arts and entertainment, food, Uncategorized

Detroit’s Mexicantown – A Century of Latin Culture

At the dawn of the last century, Detroit began to experience a prolific boom in industry. Working-class people from across the country and beyond were drawn to the opportunity for stable, well-paying jobs on the assembly lines at the Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler facilities. Throughout the fifties, however, the auto industry began to leave Detroit – plants shut down and many workers were forced out of their jobs. Urban decay began to take ahold of the city, leaving abandoned facilities and vandalized monuments in its wake. As the city shifted into decline, small communities of immigrants which had settled there throughout the 1900s began to take over the now diminished neighborhoods throughout Detroit. One such district is the vibrant Latin-American neighborhood Mexicantown.

One of the many amazing portraits which can be seen throughout Detroit’s Mexicantown.

First known as “La Bagley”, Mexicantown began to emerge as an enclave for Latinos in the early 1920s. After a period of civil unrest and socioeconomic chaos brought forth by the Revolution of 1910, Mexicans felt compelled to escape the lingering turmoil in their home country. Detroit, with its well-paying assembly-line jobs for people with only a basic skillset, seemed like a promising alternative to the disorder in Mexico. Additionally, by immigrating as far north as Michigan, Mexicans avoided the overt and often violent discrimination of the American Southwest. With the establishment of an effective and US-connected railroad system, Mexicans began to use trains to flock to El Norte (the North).

A railroad station located in Queretaro, a city in the heart of Mexico.

In Detroit, they joined the swath of Polish, Italian, Jewish, German, and Arab immigrants who all gathered there for the same reason – the promise of stable, well-paying jobs in Detroit’s expansive industrial landscape. In the new world, these immigrants faced the challenges of an extremely different climate, a new language, and an overall faster pace of life. At first, not speaking English was a great equalizer among the diverse community which had come to settle in Detroit. This changed gradually as the young children of these immigrants began attending school and assimilating into their new culture. Some changes took longer, though, and the demand for bits of their home culture remained. A commercial district began to form around the growing needs of the Latin-American community and soon, La Bagley emerged.

By the early 1930s, a few Mexican restaurants had opened on Bagley Street in the neighborhood known as Corktown, just to the west of downtown Detroit. Throughout the decade, Mexican businesses began to emerge throughout the western neighborhoods of the city so that by the mid-1930s there were around 35 Mexican owned businesses on Bagley Street and Michigan Avenue. By the 1940s, tortilla factories, such as La Michoacana and La Jalisciense (still in operation to this day), opened in Detroit. Today, Mexicantown is home to over 1000 Latino-owned businesses.

La Jalisciense tortilla factory was one of the first in Detroit and is still in operation to this day.

The Honeybee Market was one of the first Mexican-owned grocery stores in Detroit and helped provide the Latin community with ingredients for traditional foods.

Though the first few decades of Mexicantown were a prosperous time for Detroit’s Latin community, all this began to change in the latter part of the century. In the 1960s, plans to develop a new interstate eventually led to the bisecting of the Mexican district. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to accommodate the path of I-75 and many Mexican locals sold their businesses and properties to the Michigan Department of Transportation in the ensuing construction. More ruin was to come in the 1970s when General Motors closed three of their major auto plants in southwest Detroit, substantially reducing the amount of well-paying blue-collar jobs. Though these events took their toll on many of the immigrant communities, Mexicantown and many others continued to survive throughout the Motor City.

In the years since the economic and social turmoil of the 70s and 80s, the once small Mexicantown is now one of the most thriving communities in all of Detroit. A sprawling oasis of Latin culture, the neighborhood is home to hundreds of Mexican-owned shops, bakeries, taquerias, and grocery stores – each with their own vibrantly-colored architecture and hand painted signs reminiscent of town squares throughout Mexico. Despite the toxic political climate for Latinos in the US, this neck of Detroit spells a renewed faith in cultural acceptance and a reinvigoration of the once prolific American dream for immigrants. There is hope in the story of Mexicantown and communities like it for a more prosperous, progressive future.


The Cerveza Chronicle – How America Found Its Beach

The sensual allure of alcohol is tangled deep within us. For many Chicano and South and Central Americans, the first tastes of these forbidden beverages were taken from the likes of Corona, Modelo, and Tecate bottles. These brands not only represent a staple of the Mexican experience, but also a step in acceptance and integration by the American population of their southern neighbors.

Expert marketing, Mexico’s proximity and America’s prolific cultural appropriation have made Corona the number one imported beer in the US. In fact, 6 of the top 10 imported beers are of Mexican origin – including Modelo Especial, Tecate, Dos Equis, and Pacifico. The United States imports roughly 2.9 billion dollars’ worth of these beers a year, but it was not always this way. In fact, Mexico’s adoption of beer was a slow and stalled process.

Before the introduction of barley-based beer by the Spanish in the 1500s, Mexico’s primary alcoholic beverage was a form of fermented sap derived from the same plants used to make Mescal or Tequila – maguey and agave. The fermented sap, called pulque, is a raw, undistilled, thick and viscous drink with a pungent smell. Described by Anthony Bourdain as “Mexican Viagra”, pulque is still available, albeit rarely, throughout Mexico, and has even gathered a small following throughout the US.

Ancient Aztec goddess of the maguey plant and fertility.

As with other forces of nature that ancient pre-Columbian Mexicans feared and revered, the Aztec personified the agave plant: Mayahuel, the agave goddess, is frequently portrayed with 400 breasts, from which pour aguamiel. Drinking at her breasts are 400 tipsy rabbits, the gods of drunkenness.

After Spanish settlement and the introduction of their beer brewing techniques, Mexican adoption of the drink was slow. Heavy regulation, taxation, and lack of ingredients would ultimately stall the popularity of beer in Mexico until it gained its independence in the 1820s.

Alfonso De Herrero owned and operated the first brewery in Mexico sometime between 1543 and 1544. Due to heavy regulation and taxation by the Spanish (who were trying to protect the viability of their own imported beer), the brewery closed down shortly after it began. (Note that the image is just a representation of what this could have looked like and not the actual brewery whose exact whereabouts are unknown.)

The industry did not truly begin to flourish until German immigrants began to pour into Mexico during the 19th century’s Second Mexican Empire. Headed by Austro-Germanic emperor, Maximilian I, and his brewers, beer’s popularity began to grow. The influence of Maximilian’s brewer and his Vienna-style dark beers can still be seen in the popular brands, Negra Modelo and Dos Equis Ambar.

Maximilian I executed

Though Maximilian’s rule contributed heavily to the influx of Germans and German Culture – Mexican culture is still rife with Germanic musical and beer-related influences – his empire was dissolved and he was executed by a firing squad.

With the rise of prohibition in the United States and the influx of European immigrants, the beer industry saw a boom in 1920s Mexico, though most of the native population still held a strong preference for pulque. Around this time, European immigrant beer brewers began to campaign against native drinks such as pulque. These campaigns made claims of unsanitary production methods such as the use of feces as a fermenting agent in pulque and promoted beer as a “hygienic and modern” alternative. By the end of the 1920s, pulque was generally looked-down-upon and imbibed by relatively few people, with Mexican-brewed beer ubiquitous and extremely popular.


By the end of the denigrative campaign against native Mexican alcoholic beverages, drinking beer was seen as aristocratic, a sign of higher class.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, larger brewing companies began buying out smaller ones, assuming their brands, until only two major producers were left, Grupo Modelo (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev as of 2012) and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma (now a subsidiary of Heineken International). Grupo Modelo’s brands include Corona, Modelo Especial, Victoria, Estrella, Léon, Montejo, and Pacifico. Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma’s brands include Tecate, Sol, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Superior, Indio, Bohemia, and Noche Buena. Together these brands make up the flagship beers of Mexico and are a subtle nod by American culture to its strong ties with its southern neighbor.

Mexican Beer Brands

The brands pictured represent the flagship beers of Mexico.

The popularity in Mexican beers is evident in the rise of consumption of imported beers from Mexico to the US.  From 2009 to 2016, there was an average 8 percent growth in Mexican beer imports every year. Some observers point to a growing Mexican population in the US, but this can’t be the only thing in play.

“Growth in the Hispanic population can’t be the only driver,” says the Beer Institute chief economist Michael Uhrich. “Imports very clearly skew toward Millennials and Gen X, and obviously those generations’ share of the drinking-age population has been growing … so those two generations are more than half of all drinking-age Americans. As that continues, more and more people who drink beer are more and more likely to be people who drink Mexican imports.”

Gen X-ers and Millenials are adopting Mexican beer

GenXers and Millenials are quickly adopting Mexican imports as their drinks of choice.

According to the results of a fall 2016 study conducted by Simmons Research 34 percent of non-Hispanic beer drinkers say they drink Mexican beer regularly. Compared to those in the study that say they drink craft or micro-brewed beer (43.4 percent) regularly, it’s clear that the US has an affinity for this piece of the Mexican experience.

So, while tensions rise between US conservatives and Mexican immigrants, some Americans are beginning to embrace this small facet of Mexican culture. As small adoptions such as this one grow larger, perhaps we can find hope in one day amicably quelling our hostilities over a Corona con limon.