Taco Night: A Misadventure in Multiculturalism

by Paul C. Gorski

I remember the invitations: red text on a white background, the name of the event in curly bold face surrounded by a crudely drawn piñata, a floppy sombrero, and a dancing cucaracha. A fourth grader, I gushed with enthusiasm about these sorts of cultural festivals—the different, the alien, the other—dancing around me, a dash of spice for a child of white flighters. 

Ms. Manning distributed the invitations in mid-April, providing parents ample time to plan for the event, which occurred the first week of May, on or around Cinco de Mayo.

A few weeks later my parents and I, along with a couple hundred other parents, teachers, students, and administrators, crowded into the cafeteria for Guilford Elementary School’s annual Taco Night. The occasion was festive. I stared at the colorful decorations, like the papier mache piñatas designed by every fifth-grade class, and then watched my parents try to squeeze themselves into cafeteria style tables built for eight-year-olds.

Sometimes the school hired a Mexican song and dance troupe from a neighboring town. They’d swing and sway and sing and smile and I’d watch, bouncing dutifully to the rhythm, hoping they’d play La Bamba or Oye Como Va so I could sing along, pretending to know the words. If it happened to be somebody’s birthday the music teacher would lead us in a lively performance of Cumpleaños Feliz and give the kid some Mexican treats.


Granted, not a single Mexican or Mexican-American student attended Guilford at the time. However, I do recall Ms. Manning asking a classmate whose family had immigrated from Guatemala, whether the Taco Night tacos were “authentic.” He answered with a shrug.

Granted, too, there was little educational substance to the evening; I knew nothing more about Mexico or about Mexican American people upon leaving Taco Night than I did upon arriving.

And granted, we never studied more important concerns like, say, the racism faced by Mexican Americans or the long history of U.S. imperialist intervention throughout Latin America.

Still, hidden within Taco Night and the simultaneous absence of meaningful curricular attention to Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and Latinos, were three critical and clarifying lessons: (1) Mexican culture is synonymous with tacos; (2) “Mexican” and “Guatemalan” are synonymous, and by extension all Latino people are the same, and by further extension all Latino people are synonymous with tacos (as well as sombreros and dancing cucarachas); and (3) white people love tacos, especially in those hard, crunchy shells, which, I learned later, nobody in Mexico eats. 

Thus began my diversity education, my introduction to a clearly identifiable “other.” And I could hardly wait until Pizza Night.

Paul C. Gorski is the Founder of EdChange and an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University where he teaches in the Social Justice and Human Rights programs. For more of his writing visit the EdChange.org. For free resources on educational equity visit EdChange.org/multicultural. To contact Paul directly email him at gorski@edchange.org.

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