E. CARMEN RAMOS: I’m E. Carmen Ramos, Curator for Latino Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I’m also the organizer of “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” I wanted to talk about Chuck Ramirez’s “Breakfast Tacos.” It’s one of my favorite works in the exhibition, although pretty much all the works are my favorite. “Breakfast Tacos” is a large-scale, glossy photograph that depicts a tabletop after a breakfast meal has been consumed. Because it’s so large, it’s about 4 x 5 feet, the whole scene is magnified, allowing us to closely examine the daily life objects that we often overlook.
“Breakfast Tacos” has been called a contemporary still life, and I think it is, a very funny one at that. Still lives are a classic genre that depict flowers, fruits, vegetables, and other objects and is often associated with the transience of life or the passage of time. In part, because what it depicts doesn’t last forever and has a limited lifespan just like people. This was likely not a staged scene per se. I think the photograph was taken after an actual meal was eaten by Ramirez and his friends. Ramirez was known to take photographs of objects that we often dispose of. For example, he did a whole series of photographs that depicted torn-up piñatas that were taken after party-goers had taken a bat to the cardboard containers that hold candies and other sweets.
“Breakfast Tacos” is actually very funny. This is not your traditional breakfast. After all, who has beer for breakfast? Clearly someone who’s been partying the night before or trying to prevent a hangover, so the picture always makes me laugh.
When I first came across this photograph, I started thinking about and looking into some of the things that are portrayed here. There are some highly recognizable objects, particularly 2 name-brand beers; one is Lone Star Beer. When Anglos settled in Texas, this part of the Southwest was still Mexico. When Anglos wanted to secede from Mexico and create their own republic, they adopted the Lone Star flag as their rallying symbol and, eventually, national flag. Now, the Lone Star flag is the state flag of Texas and is a brand name of a local beer manufactured in the state. Lone Star Beer is referred to as the National Beer of Texas.
Before I researched this, I thought that Miller Beer was just one of many highly consumed beers in the United States. I didn’t know its history. Apparently, Miller Beer was founded by a German immigrant, Frederick Mueller, who anglicized his name to Miller and founded a brewery in Wisconsin, specializing in European-style beer. Their early paraphernalia, in which the beer was presented in a European-styled beer mug, shows how Miller did relish in a sort of continuing connection to European culture, or as they called it, “the land of their mothers.” Miller Brewing Company doesn’t market its beer that way anymore. We don’t associate Miller with German immigrants; it’s just an American beer.
Of course, the central subject in the scene are breakfast tacos that are beautifully cradled in glistening aluminum foil that sparkles in the morning sun. Of all the items portrayed here, the tacos are the most informal. They are not prepackaged food stuff like beer or margarine. Despite their informality, I think tacos are a staple food in many parts of Texas, Ramirez’s home state.
For me, the photograph sort of stages an encounter between various official and unofficial symbols of American popular culture, especially the popular culture we associate with Texas. It shows not only how Americans really live, right? How many people in Texas consume tacos – I often think of tacos as being to Texans what bagels are to New Yorkers; everybody eats them. I think the photograph also shows how daily life has a deep history embedded within it.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s pioneering collection of Latino art. It explores how Latino artists shaped the artistic movements of their day and recalibrated key themes in American art and culture.