My phone buzzed and the nightstand on which it sat carried the vibration. It was Saturday morning and the Do Not Disturb feature on the phone had deactivated. The reason for the buzzing? Notification that my wife—already out of bed—had posted something on my Facebook wall. That something was word that I had become a meme, those viral internet objects of squirrels fighting with lightsabers, clever phrases above an image of Ned Stark, a grumpy cat, and tacos tacos tacos. The form and subject of a meme is almost endless. And there I was wearing a western pearl-snap shirt grinning while squeezing limes on a plate of tacos alongside my brother-in-law at the lunch counter in the back of Mexican grocery in Tampa, Florida. The words “Money can buy me happiness. It’s called tacos.” framing the image. Well, yes. That is true, but neither of us nor the photographer, Jeff Houck, who at the time was a Tampa newspaper food writer, ever imagined we’d be part of a meme.
Miguel Salazar is the man behind the meme’s creation posted to his Instagram account, @officialsomexicano. “I originally had an idea of making a meme on the topic of tacos and I came across another meme that had a similar caption about how money can buy you happiness,” Salazar says. “I gave it a twist and added ‘Money can buy me happiness. It’s called tacos.’ This caption really speaks the truth because any Latino that has tacos is always happy, especially if someone buys them some. In the end no one can resist good tacos. Once I had the caption in mind, I looked for a photo that would be a good fit. I searched Google with the caption ‘man eating taco.’ Many results came up and it was not until I came across your photo that I decided that was my choice. You looked very happy about eating a taco and that was exactly how I wanted the photo to portray my caption
It was Latino representation, or the lack of it, that led Salazar, a University of California, Davis computer science major, to meme creation. “I got into making memes in high school because I was always finding memes, but not really finding any that were Latino-related. So I decided to create my own and share those that I found on the internet. That is when I created the Instagram account.”
Although Salazar enjoys memes because they provide his online followers with chuckle-worthy, viral-ready content, he’s also motivated to improve and increase Latino cultural presence online. To that end he is working on a user-driven website to which Latinos can post their own memes and gifs. It’s Salazar’s way to help his community tell their own story. “Memes help to share our culture and our experiences,” he says.
Memes can recapture cultural signifiers like the legitimacy of soft tacos over crunchy tacos as they do in the one below, or they can employ casual racism for wordplay. Such is the case of “‘I hate tacos,’ said no Juan ever.’” Funny, right?
Loads of people love the shit out of that “Juan,” passing it along their social media channels with one guffaw after another. I don’t think the meme is funny. I think it’s embarrassing, cheap and racist, and I thought I was alone in this. Then on November 18, 2014, Dave & Buster’s corporate Twitter account shared the phrase to immediate blowback. Adweek characterized the restaurant chain’s tweet as “a joke that pretty clearly went over the line” and something the company would “regret for a long time.” Alt-weekly San Antonio Current asked, “What the hell, Dave & Buster’s?” The tweet was deleted about 40 minutes later and replaced with an apology.
Yet other brands, including Old El Paso, have used the same “Juan” to little note. Well-intentioned internet users continue to share permutations of that meme online without retribution. Some have even posted versions of it on my personal Facebook wall—usually by Anglo friends.
Better to share the heart-shaped tray of tacos posted to my wall by two friends on the same day earlier this month. The religiously based turn of phrase “El pastor es mi señor” accompanying an image of a trompo or the flirty “Buy me tacos and touch my butt” are funnier and get to the root of the complex soulful and lusty bond between tacos and pop culture. As Salazar puts it, “There is always a story to share after seeing a meme.” Let’s make it a good story.