Chalupas and Tropicalization

So I wanted to talk about a recent experience I had in light of the discussion on tropicalization we had in class a few weeks ago.  On Thursday night I went to the Portland Blazers game against the Knicks at the Rose Garden, and the Blazers ended the game with over 100 points (105-90).  Apparently the Blazers have a deal with Taco Bell where everyone in the audience gets a coupon for a free chalupa if the Blazers get more than 100 points in a game.  So when they were getting close to 100 points, the crowd began chanting “Cha-lu-pas!  Cha-lu-pas!” whenever we had the ball.  Here’s a video of the chant from a Blazers game (it’s a common occurrence):

Honestly, I thought it was pretty funny, since I’ve never had a reason to chant “chalupas” before.  But then what they showed on the jumbo screen in the center of the court after the “chalupa shot”, as the shot that gets the 100th point is called, was made, got me thinking about our discussion of the tropicalization of Hispanic cultures.

I know the video above just shows the word ‘chalupa’ on the screen after 100th point is scored, and some of the players are shown eating chalupas, but when I went on Thursday they showed a clip of Blaze the Trail Cat (Portland’s mascot), decked out in a Mexican poncho and sombrero while he danced around eating a chalupa.  Then there were short clips of some of the Blazers team members dancing around while eating chalupas.  I’m really sorry, but I have searched the internet high and low and I cannot find an image of Blaze the Trail Cat in his Mexican getup.  Maybe it’s new.

But the point is, the Taco Bell advertisers went out of their way to make the association between eating their chalupas and being Mexican, or at least having a ‘Mexican experience’.  They put the mascot in traditionally Mexican clothing and had him dancing around.  By showing this image, they were promoting the trope of the fat, happy Mexican who eats tacos all the time–or in this case, chalupas.  Basically, they were fetishizing the consumption of their chalupas as a uniquely Mexican experience, as if saying “Look!  Taco Bell’s chalupas are SO Mexican that Blaze the Trail Cat has to dress up in a poncho and sombrero in order to eat one!”  This is, of course, ridiculous.

Having the players on screen dancing around while eating their chalupas also got me thinking of the Chiquita banana commercial that we watched in class.  In that, the singing banana lady is dressed in what Americans think of as specifically Latina clothing, like the hat covered in fruit, and dances and sings while telling the audience how great it is to eat bananas.  The clip of the Blazers mascot was basically the same thing.  It showed the cat in what Americans think of as specifically Mexican clothing, and–instead of singing about how great chalupas are–showed Blaze and the other players dancing around, looking really happy to be eating them.  The same sort of tropicalization is taking place here.  Companies are promoting stereotypes in order to sell their products and give them a specific, exotic ‘brand’.

This got me curious about other Taco Bell marketing strategies.  Obviously everyone knows the “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” Chihuahua that they used for a long time.  The same sort of tropicalization took place around this dog, as he was often wearing a sombrero and whatnot.  Here’s an old Taco Bell advertisement from 1997 with the Chihuahua:

This addresses the same trope of Mexican culture, that eating tacos and other Mexican foods (specifically, Taco Bell’s foods), makes Mexicans happier than anything else in the world.  In this commercial, the dog ignores a pretty little lady dog who is making eyes at him, just so he can get some Taco Bell.  And the advertisers set the whole thing to very Hispanic-sounding music, so that the whole Taco Bell franchise is associated with Mexican culture.

Yet, despite Taco Bell’s numerous, ridiculous attempts to show Americans how Mexican their product is, they have failed twice to set up companies in Mexico, once in 1992 and again in 2007.  The second time, they even attempted to advertise themselves to Mexico as serving authentic American food.  Talk about changing your message to suit your audience.  But this pretty much proves that the tropical, happy Mexican person who they always depict eating their food is nothing but fiction.

This just goes to show how incredibly wrong tropicalization can be.  Obviously people in Mexico don’t actually dance around wearing ponchos and sombreros while eating chalupas–but people in Mexico don’t even LIKE Taco Bell!  They can’t keep their franchises open there!  Clearly their food is not considered by Mexicans to be the epitome of Mexican cuisine, as the company would like to make Americans think, if they actually attempted to market the food as American dining in Mexico.  So Taco Bell’s blatant association of their food and what Americans think of as stereotypical “Mexican-ness” is obviously extremely purposeful, and misrepresentative.  They tropicalize and they know it.

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One thought on “Chalupas and Tropicalization

  1. This is a compelling piece written on the tropicalization of Mexican identity and the association made in food. There is a lot I want to say about the videos and the subsequent analysis so this might be a long post. I like that you draw attention to the ways in which stereotypes are reproduced at the Blazers game and in the Taco Bell commercial. The appropriation of the poncho/sarape and the sombrero happens all too often. We need look no further than the “Halem Shake” video produced by Sigma Chi on campus in which someone chose to wear the poncho/sarape and a sombrero as a costume in a video that was an appropriation and misrepresentation of black culture. However, these stereotypical ways of dressing that U.S. citizens (I hate saying American because that’s a slap in the face to all Latin Americans to be honest) imagine are hurtful to all people of Mexico, which seems like a no brainer but bear with me.

    The association of the sombrero and the poncho/sarape as being emblematic of Mexican culture erases the histories of indigenous peoples. I do not advocate the appropriation of indigenous regalia but also recognize that indigenous peoples of Mexico (and indigenous people globally) are historicized, a people of the past that do not exist today. The poncho/sarape and sombrero combination is incredibly complex and has a long history that I will not explain in this blog post but I encourage everyone to look it up. The interesting thing about the poncho is that it is worn all throughout Latin America but it doesn’t look the same and is often called a different name but all have similarities, which I find fascinating because of my own fascination with Latin America.

    Moving on to the Chihuahua(s). First things first, the dog, Chihuahua is a breed that said to have originated in Mexico, isn’t that interesting? Secondly, there is actually a Mexican state named Chihuahua and it happens to be a border state and is (less so now) used as a main entry point into the U.S. (but really Mexico because as Anzaldúa puts it, “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is and will be again (1986, 25) by a people trying to return home. So the interesting thing about the word Chihuahua is that it has made its way into the U.S. English lexicon that continues to show how intertwined the histories of U.S.-Mexico really are and have been since the day that this land was stolen. It is a word that continuously reminds serves as a reminder of the land that was stolen and the herrida abierta that it has left.

    That did take an unexpected turn but I want to keep talking about the dog and not the state this time. I would say that the use of a Chihuahua speaking Spanish and wearing “traditional” Mexican clothing is straight up racism. Period. The reason being is because Mexicans are then associated with animals, and actually, the white people back in the day who were stealing Mexican land would refer to Mexicans as dogs, which is racist, right? Associating humans with animals is not a new phenomenon. Africans and African-Americans are historically produced by white folks as looking like chimps. That reeks of racism to me. Using animals to refer to humans is degrading and establishes a power relationship built on white supremacy and domination, I think.

    With all this being said, I have a question for you, and one to the class. I noticed that the words racism or racist did not make it into your blog post, and I was wondering if there was a reason? Personally, I think we are taught that racism doesn’t exist and that the word racism is a dirty word that should not be used. But clearly the association of Mexicans with dogs and taking our culture and making it into a costume is racist.

    This was an interesting post and I am glad you posted the video!

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