The True Villain Behind Great British Baking Show's Appalling "Mexican Week" is the United States
Updated: Oct 15, 2022
Season 13 of The Great British Baking Show was off to a good start. As a semi-professional baker (I once owned my own boutique scone bakery) I was already a big fan of the show. I loved the energy of the new contestants - especially the romance-novel-hunk perfection of Sandro, who is a nanny, a boxer, a baker, and undeniably hot as hell.
Then came "Mexican Week," which was exactly as cringe as nearly every media outlet in the United States has said. From Bon Appétit and Food & Wine to the New York Times, American journalism was quick to condemn the episode, justifiably, for its pathetic portrayal of Mexican cuisine. At best, the episode was rife with clueless stereotypes. At worst, it was downright racist.
Writing in Food & Wine, Ximena L. Beltran and Quan Kiu summed it up well.
While I have no quarrel with anything any US media outlet has said about the episode, I do think they've all missed the elephant in the room, which is this: The United States entertainment industry is to blame for rampant stereotyping of Mexico and Mexicans all over the world.
If the British have stereotypes of Mexicans, it's because the United States entertainment industry forced it down their throats through decades and decades of racist films, TV series, books, music videos, and more.
In her landmark TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story, novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how surprised she was when she visited Guadalajara as an adult, to find Mexican people smoking, laughing, hanging out, doing things that people do. She says she realized in that moment that growing up in Nigeria, her only exposure to the idea of Mexicans was through U.S. popular films and TV series, which presented Mexicans uniformly as criminals, drug dealers and maids. Though her talk is about the single story Americans have of Nigerians and Africans in general, she used the Mexican anecdote to say she herself was not without fault in harboring dangerous and damning stereotypes, too.
England isn't churning out film and TV with degrading stereotypes of Mexicans, the United States is. In fact, England's film and TV industry seems to be making enormous efforts - including the diverse casting of The Great British Baking Show - to be inclusive, much more so than in the United States. In the U.S. film and TV industry, "diversity" still languishes in insulting segregated silos, the result of racist decision-makers "targeting" "niche" markets by "making stuff for them," rather than making stuff for everyone that features everyone.
A new report by the Latina Donor Collective (LDC) in 2022 found that Latinx characters made up 3.1 percent of all leading characters in US TV, despite being 20 percent of the nation's total population. Only 1.5 percent of showrunners were Latinx, and only 1.3 percent of directors.
Bear in mind that the very term "Latinx" (or any of its synonyms) conflates all Mexicans and Mexican Americans with people from more than twenty other nations too, each country as diverse and complex as the US itself. The vast majority of "Latinx" people in the United States were born in the United States, many with roots in the Southwest that pre-date the arrival of the pilgrims to New England. Simplistic stereotypes serve only one purpose, and that purpose is dehumanization, usually in service to genocide, slavery, colonialism, imperialism and, more recently, capitalism.
The US film and TV version of "Latinx" people is mired in negative "Mexican" stereotypes of drug lords, maids, murderers and rapists. There is a tiny new sliver of story open to stories of East LA gentrification. Due to this inaccurate portrayal, most non-Latinx Americans view all Latinx people as Mexicans, and all Mexicans as immigrants, and all Mexican immigrants as one-dimensional stereotypes, where that stereotype is a dangerous sub-human criminal who wants to take your job.
The negative view of Mexicans in US film and TV is a hangover from deliberate propaganda efforts that began during the Herbert Hoover administration during the Great Depression. In need of a scapegoat for the economic miseries caused by his own policies, Hoover zeroed in on "Mexicans," demonizing anyone who "looked" Mexican, regardless of true national origin or citizenship. Stirring up ignorant xenophobia to divert blame is a trick as old as sociopathic rulers, and we are still paying for it. A new version of it has cropped up again now, in political ads.
Hoover's anti-Mexican propaganda campaign, called the "Mexican Repatriation Act," was so successful that TO THIS DAY most people in the United States do not realize the US government forcibly "repatriated" more than 1 million brown-skinned people during the great depression. Most of those people were US citizens. They were singled out because of their brown skin and Spanish surnames, rounded up, and packed onto trains that were sent to the middle of Mexico. There, they were dumped out. Among these people was my son's great-grandfather, Julian Torres, then 10 years old. Born in California, Julian was "deported" to Mexico, a country he'd never been to, by the US government - which later tried to draft him, in Mexico, for World War II; clearly they knew he was a citizen, but only for purposes of dying, not living.
Incredibly, my son's great-grandfather Julian lived in a migrant farmworker camp in Salinas, California at the time he was forcibly exiled from the United States, at the same time during which the seminal Great Depression novel The Grapes of Wrath was said to take place in that same city. Readers still voice great sympathy for the Oakies, the poor whites displaced by the Dust Bowl, forced to move to California to work on farms for pennies. Nowhere in that book or in US history books is there any mention of the brown American citizens they displaced, who were sent to Mexico, a country that wasn't theirs, by a racist government in the largest modern US genocide. (Forced removal of people from their homes based upon their race, ethnicity, religion or culture is included in the definition of genocide.) When I sent a book proposal out about this last year it was rejected by every single publisher in New York, as they are still ignoring this horror.
I can tell you firsthand that many of the same stereotypes about Latinx/Hispanic/Latino/Mexican people (they're all the same to Hollywood) are still alive and well in Los Angeles. I've had many meetings with many studio and network executives over the years, and I can count on half of one hand the ones who have any understanding of the nuance, diversity and truth of all Latinos. I've met exactly two who realized not all Latinx were Mexicans and not all Mexicans were immigrants.
So, yes, the media are right to call The Great British Baking Show out on its racist, stereotypical, disrespectful, ignorant treatment of Mexican cuisine. But to do so while continuing to turn a blind eye to the Hollywood image machine that keeps churning out the stereotypes that the rest of the world consumes is irresponsible.
If you don't like the way Mexican food was presented on a British show, maybe start thinking about how Mexican people are portrayed in the US media that created those stereotypes. Seek justice not only for the food on your screens, but also for the people.
Place the blame for global anti-Mexican sentiment where it belongs: with the United States entertainment industry.