About Rice and Beans: Following recent discussions on food here on Anthropology in Practice, this week I’ll feature a four part series that that explores the ways immigrant groups in Corona, NY are involved in creating generic versions of their cultures to support themselves. This final installment looks at the ways change is necessary to maintain a customer base.
Also in this series:
- Rice and Beans: How Does Culture Become Generic?
- Rice and Beans: What Is the Difference between Public and Private Culture
Corona neighbors Flushing, Jackson Heights, Willets Point and Elmhurst. It has a long immigrant history. Some of the city’s first Latino neighborhoods sprang up on the Lower East Side, close to Cuban and Puerto Rican cigar factories, but bodegas, restaurants, barbers and boardinghouses soon followed suit, settling in the outlying boroughs. In the 1960s, Hispanic nationals immigrating to New York settled in Corona and began to import pieces of home. As ingredients that were familiar to them became more popular, a thriving food business grew in support of the neighborhood. The neighborhood grew ethnically diverse, but the city was slow to provide basic developmental services, such as sewers and drains (perhaps due to the neighborhood’s proximity to Willets Point where business owners claim that such neglect has been longstanding).
The neighborhood and the surrounding geographies do not have “clean’ histories. In the 1930s, it became an ash dump. Tons of railway ash was dumped there on a daily basis. Only the need to “clean up” the site for the World’s Fair in 1939 prompted action. The recent construction of a new stadium for the resident New York Mets baseball team prompted a similar cleanup. The proposed development for the surrounding area will include housing, retail and entertainment amenities, a hotel and convention center, office space, parks and a new public school.
Mexican residents of Corona working in Willets Point junkyards have found themselves unemployed in recent months and unable to find legal employment as a result of their tenuous immigration statuses. Their wives, common-law-spouses and partners assist in supporting their families by selling home-cooked staples. They’ve combined the labor of their pushcart activities with their domestic duties. Food is their product, made from their knowledge. By selling their food, these women bring some of the power food preparation awards into the public realm. The sale of food reaffirms its role within the private sphere and the power it grants its preparers.
But in cooking for a public of a different cultural background, food preparation must change. The public and the private are reflections of one another and impact change in one another. What does this shift mean? As the food enters the marketplace, it needs to accommodate the consumers so that it would be saleable. Street food is different from what is known in Mexican households as “authentic”: the spices are different and the spiciness is different; even the beans can be different. The key here is marketability, because the product must appeal to the consumer. Change is necessary so that the consumer consistently chooses you.
This manipulation of food creates a generic vision of Hispanics. Without the spices and the heat, the food loses some of its essential character. It is not a unique cultural identifier but rather what is expected and this expectation is reaffirmed.
The unique position of food in the private sphere allows it to serve as a catalyst for change. Food is a specific cultural marker and mediates the role of women in the household. It is a cultural essence and when it loses some of its substantial nature because it needs to appeal to a broader audience and sustain that audience as a client base for profits a cultural shift occurs driving Hispanic immigrants toward a generic identity. This is equivalent to the San people hiring actors to replace them. To successfully sell culture, the vendor identifies key traits necessary for the consumer to choose him or her as representative of a specific culture, and crafts the product to emphasize these qualities.
As more and more cultural commodities enter the market, cultural distinctions will become muted. Immigrants make choices about which traditions to keep, which traditions to adapt, and which to let go. These decisions are informed by their larger external factors, involving assimilation and economics. Because immigrant groups exist on the margins of society, they author identities by manipulating cultural substances, such as food. Cultural substances are regulated within the private realm to generate public identities. Changes manifested in the public sphere must be replicated and authenticated in the private. For immigrant groups, commoditizing culture means creating cultural images that are appealing and recognizable to the consumer. Alterations to cultural essences in the private in this context are indicative of larger overall cultural shifts. The decision to commoditize essential components of culture creates generic cultural brands for immigrant ethnic groups that create and confirm expectations about those groups.
Fanon, Franz (1965). <i>A Dying Colonialism.</i> New York: Grove Press.
Gonzalez, Carolina and Kugel, Seth (2006). <i>Nueva York: The Complete Guide to Life in the Five Boroughs</i>. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Pessar, Patricia (1992). "The Link Between the Household and the Workplace,"In <i>Caribbean Life in NYC: Sociocultural Dimensions.</i>Eds. Constance Sutton and Else Chaney. New York: Center for Migration Studies.
Roseberry, William (1996). "The Rise of Yuppie Coffee and the Reimagination of Class in the United States,” <i>American Anthropologist</i> 98(4): 762 – 775.
You might also like: