English Students Explore Community Literacies through Tacos

June 24, 2019

As an Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky, Steven Alvarez, Ph.D., created a course entitled Taco Literacy as a response to changing demographic trends in the surrounding community of Lexington, KY, colloquially called “Mexington” because of its rapidly increasingly Latinx population. Now, as Associate Professor of English at St. John’s University, Dr. Alvarez brings his nationally-recognized Taco Literacy course to Queens, NY, and leads students in exploring immigrant foodways throughout the borough.

Upon arriving in Kentucky in 2012, Dr. Alvarez observed a discrepancy in the demographic makeup of his students, who were predominantly white, and the community around the university. He also noticed that his students generally stayed on campus, and wanted to help them get to know their Lexington neighbors. He started requiring them to leave campus, examining transnational community food literacies through tacos and other Mexican dishes, and posting about their experience through Instagram and blog assignments.

At St. John’s in 2017, while the course retained its focus of exploring Mexican foodways, the emphasis changed. “In Kentucky, I wanted my students to go out and experience diversity,” said Dr. Alvarez. “At St. John’s, students bring diversity into the classroom but do not necessarily venture outside their own neighborhoods.”

Along with readings related to foodways and cultural history, students complete fieldwork for the course that entails visiting various Mexican restaurants throughout Queens and documenting their experiences in a blog and on Instagram using the hashtag #TacoLiteracy. As their culminating project for the semester, students revise their blog according to the information and insights they gain pertaining to Mexican food, literacies, and local issues. Guest speakers have included food critic Robert Sietsema and local restaurant owners.

Throughout the semester, Dr. Alvarez and his students discuss the ethics of documenting community foodways. “We talk about appropriation, authenticity, and the ‘foodie’ culture in which people go into a place, take a picture, and leave,” he said.

“We ask ourselves and each other what it means to tell someone else’s story in relation to your own, and how to honor others’ stories.”

Dr. Alvarez also brought Mexican foods to class for students to try, including tamales, tamarind candy, and, memorably, chapulines—or dried grasshoppers. “I was one of the few people to try the grasshoppers,” said senior English major Soannie Maldonado. Soannie, who grew up in a Mexican family, began to see just how far-reaching Mexican food traditions were in the US as part of the course, as well as how much diversity exists within Mexican cuisine. “There are so many things we eat all the time but do not think of as Mexican, like chocolate and vanilla,” she said. “Food is a way into culture, and a taco means so many different things to different people. I began to realize how very diverse Queens is, and how contemporary Mexican foodways in the US blend tradition, convenience, and availability.”

“I became much more aware of Mexican culture in Queens,” said senior English major Cindy Nguyen, who was born and raised in the borough. “I also became more aware of the many kinds of writing I could pursue as an English major. Taco Literacy is a completely different kind of course than those I take at St. John’s as part of my major, which mostly revolve around reading and synthesizing texts. The ability to do fieldwork and explore different avenues for writing has made me interested in pursuing food studies after graduation.”

An English major minoring in Anthropology and Creative Writing, Richey Reeves also gained new understanding of what the research process entails as a result of the course. “It is not just scholarly articles and peer-reviewed journals,” he said. “It is also talking to people every day and learning about their lives and experiences.”

Dr. Alvarez’s Taco Literacy course has been featured in national media outlets, including The Huffington Post, The National Review,Smithsonian Magazine,The Southern Foodways Alliance,The Splendid Table Podcast,The Sporkful Podcast,Eater,Remezcla,Vice,Mashable,The New Yorker,Thrillist,The Food Network, and People. You can follow on Twitter and Instagram @tacoliteracy or visit TacoLiteracy.com.

During the Spring 2019 semester, Dr. Alvarez focused his undergraduate seminar course on Queens Foodways. The course format was the same, and students used Instagram and WordPress to document their food encounters with the hashtag #QueensFoodways, studying the movement of people and dishes throughout the borough.

“Students in the Taco Literacy course were interested in ethnic foodways in general, and the theme opened up,” said Dr. Alvarez. “As a class, we are creating a community-based archive of Queens foodways.”

Along with fellow St. John’s faculty members Raj Chetty, Ph.D., LaToya Sawyer, Ph.D., and Collin L. Craig, Ph.D., Dr. Alvarez brings his teaching methodologies to the High School for Community Leadership, which offers a culinary class. Under Dr. Alvarez’s guidance, high school students in that class learn how to conduct research online and create online multimedia projects that incorporate food reviews and ethnographic oral histories.

“Food is a prism for understanding social relationships and for teaching a wide range of disciplines, including math, chemistry, and writing,” he said. “The students come to see food in all its aspects, and appreciate its cultural and historical context.”