Chino Latino Restaurants: Converging Communities, Identities, and Cultures1

Article excerpt

As I was told many times, New York City is a "walking city." So, on my first isit there in 1999, I decided to stroll down Broadway from 110th Street as far as my legs could carry me. I crossed a number of neighborhoods, deciphered a variety of languages spoken in the street, and was dazzled by the unruly cosmopolitanism of the city. Of all the unexpected things I encountered, it was the "Chinese Latino" or "Chino Cubano" or "Chino Creole" restaurants that intrigued me the most. Up until then, I had not seen this particular concept or, more precisely, the commercial branding of this mix of "Chinese" and "Latino/Creole/Spanish" food. The notion of a Chinese Latino community did not surprise me, as I had known about the continued migration of Chinese to Latin America since before the mid-180Os, but what exactly is "Chino Latino" food? How did these cultural institutions come about? What does it take to create and sustain these restaurants? And what do these restaurants represent for different people?

Walking into La Caridad 78 restaurant, I quickly recognize the familiar signs of Chino-Latino culture. Above an alcove near the register sits the shrine of Guan Gong, the Taoist God of War, while the place settings on the tables have a map of Cuba printed on them. The menu showcases the restaurant's distinctive bicultural cuisine, with several pages listing Chinese dishes followed by another few pages of Latino food; the entire menu is written in Chinese, English, and Spanish. At La Caridad 78 and other Chino Latino restaurants like it, one can pair chop suey with tostones or io mein de la casa with chuletas fntas. And the Cuban Chinese waiters-with their sun-kissed faces and hair parted on the side and neatly gelled-are dressed in their crisply starched white shirts and black slacks. Their presence gives La Caridad 78 a sense of chino cubano "authenticity" that other similar restaurants simply cannot replicate. Approaching the waiters, I address them first in Spanish, and with lit eyes, they respond, "Yes, we are from Cuba" (Waiters).2 Pointing to the map on the tray, they assert, "I am from Camagüey. Do you know where it is?" "I am from Matanzas." "And I am from Cienfuegos." One of them elaborates, "I was born in Guangdong. I lived in Cuba for twenty years before moving to New York" (Waiter 1). Switching to Cantonese, I ask, "Why did you move here? Why New York?" He responds, using a combination of Cantonese, Spanish, and English, "We had to leave. When Castro came into power, we lost everything. I had a cousin in New York, so I came here. I've been here for over thirty years now" (Waiter 1). As we converse, a few customers walk in. A woman in her sixties, after putting in her "usual order" in Spanish, joins the conversation. "I am Cuban Chinese too. My grandfather was Chinese. I don't look like it, but I am Chinese" (Patron 1). She smiles gleefully. Nowhere are Chinese Latinos (Chinese from Latin America) more visible in

New York City than in these restaurants. Given the racial framework of the United States, in which they are automatically assumed to be either Chinese or Latino depending on phenotype, the complexity of their cultural identity is often invisible to the general public. Their presence, in fact, would go unnoticed were it not for these cultural institutions, which boldly announce their existence by claiming a distinct ethnic cuisine and cultural space within the urban landscape of New York City. The few remaining Chino Cubano and Chino Latino restaurants scattered in the upper West side of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx not only attracts a variety of visitors curious about this exotic pairing of two seemingly disparate cuisines, but they also have become a kind of hub or gathering place for Latinos of Chinese and non-Chinese descent alike, who are looking for the comfort food that reminds them of home: a healthy serving of ropa vieja and armz frito, and maybe a café con leche and a smooth, milky flan to top it off. …