How 'Tacos for Teachers' Embodies Los Angeles

"People say, ‘We have to worry about immigration! If we don’t, we’ll have a taco truck on every corner.’ For me, and for most Angelenos, well, it’s the dream.”

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Jan 18 2019, 3:30pm

Image via Getty Images.

“A taco, it could be argued, is the basic unit of consumption in Southern California, the parcel of corn and spice and animal whose masters line our boulevards, a food whose reach extends from the meanest barrio streets to the heart of Beverly Hills. When we move to New York or Paris, it is tacos that haunt our dreams; when we are hungry after a night of dancing, it is the taqueros who nourish us, who appear precisely where and when we need them the most.” —Jonathan Gold

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, we could leave the house, and in less than ten minutes we’d be at Taco Deli (for carne asada tacos), Tortas Mexico (for tortas al pastor), La Cabañita (for steaming bowls of scarlet posole), Los Gringos Locos (for tableside guacamole), or Doña Maria (my sister and I regularly fought over the multi-colored corn chips—this place had the most perfect salsa we could imagine.) If we drove into the city, the options became virtually limitless.

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At the same time that I was receiving an education in the food of my hometown, arguing with a child’s certainty about why I deserved the last green corn chip, I was attending public school. My teachers at the time might have gotten apples, but the teachers of LA have a new edible gift in mind.

See, the Los Angeles Unified School District is on strike for the first time in 30 years. The teachers are demanding smaller class sizes, better wages, less standardized testing, more staff—LA schools often lack full-time nurses and librarians—and more investment in their students.

While they picket, they will be armed with free tacos.

Upon hearing that the strike was coming, the LA chapters of the DSA and the International Socialist Organization decided to stand in solidarity with the teachers of the second largest school district in the United States. When they were trying to figure out how best to do that, they hit upon a simple solution: give the teachers tacos.

An alliterative fundraiser was born. Tacos for Teachers was initially supposed to raise $1,000 to provide one taco truck for one school. Since then, it has ballooned. At last count, it had raised $35,000.

California has the 5th largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $2.7 trillion. Despite this, it has the dubious distinction of being 43rd in the nation for investment in public education, spending far less than the national average of $12,526 per student. California also has one of the worst student-teacher ratios in the country, and Los Angeles—a huge district overwhelmingly peopled by underprivileged students of color—has experienced a 287% growth in charter schools since 2008.

Advocates say this lack of investment could be easily addressed. The LAUSD alone has $1.86 billion sitting in a reserve fund, waiting for a rainy day. Ignoring all that potential funding leaves teachers like Gillian Russom of Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School drowning under the weight of their responsibilities: “I currently have two classes of forty students, and I see about 200 students every day… I see kids slipping through the cracks, but I just can’t get to them. If I give the students an essay assignment, I’m potentially grading 200 essays. What kind of feedback are the kids going to get?”

The ISO frequently has its meetings at Zingo Tacos, so when Luz Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant whose parents own the restaurant, heard about the idea, she knew she had to get involved: “I immediately reached out to the organizers… We’re providing tacos and breakfast items as well. My mom is really excited about it. She wanted to offer coffee and beans and rice.” The Zingo’s team is feeding about 300 teachers a day at schools across Los Angeles, and Rodriguez says she couldn’t be happier to support the fight.

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Photo courtesy Max Belasco.

But why has this campaign received such an overwhelming response? Max Belasco, the chair of the local Democratic Socialists of America’s Labor Committee, acknowledges that the name is cute, and that helping educators is something most people can get behind, but ultimately he thinks there’s a simple answer: “It’s because tacos, and taco trucks specifically, are such an icon of Los Angeles. They’re everywhere...LA is such an epicenter for [political] struggles and contradictions...People say, ‘We have to worry about immigration! If we don’t we’ll have a taco truck on every corner.’ And that, for me, and for most Angelenos, well, it’s the dream.”

That dream seems to be resonating with people from all corners of the United States. The GoFundMe page is full of testimonials from people from places like Chicago and Kentucky and as far away as Germany.

Russom, part of the ISO team that first hit upon the idea for the fundraiser, believes it’s the sign of a rising tide: “I think people were inspired by the teachers’ strikes last year. They’re really excited to see that in the second-largest school district in the country, we’re going to continue this fight. We’re going to continue this fight in a city with 85% Black and brown students who have been systematically underserved. We’re going to continue this fight in a state that’s run by Democrats, and a city run by Democrats who still have failed to provide enough resources for public education. People want to see this struggle to fully fund our schools, to create the schools that kids really deserve… Public education is the place where we as working class people put our hopes and dreams for the next generation. Kids and parents come into the system with huge expectations for what public schools can do for them. They have every right to those high expectations, so we need to fight for the kind of schools that will help young people reach their full potential.”

All surplus funds from the campaign will go to the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. Rodriguez, who grew up in LAUSD schools and whose sister regularly gets letters asking to help her kids’ teachers buy school supplies, says that, “We’re getting involved because we really do care about public education. We’re not teachers, but we can identify with their struggle.”

She’s clearly not the only one.

You can donate to Tacos for Teachers here, and learn more about the strike here.

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