My Culture is Not “Artisanal”

Ever since I was 13, I have always wanted to live in New York City. Growing up, I watched New York City-based shows like Gossip Girl and Sex and the City, dreaming of leaving Los Angeles and never looking back. Now fast-forwarding a few years, living in Brooklyn, I find myself constantly looking back as the comforts of home are largely absent.

The comforts of home are mostly authentic Mexican food, more specifically, my mom’s home cooking. As gentrification is rampant in, and quite frankly, synonymous with, Brooklyn, I often wonder how I, a native Mexican Angelino, found myself in a neighborhood where my culture is considered “artisanal” and the products of my culture are sold at ridiculous and unreasonable prices.

One of the first moments I realized things were going to be very different compared to Los Angeles was when I searched for a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce near my first apartment. Tapatio is bottled Mexican hot sauce, and the family who owns Tapatio actually owns a mansion in my hometown, so Tapatio really reminds me of home. I searched a handful of grocery stores and bodegas until I finally found a bottle. Something that’s accessible almost anywhere in LA seemed like an easter egg hunt in Greenpoint. More recently, I have been on the hunt for good flour tortillas—no, not the Mission brand, which seems to be all I can find at my local Key Foods and C-Town markets. Back home, I usually buy Guerrero flour tortillas, which unfortunately don’t appear to be sold here in Greenpoint. After hours of research, I came across a local tortilla delivery company that delivers tortillas for free to those in the North Brooklyn area, however it was $15 for 12 tortillas. In LA, one can typically expect to pay around $4 for a pack of 10. After processing this absurd price difference, like all my staples that I would find at affordable prices and everywhere back home are hard to come by or are unreasonably priced.

During the February blizzards we’ve had in New York, I was craving Abuelita Hot Chocolate, a famous at-home Mexican hot chocolate sold at almost every grocery store in LA. Typically in LA., I would pay between $2-$3 for a box; here in Brooklyn however—although almost near impossible to find—I came across one for $8. That mark-up was shocking to me. I always knew that things in New York were slightly more expensive than LA, but a mark-up of nearly $5 seemed very unreasonable. 

Food has a long history of being associated with the definition of a home and family. It is prevalent in Latin America to have an abuela that never lets you go hungry; in my case it was always my Tias. Food in my culture is more than sustenance and fuel for my body, but a means of connecting with my culture and family on a deeper, meta level on a daily basis. Being here in Brooklyn for the last four months, I can’t help but feel far removed from that feeling of being connected to my culture because the geographical location has affected me more than I could have imagined.

Price gouging in New York is not a new concept. Recently, it’s become more normalized since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York last March. However, after seeing the cost of my Mexican food staples become victims of price gouging here in Brooklyn, I can’t help but feel as if my culture is being gentrified. North Brooklyn is infamous for being a gentrifier's haven.

By definition, gentrification is defined as “a process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” Being a college student here in New York, I am aware of the position and space I take up as a denizen of this microcosm that we call New York. By choosing to move to Greenpoint, I recognize that I had the luxury of choosing and expense how and where I wanted to live while in school, something that many native New Yorkers may or may not have.

I was scrolling through Instagram in late January when I saw a concha bakery was going to be doing a pop-up at La Merced, a local Mexican juice bar. Conchita Brooklyn self-defined as “Conchas artesanales hechas con amor! (Artisanal conchas made with love!)” In order to help ease my homesickness, I decided to DM them ask them how much their conchas were sold for. I was hit back with a shocking price at $18 for half-a-dozen conchas. Three dollars a concha seemed jaw-dropping to me because back home in LA I often pay anywhere between 20 to 30 cents depending on where I go, typically at Amapola or the Northgate market. In comparison, La Monarca Bakery in Los Angeles sells conchas for $1.

Conchas are a traditional Mexican sweet bread that is often made using lard, which is why it is considered a low-priced product. They are often eaten for breakfast or as a dessert with a hot cup of Abuelita Hot Chocolate or cafecito to be dunked in. Historically, conchas were a staple in working-class homes as they were cheap and fulfilling. So how does one rationalize selling six conchas for $18? The concha is not something that has ever been considered fancy or something that my mother, a native Mexican, would ever be okay spending that much money on. When telling her how much they cost, she said, “No es justo (It’s not fair), it’s wrong.” Although some bakeries use a European butter process to upgrade the quality of their conchas instead of using lard, it still seems unreasonable to sell a historically affordable and accessible food product at such high prices. Also, using a European butter process emphasizes the colonization of the concha. Three weeks later, I still await a response from Conchita Brooklyn regarding their decision behind their pricing.

The pandemic has hit small businesses extremely hard, and one might assume that is why prices are high. However, paying $18 for conchas doesn’t seem pandemic related, but rather on-brand for this part of Brooklyn, a gentrification haven. It is likely that these would be the prices pandemic or not. Some might say these prices and changing the way authentic Mexican food is made speaks to “American exploration” of food when it actually speaks to the tradition of American exploitation.

As I have grown older and have become more in touch with my Mexican heritage, seeing my culture and staples of my culture becoming a victim of American exploitation is upsetting. Being from LA, where the Mexican population is over four million, I never realized how much of my personal identity is attached to being Mexican and the culture that encompasses being Mexican until I find myself in the historically Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint. Because of this, I long for the many comforts of home and being “entre mi gente.”

There is a lot to be said about gentrification and whether or not Conchita Brooklyn is Latinx (or Mexican) owned; it just doesn’t sit right with me to exploit our culture this way. The gentrification of food is dangerous because it can lead to the gentrification of an entire culture—which some may argue has already been a thing in this part of Brooklyn for a while. In Greenpoint, it might be common or even acceptable for those who live here to pay $15 for a taco combo at Calexico, $18 for six conchas at Conchita Brooklyn and $8 for Abuelita Hot Chocolate. These are foods that were historically made to be affordable and accessible to all, now living in a place where I struggle to find and afford these items is quite irritating. 

In Brooklyn, food pockets still exist of course, where they actively are continuing to resist gentrification. However, a few food pockets in the five boroughs do not compare to what is the majority back home. Like most major cities in the US, Los Angeles is not excused from the grip of gentrification. There are still areas like Echo Park and West Hollywood which mimic the gentrification processes of Greenpoint. However the difference is that I don’t find myself hunting for Mexican “food pockets” as often as I do here. 

As a full-time student who works part-time making minimum wage, if I want to buy six conchas, I would have to work over an hour just to be able to afford them. Sure, I’ve made many sacrifices just to be able to afford to live in Greenpoint, such as taking out ridiculous amounts of student loans to finance my education and living expenses. I naively chose to live here because of the romanticized picture that shows like Girls portray of New York, more specifically Brooklyn. I used to think that once I moved here, I would never want to go back to LA, believing that New York had everything I could ever want, and now being here, I’ve come to realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Los Angeles is my home and after being away from it and taking it for granted, I now realize that home is where the conchas cost less than $1 and where tacos come wrapped in foil from a man yelling, “Setenta y tres! Setenta y tres! Number seventy three!”