SAN ANTONIO — First lady Jill Biden caused such an uproar by referring to breakfast tacos that one would think Austin, Texas, was trying to claim the breakfast taco crown.
Her reference to San Antonio’s breakfast tacos at a national Latino conference Monday drew backlash that became so heavy that her press secretary tweeted an apology Tuesday morning.
In her speech at the conference of UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino advocacy group, Biden said the diversity of the Latino community — “as distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the blossoms of Miami and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio — is your strength.”
But Biden's attempt to connect through a local reference went awry. Critics saw it as a sweeping statement equating all Latinos to tacos or, to a certain extent, diminishing Latinos' ethnic and political complexity.
For others, however, her comment was as true as the global celebrity of San Antonio’s Mexican food.
“She’s just saying we are proud of our food in San Antonio. We are proud of our breakfast tacos, our barbacoa and Big Red,” said Lawrence Romo, 65, a Democratic activist who headed the Selective Service System in the Obama administration. “They are part of our culture here.”
San Antonio’s claim to have the best breakfast tacos is so intense that the city has gone to “war” with Austin, 80 miles north on Interstate 35, and there is an annual “Taco Rumble” between the cities.
“Breakfast tacos are as synonymous with San Antonio as the Alamo or the Spurs, but San Antonians generally just call them tacos, as in ‘Well, I’m going to go get tacos for breakfast,’” said José R. Ralat, Texas Monthly’s taco editor and the author of “American Tacos: A History and Guide.”
San Antonio is the seventh-largest city in the country, with Latinos — largely Mexican American — making up 65 percent of the population.
Hispanic culture is visible throughout San Antonio in its theater, its downtown Mercado and River Walk, its music, its car clubs, its annual Tejano Music awards, its Conjunto Festival, its art, its food and more.
But Latinos in San Antonio have dealt with and still deal with issues of equity — which was the focus of the UnidosUs conference.
Ralat and others said Biden’s comment diminished the complexity of Latinos in the city and elsewhere.
Lisa Mendoza Knecht, 47, a San Antonio native who recently earned her doctorate in educational leadership, said she understood the reference to San Antonio’s pride. But she said she was uncomfortable with a white female leader “using tacos to commemorate us.”
“Can you even capture all those complexities of those people [Biden referred to in her comment] and their culture and languages in just a simple sentence?” Mendoza Knecht asked.
She and Ralat said Biden’s team needed to do more research and consider how the comment might be understood or misunderstood in the community.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, whose president lives in San Antonio, took issue with Biden’s comment in a tweet: “We are not tacos. Our heritage as Latinos is shaped by various diasporas, cultures & food traditions and should not be reduced to a stereotype.” The group later accepted Biden’s apology.
Kristian Ramos, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic strategist born in Texas and raised in Arizona, wanted one thing on the record: “I’m Mexican, and I’m pro taco,” he said, laughing.
He said he thought there was a generational component to the reactions.
“I think there are probably a lot of older Latinos in the Southwest that if you were to say that [Biden’s comments] at a barbecue, they would say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s true,’” Ramos said. “I think 20, 30 years ago, saying something like that would have made sense. In 2022, not so much.”
He said there has to be "a different level of scrutiny” for comments made by the first lady and the White House.
The political backdrop can't be overlooked.
Ever since former President Donald Trump — who had his own taco controversy — grew his share of Latino votes in 2020, there has been an intensified tug of war over Latino voters.
Republicans seized on Biden's comments.
Macarena Martinez, the GOP’s Texas spokeswoman, described the comments as pandering and said they show how out of touch the Biden administration is. “While the Democrat Party concerns itself with utilizing unpopular terms and reducing Hispanics to stereotypes, the GOP will continue to make inroads with the Hispanic community across the state,” she said.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican of Cuban descent, tweeted “Um...what?” over a Breitbart News article about the comments.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is also of Cuban descent, tweeted a photo of a hard shell taco — not usually considered a breakfast taco — with the caption: #NewProfilePic.
Stephen Nuño, a professor of political science at Northern Arizona University, said it is “disingenuous to see people clutching their pearls on this and at the same time making no comment on Latinas’ losing their bodily autonomy or militarizing the border.”
Nuño, a Hispanic operative at the BSP Research polling firm, which works with Democrats, pointed to the recent deaths of 53 migrants who had traveled inside a tractor-trailer rig that was found abandoned on a San Antonio roadside in sweltering heat on June 27.
“All we hear is the GOP is making ground [with Latino voters] because somehow the taco incident shows the Democrats are out of tune,” he said, “but no one is talking about a policy contributing to people cooking alive in a trailer. Are Democrats perfect? No, but if you’re an immigrant and you’re in California, you have way more recognition and humanity than in Texas.”
“This is how you survive in a white nationalist state,” Nuño said about Latino Republicans' comments.
Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano, the author of "Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America," said Biden's comment was an "obvious shout-out to San Antonio."
However, the word taco "gets people riled up — it’s a linguistic and cultural firecracker", Arellano said.
Richard Gonzalez, an Air Force retiree active with the Texas Democrats and Tejano Democrats, said the criticism of Biden’s comment was an attempt to make “political hay” out of nothing.
“San Antonio is a military city, and everyone who comes here — I work at the bases — they get familiar with the breakfast tacos and come back and wish, man, everybody had breakfast tacos like San Antonio,” said Gonzalez, 69.
"You can see it in our bellies," Gonzalez said.
The first lady was also criticized for her mispronunciation of “bodega,” the word used in some Latino communities for corner grocery/convenience stores. In San Antonio, some might call them "tienditas."
Politicians’ referring to food to connect with communities is a long-standing American political tradition, Nuño said.
But it comes with pitfalls, as in 2012, when Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, mentioned papayas — which has a double meaning for some groups — in an interview on a Latino radio show.
Ralat recalled President Gerald Ford’s biting into the corn husk of a tamal on a visit to San Antonio, a mistake that some considered to have hurt his bid for election to a full term.
Some think it's best to steer clear of cultural references.
"Latinos care about working, and the Biden administration has gotten them back to work. They’ve created millions of jobs. They’ve created lots of small businesses — they've vaccinated huge amounts of Latinos," Ramos said. "You have a story to tell — just stick to that."