Why Cristina Martinez’s Episode of Chef’s Table Is One of the Biggest Political Statements of 2018

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Welcome to another installment of ‘Vatos Who Write Film Reviews,’ a new column about movies and documentaries written by real foos. This second installment is courtesy of Cesar Hernandez, a new food writer from Lynwood who is quickly making a name for himself in Los Angeles with stories like these on L.A. Taco. Here are his critical thoughts on South Philly Barbacoa.

The personal becomes political in Cristina Martinez’s episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

The ritual of making barbacoa is almost spiritual and the show beautifully captured the experience from the start. Traditionally, the preparation of barbacoa begins before the sun comes up and is extremely labor intensive. Some of Cristina Martinez early memories are barbacoa: the smell of burning leaves, the smell of citrus from an orange, and the slaughter and preparation of lamb.

For Martinez, these are her ties to her culture that she still keeps alive in the U.S. Though, she is no longer in her home town in Central Mexico, barbacoa still ties her to home, and she hopes to relay that message with her food. All these factors, culture, and personal history are infused into her food, to make a better eating experience.

Martinez is a chef that has made waves in the food world with her restaurant South Philly Barbacoa. She started, as many street vendors do, selling barbacoa from her home and graduated to a restaurant. Non-Latino audiences took notice after Bon Appetit put South Philly Barbacoa on their annual list of Best New Restaurants. In 2017, she was in David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, the Taco episode. Now she has her own episode of Chef’s Table but her story is bigger than just food, it is a long needed spotlight on the immigrant story in the culinary world.

The episode begins with a walkthrough of cooking a traditional barbacoa, from the preparation of the lamb to the way that it is sealed and cooked in clay. The strength of the episode comes from the way that Martinez’s personal story speaks to the immigrant story. The layers as an immigrant and as a woman in the culinary world, unravel on-screen.

I’ve always thought that the epithet “beaner” was a misnomer. Mexicans, as mestizos, value maize or corn far more, so why not call us tortilleros instead?

The episode addresses several issues surrounding the immigrant conversation and women in the restaurant industry. Cristina Martinez is both. Her personal story speaks to the larger immigrant experience whose labor is often exploited and forgotten. She uses the prestige she’s garnered to voice those traumas. Barbacoa is her platform but it is also part of who she is culturally.

The biggest fear of the immigrant in America is being deported and so hiding becomes a defense mechanism. “Imagine owning your own restaurant and at any moment you could be arrested, and everything you’ve worked for could be taken from you. That is the reality of Cristina’s life.”

Another reality is that the restaurant industry rests on the backs of these immigrants. They work jobs with unfavorable conditions than American born citizens, and are ignored for all their effort. In fact, the vile rhetoric from the Trump administration deems all Latino immigrants criminals and rapists. This only solidifies the disdain for immigrants and turns the public against them.

In the wake of family separation and issues surrounding the current Central-American caravan in Tijuana, Martinez puts herself at risk by being a visible immigrant. But there is power in her visibility like hiding in plain sight. Martinez being centered is important because it confronts that invisibility directly. She is a woman and Mexican immigrant who is at the helm of a restaurant and not forgotten in the back. She is the one handing your the taco that you waited an hour or more just to eat.

Martinez’s episode is about much more than barbacoa. Her existence as a woman in the culinary world and an immigrant is an act of rebellion. It denies the hateful rhetoric surrounding Latino immigrants in this country. Revolution is often thought to be a collective movement but in the micro it is made up of stories like Martinez’s.

The recent crisis in Tijuana is the ever present reminder of a threat to the lives of immigrants. The fraught political climate surrounding immigrants culminated in families with children being shot at with gas.The earliest memory of some of these children will be that of being hunted like animals. Martinez could have easily been one of the many immigrants who was gassed while holding her child. Though, there is no monolith surrounding the immigrant experience, her journey to this country is similar to many others. They come to this country not to be a burden but out of survival, and they are denied that opportunity; instead they are met with gas.

But this episode offers an uplifting and true image of the immigrant experience. It is soothing depiction of what immigrants really mean to this country.

Another key point in the episode is her focus of making tortillas by hand. She uses Mexican corn from Chiapas and nixtamalizes the corn herself for a better tortilla. Martinez thinks the state of mainstream tortillas in America is dismal, though there are more and more companies trying to offer better tortillas every year. She is upholding the pre-Columbian native traditions of maiz. She is paying homage to the past and places great value on tortillas.

I’ve always thought that the epithet “beaner” was a misnomer. Mexicans, as mestizos, value maize or corn far more, so why not call us tortilleros instead? It is a staple to our diet and essential to our history. We are children of the corn and Martinez pays tribute to that notion.

Martinez’s episode is about much more than barbacoa. Her existence as a woman in the culinary world and an immigrant is an act of rebellion. It denies the hateful rhetoric surrounding Latino immigrants in this country. Revolution is often thought to be a collective movement but in the micro it is made up of stories like Martinez’s.

Each barbacoa taco is a political statement. The personal becomes the political and her existence being so visible is an act of revolution.