Taco Bell: A gateway to acceptance

Gustavo Arellano

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KAI RYSSDAL: The fast food industry lost a pioneer this week. Glenn Bell Jr. died this past Monday. About 50 years ago he started selling tacos out of the side window of a hamburger stand that he owned in San Bernardino, Calif. What eventually became Taco Bell helped introduce millions of people to Mexican food.

And while there may be -- or is -- some debate about how good the food at Taco Bell is, commentator Gustavo Arellano says that's kind of beside the point.


Gustavo Arellano: For many foodies, Taco Bell belongs in the pantheon of all-time anti-Mexican conspiracies -- a notch below Lou Dobbs but more onerous than the swine flu.

These custodians of cuisine and culture bemoan how it cheapens one of the world's great food traditions with chalupas and enchiritos, its Volcano Menu and cheese roll-ups. And how insulting was that darn Chihuahua campaign from a couple of years ago? "Yo quiero Taco Bell?" Muy muy racist! But with the recent death of Taco Bell's founder, Glen Bell, this whiner thinks it's high time to praise the fruits of his creation.

When Bell sold his first crunchy taco in 1951, Americans outside the Southwest didn't know much about Mexico, beyond Hollywood's banditos and spicy senoritas. Then Bell -- a white man with a burger stand in a San Bernardino, Calif. barrio -- saw an opportunity. Imitators soon sprung up. Now, tacos and Doritos and salsa and burritos are as American as pizza, gracias to Taco Bell.

I'll make an even bolder claim: Taco Bell and its spawn became a gateway for Americans to accept Mexicans -- hasn't been an easy ride, of course, but one smoothed by an endless stream of refried beans and nacho cheese. Because if you can enjoy the cuisine of newcomers, then surely you can start thinking of them as fellow citizens, right?

I ate at Taco Bell the other night for the first time in years to honor Glen Bell. My burrito still contained bland pinto beans and cheese that tasted like chalk. But in front of me at the drive-thru were whites, Asians, blacks, even Mexicans -- all trying to grab a slice, scratch that, a taco of America.

Here's hoping they doused their grub at home, though, with actual salsa, instead of whatever the hell Border Sauce Fire is. It's still Taco Bell.

Ryssdal: Gustavo Arellano is a staff writer at the OC Weekly. He writes a column called "Ask a Mexican."

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