FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000

The Mexican Food Revolution

Foods and flavors from Mexico have influenced American cuisine for centuries. But in the last half of the 20th century, Mexican-inspired foods found their way to every corner of the country, merging into the mainstream. Alongside traditional foods like tortillas, tacos, tamales, enchiladas, and salsas, new dishes emerged that reflected a blending of Mexican, regional American, and other Latino cultures.

For Mexican American residents and Mexican immigrants, the translation of their traditional foods into cookbooks, restaurants, and supermarket products provided a recipe for economic success as well as a source of cultural pride. Most Americans welcomed Mexican foods into their everyday meals, even as tensions over the flow of new immigrants from Mexico escalated in some parts of the country.

Mexican Food Migrations

Concepción “Concha” Sanchez followed the path of many Mexican immigrants who turned their traditional foodways into a staple of community life. Concha and Abundio Sanchez migrated from Mexico in 1912 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. Through the 1920s, they worked in Kansas, in Texas, and in the produce fields of California, eventually opening a grocery store. When that failed in the Great Depression, Concha supported her family by creating a tortilleria, making and selling tortillas in her Ventura County neighborhood. Instead of making them by hand, as Mexican women had done for centuries, she used the new electric and gas-fired equipment bought by her son to produce tortillas and tamales for sale.

Concha Sanchez with her daughters Guadalupe and Maria, about 1940

Concha Sanchez with her daughters Guadalupe and Maria, about 1940

Courtesy of Anna Rios Bermudez

Wearing her apron, Concha Sanchez ground corn using this electric molino (corn mill) to make masa (dough) for tortillas and tamales. She placed balls of masa onto the conveyor belt, hand-cranked them through the rollers of this tortilladora (press), then dropped them onto the propane-fired comal (griddle, not shown) to cook.

Apron, 1940-50

Gift of Anna Rios Bermudez

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Corn mill, 1940-50

Gift of Anna Rios Bermudez

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Tortilla press, 1940-50

Gift of Anna Rios Bermudez

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Making tortillas, San Antonio, Texas, 1939

Making tortillas, San Antonio, Texas, 1939

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Braceros making tortillas, 1957

Braceros making tortillas, 1957

Contract agricultural workers from Mexico preparing their own food at a labor camp in McAllen, Texas.

Photograph by Leonard Nadel. NMAH Archives Center NAD-200401380528.

“Tortillas Meet the Machine Age”

“Tortillas Meet the Machine Age”

Popular Mechanics article, 1950