by Jonathan Gramling
and I was so glad that I didn’t wait to hit the Willy Street Fair to have a late lunch.
And it is probably symbolic of how South Madison has changed over the years that one can get authentic Mexican cuisine almost anytime day
or night. When I first moved to South Madison in 1979, there was a Dunkin Donuts at the top of the hill on S. Park Street, which gave way
to a Taco Bell that stayed there for decades.
But South Madison evolved over the years and especially since the mid 1990s, the Latino population in the greater South Madison area has
exploded. And the “fake” Mexican food in the form of Taco Bell just couldn’t compete against the real thing and eventually Taco Bell closed
its S. Park Street location.
And what opened up in its place? Well it was McGee’s Chicken. I guess we won’t be seeing a KFC or a Popeye’s opening up on S. Park
Street anytime soon.
But all of this has made me think about all that Latin America has given the United States. There wouldn’t have been a West Side Story on
Broadway without the Puerto Rican influence in New York. And how about Desi Arnaz introducing us all to Cuban music on I Love Lucy.
There has always been a Latino influence in American mass culture, not all of it complementary. I can remember a Mexican parrot on Walt
Disney introducing people in my part of the world when I was a kid to Latin American culture. It was Americanized Latin culture and
probably forged stereotypes that I had to unlearn for decades to come.
But if you watch some of the old television shows from the 1950s and 1960s, you begin to see that Latino — primarily Mexican — actors
were somewhat prevalent on television in shows like Perry Mason, shows that were based in Southern California.
Of course the predominant image was as a migrant worker and that was probably my entrée into Latin America when I volunteered with the
United Farm Workers back in the early 1970s. But my friendship with Refugio Guajardo — forged when it was only the two of us picketing
against Gallo wines in local liquor stores — and his wife Carmen that began to open my horizons. There is nothing better than knowing people
in person rather than on the cellular screen, which is the way that so many people learn about others not in their circles.
And I fear for the younger generation whose love affair with everything digital will interfere with those real-life relationships and
understanding of the broader world. But I digress …
I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I know that the quality of my life would be so much less if it weren’t for the Latin American
influences in American culture and life. For one, I would be stuck with those “fake” tacos from Taco Bell.
I wear a poncho during the winter, especially when I am delivering newspapers. My son bought for me as a Christmas present several years
ago from an East Towne Mall vendor who was from Bolivia or Peru. But thanks to the Alpaca that “donated” its wool, I have something that
keeps me warm without hemming my arms in.
Whenever I go to a restaurant or a hotel, I always pay attention to who is working in the kitchen or making the beds as maids. And I would
say that the vast majority of the time, they are Latino with some African Americans and Euro-Americans mixed in.
And it does make me so mad at times to think back to the booming times of the 1990s into the 2000s before the Great Recession set in. Who
made it possible for the middle class to work so many long hours and enjoy such luxuries as eating out on a regular basis — and allowing the
fathers and/or mothers to work even more hours — than the influx of undocumented workers who followed the labor market right to
America’s cities and farms. It was their cheap labor that made the boom possible and now Donald Trump is treating them like animals. It is a
stain on the moral soul of America.
And so I celebrate Latino Heritage Month for my life would be the worst without the Latinos and Latin culture that are a part of my life.
Last Saturday, I attended the Mexican Fest at the Madison Labor Temple to take photos before I headed
over to the Willy Street Fair to hawk some raffle tickets for the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. I was
hungry and so I took a stroll along the food vendors’ row checking out what people were offering that
warm fall afternoon. I looked for vendors with whom I have had some dealings like El Pastor or
Mercado Marimar, which are staples on S. Park Street.
Not seeing anyone I was familiar with, I took a chance — not really a big one — and ordered steak tacos
from a vendor who looked like they knew what they were doing. But really, how would I know. They
served my tacos up on corn tortillas garnished with onions and cilantro. And of course there were the
homemade sauces available to squirt on top of the tacos.
I went and sat down at a table on the fringe of the big tent where the entertainment was performing and
just my luck, it was the sultry Chica Cumbia performing with her flag waving accompanists. And I
feasted on my steak tacos. I swore that they were the best tacos that I ever tasted, although I have made
that proclamation before. Perhaps it was more of a gauge on how hungry I was, but they did hit the spot