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At the end of last month, mitú, a digital media company aimed at amplifying Latinx voices, released a video about a blogger named Esteban Castillo. Castillo, a 27-year-old based in Southern California, is one of the more exciting food bloggers I've come across in recent memory. Since last year, he's been maintaining Chicano Eats, a blog with an aesthetic that's lively, appealing, and quietly subversive. It's a blog with recipes for Baked Crema Mexican Donuts and Mole Brownie Tarts. Castillo pairs photographs of these dishes with short vignettes, conveying where they fit within the fabric of his life as a queer Chicano man.
In the video, Castillo succinctly explains how he’s seen Mexican food presented by most of food media, a landscape he felt didn’t speak to him, as it implied that a casual dash of lime juice or the addition of avocado made a dish "Mexican." When I saw the video, I was pretty smitten with Castillo’s sensibility. Consider it a finely-calibrated, kind-hearted screw you to existing norms, relayed with sincerity. He wants to offer a reclamation of Mexican food, his family's own food, through his aesthetic—loud, bold, without apology.
Last week, I spoke to Castillo via email about the genesis of Chicano Eats, and where he hopes it’s headed with its newfound attention. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our correspondence. If you haven’t read Chicano Eats yet, I’d start now; you're likely to see a lot more of him. (It should go without saying that his Instagram is breathtaking.)
MAYUKH SEN: I want to know more about your upbringing, and the role food played in it. What food did you grow up eating?
ESTEBAN CASTILLO: I grew up in Southern California, and growing up I spent a lot of time traveling back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. We were raised in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, so we only ever had Mexican food.
My parents always struggled to make ends meet, so we never got toys for Christmas or lavish birthday parties. But my mom always managed to make the most out of nothing, and she always had a really great meal on the table for us, because food is the heart of our culture. Not only do we have many dishes tied to many stories and traditions, but food also shapes our identity as Mexicans. In our culture, recipes are earned.
MS: When did you decide to start Chicano Eats, and for what reason?
EC: Chicano Eats is a project I had been wanting to start for a really long time. I started dabbling in writing about food when I was in college, where I was part of a bilingual Latinx newspaper, El Leñador. During my time there, I served as the Art Director and also had a food column where I showcased recipes from different parts of Latin America. It wasn’t until I started paying attention to who was blogging about Mexican food and how it was being talked about that my partner really pushed me to launch the blog.
MS: What are the fundamental ways in which the mainstream American consciousness, for lack of better phrasing, mischaracterizes Mexican food?
EC: I feel like the mainstream tends to reduce Mexico to a few ingredients: limes, jalapeños, avocados, and cilantro. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen white food bloggers add one of these to a dish and label it “Mexican.”
A good example is the Pioneer Woman’s recipe for a “Mexican Fruit Cocktail with Sweet Lime Yogurt.” When you take a look at the ingredients, you start to wonder what it is that makes this fruit cocktail “Mexican.” It’s easy to forget that Mexico is a beautiful country filled with different flavor profiles and influences from all over the world. These narratives being perpetuated by influencers start to erase our very own.
MS: Speaking from one brown queer food writer to another, I know it's easy to feel alienated or unwelcome in the food world. Is there a specific time when you felt especially marginalized because of these very aspects of your identity in the food world?
EC: I think we’re constantly marginalized in the food world as people of color. People don’t think politics and race come into play when it comes to food, but my white counterparts are more likely to be seen as innovators and more likely to be celebrated for introducing the same recipes our culture has been holding onto for centuries.
Lorraine Chuen summarized our griefs perfectly when she said the following: “White folks have the power to torment, often without consequence; but the special thing about White people is that they also have the power to make a trip to your home country for a month or maybe twelve, get inspired, and dictate when your previously unpalatable dishes suddenly become socially acceptable, trendy, and profitable in the Western world. And inevitably, with the popularization of certain ethnic dishes, comes erasure.”
There are so many bloggers building their careers around a few experiences and trips they might have had without ever truly experiencing or being immersed in Mexican culture. Rick Bayless is a prime example of someone who has built an empire and has set himself as an authority in a culture that is not his own.
MS: How do you want to counter these latent prejudices with Chicano Eats?
EC: I’d like to think I’m helping counter our marginalization by creating visibility and providing context and history behind authentic dishes—and also just by being myself unapologetically. If anyone ever happens to stumble on my blog, I want them to leave with a little more knowledge.
MS: In a food media landscape that's saturated with so many pristine, clean-cut photographs shot in handsome test kitchens, your aesthetic is quite distinct—and appealing. Where did you derive inspiration from?
EC: To be very honest, I was very unsure of the direction I wanted to go with when I initially started the blog, and you can tell that by the first few posts I have up. It wasn’t until I started to introduce color that I started feeling fulfilled.
When I was in art school, I gravitated towards typography, works that came out of the Bauhaus. I was also very inspired by artists like Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy. In particular, Albers’ “Homage to the Square” has been so influential in how I approach and work with color.
I told myself I was going to limit myself to the colors in my logo—red, yellow, and blue—but I ended up introducing a fourth, orange, because I find it to such a sexy color to work with.
MS: Where do you see the project going?
EC: Chicano Eats is my creative outlet and I plan to keep introducing people to authentic Mexican dishes and their backstories—I also want to keep infusing traditional Mexican flavors into American classics as an homage to my identity as a Chicano. I also hope this blog leads to me opening my own design studio one day.
Follow along with Chicano Eats here.