Distinguished Lecturers
Lori A. Flores

Lori A. Flores

Lori A. Flores is Associate Professor of History at Stony Brook University (SUNY), where she teaches courses in Latinx, U.S., labor, immigration, and borderlands history. She is the author of Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (2016) and a forthcoming book tentatively titled Starved for Respect on the history of Latinx food workers in the U.S. Northeast from World War II to COVID. Flores is also co-editor of The Academic’s Handbook (2020) with Jocelyn Olcott, and the creator of The Mexican Restaurants of NYC Story Map, a digital history website about how Mexican food spread throughout New York City’s boroughs. Her research and writing have been supported by institutions including the Russell Sage Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.

OAH Lectures by Lori A. Flores

This lecture focuses on how Latinx labor transformed the foodscape of New York City between the 1980s and today. Following a Tex-Mex craze, regional Mexican cuisine took hold via pioneering entrepreneurs like Zarela Martinez, whose eponymous restaurant in Manhattan opened in the 1980s and stayed beloved for a quarter of a century. As humbler NAFTA-era Mexican immigrants moved to New York in the 1990s, their bakeries, bodegas, taquerías, and tortilla factories spiced the Big Apple but unfortunately suffered from racialized devaluation of their ingredients, labor, and creativity. This lecture places high value back onto the histories of Latinx culinary entrepreneurs—both privileged and precariat—who made New York into a city of “many Mexicos” one can now ingest on a daily basis.

The most famous Latinx-led food boycotts in U.S. and world history were the ones led by the United Farm Workers (UFW) headed by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong. Representing mostly Mexican American farmworkers in California, the UFW captured national attention by conducting multiple and lengthy boycott campaigns against grapes, lettuce, and wine. Capitalizing on global and national hunger discourses of the era, the UFW emphasized that malnourishment and starvation could be found at home among farmworker populations as much as in the developing world. Organizers were dispersed to every region of the country, and the Northeast proved crucial for fundraising and keeping the union’s message in front of consumers. This lecture explores the UFW’s trajectory in the Northeast—not just in major cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but smaller towns in states like Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

This lecture takes a particular angle on the Bracero Program with Mexico and Farm Labor Program with Puerto Rico by examining these guestworkers’ food-related protests while working. What types of nourishment, and deprivation, did they encounter during their time as laboring allies and “guests” of the United States? To alleviate homesickness, depression, and actual hunger, these workers assertively voiced their right to nutritionally and culturally nourishing food, both during the World War II years and after. These collective protests took place on a variety of levels—workers walked off their jobs, filed complaints against companies and supervisors, wrote letters to Mexican consulates and Puerto Rican bureaucrats, and proposed specific changes to their labor camp cooks, kitchens, and meal routines. Interestingly, their food-related demands were placed squarely alongside grievances about wage theft, substandard housing, and disproportionate arrests by police, communicating how equally important these issues were to them.

Millions of people labor in the links of our nation’s food chain, from agricultural fields to processing factories to restaurants to delivery apps. While consumers often demand or fetishize certain food items or food experiences, many do not pay much attention to food laborers at all or only “see” these people through the food they produce instead of as fuller human beings. And as food laborers in America have increasingly become undocumented immigrants, the phrase “chewed up and spit out” aptly describes a workforce made to feel replaceable by a bottomless reservoir of competitors. During the height of the COVID pandemic, the ways in which U.S. eaters demanded food routines to continue only reinforced—for all food workers, citizen and immigrant—that their lives were being put at great risk. Using the recent comedy-horror film The Menu, this lecture comments on exploitation and lovelessness in multiple worlds of food, from farm and factory work, to the searches for trendy and “authentic” food adventures for social media, to exclusive and fine dining.

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