Lexiculture: chipotle

Gabriela Ortiz

Wayne State University

Cite as: Ortiz, Gabriela. 2016. Chipotle. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 7. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/chipotle.pdf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to highlight how corporations appropriate words and concepts through trademark, branding and marketing, and systematically strip words and concepts of their original meaning.  Using the term “chipotle” as a case study, I will illustrate how the fast-food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, has essentially displaced the original meaning and history of the ancient Nahuatl word “chipotle.”  The appropriation of the term simultaneously perpetuates a culture of invisibility with regards to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, whose indigenous words and emblems extinguished in society’s consciousness, and usurped by a corporate replacement.   Chipotle has essentially become synonymous with the fast food franchise, and nearly as American as the hotdog or hamburger.  This paper will provide historical context of the word chipotle and illustrate how the ancient Mexica, also known as the Aztecs, used chipotle chiles in their cuisine.  In addition, this paper will highlight the salient place the chile occupies in contemporary Mexican cuisine, culture, and national identity.  It is important to know the history of the chipotle chile and its consumption in ancient Mexico, as well as in present times, in order to understand the complexities linked to the appropriation of the term in modern popular discourse.

Keywords: chipotle, chipoctli, xipotli, chile, Mexica, Aztec, Nahuatl

Introduction

A quick Google web search for the word “chipotle” pulls up a never-ending string of information about the fast food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill. It is not until the second page of the search that one begins to find information about the smoke-dried jalapeño chile. This is quite interesting because the chipotle chile has existed for thousands of years — centuries’ longer than the Chipotle restaurant chain has been in business.  Therefore, if the smoke-dried jalapeño chiles have been in existence for so long, why is it that the American owned chain restaurant dominates the Google search database?  Branding and cultural appropriation comprise the primary explanation for this dissonance.

The term “chipotle” has distinct meanings to different people. For some, it automatically conjures up imagery of the smoke-dried chile.  For others, chipotle simply means the name of the fast-food Mexican restaurant, currently taking over the nearest college town, downtown corridor, or suburban strip mall.  However, even before the proliferation of the chain restaurants bearings its name, the chipotle chile has a rich and long history in the Americas, as well as in Europe.  But one would never know about this history unless they added “definition” to their Google search. The Chipotle franchise has managed to remove or conveniently omit any cultural factors of the word chipotle and its indigenous roots to the Mexican culture.  In short, the restaurant has functionally sought to monopolize the term, “chipotle,” and unroot the term from its indigenous soil.

Chilpoctli, Xipotli or Chipotle?

The chipotle chile gets its name from the Nahuatl, a people indigenous to modern-day Mexico. “Chilpoctli” or “xipotli”, meaning, “smoked chili,” or “humo de chile” in Spanish, is a word coined by the Nahautl (Leander 1972).  There are alternative ways of spelling chipotle, as noted above.  However, over time, the common spelling has become chipotle, dropping the “l” before the “p” and replacing the “I” in favor of the “e’. No reasons were discovered for this preferred spelling, except for perhaps ease and convenience.  Furthermore, the popular dictionaries do not often include each form of spelling, but most etymology references do, with Merriam-Webster including the year it was first used. The Merriam-Webster dictionary places chipotle to have first been used in the 1950’s, which corresponds with the Ngram viewer.  The chart below illustrates that prior to 1948, there was no mention of the word chipotle, then a sudden spike in the 1980’s.

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Chipotle in Everyday Mexica Life

When we think of the staple foods of the Mexica, we think of maize, beans and squash — the three sisters.  But chiles were just as important to the Mexica’s cuisine as maize (Ortiz de Montellano, 1990, p. 113).  Previously regarded by the Europeans as a useless addition in terms of caloric intake or nutritional value — or lack thereof, the chile pepper actually provides adequate quantities of vitamins A and C.  But because the Mexica ate it on a daily basis, research demonstrates that the consumption of chile served as a supplement to the Mexica diet. The table below taken from Ortiz de Montello’s Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition, illustrates the possible total grams per serving in a typical Mexica diet with the supplemental nutrition of chiles and tomatoes (p. 101):

Diet Cal Protein CA Vit A Thiamine Riboflavin Niacin Vit C FE
Corn (500g) 1,790 42 55 0.75 2,4 0.5 0.5 7.5
Beans (100g) 343 22.7 134 0.008 0.47 0.15 2.09 1 7.1
Squash (50g) 10 0.6 14 0.06 0.2 0.05 0.5 11 0.2
Chili (20g) 23 0.93 7.3 1.62 0.06 0.09 1.1 93 0.3
Tomato (50g) 11 0.6 7.0 0.13 0.03 0.02 0.4 12 0.3
Total 2,177 66.83 217 2.57 3.16 0.81 13.6 117 15.4

 

Note: Units are g for protein and International Unites (IU) for vitamin A. All others are mg.

Of particular relevance to a consideration of Aztec foods is the nutritional value of the staple diet of Mesoamerica—corn, beans, and squash, supplemented by chilies and tomatoes. This triad has been the basis of the Aztec diet since antiquity, and the addition of chili and tomato as condiments covered most culinary situations

Chiles are arguably a staple of Mexica diet.  However, the chipotle chile occupied a particular distinction.  Due to the process by which the jalapeño pepper is transformed into a chipotle chile, the Mexica took advantage of the pungent and irritating qualities of the process to advance specific social and strategic aims.  For instance, mothers would use the smoke of the chiles to punish their poorly behaved children, and there are even accounts of the Aztecs using the chipotle smoke as a form of chemical warfare against the Spanish, “chile smoke was used as fumigant, as well as a means of chemical warfare, and the Aztecs disciplined their recalcitrant offspring with it (Coe 1994 p. 63).  Many Mexican mothers (mine included) continue this tradition of threatening with chiles as punishment for cursing or backtalk, or as a means to rid the child of a nail-biting habit or sucking of the thumb.

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Picture shows parents punishing their children by placing their face near the smoke of chiles.

Without a doubt, the love of chipotle chiles, and chiles in general have been a part of Mexican cuisine since the pre-Columbian era, and that love has remained in present time.

A Love Affair with Chiles

Mexicans love chile. Mexicans love chile so much that the food is incorporated in popular songs, sprinkled on a diverse milieu of foods, and revered as if a national symbol.  The many musical odes to the chile, however, illustrate the country’s deep love affair with the pepper.

The Mexican group Banda Sinaloense includes the chile in the hook of their song “Cahuates Pistaches.” The lyrics include “con sal, limon y chile”, or “with salt, lemon and chili,” which is repeated a number of times throughout the song. The song also calls for a special dance to go along with the song—a quick thrust of the pelvis as the word “chile” is uttered. It is an interesting choice for a dance move given the phallic shape of the chile pepper.  Esther Katz asserts that in Mexico, along with Hungary and Calabria, the chile pepper is a symbol of virility, which is why it is found that men in Mexico consume more chile peppers than women (2009 p. 222).  In addition to its attractive shape, chiles also make you hot, with some cultures regarding the chile as an aphrodisiac (Katz, 2009, p. 222).

A trip to any part of Mexico will attest to the fact that Mexicans do love chile, especially chile chipotles. Mexican cuisine has been using these hot fruits since the pre-Columbian era, and have even retained some very indigenous dishes such as mole, atole, tamales, all of which may include the use of chipotle chiles. So to the Mexican culture, the chipotle chile is a symbol of national identity and marker of a very proud history.  Although the use of chiles is pervasive throughout Latin America, non-Mexican dishes are not as spicy or hot.  In other words, the chipotle chile is most prominent in, in frequency and degree, in Mexican cuisine.  If a Mexican visited the countries beyond Guatemala, the food would not be spicy enough, even though pepper is consumed there in nearly the same manner (Katz, 2009, p. 223).  Given the reverence for the chile in both Aztec and present day Mexican life, it should come as no surprise on the mixed attitudes towards the fast food franchise Chipotle Mexican Grill. In a world of globalization and instant-everything, the commodification of Mexican culture and history while ignoring and marginalizing the very people who hail from its country of origin is quite hypocritical.

The Chipotle Restaurant Chain: A Case of Appreciation or Appropriation?

Many would contend that until the emergence of the chain Chipotle, a great number of individuals did not know what or who a chipotle was. By virtue of Chipotle Mexican Grill using the word “chipotle” as the name of their restaurant, they single handedly introduced — or reintroduced — the chipotle to the mainstream.  Does Chipotle serve as a cultural bridge and push its consumers to “Google” chipotle? Perhaps, but a simple Google search only triggers pages upon pages of the restaurant and no word of the Aztecs.  It would appear that Chipotle has “Columbused” a part of Mexican culture.  To “Columbus” something implies that an individual or corporations “discover” something that has existed forever (not literally, that’s difficult to know for certain) outside of the dominant culture. Examples of “Columbusing” something would be the sudden hummus trend, coconut water, pita chips or yoga.  While Mexican cuisine has existed in the United States for as long as the United States has been an independent nation-state, the near obsession with the restaurant Chipotle has taken the appreciation of Mexican food into the nefarious realm of appropriation. To be sure, I am not assuming the worst of the chain restaurant, I emailed the media office of Chipotle Mexican Grill and posed two questions:

  • “What led the corporation to the choose this name? Is the company at all familiar with the historical significance of the chipotle chiles during the Aztec Empire?”
  • “Also, many restaurants contain large Maya figures as wall decoration. Is the company aware that the word ‘Chipotle’ is a Nahuatl word spoken by the Aztecs, and not the Maya?” This conflation of two distinct indigenous peoples was concerning.

Chipotle’s reply was prompt and concise:

“We didn’t choose the name for any specific cultural origin. Much of our food is seasoned with this trusty little pepper, and we, in turn, decided it would be a great name for the restaurant. Our art comes from a close friend of our co-CEO, Steve Ells, and he designed the first decorations for the first restaurant, and has continued ever since. I hope this helps a little bit, and I’m sorry that there aren’t any specific ties to language or cultural significance here.”

In essence, Chipotle has excluded Mexican history from their restaurant and deprived its consumers of a rich historical context while profiting from the culture. It should be noted that this is not the only example of appropriation and erasure. Recently, Chipotle came under fire for failing to include any Mexican or Mexican-American authors as part of their new campaign to include excerpts of literature on their cups.  Actually, Chipotle failed to include any Latino authors.  Further excluding Mexicans and Latinos from the dominant, mainstream formation of “chipotle,” and swinging the pendulum squarely toward appropriation.

Conclusion

Despite the long history of the chipotle chile and its multiple usages, the word chipotle is now synonymous with the American owned fast food restaurant, in turn stripping the word of its indigenous meaning, salience and significance.  The Mexica have been colonized for the third time.

One can say that Chipotle is responsible for the millions of Americans who “Columbused” spicy Mexican food and made it trendy.  So trendy, in fact, that Chipotle has taken over the microblogging and video service, Vine producing videos mostly satirical in nature.  But all of this points to a larger issue, which American chef and television personality, Anthony Bourdain so eloquently stated in one of his television episodes revolving around Mexican food. Bourdain asked why Americans love Mexican food, drugs, alcohol and cheap labor but ignore the violence that happens across the border. “Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration…we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children.” (Salinas, 2014).

Indeed our food and labor is cheap, at least to the American economy, but our history is long, diverse and rich. These are ingredients missing from the prevailing denotation of chipotle imposed by the chain restaurant.  However, it only takes a few more Google searches to set aside the fatty ingredients, and uncover this rich and healthy history.

References

chipotle. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/chipotle

chipotle. (n.d.). In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=chipotle

chipotle. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chipotle

Leander, Birgitta. Herencia Cultural Del Mundo Nahuatl A Traves De La Lengua. Secretaria de Educacion  Publica, 1972. Print

Coe, Sophie. America’s First Cuisines. University of Texas Press, 1994. Print

Katz, Esther. Chili Pepper, from Mexico to Europe: Food, Imaginary and Cultural Identity. 213-232. Retrieved November 7, 2014, from http://148.202.18.157/sitios/publicacionesite/pperiod/esthom/esthompdf/esthom24/art13.pdf

Townsend, Richard. The Family and Education. The Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1995. Print.

Salinas, Brenda. (2014, July 06). ‘Columbusing’: The Art Of Discovering Something That Is Not New, National Public Radio. Retrieved November 10 2014, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/07/06/328466757/columbusing-the-art-of-discovering-something-that-is-not-new

Soustelle, Jacques. A Mexican’s Day. Daily Life of The Aztecs. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1970. Print.

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