Sniffs of cinnamon-scented hot chocolate draw visitors into immigration history

Spotting a familiar artifact at the Smithsonian can be an exciting moment for visitors—and, in this case, a moment of cultural connection. 

My favorite object at the museum comes in a little yellow box. The label is worn and must be handled with care to preserve the inscriptions written on it in two different languages that are each several hundred years old. The artifact's surface is delicately carved, but traditional use destroys the pattern. Its smell is potent but popular. It's worth about $5.95. 

Abuelita Chocolate, established in Mexico over 70 years ago, is now owned and manufactured by Nestlé. True to the traditional Mexican recipe, the chocolate tablets include cinnamon. Visitors love to touch and smell the chocolate, so the package Christine uses is getting slightly worn.
Abuelita Chocolate, established in Mexico over 70 years ago, is now owned and manufactured by Nestlé. True to the traditional Mexican recipe, the chocolate tablets include cinnamon. Visitors love to touch and smell the chocolate, so the package Christine uses is getting slightly worn.

For many Latinos in the United States, Abuelita is a kitchen staple—a classic product that can be melted down and mixed with milk to create traditional spiced Mexican hot chocolate. But what is this household object, manufactured and mass-produced by Nestlé, doing in a museum? How did a block of chocolate find its way to the Smithsonian?

The Latino immigration cart, which features Abuelita, a short hoe, a Quinceañera pillow, and many other items, was originally designed in 2008 when the museum was closed for renovation. Like other interactive carts, it offers visitors a hands-on dose of history through objects they can see, use, smell, and touch. Unlike other carts, this one directly celebrates Latino cultures and communities, topics typically minimized in American history narratives, textbooks, and even museums.

Abuelita, rich with both history and chocolaty flavor, was a clear choice for the cart from the beginning. Hot chocolate, originally a spicy, sugar-less drink consumed cold by the Mayas, has been transported and transformed over time—eventually becoming an all-American classic enjoyed by the likes of George Washington. Likewise, diasporic Latino people have shared and adapted their cultural traditions throughout the world. By sharing Abuelita chocolate, the immigration cart emphasizes the hidden Latino roots in familiar American history and creates an accessible space for Latino stories to be told.

 

This wooden tool, called a “batidor” or a “molinillo,” is used to help prepare the Abuelita drink. Cut off a piece of the chocolate, add it to some hot milk, and then stir to perfection using this traditional Mexican whisk.
This wooden tool, called a "batidor" or a "molinillo," is used to help prepare the Abuelita drink. Cut off a piece of the chocolate, add it to some hot milk, and then stir to perfection using this traditional Mexican whisk.

During my time operating the cart, I have seen Abuelita inspire double takes from visitors who recognize the iconic packaging and turn or tilt their heads in surprise. Also common are knowing smiles or excited whispers: "Mira! Chocolate de abuelita!" Though many people spot Abuelita, grin contently, and keep walking, the little yellow box often encourages museum-goers of all backgrounds to approach me and ask why it's there.

In one memorable interaction, a woman excitedly identified the item and asked if I could present my cart to her in Spanish. After I stumbled somewhat through my usual routine, she identified herself as Mexicana, her eyes still transfixed on the chocolate. She was thrilled to see a beloved, everyday item proudly on display at a renowned Washington, D.C., museum; she even asked to take a picture with the cart.

Christine and a Mexican museum visitor, both pleased with the Latino immigration cart
Christine and a Mexican museum visitor, both pleased with the Latino immigration cart

The tale of Abuelita chocolate is not a story that relates to all Latinos, and it's not the only Latino story there is to tell. Before this summer, I had never tasted or even seen the Abuelita brand. But there is something alluring and comforting about the familiar yellow label that has resonated with so many people, allowing me to capture their attention long enough to explain the other objects on my cart, even ones whose embittered histories are less palatable.

The value of the Abuelita package doesn't come from its age, its craftsmanship, or the fame of the person who used it—if the current box on display gets too worn out, the museum can simply buy by a new one. Abuelita's significance comes from the millions of people who purchase it, whether to try something new or preserve a centuries old family tradition; the people who see themselves in the museum when they see it on display, and the people who tilt their heads at well-worn little box and are eager to hear a good story.

Christine Miranda is an intern with National Museum of American History's Program in Latino History and Culture. She is a student at Amherst College. This is just one of many fulfilling experiences at the Immigration Cart, including this one with a school kid from Dallas, Texas.

Posted at 8:45 am EDT in Food History,Musings,Teaching & Learning