Stephen Christ, Truman State University – Authenticity of Mexican Restaurants
How do you define authenticity in a restaurant?
Stephen Christ, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Truman State University with research conducted at the University of Missouri, devled into this question by conducting his research firsthand.
In his research, Stephen R. Christ examines the everyday experiences of Mexican immigrants in the United States that contribute to Mexican-American identity formation. More specifically, how Mexican Americans experience daily life at home, at work, in public life and in how these experiences impact their sense of personal identity, their relationships with natives, their interactions with their families and community, and the identity work that goes into producing such categories and social worlds. Stephen has published his work in peer reviewed journals, books, and is currently working on a manuscript based on his ethnographic dissertation research on the social organization of authenticity. Stephen earned his Ph.D. in 2015 from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Authenticity of Mexican Restaurants
Food is a strong cultural symbol that can mark the boundaries of culture, tradition and authenticity. Whether or not a Mexican restaurant is considered “authentic” is completely subjective; yet, authentic Mexican restaurants also function as sites for public displays of ethnic and cultural identities.
For the study, I volunteered to work at more than a dozen Mexican restaurants, aiming to understand how owners, servers and patrons of Mexican restaurants define authenticity.
Managers and staff initially were suspicious of me and assigned me menial tasks like shoveling snow from parking lots. Eventually, I overcame barriers and was even invited to private parties at restaurants, to their homes, and participated in a local Mexican restaurant soccer league.
What I found was – authenticity is mostly subjective.
The power to define something as authentic rests not with the restaurant owner but rather in the hands of American consumers who have had little experience or knowledge of Mexican food or traditional styles of preparation.
The owner of a Mexican restaurant may claim to have the most authentic facility because his chef is from Mexico or he has more employees from Mexico than any of his competitors.
I also feel that my research also is contributing to the larger conversation on immigration in the U.S.
When we examine the history of other ethnic foods such as pizza and hamburgers, and apple pie we find that they originated in Europe; yet, these foods have been brought into mainstream American culture.
The same thing is happening with Mexican food and culture.
When you think of assimilation, it’s not Mexican immigrants coming in and getting absorbed into American culture, but rather adding to it—they bring their own contributions and shape the culture in which they’re settling.