Thursday, May 5, 2011

Cinco de Buyo...uh I meant, Mayo

Ansel Adams, 1943. "Farm workers at Manzanar" (from Wikimedia Commons)

“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”
César Chávez – Labor organizer and founder of UFW (1927-1993)

            Cinco de Mayo is one of those odd holidays that I think tequila maker made up to get white people to drink more tequila.[1] For years, I never could understand why anyone celebrated the holiday - until I went to college and understood the true meaning - drinking. Lots of drinking (and a pathetic attempt to dance salsa). And I think for most of America, that is exactly what Cinco de Mayo is. A chance to drink a couple of Coronas and eat a bag of tortilla chips with jarred salsa.[2]
            After one too many tequila shots, my good friend (my super-cool Mexican friend featured previously in this blog) explained what Cinco de Mayo was really about for him - community. The day commemorates the day that the Mexican army defeated the occupying French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Although the actual battle itself was not of strategic importance, the victory gave a much needed morale boost to the nascent Mexican government and its people.[3]
            While the history of the actual celebration itself is contested (some historians have placed it as far back as the 1860’s, others have attributed it to the Chicano movements of 1940-1960’s), the day has become a celebration of Mexican culture, community and history.  It has also become the day of guacamole and salsa munching - only second to the Superbowl in terms of the amount of guacamole consumed.
            And while you munch on your chips at the local Chili’s, here is something to think about. It is a sad irony that the persons that was responsible for your guacamole and salsa, from seed to table, was probably Mexican – not of the mariachi band type, but of the poor, undocumented, abused in giant industrial farms type. There are 1.4 million migrant and seasonal workers estimated in the US, of which 75% were born in Mexico.[4] Despite the work of César Chávez and United Farm Workers for union rights and recognition for agricultural workers, these workers are still subject to little pay and even less protection, including that from pesticides, regular breaks, dehydration and medical care.[5] Migrant farm workers are exempt from many of the worker protections standard in the National Labor Relations Act, including that of basic health and safety standards for employees. The low socio-economic status of migrant workers only exacerbates their vulnerability to a system of peonage that has very few legal repercussions or enforcement. Furthermore, the lack of money, education, steady employment and legal standing prevent workers from receiving any redress from legal or legislative means.
            I won’t belabor the point here. I think what is important is finding out how we can help those who toil in the fields for our daily salsa.  First, educate yourself.  This white paper by Bon Appetit Management Company and the United Farm Workers describes the above and more in addressing the plight of migrant farm workers in the US. Second, support the United Farm Workers in their quest for better working conditions for farm workers (click here for the UFW website). And third, support the passing of California Senate Bill 104 or “The Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act,” by signing the letter here.
            So you Cinco de Mayo revelers out there - go have a drink and celebrate Mexican culture. But remember those who got you your chips and dip. Salud to the those who toil in the fields for today’s salsa.


OK, there are as many guac recipes out there as there are margarita recipes, but here’s mine. It’s pretty standard, but I think there are a couple of hints that will make it a better than average guacamole. First, make sure your avocadoes are Haas avocadoes. Fuerte avocadoes are cheaper, but they have too much water to make good guac.  While you’re at it, make sure they are ripe (and your tomato too!). If you buy underripe avocadoes, just put them in a paper bag to ripen them (with a banana, if you have one. Bananas emit ethylene, the chemical that hastens ripening.) They will be just ripe when they yield to a gentle squish-too squishy, and then it’s overripe. Second, make sure you have plenty of FRESH lime juice around. Lime juice will prevent the avocado from oxidizing and making it an unappetizing grey color. And third, if you have a molcajete or a mortar pestle, use it. It gives just the right consistency. A food processor will make the avocado gummy. If you don’t have one of these, a potato masher works well. And finally, make it last minute. The acidity in lime juice deteriorates quickly.  And the salt will leach water out of the tomato and onion, making your guac soupy, if made too early.

2 ripe Haas avocadoes
1 lime
1 half of a white onion, finely chopped
1 tomato
1/2 bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
1 jalapeno or other hot pepper, finely chopped
Salt to taste

Take the onion, cilantro, tomato and jalapeno and mash into a pulp with your mashing instrument (see above for tips). Split avocadoes in half, seed them and then place into your mashing container. Immediately squeeze lime juice onto the avocadoes to prevent them from turning brown. Mash avocadoes with the onion mixture until desired consistency (a little less for chunky; a little more for smooth). Add salt to taste.  Serve immediately.

[1] Shockingly, I am not very far off from the truth. Quoting Frances Martinez, a Chicano organizer, “Cinco de Mayo is not just a fiesta anymore, the gringos have taken it on as a good sales pitch.” (See for the entire paper). NB: Corona is still owned by Negro Modelo, a Mexican brewing company. But José Cuervo, the world’s largest brand of tequila, is owned by Diageo PLC, the British beverage conglomerate.
[2] Not that I have anything against tortilla chips, but no one in Mexico eats them.  They were invented and popularized in America via a Latino-American tortillería in Los Angeles, hoping to use up misshapen real tortillas Many Mexican restaurants in on the Mexican side of the border will serve chips because Americans demand them. Go to Mexico City, and they will only exist in bagged form at the grocery store. Salsa is also not meant to be eaten with chips-it’s meant to be a condiment to be used sparingly on tacos, etc.
[3] Birthers, note. Some historians, namely Justo Sierra, the 19th century Mexican educator and historian, have said without the Mexican win, the French, under Napoleon III, would have aided the Confederacy and thus change the course of history. Parlez-vous français?
[4] These numbers come from the US Dept. of Labor, however, as any demographer or sociologist will tell you, these numbers are notoriously unreliable. The tendency is towards undercounting, as many migrant workers are reluctant to reveal their ethnicity or labor status due to immigration laws.
[5] The latest case in a string of migrant worker abuses is the death of 17-year old pregnant migrant worker Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez from heat stroke while picking grapes in California. The judge presiding in the case gave the labor contractor a slap on the wrist, in the form of a $370 fine, 40 hours of community service and 3 years probation.
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