If you read this blog, odds are you have a favorite food truck, taco or otherwise. It might be a lonchera, a taco or catering truck, or it might be a slick, gourmet rig. And that’s fantastic. In most cases, you’re supporting a small business. These mom and pop operations deserve support. We at the Taco Trail, we’re partial to immigrant-owned concerns. Documentary filmmaker Claire Weissbluth shares our passion and sees beyond the quick-service tacos and kimchee fries. She sees the people. She see their stories, stories paved with sacrifice on the road toward the American Dream. Her latest project, Lonche: A Tale of Two Taco Trucks, features a truck servicing field laborers and a first-generation American immigrant’s gussied up take on Mexican cuisine. It’s a stirring short that doesn’t take the easy way out.Weissbluth, who also goes by the moniker La Osa (The Bear), took time between film festivals to answer our questions.
Taco Trail:How did you come to be a documentary filmmaker?
Claire Weissbluth: I think I became really interested around 2004 when all these Iraq war documentaries started coming out. Although I was only in high school at the time, they made a big impact on me. I appreciated the critical perspective that they presented that I wasn’t getting through other mainstream media outlets. I went on to study Film and Latin American & Latino Studies at Hampshire College, and I became fascinated by using film as a medium to tell stories and to shed light on social issues.
TT: Your films show a love and respect for Latin American culture. What’s the source?
CW: Well, growing up in California it’s hard not to acknowledge and respect Latino culture because it is just so present everywhere and so vibrant. I live in the Mission District of San Francisco, which is full of amazing colorful murals and street art, not to mention so many great restaurants and taquerias. Often the first time that people are introduced to other cultures is through food, and in my case that’s definitely true. Although I’ve never been to Central or South America I’ve come to love pupusas, ceviche, empanadas, etc. I have been to Mexico a couple of times and was so touched by the warmth and generosity of the people I met. I also spent time in Cuba making my last documentary and I was very impressed by their creativity and resilience.
TT: From Lonche‘s trailer alone, the viewer gets and get a sense of the picture’s power and passion. Why did you want to share this story? CW: I came up with the idea to do a film about taco trucks a while ago, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to tie in immigration and labor issues. It all came together one day when I was driving down Highway 1 near Watsonville, just south of Santa Cruz where I was going to graduate school. From the freeway you can barely see all these hunched-over figures off in the distance picking strawberries. Suddenly I saw this familiar shape, a plain white truck that was cruising down a dirt road kicking up dust as it headed towards the workers. It was then that I realized that taco trucks, which I had only ever seen in urban environments, were also a key part of the agricultural industry. I wanted to get closer and find out more about that relationship between the farm laborers who provide the rest of the country with food and the people who go out there in the trucks to feed them. I think the labor involved in every step along the food chain is fundamentally undervalued in our society. Consumers are starting to pay more attention to organic, fair-trade, locally sourced and all that but the question of labor conditions is still barely addressed. I wanted to give people a sense of these workers’ daily realities so that the next time you’re eating, whether it’s fresh produce or a burrito, you’ll be more aware of whose hands made it possible to put that food on your table.
TT: Why is the story of two distinct taco trucks so important, especially now?
CW: Well, loncheras have been around for decades, but obviously more people are interested in mobile food now because of the increasing popularity of gourmet food trucks. I think it’s really all about class. While taco trucks have traditionally served blue-collar workplaces, the newer trucks in places like Silicon Valley are serving white-collar tech industry people. They serve the same role in both places – providing hungry workers with lunch – but the perception that society has about them is very different. There’s definitely a stigma against old-school taco trucks: they get called “roach coaches” and I think a lot of people are scared to eat from them because they think they’re unsanitary or whatever. But suddenly if the truck has a fancy paint job, a catchy name and a Twitter account, it’s perceived as a “safer” or more preferable option. I wanted to juxtapose the two different kinds of trucks in one story to illustrate the simultaneous existence of these two kinds of trucks and their different clientele. I actually think it’s great that you can get all kinds of food from a truck now, and there’s all this exciting fusion cuisine happening, but you gotta give credit where it’s due. I think the original loncheras deserve some respect for being the inspiration for today’s “food truck revolution.”
TT: Lonche is making the festival circuit, including the Cine+Mas SF/San Francisco Latino Film Festival. Where is Lonche going to be screened next?
I’m lucky to be screening in two film festivals back-to-back: right after the Cine+Mas SF/San Francisco Latino Film Festival, it’ll be showing at the Oaxaca Film Festival on September 25. I’m traveling to Oaxaca for the first time and am incredibly excited about it.
CW: If people are interested in ordering a copy they can visit the website: www.lonchefilm.com.
TT: What marks a great taqueria and lonchera for you?
CW: For me a great taqueria doesn’t try to do anything too crazy, food-wise. It does the basics and it does them very well. However, I do appreciate when people put extra effort into the decoration. That’s where you can get a good sense of the owners’ individual personalities. There’s a place in my neighborhood called Taqueria Vallarta that’s entirely covered in murals, even the ceiling. It’s all this San Francisco history in this crazy rasquache style: the gold rush, cable cars, 49ers players, dolphins jumping under the Golden Gate Bridge. I also love murals on loncheras, for example when people paint scenes from their home village.
TT: What is your favorite taqueria and/or lonchera, and what do you recommend people order there?
CW: My favorites are probably Taqueria Sinaloa in Oakland, especially for carnitas and tostadas de ceviche, and El Metate in San Francisco – the chile verde burritos are amazing and they have this great fruit salsa. Sinaloa is actually just two loncheras next to each other in a parking lot, and there are quite a few more trucks nearby along International Boulevard that are super cheap and really high-quality.
TT: What would your dream taco be composed of?
CW: Oooh, good question. Well, being a bear, I love salmon. You don’t see salmon tacos that often but I’ve had a few really good ones. Since I also love sushi, I think my dream taco would be some sort of sashimi/taco hybrid. I guess it would be more of a tostada, like with a crispy tortilla, cubes of raw salmon, avocado, and a little bit of cilantro. Maybe topped with some wasabi-jalapeño sauce?
TT: What’s next for you?
CW: When I get back from Oaxaca I’ll be doing research for my next film. I definitely want to pursue the themes of immigration, food and labor, possibly looking at communities of indigenous farmworkers in the Central Valley.