The Birth of the Taco

There are several theories about where, when, and how tacos originated. One theory suggests that it dates back to the 18th century and the silver mines in Mexico, because in those mines the word “taco” referred to the little charges they would use to excavate the ore. The first reference to the taco in any sort of archive or dictionary come from the end of the 19th century, and, one of the first types of tacos described is called tacos de minero – miner’s tacos.

For a long time taquerías were in the working-class neighborhoods. Industrialization brought migrants from all over the country, and particularly women, to Mexico City because of light industry. Women brought with them their regional cooking skills. Every state, every region, every town has slightly different foods, so Mexico City was a bubbling stew where all these foods were available.

In the United States, around the 1900s is when the taco started to emerge. Mexican migrants started arriving to the United States to work the mines and railroads. Mexican food was seen as a street food, a lower-class food in the U.S. that was associated with a group of women called the Chili Queens and with tamale pushcarts in Los Angeles. So how did the taco grow to become a mainstream food? The children of those migrants who came in 1910 or 1920 are started to advance economically. They’re gaining civil rights; many of them fought in World War II and are claiming citizenship. Their incomes are going up and they’re eating more diverse things, but they’re still eating Mexican. A lot of Mexican American tacos are really adaptations of Mexican food to the ingredients that are available through the U.S. food-processing industry. Hamburger instead of offal meat. Cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato—these are all foods that Mexican-Americans start to incorporate into their diet.

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major city without at least a few different Mexican-inspired (or authentic Mexican) restaurants within its limits. And while it’s true that tacos have been Americanized in many ways (with the addition of piles of cheese, tomatoes, and other non-authentic toppings), you can still find good, old-fashioned Mexican tacos in some restaurants across the country.

How do you know when you’re eating an authentic Mexican taco? For starters, take a look at the shell. If the taco is wrapped in a flour tortilla, you’re probably enjoying an Americanized taco, as authentic tacos are usually served up in corn tortillas. Furthermore, authentic tacos tend to have just a few simple ingredients: some kind of meat (chicken, carne asada, or pork…not ground beef), some lettuce, and a small amount of cheese. Lime wedges may be served on the side