Portland has an appropriation problem.
This week in white nonsense, two white women—Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connely—decided it would be cute to open a food truck after a fateful excursion to Mexico. There’s really nothing special about opening a Mexican restaurant—it’s probably something that happens everyday. But the owners of Kooks Burritos all but admitted in an interview with Willamette Week that they colonized this style of food when they decided to “pick the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever.”
“...You can eat $5 lobster on the beach,” Connelly said, “which they give you with this bucket of tortillas.” The “they” she was referring to were probably the Mexican “abuelitas” these two women preyed upon in order to appropriate the secrets of their livelihood. Suitably impressed, these tourists began asking the locals questions about how these tortillas were made. “They told us basic ingredients,” Connelly said, adding “[but] they wouldn't tell us too much about technique.” Hmmm. Wonder why? This is where things go from quirky to predatory if you haven’t already guessed.
“…We were peeking into window of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look,” she said. So let’s recap the story thus far: These two white women went to Mexico, ate tacos, and then decided they would just take what the locals clearly didn't want to give them. If that wasn't bad enough, they decided to pack up all their stolen intellectual property and repackage it in one of the few places where such a business could plausibly work: Portland, Oregon.
While describing themselves on their Yelp biography (which has since been edited), Connelly claims to have “a mean tortilla flip” while Wilgus anointed herself as the “director of vibes” and “our little abuelita with recipes from the heart”—even though the recipes were stolen.
Week after week people of color in Portland bear witness to the hijacking of their cultures, and an identifiable pattern of appropriation has been created. Several of the most successful businesses in this town have been birthed as a result of curious white people going to a foreign country, or an international venture, and poaching as many trade secrets, customs, recipes as possible, and then coming back to Portland to claim it as their own and score a tidy profit. Now don’t get me wrong: cultural customs are meant to be shared. However, that’s not what happens in this city.
Because of Portland’s underlying racism, the people who rightly own these traditions and cultures that exist are already treated poorly. These appropriating businesses are erasing and exploiting their already marginalized identities for the purpose of profit and praise.
People of color are nothing more than an afterthought when the white perpetrators of this tradition continue to do this on a regular basis. While Portland is supposedly a progressive place, super liberal white people usually only have other super white liberal people to answer to—which means this cycle of cultural appropriation will never end until people of color call attention to it.
And call attention to it we did. As soon as Willamette Week, who has a history of publishing racially insensitive food commentary, published this story, people of color were outraged. Even some of those aforementioned super liberal white people. The comments on the article went up in flames, and pretty soon the story was even picked up by a national outlet.
Following the WW’s article, one commenter said: “Now that you all boldly and pretty fucking unapologetically stole the basis of these women's livelihoods, you can make their exact same product so other white ppl don't have to be inconvenienced of dealing with a pesky brown middle woman getting in their way. Great job.”
Another commenter explained what’s basically a sad truth underlying the Portland restaurant community: “If you knew anything of the restaurant industry (or Google) you'd know that this is true. ‘Ethnic’ chefs are expected to ‘cook from their ethnic backgrounds’ while White chefs can do what these two horrid women did: vacation somewhere and ‘get inspired’ and appropriate an entire culture's cuisine and claim it as their own.”
Immediately after the fury continued online, a different resource emerged and quickly went viral: a Google doc showing exactly how prevalent this epidemic is. The list titled “White-Owned Appropriative Restaurants in Portland” provides a who’s who of culinary white supremacy.
An introduction to the document begins by saying, “This is NOT about cooking at home or historical influences on cuisines; it's about profit, ownership, and wealth in a white supremacist culture.” And it ends by letting visitors know, “If you've come here in anger, please read at least a couple of these articles before continuing to the list on the next tab below.”
Despite this issue being dismissed by supporters of Kook’s Burritos—while our views were seen as just a bunch of angry minorities attacking innocent white women who only wanted to make tacos—the food cart closed as of late Friday. Willamette Week has not taken any responsibility or shown any accountability for their actions.
While the closing of Kooks Burritos is a victory, it’s a small one and unless we continue to call this out it will happen again. In the meantime, it helps to support the originators of various cultures. If you’re really dying to get a burrito, here’s a list of six Latin owned restaurants that also exist in Portland.