Jay Schroeder is the former mixologist and bar manager for Rick Bayless. He joined the Frontera Grill team in 2013 and left in 2016 to open Mezcaleria Las Flores, Eater Chicago’s reigning Bar of the Year. Possessing a passion for mezcal, he left the Logan Square bar earlier this year. He wrote a Facebook post earlier this year tackling cultural appropriation. That post, edited and expanded for Eater Chicago, is below.
Approaching any complicated field like mezcal as an outsider is a tough job to not screw up. Imagine the role of early archeologists: Ostensibly all they wanted to do was share fascinating objects with others, and they ended up ruining almost everything they touched due to lack of broader consideration. That idea, not surprisingly, finds its way into the food and hospitality world—and not just in the beverage industry, of which I’m a part—and one that manifests most today, on Cinco de Mayo.
I studied sociology in college. It’s not the most-employable field, but I can’t think of anything more useful than trying one’s damndest to genuinely understand humanity as it is. But that philosophy is lost many times in America. Much of the country is far more concerned with what it wants Mexican culture to be than what Mexican culture actually is. We also understand sparingly little about our favorite borrowed taco-centric holiday. Contrary to popular belief, the holiday is a relatively minor one, celebrating the improbable victory of Mexican troops over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Just like the United States, there was a bit of a gap between Mexico declaring independence and that independence being internationally recognized, but on paper Mexico had been a nation at this point for over 50 years. Spain gave Mexico the nod in 1821.
The biggest problem with Cinco in the United States is that folks pretty much copy/paste what we love about our own Independence Day and transpose over it every stereotype we have about Mexico as a whole. Let’s be real about it: You really don’t need a specific date as excuse to drink three too many margaritas and eat guacamole with your friends. That fake mustache is fucked up and insulting. Today is not the chosen day for you to show off your vocabulary of six words of broken Spanish to your un-amused server at Uncle Julio’s.
Listen, I get it. I too like fun. Being careful and cognizant about cultural appropriation doesn’t immediately classify you as a buzzkill. It all starts with a general awareness that you need to be considerate of how other people from other places might view your actions. Cinco de Mayo is far and away one of the worst offenders, but any time we approach subject matter from another culture we have to think about it in a broader context.
When it comes to Mexican culture, I am most definitely an outsider. But in terms of culinary experience, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend five-plus years of my life working with Mexican cuisine. To bolster this, I’ve spent as much time in Mexico as my income and responsibilities can afford. Each visit invariably serves up chances to learn about unexpected things in unexpected ways.
I learned early on that if I wanted to gain real understanding, I was going to have to shut up and listen. People have asked me what I’ve learned while in Mexico as if there's really such a thing as a “Yoda moment”; a point in every journey where a wise person gladly drops words of advise. But it's up to us to educate ourselves instead of depending on the afflicted. More than anything, being beat over the head for five years of my life about enculturation and cultural relativity informs my approach.
Mexico had been enjoying the culinary spotlight for a while. At the forefront is a widespread focus on Mexican food and beverage. Mezcal has exploded into the collective consciousness, and rightfully so. Mezcal is delicious. It’s the thing the cool kids drink. All self-respecting bartenders either love it or claim to.
For me, mezcal represents something deeper. It’s a chance to have a very real impact on the lives of actual people. It’s a chance to help shape what is already the most unique category in the entire world of spirits, and to do so in a way that preserves a proud set of traditions while economically supporting regions and communities in need.
But this isn’t about being a politically correct snowflake. There are real consequences, particularly an economic impact. Oaxaca is a state in the south of Mexico and is the leading producer of mezcal by volume. It’s also the second-poorest state in all of Mexico, and is home to a large number of indigenous communities. Mezcal is also different from most other spirits, in that mezcal is generally not produced for a brand at one large facility populated by factory workers being paid a wage. Quality mezcal is produced almost entirely by small operations being run by individual families. These are the people who could benefit the most from mezcal’s meteoric rise.
I created Mezcaleria Las Flores in Logan Square as a venue to share, educate, and directly support Mexican spirits. I took great pains to ensure that every aspect of what we did was either sharing something valuable or was a point of conversation. Logan Square is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. A rush for new construction and rising rents have pushed out long-time residents of a historically Hispanic neighborhood.
We all stand to benefit greatly from being culturally connected. Human beings all over the world have come up with unique and beautiful ways to live life and deal with its challenges. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our world of food and drink. In Chicago in particular, we’re extremely lucky. We are able to enjoy cuisines from all over the world without leaving the boundaries of the city.
As such, one of my biggest concerns with opening a mezcal bar was coming across as exploitative. Cultural appropriation is a complex issue, and in my personal opinion it is a phenomenon which can only be truly defined by a member of the transgressed party. The most common form of cultural appropriation is taking elements of another culture and separating them from their broader context or deeper meaning. At the end of the day I have to recognize that I am in no way an authority on the subjects I share. At best, I am a conduit of information from the real authorities: Those who produce mezcal and whose lives depend on it. I wanted to make sure this approach would extend to my staff, and as such I created a short set of simple guidelines to make sure we were all asking the right questions.
My guidelines for employees follow:
Cultural appropriation stems from a lack of contact with the original culture.
Have you assumed the answer to something, or have you asked someone who is part of that culture?
Have you listened to them and heard what they had to say? Did you combine it with other things you’ve heard from other people?
Are you summarizing or dumbing down the ideas other people are trying to teach you?
You should posses as deep of knowledge as you can about the other culture, and readily admit when you don’t.
Is this about you? Or is this about them and you?
Who gets the focus or the credit? If it’s only you, that’s a problem. Do you make mezcal? No? Then you should be talking about the people who do.
It is totally okay to borrow ideas from another culture, but you should share credit with that culture in a very knowing way.
Be willing to talk about cultural appropriation
The easiest way to know when cultural appropriation is going on is to ask about it. If the person gets defensive or starts an argument, it probably is.
If we’re going to talk about where someone else is from and what they do, we should probably be really comfortable with who we are, where we’re from, and what we do.
Don’t !@#$ with anything sacred
Dia de los Muertos masks, I’m looking at you. That !@#$ is about dead people, dead relatives. It’s not about looking all cute on your Instagram.
Remember when things are important to other cultures and tread lightly when they are.