Braceros (1960) by Domingo Ulloa, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Chipotle is now the second largest Mexican food chain, behind stolen taco chain, Taco Bell. Even with their recent food scares, they have defined the Mission Style Burrito in this country. It seems every college campus has a local burrito shop with “burritos as big as your head.” And chains like our local Currito are wrapping everything in a flour tortilla and calling it a burrito. There are Greek burritos and Thai burritos. I think I’ve even seen a German burrito, filled with goetta.
The burrito first crossed the border into the U.S. in the 1920s when small meals called burros came with migrants from the Mexican province of Sonora into Tuscon, Arizona. But unlike the taco, the burrito wasn’t as widely known throughout Mexico, only in the borderland regions of Sonoro and Baja, where flour tortillas were more widely used than the corn variety. And, the burrito has been nationally available as all the early taco chains that started in the 1960s carried them. There is a story that the immigrant miners of Sonora named their portable meal after the donkeys who led them deep into the mines.
The burrito was a meal of the working class – a simple meal of leftovers wrapped in a tortilla. They were easier to transport than tacos, made of corn tortillas, which harden shortly after being heated. The burrito’s first mass customer in the U.S. were the immigrant bracero workers.
The Bracero Program (1942-1964) was a bi-national effort that brought Mexican guest workers, known as braceros, to fill in agricultural labor shortages caused by World War II. The living conditions in bracero camps, like that in Holtville, California, were very bad. The braceros depended on farmers and the government for everything – wages, food, clothes, housing. Their handlers found it easier to supply burritos en masse to give to their workers to take to the field, rather than to prepare fresh lunches for them – wrap them in foil, let them bake in the sun and it’s an instant meal, thought the farm managers.
The Last Supper of Chicano Heroes, mural, Jose Antonio Burciaga, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.
The burrito became a meal of scorn and embarrassment. Most of the workers, who came from Central Mexico, were not familiar with the burrito, and the flour tortilla. Each worker got two bean burritos, cheese only being added as a bonus for good performance. The workers hated them. Imagine eating two bland bean burritos a day. When the kids of these braceros and other immigrants brought burritos for their school lunch, they were often ridiculed and ostracized by the Anglican peanut-butter-and-jelly-eaters. Their grease-stained brown bags were indicators of the working class food inside. There are numerous references to this in Chicano literature.
So while the burrito is the ubiquitous convenience-comfort meal to the gringo American, it symbolizes the scorn and embarrassment to its first big customer – the Chicano migrant working families of the Southwest U.S.