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For Taco Journalist Mando Rayo, food and community have been intertwined for as long as he can remember. Growing up in El Paso, his love for tacos and the community surrounding them started at a young age.
“I always say I was born with a tortilla in my hand,” Rayo joked.
Rayo’s family used to gather on his uncle’s ranch for various celebrations, where everyone would participate in preparing the meal. From the “matanza” to cooking carnitas, chicharrones and more, Rayo learned how to prepare and appreciate a wide variety of tacos from a young age.
But this love for food didn’t stop with his own family’s cooking. Rayo also frequented mom and pop shops around town, hunting down all the best places to eat.
And so it was no surprise when Rayo started writing for the blog Taco Journalism in 2006. But what did surprise Rayo was when the blog gained enough traction that he started to receive media attention and collaboration requests from publishers.
While there were a lot of writers focusing on the food itself, there weren’t many writers telling stories about the people making the food, especially those from Mexican and Mexican-American communities. Rayo had a passion for these types of stories and the history, traditions and culture surrounding them. So, he decided to take on his first book: Austin Breakfast Tacos.
Rayo and his co-author, Jarod Neece, interviewed everyone from the vendors to the trailer owners to the chefs themselves—people previously dismissed by mainstream food media. The book ended up being a hit.
But the duo wasn’t about to stop with Austin. They went on to travel to ten different cities around Texas along with their photographer and director, Dennis Burnett. Along the way, they explored various types of tacos and their history as well as captured the stories of the people behind them. This led to their next hit, The Tacos of Texas, which they went on to turn into a TV series thanks to a grant from PBS.
Transitioning from a book to a video format, Rayo and Burnett realized they could dive even deeper into each type of taco and the context around them.
“We use tacos as a trojan horse to tell stories about the people, communities and issues surrounding them, like immigration, social justice and labor rights,” Rayo said. “The tacos taste better when you know the stories.”
Rayo wasn’t the only one who thought so. He had a network of contacts outside of the state asking them to come tell these types of stories in their cities as well. And so, the team ultimately decided to take their “taco journalism” to the next level with a series called United Tacos of America on El Rey Network.
“A lot of immigrants built America, and they brought their food, culture and traditions with them,” Rayo said.
Throughout the show, Rayo and Neece traveled across the country to visit these communities, exploring how they’ve evolved over time and helping them share their stories.
For Rayo, the most rewarding part of his taco journalism endeavors has been getting to put the spotlight on the people starting businesses around food that’s a part of their own culture.
“For a while, there were lots of people highlighted in the media for their Mexican food that weren’t Mexican. We got to help shift the narrative to put a spotlight on people from the culture,” Rayo said. “You don’t have to go to culinary school to become an expert. The mamás, papás, tíos, tías, abuelos, abuelas—they are the experts.”
After completing two seasons of United Tacos of America, Rayo and Burnett created a new production company called IDENTITY in 2020 to uplift other BIPOC content creators both in front of and behind the camera.
“We want to shine the light on people who didn’t have opportunities like us,” said Rayo.
In addition to supporting other content creators, he’s still dedicated to his original mission of telling more stories about tacos and the communities surrounding them through his new Tacos of Texas Podcast.
“When it comes to tacos, we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Rayo said.
This year, Mando was selected as a nominee for the 2022 James Beard Awards. You can learn more about him and United Tacos of America here.
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