Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gringos Accessorize Existence? (Gentrification in medias res, addendum)

So, recently this restaurant near me changed it's name from "Talay" to "Pancho Gringo." Certain sources indicate that before it was "Talay" it might have been "Alma." But the dream of Thai Latin culinary fusion is now stardust, and in its wake lies a good old upscale "bistro" (as Panco Gringo calls itself) serving any mildly affluent diner a neat and tidy simulacrum of Mexican gastronomic authenticity.

Apparently some concerned citizens are crestfallen about the change:

We will revisit these misgivings over the fall of Talay below, but first I want to ruminate on the name Panco Gringo, because I think it deserves further attention than just tossing off an "Oh, that's an unfortunate name." Let's begin with the first half of the appellation, "Pancho." It is a Spanish word that, according to a very quick and dirty internet search, could refer to any of the following (in no particular order):

1. a nickname form of "Francisco"
2. a the first name of Mexican revolutionary and associate of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa
3. a different sidekick, here accompanying "the Cisco Kid," a character created by O. Henry and later finding his way into various media
4. the name of a chain of Mexican restaurants based in Texas
5. part of the title of the song, "Pancho and Lefty," performed by many, but perhaps most famously by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
6. the name of a Mexican restaurant in the Los Angeles metro area

So to what does the "Pancho" in Pancho Gringo refer? If it is a signifier, what does it signify? Well, I can't be sure. But from the above list, two trends do emerge: 1. Pancho seems to be a preferred name for sidekicks, perhaps the name even works as an icon of sidekickery; and 2. Pancho seems to be something white Americans like to call Mexican restaurants.

Maybe now we're getting somewhere. The "Pancho" in Pancho Gringo might have something to do with sidekickery, or with US citizens loving to have good, "authentic" Mexican food (almost any Mexican restaurant I've ever patronized claims to be selling the real McCoy). It might even have something to do with Mexico being (after numerous conflicts about which I think most US citizens, myself certainly included, know almost nothing) the trusty, browner and more zesty sidekick of the US. It might even have something to do with Mexican food being a sidekick to the Caucasian US belly. Just let it percolate in your mind a bit. Imagine the unruly web of connotations that "Pancho" conjures as a bowl of salsa that needs to sit so that the garlic, cilantro, and onions can suffuse the whole with their pungent flavors.

While that's happening, let's turn our attention to the word "Gringo." Most readers will probably be at least somewhat familiar with this word. It is a Spanish-language word used mainly in Latin America to refer to foreigners, especially those from the US. It is usually considered derogatory. However, as with most slang, its wide range of uses, meanings, and implications cannot be simplified - sometimes it isn't even deployed with the intention of insulting the named. For evidence of this, see the Wikipedia article on the word.

Whether or not "gringo" is uttered as insult, it does seem safe to say that the implied speaker is of Latino or Spanish ethnic affiliation, while the referent is someone who does not speak Spanish and is often white or "Anglo" in ethnicity. Thus "gringo" might be defined as a way for a Latino to mark another person as an outsider, or non-Latino. When considering this eatery, Pancho Gringo, I am compelled to ask, who is speaking? I can't be sure that the owners of the business and the building which it occupies are white, but I think that's a reasonable assumption. But that's a sloppy way to go about making my argument. So I'll ask who frequents the joint. Participant observation (I often go to an Italian "trattoria" nextdoor) informs me that there are more "gringos" (as in non-Spanish speakers) than non-gringos at Pancho Gringo.

Is the restaurant's management sticking it to their gentrified clientele, by calling them all a bunch of gringos? Is the deep structure of "Pancho Gringo" equal or close to, "We, your trusty sidekick Mexican restaurant, will serve you, the foolish gringos, overpriced food"? Or what if the management is a white man (or woman)? Is it then the case that the restaurant owner is sticking it to him or herself with the establishment's name? Or what if nothing is meant by the name, what if the owner just came up with two words that signified Mexicanness and didn't give it any further thought? Is it even possible for something to mean nothing?

Since I've gotten myself into very murky waters now, I'll retreat and revisit the question of why Talay's demise is lamented by some. The writer for GreasyGuide frustrated that the "sexy and posh spot that [Talay] once was" has been replaced by something that looks more like a "cheesy Mexican spot." The writer then expresses a wish that PG will be up to snuff, "as the service quality in Harlem has gone down as of late." The dream of consuming affluence, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism deferred - regardless of the class or ethnicity of this writer/consumer. Amanda of "NY Eater" notes that Pancho Gringo is an unfortunate name, but I am left wondering why she thinks so.

To complicate matters further, consider the circumstances around why restaurants have sprung up on 12th Ave and 135th St in the first place, which I referred to in previous posts (the keen observer might even catch a bit of Talay's "oriental" lion statues - still intact during the era of Pancho Gringo). Sometimes gentrification doesn't proceed the way we wish it would. Sometimes it takes a slightly different path. It may slow down for a bit. Or, in a fit of excitement and bravado, it may charge ahead, clearing everything in its path. While gentrification is busy doing its thing, we may need to find a different Thai-Latin restaurant to go with that new craving for exotic fusion cuisine - you know, the one we got the great deal on at the department store of our minds last week?


Beth said...

You forgot to bring up the fact that the former restaurant, Talay, never really defined what it is. What the hell is Thai-Latin fusion, anyway? There are a number of countries in Latin America, and I'd wager that all the food isn't the same. I've never had great experiences at "pan-" restaurants of any sort, so coupling it with the whole fusion thing just sounded like a hot mess. Well, that, and the fact that it was pricier than the other two "gentrification progeny" restaurants that it was lodged between.

Glimmerglass Opera said...

Rancho Gringo. Ranches of white people. moo.

M said...

I agree that Thai-Latin fusion is/was an ill-defined and exoticizing project. I could see some sort of fusion working, if it came out of a specific vision or inspiration of a specific chef (e.g., if Morimoto wanted to *somehow* fuse French and Japanese food). But the trend of anonymous, commodified "pan" and fusion restaurants is a tiresome one.