as soon as I entered the crowded restaurant. As an establishment that prides itself only on selling burgers, my spouse and I found that the menu boards had been erased and replaced with a Cinco de Mayo “Mexican” menu with – you guessed it – “tacos, burritos, and chimichangas.” The only burgers being sold were either single or double patties with just cheese. I should have walked out at that point since the establishment had fed in to Cinco de Mayo marketing to the point of getting completely rid of the signature burger for which the place is named after.
Meanwhile, salsa and merengue tunes sung by Puerto Rican artists played from the sound system. The young woman at the counter encouraged the man in front of me to perform various linguistic tricks in Spanish to complete his order. My wife looked at me to gauge my reaction. I hid my displeasure, trying to deflect how upset I was, complaining the music was wrong.
“Don’t forget to say, gracias!” she chimed with a smile.
Why am I here? I thought.
The ignorance and blatant though subtle undercurrent of racism had me rigid with tension. I’m offended at how normalized it all was, but I was sick, hungry, and tired and so was my wife. A day of being at work functioning on coffee and head cold meds and being too tired to want to cook after walking the new dog were my only excuses for the two of us.
I walked up to be faced with an awkward pause as the cashier looked me over.
“I want a burger – because that is what you sell – and fries,” I said, flatly refusing to call them papas fritas, as was written on the menu. The terrible imitation of Mexican food was not an option for me.
It was a 25 minute wait to get our food. Some time after we ordered another family entered wondering why burgers were off the menu and I explained that terrible Cinco de Mayo menu to them so they wouldn’t have to venture to the counter. Immediately after they left, the cashier asked a woman to sing in Spanish before she ordered for her family. The woman looked at me, then back to the cashier, and just ordered in English. I looked at my wife and said, “I can’t do this. I can’t be here anymore and we should have left like the other family did.”
She nodded in understanding and I let her know I would wait at the car while the order arrived since we’d paid. I was angry that an entire restaurant full of people thought what was happening inside was okay. I was angry and ashamed for having let myself put up with the environment inside for as long as I had, trying to normalize it in some way for myself for what? A burger?
When my wife came out she only said quietly, “It got worse after you left.” We drove away in silence, got home, and by that point we ate only so we wouldn’t waste food. I never really tasted it. In retrospect, a bowl of cereal would have been worth the trouble if I was so tired. We poked at the sad “chimichanga,” my wife had ordered mostly out of curiosity, hoping it would be something better.
Sure, there were no sombreros and mustaches. Nor, were there inebriated people with margaritas, but the experience left me shaken and uncomfortable. An local establishment I had trusted had just done the ultimate sell-out of their own brand by taking down their signature burger for the sake of cultural appropriation and racist upselling. Furthermore, this was an establishment in my town, my home, a place where I hope to have children and send them to school. All I could think about is how everyone, even me, turned their eyes, or tried to, at the entire situation and helped perpetuate it.
I type this passionately, but with no joy. A small part of me is upset I won’t be buying from the burger place anymore. I enjoyed those burgers and they used to be a summer treat. I can’t see myself supporting the establishment anymore and intend to write a letter to the owner letting them know about the one customer they lost and explaining why. It may not make much of a difference, but I feel that it will do some of what I should have done in the moment.
Yes, I am angry at the owners and employees of the establishment; at ignorance through privilege. I’m upset and ashamed that at the fact that I felt I had to be silent and afraid to, so as not to be the person to create a scene and point out how insensitive the entire atmosphere was. I’m upset the alternative to this would have been to just walk out in silence and ignore the situation. I’m disappointed that I felt afraid and powerless in a situation I have coached others through as a cultural worker. Most of all, I am upset that I gave away my voice and let social pressure make a decision for me. I am grateful for the fact that in one fell swoop, my weaknesses and fears were revealed and I can begin to work on them.
So many lessons learned for the price of a burger & fries.