Milwaukee's Hispanic food truck history impacts the current culinary scene
Food trucks are hot in Milwaukee’s vibrant culinary scene. But vendors on wheels were serving the city’s Mexican neighborhoods long before food trucks became chic.
The Milwaukee Health Department currently licenses 120 ‘motorized food peddlers.' More than half bear Hispanic names.
Local culinary historian Kyle Cherek said Milwaukee owes its extraordinary and diverse food truck scene to Hispanic residents, starting with Mexican families who arrived in the 1920s.
“The Mexican community was brought here in 1920s to be migrant workers relative to the beet harvest. The call went out and trains traveled to Mexico saying ‘ample work, come up to the Midwest, pays well,'” said Cherek. “And remember there was the Mexican Revolution that went from 1910 to 1920, so a million Mexicans emigrated to America just for their own safety.”
Milwaukee tanneries offered immigrants brutal but good paying jobs.
Cherek said what began as food carts served up a taste of home for workers from Mexico.
“A lot of people walked to work, and so a food truck — when you have some really, really long hours — was access to the flavors of home, cooked by someone that was part of your community who understood the flavors of home,” Cherek said.
On a recent Saturday on Milwaukee’s south side, an energetic 12-year-old who was cruising the bustling corner of South 13th and West Cleveland stopped at his favorite taco truck.
“I live one block up the road. I usually come to this taco truck every day to order a quesadilla,” the 12-year-old said.
Another person with fond food truck memories from this corner is Iuscely Flores. She and her parents emigrated from Mexico to the United States when she was a little girl.
“I lived two blocks away from here, so whenever my mom didn’t feel like cooking, she’d give me $20, and that would feed us,” Flores said. ”I was nine years old running for the taco truck, so she trusted the community a lot, and I think she trusted me, too.”
Flores said her family stretched its money, for example, when it came to buying a traditional Mexican beverage.
“Horchata is rice water with cinnamon and condensed milk and a lot of water. It’s really sweet. It's delicious,” Flores said. When she was growing up, her mom directed Flores to purchase one large horchata for dinner, without ice, at the food truck "and then she’d have ice at home and kind of make do with the $2 large horchata for four to five people.
Now on her own and living in an adjacent neighborhood, Flores said she averages three food truck stops a week.
"I’m not a taco truck critic, but I like to go to the places where some of the paint is chipping off, where I know the tacos are not going to be like $3 or $4, where they’re still going to stay in the $2 range,” Flores said.
Two blocks away, Flores encountered the food truck that she visited as a child.
Flores ordered her lunch at Taqueria Arandas, served by the food truck owner, Filiberto Leon. He told Flores he’s been in business for more than 20 years, working long hours from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Summers can be especially brutal. “He said when its 100 degrees outside, its 130 degrees inside,” Flores said, interpreting for Leon.
Flores has watched Milwaukee’s food truck scene take off and expand to include other cultures’ food traditions.
Although she looks for the most affordable taco truck food, Flores said she doesn’t skimp on tipping. “Economically, we’re still very much behind our white counterparts,” Flores said.
Culinary historian Kyle Cherek said Milwaukee’s Hispanic food trucks have gone unrecognized for too long.
“These are working family businesses, and they’re also touchstones for communities. Food trucks have been that heart and soul, a heartbeat for this community, and I think that’s less celebrated than it should be and less remembered than it should be when we talk about Hispanic history,” Cherek said.
A history that should be celebrated not just for one month out of a year, but as part of one of Milwaukee’s many rich cultures.