Q&A: A Tale of Two Taco Trucks

J&S Catering Taco Truck out in the fields. This is one of the trucks portrayed in Claire Weissbluth's documentary.

The Farm and Food Festival will be hosting at the Roxie Theater starting Thusday and showings will be paired with delicious food. The festival will have nine showings, with three additional events: an opening reception at Root Division, a closing reception at Dandelion Chocolate and a brunch date at 18th Reasons.

Don’t miss out on the screening of Lonche: A Tale of Two Taco Trucks, a short documentary of 20 minutes showing on April 6, at 4 p.m. as part of the festival’s Savory Shorts. Claire Weissbluth, who recently started doing work for Mission Local, produced the story of two taco trucks and how they stay afloat in business by serving two completely different populations: farm workers on the fields of Watsonville and tech workers in Silicon Valley. We interviewed her about the piece.

Andrea: So, how did you get into video?

Claire: The first video my friends and I ever made was in 9th grade. We did Romeo and Juliet, we didn’t memorize anything; we were just reading from our books on camera. The production is terrible, I haven’t seen it since then. I remember we had a camera with a videocassette. I remember editing it in the camera, my friend’s camera, and he had shot it and I tried to edit it by just pressing start and record. The first time I ever did any editing software was in my senior year.

A: So, then that made you go to school to learn video?

C: Yes, I studied film in college, production and actual film like 16mm, how to put a reel in the camera and then develop it yourself and splice it together. Just playing around with it I discovered video is a very powerful medium and became interested in doing storytelling and hoping to do social justice-oriented things. And that is definitely a focus at Hampshire College—they encourage you to pursue non-mainstream careers, so I did film and Latin-American, Latino studies together and they help you combine those two into a project.

A: In this documentary “Lonche: The Tale of Two Taco Trucks,” that will be screened at the Food Farm Festival, your subjects talk about the American Dream. Do you think they still believe in it somehow? The farmworkers are very hard workers, and they’ve come from far away and they earn a living, but is that the American Dream that they speak of, in the film?

C: I definitely tried to complicate the idea of the American Dream and one, let’s see Gabriel, who has the Tacoz Mod Mex Truck is the younger generation—I think he talks about it a little more positively, because he is able to reflect on where his parents came from, started a taquería and then wanted him to do well in life and he went to culinary school and now he has his own business, his own catering business. They are doing well, and serving all these Silicon Valley tech companies, so I think he can acknowledge the benefits of that kind of idea of social mobility or being able to feed your family, that’s what he says. You might not be able to get rich, but at least there’s food on the table.

A: Do you think that the people serving and the people served in Silicon Valley or out in the fields share the same idea of the American Dream? Is there something else that binds them together beside the food?

C: I didn’t get to speak with as many of the tech workers at lunchtime as I would’ve liked to. But, there’s an interesting difference between them and the migrant laborers and most of them are from Mexico.  Their interpretation of the American Dream is very different because people are just there to work and send money back home to their families, so they are not necessarily trying to establish themselves, start a new life, because they don’t necessarily want to be here, they just have to be in order to send money back home.

A: I want to ask you about access, because it’s very difficult to have access to immigrant workers out in the field. Most are undocumented, they don’t want to be filmed, and in your video not only do you have access but there is a very familiar sense to it. You can tell you have a really good relationship with them before you were even filming, you can tell that on camera.

C: Yeah, that’s always the most difficult thing. I got access to Jorge and Sonia who have the truck in Watsonville through a small business incubator program called El Pájaro Community Development Corporation; I think it’s sort of like La Cocina or other programs that help small businesses off the ground. They don’t specifically do food but I went to them and said I was looking to find a small business that you may help me out with, good people that you can vouch for me and my intentions and they might be open to it so, they were the first family that came. I knew I wanted a family-run business and hopefully someone that had been in the game for a long time, so yeah, they have been doing it for over 20 years, since they came from El Salvador to Watsonville and they started from the bottom, renting a truck and now they own I think at least four or five trucks. They are in charge of the warehouse where all the other trucks park and their other business is Gabriel’s business. It’s called the Commissary, where they park the trucks. You get there in the morning and you stock your kitchen and get everything ready, do your prep and go out in the day and come back at the end of the day and hose it all down. The one in Watsonville is fairly small, I think there’s about 15 trucks, the one in San Jose had like 80 trucks.

So I just kind of went there and walked in and it was during their post-lunch rush and the interesting thing in San Jose is that there’s the traditional old school plain white ones which are usually run by Mexican or Vietnamese folks and they are the ones that go to factories, but then the other kind that you can tell, you can identify them visually pretty easily, the bright pink one or the bright yellow one that sells Asian rice bowls so I went and walked around and had conversations with all these people looking for another character to contrast Watsonville and San Jose. And this other truck it was bright red and it had this big luchador on it and I was like oh this one looks good. So, I tracked him down and he was very sweet and open to it and he let me, he said sure next week at 6 a.m. or even earlier. I had to be there early and just rode along with them to see what it was like a whole day. And I was exhausted by the end of the day, of course. It’s incredible that they can do it every day.

A: I really like that there’s sensitivity on the subject without explicitly saying in the very journalistic old fashion way “These are the facts of migrants workers”…

C: Yeah, I really didn’t want to have someone come sit down and be an expert on the subject and contextualize anything. I think it’s more powerful if you can just see things through their eyes and how they are living their life and struggling. It’s got un poco de todo, that’s what Jorge told me recently. I appreciate it, you know it’s got a little sadness, a little happiness, a little fun but yeah…

A: When did you start incorporating more elements like the gourmet trucks?

C: I also knew I was interested at looking at the Watsonville, Santa Cruz area ‘cause there’s so much farm labor around you don’t really see. Especially if you are just going to school at the university. You never go to Watsonville. It’s only like 15 minutes away, but yeah, I was driving down the highway and I could see people out on the strawberry fields, but they’re so far away—they are just like hunched little people on the horizon and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to incorporate them.

I wanted to be able to talk about them, talk about the taco trucks and it really only all came together when I saw a taco truck off in the distance, you know kicking out dust and I could see it was going out and it all clicked: ‘oh they are going to be on their lunch soon, the taco truck is going out to them.’ And in my taco truck research about food and cultural anthropology no one had really talked about the place that the trucks had in the agricultural industry, and so I feel like I recognized how invisible farm workers are in general. Every time you eat strawberries, you can think it came from this farm, it’s organic, locally- sourced, bought it at the farmers market, whatever. But you don’t really know whose hands picked them, or picked the fruit or the conditions where they came from, what their story is.

A: Or what they are even having for lunch.

C: Right, that’s the next element that complicates it even further. It is true that the farm workers make so little generally that they can’t afford the crops that they farm, they can’t get organic kale, you know. They have to sacrifice their own personal health just to put food on the table for the rest of us.

A: What about your editing technique, can you tell us something about that?

C: To simplify the story line, it was easier to do a contrast between two things, without making it too binary or too one thing vs. the other—there’s things that link them together. For the sake of clarity, I have Jorge and Sonia’s business is J&S Catering, and they don’t actually work together in the same truck. It is a day in the life of both, Jorge drives with a cook in the back. And Sonia, they start together in the morning, then they go off. Sonia cooks all day in the back of someone’s truck, you see her interact with Mary, who is driving her truck. It was something I was able to do; editing is manipulation—you are carefully constructing the story you are trying to tell. You try to stay true to the events that actually happened but maybe not quite in the order that they did.

A: And some technical stuff for people to nerd out on. Did you use some specific kind of camera…?

C: It’s funny—I’ve been asked this question a bunch of times, and I can never remember what my camera is called. It’s a Sony Hxv710u, I think. It’s a little Prosumer Sony Camcorder, I think. I was really pleased, very lightweight and it allowed me to act as a one-woman production crew. Just kind of sneak into the corners and not get in anyone’s way, but the taco truck is a very small space to share with people that are trying to cook and I’d reach over their shoulder and get the shot. Used a wireless microphone, and that’s pretty much it. For editing I used Final Cut 7.

A: And, what’s your favorite food truck?

C: My favorite food truck… I like old school, I like Sinaloa in Oakland, and they have two trucks—one has seafood and one has classics. I think it’s one of the cheapest ones. If you get a super burrito, it’s the size of your arm for like 10 bucks (we laugh).

A: Does it have structural integrity? I’ve noticed the Mission ones sort of fall apart.

C: Yeah. I would say so (laughs). But, I get tacos there, ceviche, carnitas. I haven’t tried a lot of them, and it seems like there’s a lot of them every week.

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