For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a grant to produce a one-hour, bilingual radio documentary about the history of taco trucks in California. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve just submitted it to the California Council for the Humanities!
Here are the opening paragraphs of our grant application:
In California Spanglish, they’re known as loncheras. But in English, they’re known simply as taco trucks. Regardless of what you call them, most Californians simply call them delicious. Given their origins in Mexico, a dash of Americanizations and a kitchen on wheels, taco trucks are the perfect trans-cultural metaphor for California. They represent cheap, quality street food that has spread from Calexico to Yreka and beyond — California Taco Trucks will tell their fascinating story. California Taco Trucks is a sound-rich, narrative-led public radio documentary in both English and Spanish that will describe the rich history and newer incarnations of taco trucks.
With their humble beginnings as a blue-collar staple of journaleros statewide, taco trucks have since crossed socio-economic and cultural boundaries as more non-Latinos have discovered them. Further, as these trucks become more prevalent, cities like Turlock, Salinas, Stockton and even Los Angeles have battled with taqueros over how, when and where taco trucks can operate. Finally, many around the state have adapted the trucks to create new types of fusion cuisine served from a taco truck, such as Korean-Mexican (Kogi BBQ), Chinese-Mexican (Don Chow Tacos) and Japanese-Peruvian (Lomo Arigato).
Taco trucks represent a fascinating and unique lens through which to understand food culture, immigration, and demographics of late 20th century and early 21st century California. While taco trucks exist in other parts of the country, their presence originated in California. Raul Martinez is believed to have opened the first taco truck – converting an ice cream truck — outside of an East Los Angeles bar in 1974. He went from $70 in sales that first night to controlling a small empire of 10 King Taco restaurants and trucks around Southern California. By 1987, Martinez had earned $10 million in sales across his various properties. Nearly all taco truck owners don’t establish vast empires à la Martinez. Most are family-run businesses that work long hours and earn slim margins on a product that sells for around a single dollar.
Today, taco trucks exist in probably all of the 50 states, however, their largest concentration is in the Golden State. Los Angeles County alone has over 7,000 taco trucks, according to the newly founded Asociación de Loncheros – the rest of the state likely hosts thousands more. While taco trucks have existed for decades, the association itself was founded in 2009 after many loncheros found themselves afoul of new laws making it harder for them to operate in the City and County of Los Angeles. They have worked with attorneys in Los Angeles and Stockton, as well as UCLA law students to fight back and have struck down unconstitutional laws that restrict their trade.
Since the founding of Kogi BBQ, a Korean-Mexican taco truck in Los Angeles that famously uses Twitter to advertise and stay connected with its customers, dozens of nouveau food trucks have sprung up. They sell various treats including Indian cuisine, Mexican-Asian fusion, ice cream, shaved ice, burgers and various other combinations. However just as the classic trucks before them, this small community of newer trucks has to navigate an oft-confusing sea of municipal and county codes. These new trucks have received national media attention, and although they represent a small minority of the California taco truck community, they may just represent where it is headed both in California and on the national scale.
I’m supposed to be notified if we will receive the grant before December 2009.
If accepted, I will be working with Robert Breuer who will serve as photographer and associate producer.
We’re grateful to have received the support of the Asociación de Loncheros, who will act as the sponsoring organization. Our humanities advisors will be Prof. Abel Valenzuela (UCLA), Mark Vallianatos (Occidental), Prof. Roberto Alvarez (UCSD) and James Rojas (Latino Urban Forum). We will also be receiving culinary consultation from Bruce Aidells (Aidells Sausages) and Melanie Wong. We’ve also received letters of support from the Public Radio Exchange and NPR’s Latino USA.
Keep your fingers crossed! Here’s to hoping we get it!