About Rice and Beans: Following recent discussions on food here on Anthropology in Practice, this week I’ll feature a four part series that explores the ways immigrant groups in Corona, NY are involved in creating generic versions of their cultures to support themselves.

Today’s article provides an introduction to the series.

Also in this series: (2) Rice and Beans: What Is the Difference between Public and Private Culture?

A bustling, diverse neighborhood, Corona in the borough of Queens in New York, is home to a large population of Hispanic immigrants. Colombians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians, Dominicans, and Mexicans are some of the people who call Corona home and while many are legitimately employed as cooks, cleaners, domestic workers, and in construction throughout New York City, their undocumented neighbors, cousins, spouses, siblings, and children also work throughout the boroughs. Many undocumented immigrants have found employment as street vendors, stock boys, bus boys, dishwashers and–for those possessing automotive repair skills–as automotive workmen in the Willets Point junkyard. The employment opportunities available to this latter group are severely limited as expected but many are able to support their immediate families as well as extended kin networks–both abroad and locally–with remittances, or “gifts,” from their thin and unsecure wages.

With the development of Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets baseball club, the City’s government turned its eye towards nearby Willets Point with the intention of redeveloping and rejuvenating the neighborhood–a plan that has drawn both criticism and praise from residents and officials in equal measures. The economic center of Willets Point has been the junkyard, an automotive wasteland, where cheap automotive parts and cheaper labor were readily available. The view that Willets Point and the surrounding area has too long been an eye-sore made it a prime target for the focus of redevelopment effort that, according to former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg would “transform what is now a highly contaminated area into a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood, with new housing, parks and thousands of jobs.”

To achieve this goal, the Bloomberg administration mobilized eminent domain to remove landowners unwilling to sell their property. Under eminent domain, the City can claim private property without the owner’s consent as long as it is devoted to “public use”–so this plan has been in motion despite a mixed reception from local residents, business owners, and city officials. Today, a majority of the automotive businesses at Willet’s Point have been shuttered and the undocumented workers employed there have been forced to find other means of support. This has had a ripple effect within the neighborhood.

Corona is well known for its street vendors. On a warm summer afternoon, as you descend the stairs of the number 7 train at the 103rd St/Corona Avenue subway station, you might be fortunate enough to find the fruit juice stand, or the taco truck. These vendors are famous regulars that have made their way into guidebooks: The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs tells interested parties that at the Eighty-second street stop on the 7-line, if you’re lucky, the oblea lady will be waiting on the northwest corner to sell you her famous round wafers dripping with dulce de leche. You would be luckier still to hear the musical strains of “arroz con habichuelas” or “arroz con frijoles” as you stroll the streets. But there is a group of street vendors who give an entirely new meaning to the term “street” vendor on the sidewalks of Corona: Mexican women have staked an entrepreneurial claim as food vendors by selling home-cooked favorites, such as rice and beans, out of laundry carts to a mix of day laborers, single men, men whose wives are abroad, and non-Hispanic lunch-seekers from local businesses.

They are particularly visible during the summer months from about 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., pushing laundry carts holding a few pots, serving their cooked wares in paper plates wrapped in foil. Single Hispanic mothers have often used this as a means of support–sometimes with their children in tow–but more Mexican females are taking this entrepreneurial step as the men who supported their families have found themselves out of work as a result of the Willets Point redevelopment. The earnings from this work has been increasingly a primary source of support as well as a source of remittances for many people. The problems they face are similar to the problems food truck vendors face: they can be ticketed or arrested for not having permits–since they often don’t. In fact, S witnessed one particularly wrenching arrest where a laundry cart vendor was arrested and the police officers emptied her pots into a garbage can while spectators implored them to let her go–or at least spare the food.

Entrepreneurship among immigrant groups is not unique. The jobs otherwise available for this group are generally low paid and offer very few chances for advancement. For undocumented, unskilled individuals opportunities are even more limited, unless individuals pursue informal and illegal activities. The story of these female laundry cart food vendors could be told in terms of the empowerment and independence, but empowerment and independence are byproducts of a larger phenomenon that concerns the involvement of these women: the commodification of culture and the creation of a generic brand by which they are being identified.

In selling their home-cooked wares, Mexican female laundry cart food vendors of Corona are participating in the packaging and marketing of their culture. They are actively involved in reshaping the perception of Mexicans regarding what it means to be Mexican, as well as the perception of the consumers who purchase Hispanic cultural items as to what can be identified as Hispanic. Economic dialogue is by no means unidirectional. The women are informing Mexicans and consumer Others on what it means to be or Mexican while their sense of Mexican identity is informed by the feedback they receive from their customers. They take this feedback home to their families and as they are influential figures in the household, they shift the views of their family and, consequently, of Mexican culture overall.

The commodification of culture occurs when cultural identity is represented as something that is both chosen via acts of consumption and constructed as the essential product of a group’s identity. Culture is both created (by both internal and external forces) and a substance (an essence). When the substantial component of culture is manipulated, culture is necessarily changed. This act of creation signifies an ownership of culture. When substance is manipulated in response to or by a foreign force, the cultural shift that occurs mutes the cultural essence being manipulated. The result is that an identity, such as Mexican, becomes generic–a feature important to its salability.

Over the coming days, we’ll examine processes of cultural commodification following the dialogue between the public and private domains and the resulting changes in these realms mediated by the sale of food. The emergence of a generic culture is the end result for commodified cultures. And the generic branding of culture represents the intentional manipulation of cultural substance toward a palatable middle ground that appeals to consumers. This series investigates whether the commodification of the Mexican identity in Corona has contributed to a generic sense of what is truly “Hispanic” to support what consumers believe to be authentic Hispanic food.

Comaroff, John and Comaroff, Jean (2009). Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University Press.
Kaplan, David (1997). “The Creation of an Ethnic Economy: Indochinese Business Expansion in Saint Paul,” Economic Geography 73(2): 214 – 233.

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