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The True Story of How National Taco Day Was Invented — Then Appropriated

[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]ast week, as seemingly all of the American food media tripped over itself to create listicles around National Taco Day, I shook my head in disgust.

It is “celebrated” on October 4, the same day as National Vodka Day, three days after National Pumpkin Spice Day, and a day before National Apple Betty Day. They're all part of what my Dallas compa Jose R. Ralat describes as a 'silly sad fabricated food holiday' wave concocted by chains and PR people to capitalize on America's current fascination with food culture.

But that's not how National Taco Day used to be.

Tacos forever and 'eva'/LA Taco archive.

Its full history is far more complex and fascinating than anything any corporation could ever concoct. Indeed, National Taco Day is a metaphor for the course of Mexican food in the United States: introduced in good faith by Mexicans as a proud representation of mexicanidad, then appropriated for consumerism by outsiders, and eventually wiped clean of its sociopolitical history so the masses could mindlessly enjoy it.

And, like most things involving Mexican food in the United States, our story begins in San Antonio, Texas. (And features a cameo by Austin trying to take credit for someone else's genius.)

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]orry, Los Angeles: The Alamo City is the true cradle of Mexican food in the United States. As I document in my 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, it's where Americans first discovered that Mexican food was delicious instead of poisonous. Residents gifted America with chile con carne, chile powder, tortilla chips, masa harina, the combo plate, mass-market cookbooks, Mexican dinner home kits, and served as the national springboard for the nachos and breakfast tacos of South Texas.

San Antone also gave the United States not just National Taco Day, but National Taco Week and even National Taco Month.

The holidays were the brainchild of Roberto L. Gomez, Esq. (he wasn't really a lawyer but rather gave himself the title because his middle name was Esquivel). The former city council candidate and occasional columnist for the San Antonio Express and News' society pages was head of the San Antonio Social Civic Organization (SASCO), whose members were among the many Mexican-Americans who took part in the so-called “Viva Kennedy!” campaign that helped to secure Latino votes for JFK across the Southwest in the 1960 election.

In 1961, SASCO sent Kennedy a 48-pound tamale for the president's birthday “on behalf of citizens of the United States of Latin heritage,” according to a press release. An armed motorcade flanked by charros on horseback accompanied the gift to San Antonio's airport.

From there, per national and international dispatches, the tamale was lost in the White House kitchen, ostensibly eaten by staff.

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Gonzalez: The original politi-taco

Gomez had hit PR gold. SASCO sent Kennedy a donkey piñata the following year filled with Mexican candy, then a humongous praline the  year after, earning more positive press. In 1964 came the game-changer: a 55-pound taco to fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson.

The gifts were all done tongue-in-cheek, but also as a reminder to presidents: We Mexicans have political power, too.

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he National Taco Council was thus born, both to promote Mexican restaurants in San Antonio but also pride in being Mexican. “A culture that produces such a unique culinary masterpiece as the taco, symbol of Mexican foods,” the Council stated in promotional material, “deserves greater recognition.”

Gomez and other restaurateurs convinced San Antonio to declare the days leading up to Cinco de Mayo as National Taco Week in 1967. In an official proclamation, Mayor Walter W. McAllister proclaimed that San Antonio “is known as the originator of Mexican food in the United States.”

The Taco Council found a bigger political champion in Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez, who had hosted luncheons of enchiladas, beans, tacos, rice, tortillas and jalapeños on Capitol Hill in the past.

He recognized SASCO from the floor of Congress on April 30, 1968, declaring that National Taco Week lasted from April 28 through May 4. More importantly,  National Taco Day would fall on May 3, Gonzalez's birthday.

“Many a tired palate has been restored to vigor and joy by the discovery of the taco,” Gonzalez said from the floor of Congress, in remarks published in the Congressional Record. He added that “a taco is the highest form of a tortilla” and that tacos “now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the hamburger and hot dog in popularity.”

The idea caught on. In 1969, Texas Governor Preston Smith declared the week before Cinco de Mayo as Taco Week. Restaurants around the country joined in, and chains from Taco Tico to Jack in the Box offered Taco Week discounts.

From a St. Louis Post-Dispatch ad published May 2, 1971. Dig the OLD SKOOL Jack in a sombrero!
From a St. Louis Post-Dispatch ad published May 2, 1971. Dig the OLD SKOOL Jack in a sombrero!

By 1974, Texas had expanded the celebration into National Taco Month, sponsored by Kraft Foods, Carta Blanca beer, Pearl Brewing and the Texas Executive Chefs' Association, among others. Gonzalez returned to the congressional floor to mark the occasion. He urged colleagues to visit the Alamo City, noting only semi-seriously that “if you have not been before, it is time to go and to learn that every day is taco day in San Antonio.”

Meanwhile, Gomez and his National Taco Council kept up the stunts. In 1971, they rewarded Cheech & Chong with an 18-foot-long taco to “honor their work for youth voter registration.” They followed that up with a 5-foot-by-2-foot-long tamale to Gerald Ford, and a 110-pound chalupa to Jimmy Carter during the 1976 presidential campaign.

The National Taco Council also tried to send a giant enchilada to Richard Nixon, a longtime fan of Mexican food. “We telephoned the White House and they said 'Go ahead and keep it. The president doesn't want it,'” Gomez told UPI in 1980, in a story published nationwide. “So we said to hell with you.”

But the group also did serious political organizing, enough so that politicians knew to swing by and pay their taco respects whenever they were in San Antonio. In 1976, for instance, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen told an audience of over 1,000 supporters during a campaign rally on the eve of National Taco Month, “I started the day with a bean taco. And I'm going to end it with a taco.”

(Later on, Bentsen's taco literacy would serve him well, politically. In 1988, when he was Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' choice to be his VP, Jesse Jackson lauded him for being able to broker peace between various battling Dem factions via food: “He can go from biscuits to tacos to caviar real fast, knowing that's just the cultural diversity that makes up America.”)

Clipping from the San Antonio Express showing that Bentsen's taco game was strong—take notes, Garcetti!
Clipping from the San Antonio Express showing that Bentsen's taco game was strong—take notes, Garcetti!

[dropcap size=big]G[/dropcap]omez and his council seemed to be on the cusp of something big as the Decade of the Hispanic began. But there is no record of the National Taco Council existing after 1980 in newspaper archives reviewed by L.A. Taco, or the Lexis-Nexis online database. Part of the problem was that Gomez passed away in 1983 at just 49 years. It's as if the group  just disappeared, along with its National Taco Day/Month/Year promotion.

Enter Taco Bell.

In 1989, the fast-food giant introduced National Taco Month as a promotion from Bakersfield to the Oregon Line, according to a May 21, 1989 article in the San Francisco Examiner. A Taco Bell marketing manager described the campaign as “an excuse to have fun.”

The push must've not worked, because there's no record of it other than that blurb. There are no records of restaurants or chains celebrating a Taco Month or Week again until 2000, when Austin chain Chuy's Tex-Mex applied for a trademark for “National Taco Day,” which it now declared fell on June 12.

“Applicant has a bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce or in connection with” the proposed trademark, read their application. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected their case for unknown reasons, and Chuy's never bothered to reapply.

Nevertheless, newspapers across the country began to mention that June 12 as “Chuy's National Taco Day” through 2004, when books and websites suddenly declared that the real day was October 4. Still, there is little record of National Taco Day becoming the national obsession it is now until 2009, when Del Taco put out a press release declaring it was “Time to Celebrate National Taco Day!”

“Being one of the most popular foods in America, the taco definitely deserves this attention,” the Del Taco vice president of marketing declared.

That sealed the fate of National Taco Day's new date.

In 2010, San Antonio-based chain Taco Cabana announced it would celebrate the holiday on Oct. 4 as well. The following year, newspapers across the country reported on various restaurants offering deals on that date—and the apolitical National Taco Day has only grown since.

This story was originally published in October 2018. 


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