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Ivan Castillo serving food and smiling at the camera at the Project Neutral Grounds Launch in New Orleans in November 2022
Ivan Castillo serving food at the Project Neutral Grounds Launch in New Orleans, November 2022. Photo by Melissa Cardona

2023 Homegrown Foodways Film Series: Baltimore and New Orleans: Bringing Two Cities in Dialogue with Each Other through Mexican Food

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The following is a guest post by Professor Sarah Fouts, American Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on this year’s American Folklife Center Homegrown Foodways Film Series: Baltimore and New Orleans, a collaboration with Dr. Fouts, Andy Dahl of Nutria Productions, and documentarian Fernando López. The series will feature two films premiering online, here on the Folklife Today blog, and the Library’s YouTube channel: El Camino del Pan a Baltimore on Tuesday November 7th @ noon Eastern Time; and El Camino del Mole a New Orleans on Tuesday November 14th @ noon Eastern Time.

A selfie photo by documentarian Fernando Lopez in the home of Jose Vargas showing the filming of an interview in the background as part of the first film in the series
Behind the scenes selfie with Fernando López, Andy Dahl, Sarah Fouts, and Jóse Vargas lounging while his wife, Angela, is being interviewed at their house in Rosedale, Maryland. Photo by Fernando López.

Food traditions like snowballs and seafood connect New Orleans and Baltimore, two places with their own complex histories as major Southern port cities. But beyond the crabs and snowballs, our team—Andy Dahl, Fernando López, and I—wanted to examine links between the two places through themes of migration and Mexican food. Thus, as part of the Homegrown Foodways Series: Baltimore and New Orleans, we introduce “El Camino del Pan y el Mole,” which takes a visual ethnography approach to document these rich stories and relatively new Mexican foodways traditions in each city.

In summer of 2022, while shooting content for Project Neutral Grounds, a public humanities project working with Black and immigrant street food vendors in New Orleans, I was put in touch with the AFC team about participating in the Homegrown Foodways Series. The film project idea originated with Fernando López, a Mexican photographer living in New Orleans, who worked with me on Project Neutral Grounds. The primary focus at that point considered how Latin American street food vendors adapt to the city and make a sense of place.

Ivan Castillo serving food and smiling at the camera at the Project Neutral Grounds Launch in New Orleans in November 2022
Ivan Castillo serving food at the Project Neutral Grounds Launch in New Orleans, November 2022. Photo by Melissa Cardona.

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Latinx population in New Orleans more than doubled as recovery workers settled across the metropolitan area, bringing their food traditions with them. As the focus of the second film in the series, El Camino del Mole a New Orleans, Ivan Castillo’s story exemplified these processes— beginning in construction in New Orleans, he transitioned to the restaurant industry before launching his own successful venture. Alongside that work, Ivan cultivates spaces for the LGBTQ Latinx community by curating pageants and drag shows, often financing these events through his business. Ivan, a collaborator with Project Neutral Grounds, became the star of El Camino del Mole a New Orleans.

But what began in one city grew into a comparative project to connect with similar food research already underway with UMBC students in Baltimore.

After moving to Baltimore in 2018 and working as an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies at UMBC, I started undertaking similar storytelling projects with immigrant food vendors in Baltimore. Working with UMBC public humanities students, I partnered with Andy Dahl, a longtime friend who used to live in New Orleans and has worked with Baltimore’s Latinx communities as part of the Southeast Community Development Corporation. We began documenting and producing oral histories with Latin American restaurant owners in the Highlandtown neighborhood to develop a mapping project called, “Sabor de Highlandtown.”

Highlandtown, located in the southeastern part of Baltimore, has historically been a landing spot for European immigrants. By the 21st century, the neighborhood shifted; as European immigrants moved out, Latin American immigrants moved in, opening up businesses alongside other new immigrant communities. Like Ivan’s story in New Orleans, José Vargas’s story, the focus of the series’ first film, El Camino del Pan a Baltimore, exemplified these migration processes—much to the chagrin of elders in the Greek community, he opened his first Mexican bakery in Greektown just north of Highlandtown. He now has multiple food establishments in the area that he operates with his brothers, wife, and two sons. Jose, a collaborator in “Sabor de Highlandtown,” soon became the star of “El Camino del Pan a Baltimore.”

José Vargas with his family sitting on the steps of their porch in front of their home during filming in April 2023.
José Vargas with his family in front of their home during the shoot in April 2023. Photo by Fernando López.

Shaping the Stories

Bringing José’s story in dialogue with Ivan’s story meant bringing Andy together with Fernando to shoot footage for the films in each city. I was already balancing time in both places in between teaching at UMBC and doing fieldwork on a book project in New Orleans. At some point, Andy, Fernando, and I also realized we had all been in the same space together during Mardi Gras 2015—a rather memorable bike ride trailing the Muses parade down St. Charles Avenue into the French Quarter. And in 2023, we came back together to shoot footage in March with Ivan in New Orleans and in April with José in Baltimore.

We entered the field initially thinking we’d link the stories with the Mexican dish, chicken mole. Both Ivan and José had spoken with much sentimentality about their relationship to the dish and the ingredients that define their respective recipes.

But as the Nutria Productions (named for the ubiquitous Louisiana swamp rodent) editing team, which consists of Andy and his partner Marissa O’Guinn Dahl, filtered through the footage, the complex and multifaceted notion of family became more evident as a complement to the Mexican food traditions of both Ivan and José. For José, the idea of family is more traditional, rooted in Huaquechula, Puebla, where he began working in his grandparents’ bakery. For Ivan, the concept of family interrogates these traditional ideas; family, instead, represents his LGBTQ community from Mexico and Central America, who face isolation and social stigma, uniting together through their shared experiences. As we show in the films, Mexican foodways are central to each of these processes.

A flyer for the screening of the 2 films at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore that features photos of the two main film stars.
Flyer for the November 9, 2023 free screening event at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore.

For those located near Baltimore, on Thursday, November 9, from 6-8 PM, we will bring Ivan and José together for the first time to premiere the two short films at the Creative Alliance cultural and arts venue in East Baltimore. Expect a drag show performance from Ivette (Ivan), food from Taqueria Vargas, women artesanas from Creative Alliance’s CIELO program, a folkloric dance performance from Jovenes en Acción, and a panel discussion with the producers and stars of the films. You can register for the free event here.

Stay tuned for more posts by Dr. Fouts, and be sure to mark your calendars for the online premieres of the Homegrown Foodways Film Series: Baltimore and New Orleans: El Camino del Pan a Baltimore on Tuesday November 7th at noon ET; and El Camino del Mole a New Orleans on Tuesday November 14th at noon ET. Both films will premiere here, on the Folklife Today blog, and the Library’s YouTube channel.

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