On the Culinary Americanization of First-Generation Immigrants

Priya Fielding-Singh Considers Narratives of Dietary Acculturation and Cultural Tension

It was a warm September afternoon when I first met Teresa Lopez. The two of us sat at two desks in an empty social studies classroom at Lincoln High School, where her only son, Esteban, was in the ninth grade. A thin ray of sun streamed through an open window, hitting a recently cleaned green chalkboard. Teresa’s curly brown hair was pulled back in a taut bun, and she wore bright pink lipstick, a floral top, and boot-cut jeans. Around her neck hung a pearl necklace with a silver cross, and over her shoulder a tote bag with the words “san francisco” in cursive.

Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, Teresa had immigrated to the United States 16 years ago, first to Los Angeles and later, after separating from her husband, up to the Bay Area. “Since then, I have been here,” Teresa said softly, “facing a thousand different hurdles to get ahead in life.”

Over the years, Teresa had worked hard to come to terms with the realities of her situation. It was a life harder, in many ways, than the one she’d led before crossing the border. Since arriving in the US, Teresa had survived domestic abuse and a contentious separation. She’d cleaned toilets and nannied rich people’s kids. She’d been laid off and evicted. She’d lived in her van. She’d wiped away Esteban’s tears when she couldn’t afford to get him even the cheapest television set.

But, Teresa told me, things had grown easier over time. It’s not that her life improved. Rather, she had, bit by bit, come to terms with everything. Teresa had worked to reconcile the differences between her expectations and her reality. She had fought to center gratitude over disappointment.

“Little by little, one forgets about what was left there, what is over there.” Teresa sighed, thinking of the village where she’d spent the first 20 years of her life. “It has been difficult, but little by little one overcomes it. One learns to live with what happens.”

Over the past few years, Teresa had worked full-time as a house cleaner. She always made rent, but her paychecks’ timing often meant that there were certain days each month when she didn’t have money to restock the kitchen. The cupboards, normally piled high with flour tortillas, black beans, and canned vegetables, were bare. A few white onions rolled around the vegetable drawer, rather than the usual zucchini, squash, and heads of broccoli.

“If I don’t have anything when it is the first few days of the month,” Teresa said, “I have to pay rent, insurance, such and such. I tell Esteban, ‘Let’s go experiment, come on! Let’s see what we can come up with.’” Teresa smiled, her dark eyes crinkling at the corners as she described spinning hardship into opportunity. “Sometimes when there isn’t anything, you need to invent something out of what you already have.”

Hard as being an inventor was, Teresa believed that the sacrifices she had made to come to America—and to survive in America—would yield Esteban a better life. Here, he had opportunities unthinkable south of the border. Teresa was undocumented, but Esteban’s American citizenship was his ticket. His future was brighter than hers—he would speak fluent English, go to college, and get a good job with benefits. He wouldn’t have to worry like she had. He wouldn’t have to give up the things she had given up.

Teresa had worked to reconcile the differences between her expectations and her reality.

To secure Esteban’s future, Teresa kept putting one foot in front of the other. She scrubbed more toilets. She babysat on the weekends, bringing Esteban with her to help watch the children. She learned enough English to help her son with his social studies homework. She attended parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights. She joined a Hispanic parent association at Esteban’s school, building a support network with other parents whom she could rely on to look out for her and her son. Sometimes, this country still felt as foreign to Teresa as the day she’d first stepped foot on its soil. But, she told herself, Esteban’s future was worth it.

One of four siblings, Teresa was raised in a village by a mom who worked and a grandma who cooked for their extended family. Teresa remembered running home from school in the early afternoon for midday comida to find caldos or sopas de fideo. No meal was complete unless all nine kids—Teresa, her siblings, and her cousins—were seated around the kitchen table. “We were the typical family.” Teresa smiled. “Home-centered, home-cooked meals.” No one ever ate alone, and there was always enough for everyone. “My mother would say, ‘Where one eats, three eat. Where three eat, six eat.’”

Still, there was little money to pull together grand, elaborate meals. Sometimes, she and the other kids ate beans and rice for days in a row. They would complain, begging for something else. “In this house,” her grandmother would reply, “you eat what we have. This is not a buffet, nor is this a restaurant. We are all going to eat the same thing.” Teresa glanced out the open window. “And all of us, whether we liked it or not, ate it.”

Today, Teresa’s greatest joy came from preparing the Sinaloan foods of her childhood for Esteban. While they too sometimes had to scrape by on rice and beans for a few days, more often she got to revel in watching him devour her tostadas, tamales de camarón, and sopes. Esteban never felt shortchanged flavor-wise by his mom. “You’re always inventing dishes, and they come out good,” he complimented her.

The longer Teresa spent in America, the more she saw how this country was changing her. She was starting, slowly, almost imperceptibly, to experience what had once seemed impossible. She felt more and more American.

“I feel that here is my home,” Teresa explained, “and that this country is more so my country than over there.” She waved her arm as if pointing toward Mexico.

Esteban’s Americanness hit Teresa even harder. All his life, Esteban had attended American schools. He’d made American friends with names like Clint and Logan. He’d played American sports like football and watched American TV programs in English like Sesame Street. His diet was more American too. As much as Esteban devoured his mom’s tamales and aguachile, he also loved Kraft mac and cheese and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Teresa, too, ate those foods with a smile on her face.

Scholars call what Teresa and Esteban were doing acculturation, or the process by which immigrants begin to adopt aspects of American culture, including certain ideologies, beliefs, and practices. And they call the Americanization of Teresa’s and Esteban’s diets dietary acculturation, or the process by which immigrants start to adopt the dietary practices of the countries they settle in. Dietary acculturation, it’s argued, is a big way that immigrants assimilate into American society. As they eat American food, they become American.

Nutritionally, dietary acculturation in America has its downsides; in general, the more immigrants and their children adopt American dietary habits, the lower quality their diets become. This is largely because America’s highly commercialized, relatively cheap, and generally unhealthy food landscape creates new opportunities for consumption. Immigrant families start dining out and carrying out more and eating greater amounts of convenience foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meat. What this means is that as these families adopt more features of the American diet, they may actually be worse off nutritionally.

They present a structural problem as an individual one for which parents alone are culpable.

Immigrant parents are usually deemed responsible for their kids’ dietary acculturation. Supposedly, kids’ diets are Americanizing under their parents’ direct supervision, making parents the ones to blame for declines in kids’ nutrition. But this narrative oversimplifies the situation.

Teresa didn’t always see what Esteban was eating. In fact, Esteban spent quite a lot of time away from his mom. In the school cafeteria, he ate shrink-wrapped hot dogs and defrosted sweet potato fries. When he hung out with friends on Sundays after church, they spent their last bills at 7-Eleven and Sonic. On weekday afternoons, as he awaited Teresa’s return from work in their one-bedroom, second-story apartment, he watched commercials for Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew flash across the screen. During those times, Teresa had at best a sense of—but rarely a hand in—the American foods Esteban filled his stomach with.

Other times, though, Teresa herself helped Americanize Esteban’s diet. While Teresa still cooked most evenings, she downshifted her family’s consumption of traditional Sinaloan foods. She and Esteban ate more convenience foods, more meat, and more fast food than she had growing up. In the supermarket, Esteban grabbed boxes of Froot Loops and cans of Cheez Whiz off the shelves, negotiating with his mom to give them a chance. “For fun!” he’d joke, and Teresa would laugh, pretending not to notice as he tossed them in the cart. Other nights, Esteban would beg his mom for a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries. If it was also her payday, she’d oblige.

Why did Teresa do that? I wondered.

In public discourse, commentators have posed similar questions, usually judgmentally. Why do immigrant parents incorporate American food into their kids’ diets? they ask. Why don’t these parents do more to keep their kids’ diets healthy when they come to America? Why don’t these parents work harder to feed their kids healthier traditional foods and protect them from unhealthy American ones?

These questions are deeply problematic. For one, they insidiously shift the blame away from America’s unhealthy food environment and onto the parents. They present a structural problem as an individual one for which parents alone are culpable. But a bigger issue with these questions, I realized, was their underlying flawed assumption. They assumed that immigrant parents saw American food as unhealthy or worse for their kids but chose it anyway.

But what if, I wondered, the opposite was true? What if immigrant moms actually regarded aspects of American food as better? What if they saw partially Americanizing their kids’ diets as a good thing rather than a problem? What if, when moms fed their kids both traditional and American foods, they were actually trying to do right by them?

Teresa said yes to Esteban’s food requests, in many ways, for the same reasons other low-income parents obliged. The Froot Loops and the Cheez Whiz offered Teresa an opportunity, amid scarcity, to emotionally nourish Esteban. Teresa’s financial scarcity could also force her prioritization away from Esteban’s nutritional intake, making a Tuesday-night McDonald’s run a reasonable choice for her family.

But there was more to it than that. Immigrant moms like Teresa also faced a deeper cultural tension that left them caught between the foods of their home country and the foods of this new one. Teresa worked to preserve the meaningful culinary traditions that anchored her to her childhood and extended family. Even if Esteban had never lived in Mexico himself, Teresa wanted him to feel a sense of belonging and rootedness to his homeland.

Because of this, Esteban’s adoration of his mom’s cooking filled Teresa with an immense satisfaction. To watch him devour her dishes—the same dishes she’d devoured as a girl at her grandmother’s wooden table—made Teresa feel connected to her family thousands of miles away. Sometimes, that food was all she had to remind her—the last vestige of a culture she was now alone tasked with keeping alive for her son. She wanted her son to remember that he was Mexican as well as American. When she prepared traditional Sinaloan dishes for him, Teresa showed Esteban that. She remembered who she was too. Teresa had given up so much to come to the US. At the very least, she didn’t have to sacrifice their identity.

Teresa also clung to Sinaloan food because it helped her survive America. For Teresa, getting by in this country meant continually overcoming the daily realities of living undocumented. Getting paid under the table meant perpetual insecurity. She had no benefits and no recourse if things went sour. Living without papers meant that Teresa had to both accept and simultaneously try to forget that at any second, she could be deported. She knew that every moment with her son could also be her last, even as she prayed that, God willing, it would never come to that.

As these hardships wore Teresa down, it was often food that could help pick her back up. Teresa savored the comfort that came from cooking the same dishes she’d grown up with. These were the dishes she knew like the back of her hand, the ones that smelled and tasted like her grandmother’s kitchen. When life in America yet again proved far more trying than Teresa could have ever imagined, that food was her and Esteban’s cushion. Even after an arduous day scrubbing floors, she could catch up with Esteban over her grandmother’s chilorio. When language barriers prevented her from helping her son with his science homework, she could bring him a warm cup of milk with pan dulce for extra motivation. No matter what, Teresa could nourish herself and her son with Sinaloan foods.

The symbolic victory of feeding kids American foods often outweighed the costs because it achieved multiple goals at once.

Yet moms like Teresa also had to reckon with the reality that their kids’ tastes—not to mention their own—were changing in the midst of their immigration story. Esteban didn’t always want the foods Teresa prepared. Sometimes, he just wanted the stuff he saw his friends at school eat. He wanted to fit in, not stand out. One morning, he felt embarrassed bringing a thermos of Teresa’s soup to school, and he begged her to make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead. Pleas like these could make Teresa’s heart sink. It’s not that she disapproved of PB and J; she just felt rejected. Who was this child she was raising? she asked herself. How quickly he had forgotten where he came from. How little he seemed to understand the sacrifices his mom had made to get him here.

And yet Teresa also saw where her son was coming from. She knew that part of Esteban’s future success in this country hinged on being American. He would never make it here if he didn’t learn its cultural practices, expectations, and norms. Food was a part of that. He needed to eat American food to fit in. As his mother, she had a duty to help him with that. It was her job to make sure he succeeded here.

Because of this, Teresa didn’t regard Esteban’s diet as an either/or trade-off. She didn’t believe that he needed to eat only Mexican or only American food; there was space for both the traditional and the new. Esteban could eat Teresa’s soups one day and a turkey sandwich the next. “I pick up on the good things here and conserve the good parts of my culture,” Teresa said, interlocking her fingers. “The two are united.”

The point is, some immigrant moms, like Teresa, did not fear the Americanization of their kids’ diets. Rather, they saw it in some ways as a positive. While still working to hold tight to certain dietary traditions, moms also embraced the opportunity to eat and feed their kids coveted foods newly available to them in the US. Even though they recognized that at times, doing so came at a nutritional expense, it was also worth it. The symbolic victory of feeding kids American foods often outweighed the costs because it achieved multiple goals at once: it buffered their children and boosted their own maternal self-worth. It helped kids fit in culturally, to feel a sense of belonging and rootedness that moms themselves could struggle to secure.

Teresa believed that Esteban benefited from eating in America. She saw the benefits for herself too. Teresa explained to me, a wide grin on her face, that when it came to food, “I am learning from him.” After enrolling in a nutrition course at school, Esteban had taught Teresa about healthy sources of protein and the difference between organic and conventionally grown produce. He had shown her YouTube cooking channels. When they grocery shopped, he pointed out different kinds of fish she’d never heard about. All of the milk and meat he was eating here, Teresa was also convinced, was helping her son grow taller than his cousins in Mexico. More than that, Esteban was helping Teresa and himself fit into American society, educating them about their food choices and bringing some highly welcome diversity into their diets.

For Teresa, the personal symbolic victory of American food was powerful. American dining became the bright spot, the happy ending (even though it was ongoing) of an otherwise difficult immigration story. Being able to buy her son American food offered Teresa momentary proof that she had made it, that the seemingly endless hardships she’d endured were worth it and that she had done better for her son. On the evenings when she could get her son to eat something satisfying and satiating, Teresa also felt the optimism she’d brought to the States swell up inside of her. They were poor, yes, but they could still afford to try the deep-dish pizza down the street. They could still split a basket of chicken fingers and sweet potato fries. When Teresa looked back on how hard things had been those first few years in this country, she knew things were better now. The future, too, was bright.

Teresa remembered herself as a lanky girl begging her grandmother for sugary cereals. Now here she was, able to buy Esteban a box of Froot Loops. She recalled strolling by a sit-down restaurant on her walk home from elementary school, peering in longingly to see families gathered around white tablecloths, sharing dishes she knew her family could never afford. Now she took Esteban to Red Robin for his birthday, the two of them cozied into a corner booth, sipping their Pepsis out of tall glasses and joking about their ornery landlord. When things were rough, Teresa reminded herself of how lucky she was and how hard she’d worked to raise Esteban in a country where she could delight him, every so often, with delicious foods and unique flavors. She had sacrificed so he could have better. And in those moments, Teresa thought, maybe she’d succeeded. Maybe, after all—and despite how it often felt—she was winning.

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How the Other Half Eats

Excerpted from HOW THE OTHER HALF EATS. Copyright © 2021 by Priya Fielding-Singh, Ph.D. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Priya Fielding-Singh, PhD
Priya Fielding-Singh, PhD
Priya Fielding-Singh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Utah, where she researches, teaches, and writes about families, health, and inequality in America. She earned her Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University and completed her postdoctoral training as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Fellow in Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at the Stanford School of Medicine.





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