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The Lunch Box Identity: Family History and a Little Juice 

Tuesday, Sep 23 2014

There are some food preferences that are automatically built into each of us, coded into our DNA or culture. Others, the more powerful ones, are forged in a series of events that tip a dish into something we forever after consider delightful (or repulsive). Those foods have a direct line to memories and feelings, anchoring us to the past in various ways.

The bean-and-chorizo burritos from food truck Burr-Eatery, on the menu as Chori-Pinto, provoke a Pavlovian response in me. Each soft and spicy bite is imbued with heartwarming sentiments no burrito has any reason to have, transporting me to a particular time in childhood.

For the first seven years of my life, I lived in Union City and attended a bilingual elementary school. During the second grade, my mom and dad scraped up enough to put a down payment on a house in Fremont, a big shift for the whole family. The move meant a bigger home, but also a new school — one where Spanish was neither taught nor allowed to be spoken.

Speaking or reading English wasn't a problem for me, but the stark demand that I disregard a core part of who I am, to feel shame and to censor the language I spoke at home, was unsettling in a way I couldn't articulate at 7 years old. But my mom hatched a plan to put me at ease.

If I couldn't have Spanish come out of my mouth, then it would go in.

On the second day of school, when I opened up my Dukes of Hazzard lunch box, instead of my usual preferred exotic American bologna-and-cheese sandwich, I found something else tucked into the thermos: two small refried-bean-and-chorizo burritos on homemade tortillas.

Lunch box burritos were a novelty back then, and inspired enough curiosity in my new schoolmates that conversations started and new friends were made. But more than that, those burritos reminded me that I was loved, and that who I was, even when forced to hide it, could be found wrapped up in a tortilla.

My parents are from central Mexico, where burritos are nothing like the massive Mission ones. More like tacos, the fillings are simple, usually just one thing, and my favorite filling was beans refried in the fat rendered out from cooked crumbled chorizo. Bits of browned meat are interspersed between creamy beans and swaddled in a flour tortilla, a simple and satisfying combination.

Now, sitting outside of Burr-Eatery's bright red trailer with a plate of Sonoran-style burritos made with handmade flour tortillas, I replay these memories. Those burritos may not be getting me out of the same escapades, but on a rough day when the world takes too much, nothing else reminds me more of who I am.



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