Steven Alvarez loves tacos so much he created a college writing course about them.
And while, yes, the class requires eating plenty of tacos, it’s much more than that.
Alvarez first taught the course titled “Taco Literacy: Public Advocacy and Mexican Food in the U.S. South” in 2016 at the University of Kentucky and taught it again in 2018 as an English professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
The class challenges students to appreciate not only Mexican food, but the people who make it, Alvarez said. For some Mexican-American students, it means learning things about themselves and their families they never knew.
Alvarez recalls assigning some students to interview their parents. One Mexican-American student learned that her mother had once won the “Best Mole” award in the town where they lived.
The woman asked her mother why she never told her. “Mija, because you never asked,” the mother replied.
Alvarez, 39, a graduate of the University of Arizona and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, said he’s been invited to speak at schools and events around the country because of the course and his general commentary about the intersection of food and culture.
Alvarez will be a judge at Taco Libre, the 5-year-old celebration of Dallas tacos and lucha libre held April 27 at the Dallas Farmers Market. Ahead of the annual event, Alvarez talked to The Dallas Morning News about food and cultural acceptance.
First things first: I really wish I’d have been able to take your class in college.
Me too! [Laughs] I grew up in Arizona, eating flour tortillas and carne asada. Growing up, I felt like I was cultivated to be ashamed of being Mexican, the language, the food and being close to the border. But the older and more educated I got, the more proud I got of my heritage and especially the food. I realized that what got me respect from my white friends was my mom’s food. So having this class is a way to have discussions about our roots and how Mexican food has changed over time.
How do we approach this conversation about cultural acceptance through food without reducing the value of Mexican people to just their food?
You can’t have Mexican food without having the Mexicans. We are part of the food. Separating people from the food is one of the most harmful dehumanizing processes out there. What makes people human is sharing their food and building a community. When it comes down to it, something like Taco Libre gets people from all walks of life to gather and eat tacos and see that we’re not all that different from each other.
What does it mean to you to teach a course about Mexican food like this at a time when claiming your Mexican roots is politicized?
When has there ever been a time when being Mexican isn’t politicized? This is the most recent edition of a long history between the U.S. and Mexico. This is why it’s so important to understand the food and culture of our neighbors.
Apart from eating tacos, what’s the best thing about teaching this class?
When you bring food into the classroom, it changes the dynamic. It’s like sharing a meal with friends - it sets up a certain camaraderie. It sets up a framework where you don’t have a strict structure. To share meals with students and for them to be reflective not only about Mexican food but also their own families and where they come from, that’s powerful.
So you’ll be in town for Taco Libre at the end of the month? Are you excited to come try Dallas tacos?
I’ve been following this event for years and it has two things I love: tacos and lucha libre. I’m really looking forward to eating as many tacos as I can and making new friends. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the people and the warm celebration I’m expecting.
When is the next term and how can we all sign up for the course?
[Laughs.] I try to teach it once a year, so probably here in the next year. It feels like we’re in a renaissance of food studies, so maybe in the future we’ll have PhD in Tacology and hopefully we’ll have a Dallas campus.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.