Tug is a free-range collective that serves as a platform for addressing issues of social and cultural transformation through collaborative social practice. Slipping into the interstitial environs of borders, borderlands and other fuzzy frontiers, Tug has explored the social navigation of lived environments in Michoacán (one of México’s five feeder states for migration to the United States), worked as a sound incubator in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, coming up with ways to mitigate sound levels coming off the Ambassador Bridge, brought together interdisciplinary creative thinkers and activists from along the US-México/US-Canadian borders with community organizers in the state of Maine who work with migrant laborers, and collaborated with over 50 citizen volunteers from Brownsville, Texas to complete Ah, Raza! The Making of an American Artist, a 43-minute ‘momentary live installation’ that speaks to the recuperation and expansion of what it means to be a US-American of Mexican descent along the South Texas border. Recent projects include Re/Thinking Paul Bunyan, a workshop/performative gesture meant to activate dialogue about creation myths, ideological signs of the nation-state, borders as frontiers of identity, and the friction of global social interaction—all through the lens of the legendary logger.
Who Eats at Taco Bell? is a platform for thinking about citizenship and immigrant incorporation within the United States. The project opens up in the Borderlands of South Texas, a ‘fuzzy frontier’ where we have been doing performative research since 2006 and where we have recently begun to engage with food as a non-verbal way of articulating ideas about culturally-inflected ways of being. Tapping into the generative power of the taco as one of the ‘apostles’ of Mexican food in the United States, we aspire to transform our project into a vehicle, literally, for tracing any emotional residue of 19th Century trope of Manifest Destiny. Our goal is to travel the Lewis and Clark Trail during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign with a Taco Bike/Cart qua performance/exhibition space, making tacos for any ‘natives’ with whom we come in contact, exhibiting various sonic environments and multiplicities of gazes from the Borderlands of South Texas, performing, and having conversations about what it means to be a U.S.-American. Implicit to our investigations will be a host of related questions. How do we construct difference? Do we push it away? Do we embrace it? Or do we let it oscillate? How do we catalyze attention to lines of desire in which “our destinies and aspirations are in one another’s hands” (Gómez-Peña)? How can we shift out of the paradigm in which difference has no power, and into one where difference fosters the kind of critical multiculturalism that is necessary to achieve social justice?
Because we do not conceive of (or carry out) our projects in isolation, we see collaboration working its way into Who Eats at Taco Bell? along several points of contact. First, our collaboration with non-profit partners (e.g. centers of art, education, civic engagement, political action, etc.) at stops along the trail will be critical in establishing ‘contact zones’—those spaces of interaction where the sharing of a tasty taco with the inhabitants of a particular locale will trigger the reflection, discussion, and debate that will propel our re/search forward. Second, we will be preparing and serving our tacos from a Taco Bike/Cart that, if we can make a successful pitch this coming Fall, will be designed and built by students at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Maine, the town where we live and teach. Third, artist Jason Irla has agreed to join the collective, serving as the expedition’s modern-day Thomas Jefferson. Because we want to experience our expedition with a level of unfamiliarity akin to what members of the original expedition might have felt (in other words, to venture out with fresh senses on the alert and open), we have decided to not read the journals of Lewis and Clark prior to (or even during) our travels. Instead, stationed at his home, aptly situated outside of Washington, DC, Jason will read the journals and send us instructions (e.g. prompts, ideas, questions) to address as we go along. These instructions, along with whatever ethnographic materials we send back (e.g. interviews with natives, cultural objects, first-hand observations), will be posted on a blog open to public participation.
The exhibition aspect of our project is potentially multi-faceted, with manifestations happening while on the expedition (Stage 1) and in the aftermath once all of our re/search is complete (Stage 2). We cannot yet speak to Stage 2, but we do know that Stage 1 will bring together several sensorial components and opportunities for community engagement:
- Tacos will be served in a wrapper imprinted with text addressing immigration issues, in particular, and/or the movement of people, in general;
- Take-away postcards picturing one of potentially hundreds of South Texas taquerias will stand in as one of our photo exhibits;
- A QR code on the back of each postcard will take the recipient to a web-based audio story from someone in South Texas;
- If we can convince her to spend the summer on the road with us, Lee Rodney’s Border Bookmobile—a mobile exhibit of a variety of border-related books, artistic projects, photographs, and ephemera—will serve as our public reading room and archive.
All of these disparate, but related, elements will inhabit the same space as the Taco Bike/Cart, the smell of tacos amplifying the conviviality that might make public reflection, discussion, and debate possible. One last important element will be the exhibition of The Uncontained Marked, a stacked-time retrofit of our performative ethnography, Ah, Raza! The Making of an American Artist, that tweaks with ethnography’s apparatus of representation by capturing what George Marcus would call “the side of culture that travels…in multiple, parallel, and simultaneous worlds of variant connection.”
Who Eats at Taco Bell? is an odd title for a re/search project in which the fast-food chain plays but an omniscient role. We do not actually aspire to know who eats at Taco Bell, although the fact that we have spoken to several Americans of Mexican descent who profess a love for Cool Ranch Tacos and homemade abuelita cooking suggests a flexible culinary cross-fertilization. Outside of Mexican-American circles, however, how do we account for the embrace of the ‘Live Más’ advertising slogan in light of the failure of Congress (acting on public opinion?) to pass the DREAM ACY, one element of comprehensive immigration reform which would allow thousands of undocumented young people already in the United States a chance at citizenship—a chance, literally, to live más. When we speak of Who Eats at Taco Bell? as being a platform for thinking about citizenship and immigrant incorporation in the United States, we are pointing to the overwhelming paradox captured by Jennifer Jensen Wallach in her writing on food habits and racial thinking.
During the contemporary cultural moment, Americans eat vast quantities of Mexican-inspired food—much of it produced by white-owned corporate entities—while anti-immigration sentiment aimed primarily at Mexican people grows year by year. U.S. citizens of Mexican descent—even those who have resided in what is now U.S. territory for generations—are not immune to this enmity. Laws and proposed laws allowing racial profiling by the police in an attempt to expel undocumented immigrants have left many citizens of Mexican descent feeling vulnerable and stigmatized.
By going out on a trail, marked by an expedition whose records and maps played an important part in Euro-American colonial expansion across the North-American continent, during the lead-up to the 58th presidential election (an election in which immigration reform will, once again, garner attention and uncover incipient nativism), we aspire “to approach the intensities” of opinion, as Kathleen Stewart might put it, “through a close ethnographic attention to pressure points and forms of attention and attachment.”