Cinco de Mayo has become the Mexican-themed equivalent of St. Patrick's Day, when Americans of all ethnicities celebrate with margaritas and tacos. Most probably don't know, or care, that the holiday commemorates the Mexican army's underdog victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla, any more than your average March 17th reveler gives a hoot about the patron saint of Ireland.
In my opinion, the growing popularity of Mexican food—one of the world's great cuisines—is reason enough to celebrate. But here's some comida for thought: There's an excellent chance that no matter what you eat today, a Mexican immigrant (documented and otherwise) or Mexican-American had something to do with bringing it to your table—often literally. From picking vegetables, packing eggs and processing meat to preparing, cooking and serving meals in restaurants at every price range and of every kind of cuisine, Hispanics are a major presence in the American food system—and the largest Hispanic group in the country is of Mexican origin.
More than 40 percent of the entire farming, fishing and forestry sector's labor force is Hispanic, according to 2010 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than a third of all cooks, and nearly 40 percent of all dishwashers are Hispanic. In major cities in the Southwest and East, the percentages are probably higher.
The statistics don't note the immigration or citizenship status of Hispanic workers, but it's likely that a large number of them are undocumented (if they show up in the statistics at all). The outspoken TV personality, author and former chef Anthony Bourdain told a Houston reporter in 2007: "The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board. Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable. Illegal labor is the backbone of the service and hospitality industry—Mexican, Salvadoran and Ecuadoran in particular. ...I know very few chefs who've even heard of a U.S.-born citizen coming in the door to ask for a dishwasher, night clean-up or kitchen prep job. Until that happens—let's at least try to be honest when discussing this issue."
There's one more sign of an increasing Latino presence in the American food industry: The National Restaurant Association reports that the number of Hispanic-owned restaurants increased by 30 percent in the past five years. Sadly, none of them are within an hour drive of where I live, or that's where I'd be eating tonight.
Here is the breakdown of the percentage of Hispanics in various occupations, from a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report:
Food preparation and serving related occupations total: 22.2
Chefs and head cooks: 17.9
First line supervisors: 14.9
Food preparation workers: 23.7
Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food: 16.6
Counter attendants, cafeteria, food concession, and coffee shop: 18.5
Waiters and waitresses: 16.6
Food servers, nonrestaurant: 16.3
Hosts and hostesses, restaurant, lounge and coffee shop: 14.3
Farming, fishing and forestry occupations total: 41.8
Graders and sorters, agricultural products: 50.3
Miscellaneous agricultural workers: 47.9