Esteban Castillo uses Mexican American recipes as a form of resistance on his colorful, queer-positive blog, Chicano Eats

August 30, 2018 1:00 pm

Esteban Castillo grew up in warm, windy Santa Ana, California, where at one point in his childhood, elementary school teachers instructed him and other Spanish language-speaking students to use only English in the classroom and on the playground. This early form of cultural demarcation and his parents’ undocumented immigrant status explain why the oppressive pain and ferocity of the Trump era don’t feel new to Castillo and those in his community. He knew of ICE from four or five years old, and often feared for his mother during her visits to the lavanderia, which was nearby a taqueria immigration authorities sporadically mined to catch unsuspecting mothers off guard.

Amid the anxieties of being a child of undocumented immigrants, Castillo maintained a strong relationship to his family’s Mexican roots, and often crossed the border to visit relatives and maintain familial ties even when his parents could not do so themselves. In Colima, Mexico, where his family is from and where his grandparents live, Castillo began to absorb, subconsciously, the sounds, colors, and flavors of the culture around him. He writes the complexities of the Mexican American experience into his blog, Chicano Eats, where recipes like sweet rompope (eggnog) and horchata french toast, crispy tacos de papa, and piquant pork chilorio serve as a foreground to stories of his childhood, his heritage, and his queer identity.

We caught up with Castillo to talk about how his queer and Chicano identities intersect, what it means to write as a form of resistance, and how cooking brings him back to the balmy jardín in Colima, Mexico, where his grandparents often sold food to the community as both a labor of love and a way to provide for the family in their country and across the border.

Esteban Castillo / Chicano Eats

HelloGiggles (HG): How and why did you get started in food blogging?
Esteban Castillo (EC): Honestly, there’s just so many reasons as to how this project came to be. I started cooking out of necessity when I was in college. While I was in college, I also started doing my training for PR and graphic design, and I ended up taking a spot as the art director for a new publication that had just started. It was a bilingual, more Latinx-focused newspaper. And so because we needed content, I pitched the idea of having this recurring column that spotlighted dishes from different cultures that were either Latin American or just Hispanic.

So that’s really where I started playing around with food, and writing about food, and diving headfirst into the food world. But I kind of gave that up after I left college. I had an internship that turned into a full-time job, and that really kept me away from everything that I liked. Two years into this job, I began to feel constricted. I was doing marketing for a federal organization at the time, and it was super corporate and restricting, and I was miserable. My partner had already been blogging for years, so I wasn’t that new to the scene. I kind of already knew different people and what went into a blog post. There would be times where I would be looking for a specific recipe, and I just couldn’t really find it online. And the more I dug, the more I found that, specifically with Latinos, our presence in the blogosphere just was not there. It almost seems like outlets reach out to people from other cultures to speak on our culture whenever they need something with the Hispanic community. That’s really what motivated me to launch the site.

HG: So it was really a natural progression then, to make both traditional and nontraditional Mexican food the theme of your blog. 
EC: Yes. And honestly, my identity is something that I had an internal battle with up until I got into college, because as a Chicano, or Mexican American, you go to Mexico and you’re not seen as a true Mexican, because you speak English. And then it’s like you grew up in the U.S., and everybody here doesn’t see you as a true American, because you speak Spanish. So we’re always walking in this middle ground, or in limbo. And it was gratifying to take these courses where you learn about other Chicanos and how they struggled with the same things you do. And after I was able to embrace that I’m not just a part of one culture or the other, that I’m a part of both, I really started to flourish creatively.

HG: Did you ever cook in your childhood? I want to know some of the first things you learned to make, and when you started cooking specifically.
EC: When I was living with my parents, I didn’t really do anything in the kitchen. If anything, I’d make myself, like, a sandwich. My parents took care of us when it came to preparing meals. When I moved from home to college, it was my first time away from that. I was always a very sheltered kid, and my parents didn’t want me to move away for college. And for me, moving was just kind of, I don’t want to say survival, but it was a necessity, because at that time I was starting to deal with my sexuality and all the baggage that came with that, and I needed to step away and just do my own thing. That’s where I really started discovering myself. And out of necessity, I had to learn how to cook for myself. I went to school in Northern California at Humboldt State, and the Latino presence is very minimal. I mean, you go through town and you don’t really see any people of color.

HG: So I guess you could say the town is homogenous in terms of its population. Very whitewashed.
EC: Oh, yeah. It’s almost like transporting back in time to the ‘60s. They grow a lot of weed there. And so you have a bunch of hippies immersed in white, hippie culture.

HG: Did you find any pockets of town where there was an authentic Mexican restaurant, or did you have to fend for yourself if you wanted good Mexican food?
EC: I had to fend for myself. I would give my mom calls every now and then to try to extract recipes from her. But the way my parents cook, and the way that many people in my culture cook, is that they’ve learned these recipes through oral tradition so they don’t necessarily know the specific measurements. They just go into autopilot when they get into the kitchen. And that’s how my mom operates. So when I would ask her for a certain recipe, she would just say, “Oh, add a little bit of this, or add a little bit of that,” and it began to seem like a puzzle with a lot of missing pieces to me. It wasn’t until I just got in there and started getting my hands dirty that I realized this is, for me, second nature. I remember just paying attention to everything that my mom did, and the way that she talked about food, so that it was almost already ingrained in my consciousness.

And one of the first things I ever made were chiles rellenos, which are a little tricky to make, and I am still to this day shocked that I pulled it off.

Esteban Castillo / Chicano Eats

HG: How did you do it? Was it cooking to taste, or did something just take over your body and all of a sudden you had a chile relleno in front of you?
EC: Honestly, that’s what it feels like. I feel like I remember just going into the kitchen and that coming out. At the time my partner and I had just started dating, and he was a big cook. He was really interested in food and he didn’t really know that much about the Latinx community, so I was kind of his introduction to that world. I used cooking as a way to introduce him to my culture, and also to just kind of impress him.

HG: What are some of the dishes that your parents often made at home?
EC: There’s just so many. I grew up in a two-family household. It was a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house, and there were about 11 of us living in there. My parents were broke most of the time, so for us a big meal, like a great meal, was an event. A lot of the memories that I have as a kid really revolve around the flavors and the smells of that household. I mean, every birthday, on my birthday I could always count on a Jell-O, a milk Jell-O, gelatina de leche, or sopes, which are sort of a big thing where my parents are from. Tamales for Christmas. People always make that joke that our parents give us tamales so we have something to unwrap for Christmas, but honestly it’s kind of true. With certain families, it’s all our parents can offer.

HG: But it is something that when you open it, you feel so warm, and whole, and happy.
EC: Yes. I mean for me, just looking back, a great meal was another way of my parents saying “I love you.” Both of my parents are from the state of Colima in Mexico. It’s a really small state, one of the smallest in the country, bordered by Jalisco and Michoacán. It’s along the central Pacific Coast. When I was growing up, I had to travel by myself because my parents were undocumented. When I was 21, I was able to be one of their sponsors, so now they have the green card and they’re able to move freely, but back then it was basically me just coming back to enjoy what they couldn’t, which was to spend time with the family in Mexico.

And just thinking back to my childhood, I realized that my passion for cooking developed because of my grandparents. My grandparents on my mom’s side have always earned their living through food. When my grandpa was younger, he would go every spring and mine sea salt. And when he wasn’t doing that he had a little taco cart that he would pull outside of a little park—we call it “el jardín,” which is almost like a center square. I remember being a kid and sitting on a little crate eating my tacos as he sold them to people in the community. Later, he had an accident where he fell off his horse, and his legs just weren’t the same so he had to retire. My grandma took over the breadwinning. She still does it now: opens up her house every weekend and sells tacos dorados and pozole and different things to keep making money that way. And so for me, when I look back at the way they treated food, and just their reverence, and how they honored food, I realize that it helped me shape my own perspective. It wasn’t until I actually started working in the kitchen that I realized how passionate I was about food, and how much more it means to me than just nourishment.

HG: Your parents were undocumented immigrants, and with everything going on now, your blog could be seen as a pillar of resistance against a president who is highly xenophobic, highly racist, and highly discriminatory in his beliefs. You’re saying, “This is my food, it’s Mexican, American, both. It belongs here.”
EC: I launched the blog, when was it? It was early October 2016, around the time of the presidential election. Prior to the election, I saw this as a way for me to sort of beef up my portfolio and do things I really enjoyed. After the results were announced, I had to take a step back and let that sink in and consider what Trump’s presidency meant for my parents, what that meant for me, what that meant for my community. There was a bit of a switch that lit up, and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to use my platform that I just started to talk about the things that really affect my community.”

When I was growing up, immigration issues and racism were just part of our lives. We’ve all gone through it. I remember there was this taqueria that was a few feet from where my mom went to go do laundry. And I remember just being either four or five, and blurting out to my mom to not go do the laundry, because I didn’t want her to be taken by ICE. It wasn’t a secret that la migra stopped at this taqueria every time they came in to do raids.

It’s almost kind of scary that I was aware about this back then. And I think a lot of us in school at that time basically felt the same thing. Because when I was in elementary school, they banned us from speaking Spanish. For much of the population in Santa Ana, where I grew up, it was our first language, and many of us were immigrants or children of immigrants. We always got in trouble for speaking our native language. After the election I thought back to me being in elementary school. With Trump now in office, there might be a kid somewhere out there living in a red state and fearing for his life because he’s queer, or a product of immigrant parents, or he’s just not white.

Esteban Castillo / Chicano Eats

HG: How did this inform your writing and recipes on the blog?
EC: I started sharing a lot more of these stories. It wasn’t until earlier this year when I delivered a keynote at Texas A&M that I realized just how my work was affecting others, and how important it is, and how much of a responsibility I have to keep sharing these stories on this platform.

HG: You said you were aware of ICE when you were really young. When did that awareness begin?
EC: I mean, honestly, it’s such a common topic among our parents. They always talked about it openly.

HG: What do you think people misunderstand or misrepresent about Mexican food? 
EC: I think it’s just always seen as cheap street food. That’s one of the misconceptions that I hate that people have about the cuisine. Along with all the other things that I’m trying to accomplish with the blog, one thing I’m really hoping to change is people’s perception of Mexican and Chicano cuisine. It’s so much more than just tacos and burritos. And people don’t realize just how complex the cuisine really is, and how it’s been influenced by so many different cultures.

I mean, just look at Colima, where my family’s from. The Spanish came over with Filipino slaves, and the Filipinos that lived there contributed so much to the cuisine. And you look at me, and you look at some of my cousins, and if we weren’t speaking Spanish you might confuse us for Filipinos. I feel like that’s one of the main misconceptions people have: that Mexican food is simplistic and there’s not much more than margaritas and tacos and burritos. But there are many layers to the dishes, there are so many spices. Even just looking at mole, which is a traditional savory paste, depending on where you’re eating it in Mexico, it can be made from between 30 to 50 different spices and ingredients. I mean, it’s just so complex, and people don’t understand.

HG: When you make a Mexican dish, are you making it in a very traditional way, or do you sometimes move outside of the traditional? How do you make traditional foods new to engage your audience?
EC: It depends. If I’m doing something super traditional, like pozole, which I have done twice already on the blog, I’ll take a traditional approach, and I’ll also provide some historical context on the dish, because I feel like many people don’t understand the role that food plays in our culture and what the cultural significance of this certain dish might be.

And I find that I’m not only teaching people outside of my culture, but I’m reintroducing these things to my generation because a lot of Mexican Americans didn’t necessarily grow up with Mexican culture or speaking Spanish. How do I say this? I think it was more of like a survival thing, where a lot of families weren’t teaching their kids Spanish and were trying to get them as assimilated as they could in order to survive in this country. So many of these kids are beginning to reintroduce themselves to their culture. And I found a lot of them doing this through certain recipes from the blog. I didn’t realize that was going to be a thing.

HG: So you’re not only speaking to people outside of your community, you’re speaking to people within it, too. Do you ever have a reader who’s very traditional, or from Mexico, who has said something like, “Well, that’s different from the way we do it”?
EC: It’s a mix to be honest. I feel like someone that is familiar with different regions and the different ways that a dish is prepared throughout Mexico is more open than someone who hasn’t—I don’t want to say isn’t well-traveled, but someone who just hasn’t experienced much outside of their home state. Because I do get comments sometimes, like, “Oh, that’s not how we do it in this state.” And sometimes I have to explain to people that everybody makes food with their local resources. For example, flour tortillas are a lot more popular in northern Mexico than they are in the southern parts of the country.

The other day, what did I share? I shared sincronizadas, which is a quesadilla with ham in it. I made them with corn tortillas and got a bunch of comments saying, “That’s not how they make it here. You didn’t use flour tortillas, these aren’t sincronizadas.” I pointed out to them that in Colima, it’s not very common for us to be eating with flour tortillas. And what you’re going to discover throughout Mexico is that people are going to adapt dishes to whatever is available to them. And that’s one of the things that makes the cuisine really beautiful.

HG: We were speaking before about layered flavors, and that term, and about your layered identity. Obviously you are not only Chicano: you’re queer and Chicano. Are there ways that you honor the queer community in your food?
EC: The styling of the blog. The very loud and vibrant colors that I use. I consider everything that I do to be very purposeful and a literal representation of who I am. And you look at certain dishes, like the concha bread pudding, and it’s essentially me in a dish. It’s not just American, it’s not just bread pudding—it’s also Mexican because I’m using conchas, and then I’m putting this on a really loud, colorful background. It’s me.

HG: You grew up with the latent fear that your parents might be taken away, and you’re experiencing it again in a visceral way now with children being separated from their families at the border. Does it drive you creatively to work in this time?
EC: Definitely. Like I said earlier, we have a responsibility to keep our stories and our voices alive. Because if we don’t do it, no one else is going to give us that space. So it’s up to us to carve out these spaces and project our voices.

Esteban Castillo / Chicano Eats

HG: Was there ever a time in your life where you felt uncertain about your identity, and how did you work through that?
EC: There definitely was. I feel like most of my life has been a struggle with my identity in many ways. Not only with my queerness, but the color of my skin. This is something that I talked about on the blog in a post I wrote after the election. When I was growing up, my dad worked in construction, and he would take me along, and I heard the way that some of the people he worked with talked about him and his other coworkers who didn’t speak English.

HG: So they would make jokes at the expense of non-native speakers?
EC: Yes. And I internalized a lot of that hate. I remember being in fifth grade, and sometimes at night scrubbing my skin, hoping that the pigment would just wash off of me. And it was something I dealt with going into high school, where I just hated being brown because I hated all of the stereotypes—all of the words they associated with my parents and all of the implications that came with being from like an immigrant family. And that was something I struggled with for a very long time.

HG: Did you find there was a certain turning point when you began to feel pride in terms of your skin and your identity? When did you begin to take ownership of being a person of color?
EC: When I was in high school I began taking Chicano art classes, and Chicano history classes, and that’s when I realized that I wasn’t alone. For as long as Mexican Americans have been in this country, we’ve always felt the same. We’ve always had the shared experience of never feeling, as we like to say, ni aqui ni alla, neither from here nor there. As I began to understand our shared experience, I started taking pride and ownership in the color of my skin and my heritage.

HG: How did you come to accept your sexual identity? How does that intersect with your Chicano heritage?
EC: That was super hard, because, I mean, coming from a community where queerness isn’t something…machismo is rampant in Mexican culture. When I got to college I began to feel like I could finally be myself. I started talking to a therapist. But then I become super depressed because I realized my family probably wouldn’t be the most accepting, and my fears ended up coming true when I was outed. That was really difficult.

I had a really close relationship with my mom, especially after leaving for college. I called her every day, like every other hour. I grew up sheltered, and for me, my parents and my family were all I needed. So when I moved hours away from the community, it was kind of scary, but it was liberating. It was one of the first times I was able to present myself as who I am. I wasn’t expecting for my mom to react to my sexuality the way that she did. So when she did react that way, it was just shocking.

HG: Do you think that was a fear-based reaction? 
EC: It came from misinformation, it came from being a part of a culture that’s not very accepting. I mean, 10 years ago when I first came out, Mexico wouldn’t have been as accepting as it is now. And so, it’s nice to see that they’re taking strides to move forward for the LGBTQIA community.

HG: And how did your dad react?
EC: That’s a good question. I haven’t actually told him yet.

Esteban Castillo / Chicano Eats

HG: And how’s the relationship with your mom now? Has she become more accepting?
EC: She’s my number-one supporter now. She tries to comment on everything that I post. But it took me opening that line of communication and just extending that olive branch to her, and letting her know that I was okay, and that I wasn’t this bad person, or that I wasn’t going to fall into drugs. That I was still the same son. You know, I’ve always been responsible in, I don’t want to say this, but I’m the most responsible out of all of my siblings. I feel like I’ve had to put myself through life on my own.

HG: You’re allowed to say that.
EC: And I think it’s because my parents didn’t speak English, and I had to sort of navigate my own way up. When I moved away, my relationship with my mom was super tight, and I felt like she was going to be super accepting. And so when she wasn’t, it sent me into a depression for the next six months, but it wasn’t until Mother’s Day that next year in 2009 that I wrote a letter to her that provided her with a lot of information. Essentially, “Hey mom, I’m not going to become this meth addict because I’m gay, or I’m not going to contract AIDS because I’m gay.” You know, it was just laying all of the information out for her, and letting her know that I’m going to be okay, and to help her understand and give her context on queerness. And now, she’s totally open to everything that I do.

HG: I’m happy to hear that. Moving swiftly forward—I just saw that tortas cubanas is one of the latest recipes on your blog, which I think is cool because you’re nodding to another culture, and you often do that, whether it’s a kitschy or very American thing, like hot Cheetos, or it’s incorporating Peruvian flavors, or something traditionally made in Guatemala. What does fusion food mean to you? Like, what is its importance?
EC: For me, fusion establishes authenticity. Because a lot of the things that I do that are a reflection of me being Chicano, and Chicano food is essentially Mexican food made by Mexican Americans that has evolved through the different communities we’ve grown in. So I mean, depending on who you might be talking to, another Chicano chef might be more heavily influenced by the Asian community that he grew up in, or the Italian community that he grew up in. So I feel like for me, fusion means authenticity.

HG: So it’s presenting your most authentic self, and establishing credibility in dual identities.
EC: Yes.

HG: What is one of your all-time favorite recipes to make, and how do you feel while you’re making it?
EC: I would say that it’s probably one of my most requested dishes, which I mentioned earlier, and that I have it for my birthday every year. It’s called sope. It’s like a little hockey puck of masa that’s deep-fried. Depending on where you’re having in Mexico it might be a little thicker, but where we’re from, we’re known for making them very thin, very small, or just very thin and very big. So, they’re called sopes gordos or just regular sopes estilo Colima. They always just take me back to my birthdays, because it was something that I asked for each birthday. Making sopes reminds me of being a little kid.

HG: What’s on your sopes?
EC: The ones that I like to make are with ground beef. So it’s like a layer of ground beef, and then it’s like a layer of shredded lettuce, and this really good tomato-y, garlicky salsa that goes on them. I like to just pour, like drench them in this salsa. And then really good queso cotija goes on them.

HG: Oh, that sounds so good. Do you make the masa base yourself?
EC: Yes, and I learned from watching my mom do it, and from her burning her thumbs through the years. I try to make everything from scratch if I’m cooking for myself or if I’m throwing like a dinner party or something. That said, if it’s for the blog, most of the time it’s store-bought tortillas.

Esteban Castillo / Chicano Eats

HG: And what is one dish, one Chicano dish, that you think everyone should master? 
EC: That’s so hard. But if I had to pick any of the recipes that I’ve done that have been a reflection of the Chicano experience, I’d have to say it’s that concha bread pudding.

HG: Is it a brunch or dessert?
EC: I would say both.

HG: How has growing up in California informed your culinary perspective?
EC: It’s been a blessing to grow up in these communities where it’s not just strictly Latinos but so many other ethnicities meshed together. I feel like SoCal is a mini melting pot, and I’ve had the honor of being friends and just growing up with other people from other cultures, which really opened my eyes to different cuisines and how other people approach food. And like I was saying earlier with regard to my grandparents, how people treat food as well.

HG: The last two years have been a sort of windstorm, and some parts of it deeply scary, as we know, in this political climate. But it’s also been an interesting time in terms of people rising up, returning to grassroots organizing, and using resistance writing as a tool for power. So your blog has grown in a very complex but very open time for discourse and creating.

Courtesy Esteban Castillo

EC: When I started this, I never thought the blog would take this direction and become what it is now. And I’m super grateful for how it’s grown, because it serves so many purposes and people in different ways. Writing this blog, sharing these recipes, is almost like my favorite form of self-care, because being in the kitchen is soothing to me. Not only do I get to do what I enjoy, which is cooking, and creating, and feeding others—nourishing them—it allows me to keep learning things about my culture and my family. I get to turn the spotlight to a section of people that don’t really have the visibility in this particular space.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to grow my portfolio to the extent that I’m able to develop recipes, and shoot photography, and style things full-time professionally. I appreciate the people who are giving us these outlets to share our stories, and hopefully inspire other people, other people of color, to take ownership of their experiences and their voices. Because it’s so important, especially right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.