National Voices

Saturday, Oct 26 2013 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: A tasty treat, not a national takeover

There's something I contemptuously refer to as the "Hispanic Hype Machine." It's the Internet-enabled echo chamber that goes into overdrive every time a Latino-centric statistic comes out.

Here's an example: A recent news story reported that tortillas now outsell hamburger buns and sales of tortilla chips outpace those of potato chips.

Overeager headline writers glommed onto the data points and made it sound as if these numbers pointed to some sort of impending brown supremacy -- "As Demographics Change, So Does The Menu."

As usual, this sort of ballyhoo misses the point. Such foods are tasty and consumed in mass quantities by people of all races and ethnicities. It does not point to the Hispanization of America.

If anything, the Great American Assimilation Machine is perfectly tuned for blending in. Unless a child is intentionally sheltered from popular culture, he or she will adopt it as a matter of course.

For instance, my youngest son eats hot dog tacos for dinner every Sunday night at his grandparents' house.

Whatever image has just popped into your brain -- of an old-world abuelita delicately cradling a sausage into a deep-fried homemade corn shell and topping it with chopped onions, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese and a dollop of crema fresca -- just forget it.

We're talking about a boiled frank wrapped in a microwaved, store-bought tortilla. That's it.

I wouldn't eat this if my life depended on it, but it was concocted with much grandmotherly love to suit my son's ultra-finicky tastes.

When we took this same child to Tacos El Norte last week to treat his downstate relatives to an authentic Mexican dinner, he ordered chicken nuggets and fries -- a menu item my parents had a hard time believing is actually sold at the place where they get their Sunday menudo .

I actually need a little more Hispanic conquest in our household, where my older son enjoys getting under my skin by pronouncing his Spanish class vocabulary assignments like a "gring-go." But that's not happening.

According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Center for American Progress, the older, less-educated population may be nervous about the possibility of a young Latino wave washing away their comfortingly familiar majority-white America. But everyone else seems to, like me, have a little more faith in the melting pot.

Interestingly, the Hispanic Hype Machine successfully makes it seem as though whites are bordering on extinction and as a result Americans vastly overestimate current and future levels of diversity. In fact, most ethnic groups tell pollsters that they believe the nation is nearly or already majority-minority. Yet the actual figure is 37 percent minority, and most Americans aren't too upset about it. On measures of openness to diversity versus measures of concern, the poll found that more respondents believed in the positive opportunities that can result from a diverse population than those concerned that rising diversity is likely to result in joblessness and discrimination against whites.

Surprisingly -- that is, if you believe the narrative about how fearful Americans are about immigration -- the fewest number of respondents to the poll agreed that rising diversity will result in there being "no common American culture."

This jibes with the real story behind the tortillas. It's not that there are so many Hispanics in the U.S. that they simply outnumber burger and hot dog lovers. It's that tortillas -- like any number of south-of-the-border treats -- have been around so long they're just part of the scenery.

When you think about pizza and spaghetti, it's the same thing," Jim Kabbani, CEO of the Tortilla Industry Association, told The Associated Press. "People consider them American, not ethnic. It's the same with tortillas."

What amuses me is that in topping hamburger and hot dog buns, the tortilla emblematically re-enacts past fears of the Germanization of America.

Once upon a time, Americans feared that a scourge of German immigrants, with their ethnic foods and stubborn preservation of their mother tongue, would be the country's undoing.

See? Nothing to worry about.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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