“Cuchillo” Restaurant: Another knife in the heart of the Downtown Eastside | Part II

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Dia de los Muertos (2008)                                                 Cuchillo Restaurant (2013)
Artists: Shepard Fairey & Ernesto Yerena                     Facebook  image
Obey Giant Studio

Part One of this article profiled landowner Steven Lippman and his history of gentrification and displacement in the DTES. We now present Part Two, a look at the cultural and racial appropriation at work in Cuchillo’s marketing strategy. Together the two-part series reveals that restaurants like Cuchillo are up against a community of resistance, defined by its long history of political struggles against racism, colonialism and urban displacement.

Food without soul

“Chili con carne, now plain ol’ chili, was a harbinger of things to come for Mexican food. It was a Mexican dish, made by Mexicans for Mexicans, but it was whites who made the dish a national sensation, who pushed it far beyond its ancestral lands, who adapted it to their tastes, who created companies for large-scale production, and who ultimately became its largest consumer to the point that the only thing Mexican about it was the mongrelized Spanish in its name.”

–Gustavo Arellano, Taco, USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America

Cuchillo hawks a modernized “Anglophone” amalgamation of assimilated “pan-Latin” cuisine, cocktails, art and architecture, created for the palates of Vancouver’s most privileged. Those who can afford it are invited to experience an exoticized dining experience, and to revel in a gentrifying lifestyle in the “dangerous” underbelly of the Downtown Eastside. It’s a tiki bar for the 21st century.

But Cuchillo is much more than just another edgy dining spot: it marks a new bourgeois cultural and socio-spatial shift in the Oppenheimer district. “We’re here and we’re taking over,” is the entitled refrain from the new colonizers, like Big Lou’s butcher shop next door. Vigorously denying their complicity in displacement, these wealthy new arrivals instead proclaim themselves saviours, parroting claims by the likes of Lippman: “We rehabilitate, we re-energize, we reinvigorate, we re-use, we recycle.” Overseen by police yet safe from being stopped, frisked, or ticketed for jaywalking, just across the street from the courthouse, restaurant patrons can “stomp and spend” as if Vancouver’s last low-income neighbourhood existed solely to be their playground.

Restaurants as agents of gentrification are, unfortunately, not new to the DTES. Industry veterans Sean Heather and Mark Brand have been at it for years. But with the arrival of PiDGiN a new breed of restaurant was born, one that mixes luxury dining with open disdain towards the neighborhood that hosts it. Cuchillo is a monstrous sequel to PiDGiN, built on the ground floor ruins of one of Vancouver’s oldest immigrant neighbourhoods. In a six-block radius of Cuchillo, some of the city’s highest social and medical service demands exist — demands that are scarcely met by the proximity of nonprofit providers and government income and disability offices. Food insecurity is pervasive, causing severe nutritional deficiencies that contribute to higher rates of morbidity and mortality among residents. Remember that above Cuchillo the rooms have no kitchens — an irony that presses down hard on the conscience.

For the institutional supporters of restaurants like Cuchillo, restaurant operators are perceived as mindful mediators of the inherent social stressors and conflicts underlying the geography of the DTES. These generous benefactors have courageously decided to “set up shop” in the midst of this troubled community and do big business there. The assumption is that these urban pioneers are well-intentioned, heavily indebted, and yet deeply committed to advancing these locally-owned ventures in Vancouver’s most challenging and distressed community. This crude articulation of good intentions is akin to the white saviour complex that characterizes many of Canada’s so-called “humanitarian” international expeditions. This same mindset also insists that Cuchillo’s owners have no displacement agenda, wholeheartedly embrace the multiculturalism of the DTES, and don’t harbor any prejudices toward impoverished residents.

On the contrary, Cuchillo’s racial, class, and gender-framed aesthetic spins a crooked game of contempt, seduction and manipulation on many fronts, luring customers to consume a counterfeit experience. Like Canadian cell phone company Koodo Mobile’s racist advertising in their “El Tabador” campaign, where a four-inch-tall animated blue mask-wearing, Mexican-wrestler-slash-Latin-lover-caricature speaks crude English in an exaggerated Spanish accent to offer up cheap data plans — Cuchillo’s bizarre mix of pan-Latin food concepts, designer skulls, Mexican blown glass pendants, grey brick walls, natural skylighting, and wrestling pop art, shamelessly targets a young, white, upwardly mobile, and English-speaking demographic.

Anti-Gentrification Rally on Tuesday, June 11
Photo credit: Murray Bush, Flux Photos

Cell phones aren’t sold at Cuchillo but “cultural vulturism” is well on display, preying on patrons’ pocketbooks while playing party to the neo-colonial displacement dynamic happening in the DTES. Hollywood blaxploitation director Quentin Tarantino, of Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction fame, would feel at home charging his credit card at Cuchillo. And perhaps Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo, of Machete and Predators film acclaim (in the latter Trejo played the character “Cuchillo”) would be typecast as the thuggish, racialized head waiter if Cuchillo Restaurant were a cable T.V. series.

A few notes to these excited new owners: “Tapas” aren’t traditional Latino cuisine, and are generally frowned on as “nuevo” Spanish-Mexican fusion. Spain’s “tapas” appetizers date back to Spanish Crown colonizer Hernan Cortes and his conquest of Indigenous Mexico in the sixteenth century. Cortes Island, the exclusive, expensive and overwhelmingly white community that Steven Lippman sought to buy into, is named after the same Spanish colonizer.  Even Cuchillo’s “cocktail creations” owe their origin to indigenous ethnobotany and cultivation techniques of the agave plant, which is distilled into pulque, mezcal and tequila drinks. Indigenous Latin American gastronomy, the basis of this pan-Latino cuisine, is largely derived from a people’s history of Mexico, Central and South America, Africa and the Caribbean.

An ongoing resistance ignored, replaced with racist caricature

“If Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy can remake themselves, so can Canada.”

–Andrea Mandel-Campbell, journalist and author of Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson: Rescuing Canadian Business From The Suds Of Global Obscurity

Life-sized Lucha Libre film and wrestling posters are torn and rumpled at the edges and pasted on top of each other like worn-out back alley ad postings. These are the images featured on a display wall as you walk into the restaurant, designed by Erin Sinclair. As Cuchillo’s art consultant, Sinclair riffs on a layered “street mural look” — dark, tough tones suffused in bronze lighting — projecting a subconscious fear of Mexican-masked menaces common to a white middle-class psyche. (Sinclair is a Vancouver-based film and documentary director who touts her non-profit, grassroots “cred” in socially-conscious photography; she is the co-author of “This is East Van.” For an example of a truly progressive, racially diverse, and community-based photography project, check out the Sixth Street Photography Workshop in San Francisco, California.)

This restaurant’s overarching theme of violence reproduces the mass media images of “brutal beheadings” and “drug cartel wars” that imagines contemporary Mexico as violent, racialized, and hypermasculine. This decor is self-consciously coded as exploitative entertainment, determined to deny the meaningful and respected figures of Mexico’s revolutionary history: Las Soldaderas (Mexican revolutionary women fighters), Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos, and Mariano Abarca Roblero, an anti-mining activist who was murdered in front of his restaurant in 2009 for organizing Indigenous opposition to the Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration firm in Chicomuselo, Chiapas.

The antithesis of Koodo’s racist “El Tabador” and Cuchillo’s macho motif is a compassionate, complex — and real — action hero that lives outside of Mexico’s wrestling ring. He’s known as Superbarrio Gomez. Superbarrio Gomez (aka Marco Rascon Cordova) is a long time Mexican social justice organizer who dons red tights, a cape and a red and yellow “luchador” mask to attend hundreds of political rallies and neighbourhood assemblies in Mexico City to support the struggles of oppressed people. Cordova is a performance artist, using the popularity of Lucha Libre among working-class Mexicans to inspire them to join social movements. “Superbarrio’s wrestling ring is a place of possibilities where corrupt landlords and politicians are unmasked.

As long as Superbarrio keeps his mask, we all win”, commented an observant writer for the Hemispheric Institute on Performance and Politics. By confronting gentrification head-on, Superbarrio shatters the gross commercial novelty that Cuchillo’s wrestling obsession strives to produce.

“Superbarrio Gomez” confronts riot police in Mexico City

Contemporary murals by Mexican artists that rightly condemn the deportations of undocumented immigrant Latino workers went unsolicited by the owners or the restaurant. This artwork could have thoughtfully drawn attention to those who were recently captured by the Canadian Border Service Agency on Vancouver’s Victoria Drive, and subsequently spectacularized by the Border Security reality television show. These works could fill Cuchillo’s long, dark corridor, but in so doing they would also explode its mythic brand of Mexican “imagineering.” Instead the venue is determined to eschew any vestige of protest art like that of Saenz, who unveiled an anti-corporate mining mural on January 28, 2013 in Oaxaca City, in solidarity with Idle No More’s J28 global day of action. Instead they co-opted a radical work of art, “La Calavera de Don Quijote”, by legendary Mexican printer and Dia de los Muertos international icon Jose Guadalupe Posada, to use uncredited as the background for a twitter account.

The mockery continues with indigenous artifacts supplanted by six mosaic studded, black-and-white wrestler’s skull masks. The sunken black eye sockets, severed noses, fangled teeth, and protruding cheek and jaw bones give the white-coloured base skulls a demonic, deathly grotesqueness. Cuchillo’s mask prototypes are reminiscent of Aztec mosaic death masks used in religious burials. (The Aztecs preserved skulls to honour the deceased, believing that life does not end but is on a continuum). But here Cuchillo misappropriates, sacrilegiously, and sets the skulls to a black-and-white tiled background on the restaurant’s open kitchen pass. And a lively neon-lit “calavera” (skull) has also been crudely repurposed as Cuchillo’s website trademark.

Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an event widely celebrated in Latin America, a day with cultural roots that trace back to time immemorial in Indigenous Mexico. It continues as a celebration and affirmation of life and death, honouring the memories of dead ancestors and children with processions, with gift offerings of bread (“pan de muerto”), orange marigold flowers, sugar skulls (“calaveras de azucar”), decorative perforated paper (“papel picado”), and with photographs at cemeteries and at home made altars to awaken the spirits of loved ones lost. Cuchillo irreverently manipulates the symbols of Dia de los Muertos, converting them into a cheap Halloweenish encounter of the “macabre” or of the “exotic other.” Posada is turning over in his grave. Cuchillo guts this sacred tradition of its deeper spiritual meaning and distastefully exploits it as exotic tourism for foodies. All of this is done on a miniscule scale, nonetheless, compared to Disney, which recently sought to trademark Day of the Dead to sell merchandise.

Cuchillo’s location in the York Rooms should further trouble the conscience. Upstairs from the restaurant’s bohemian entrance, single-room-occupancy hotel tenants live on meager incomes, struggle with food insecurity, have no kitchens to cook with, share communal toilets, and definitely can’t afford to dine downstairs. Cuchillo’s high-end business presence puts most of the low-income tenants “under the knife” — and we don’t mean cosmetic surgery. According to several York Hotel tenants monthly rental rates have escalated and reached $550 per month. (The Ministry of Social Development’s monthly shelter allowance for welfare and disabled recipients is $375.) To meet the rent shortfall, many tenants are cutting back on food purchasing. An uptick in evictions has begun to increase — two current York tenants were already evicted just last weekend. Most residents’ long-term tenancy, given the forces of gentrification in the DTES and Lippman’s serial eviction history, is absolutely endangered — all so Steven Lippman can add to his already enormous fortune.

Despite evictions and displacements, the struggle for housing justice continues. For many here, much like PiDGiN Restaurant that came before, Cuchillo is a surgical strike by real estate developers against the community, with only one purpose: to displace the people living in the historic heart of Vancouver. Japantown is now the target of the same City Hall-driven displacement which destroyed Hogan’s Alley in 1970.  And even now the City plots to dismantle the viaducts and develop a shiny new urban enclave it may even mockingly rename Hogan’s Alley. The violence of the original viaduct development should be recalled, not recreated.. Coupled with the imminent passage of the DEOD local area plan in November, gentrifiers have begun to sharpen their knives, ready to devour new investment opportunities. The new normal of “revitalization with despair” will cannibalize the remaining affordable housing stock, small family-run businesses, and the lives of low-income people in the DTES. And for the poorest of the poor — homeless people, IV drug users, unemployed immigrants, disabled residents, sex workers and residential hotel tenants — this despair can be lethal.

Class warfare, one plate at a time

“This idea of fusion, it’s confusion. Yes, I’m a purist. Yes.”

–Chef Carmen “Titita” Ramirez, El Bajio Restaurants in Mexico City. Mija Chronicles, “Mexican food the old-fashion way at El Bajio.” June 1, 2010 interview

Located directly across from the Georgia viaduct freeway, the Main Street off-ramps, and up the block from the Jimi Hendrix shrine, is where the Hogan’s Alley black community, black businesses, and the only black church of Vancouver once stood. Now, ironically, on these demolished ruins sits the “Hogan’s Alley Cafe”. Newly purchased by Daniel Gomez Gonzalez and Patricia Becerril Vidrio, Mexican immigrants from Mexico City and Guadaljara in 2012 to Vancouver. Gonzalez and Vidrio, the parents of two young girls, mind the shop seven days a week. Behind the cafe’s front counter menu items are chalked on an enlarged blackboard and several handwritten signs are taped to the front windows, promoting the daily specials.

Chilaquiles, a Mexican staple breakfast of eggs and salsa served on a bed of melted cheese, beans and strips of corn tortillas, is a house favorite; and of course, huevos rancheros at $7.50 and the $8.50 chicken mole enchiladas never go unordered. But business isn’t booming and times have certainly toughened in the last six months for this immigrant family. Hogan’s Alley Cafe, unlike the Cuchillo restaurant, doesn’t cater to the city’s pretentious gentry and doesn’t have a pipeline of political connections or online foodie magazine contacts to help promote its vitality.

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Hogan’s Alley Cafe owners, Daniel Gomez Gonzalez and Patricia Becerril Vidrio

Daniel and Patricia’s cafe can’t approach Cuchillo’s inflated pricepoints, where “lamb bondiga mole tacos” are $14 and “wild Mexican sea prawns tapas” sells for $21.  Their $5 quesadilla is definitely no match for the sophistication of what Cuchillo chef and business partner Stu Irving described in a January, 2013 Scout Magazine interview as “honest comfort food, nothing fancy.”

When asked if their struggling small business can survive this gentrifying nexus of high commercial rents in Chinatown, Strathcona and the DTES neighbourhoods, Daniel observed: “We have no choice. Our life savings are in here. Neither myself or Patricia had our studies validated when we obtained residency in Canada. I’m an accountant and my wife is a physical therapist specializing in indigenous healing methods. But that was back home, I guess. With two little girls to feed and clothe, we have to make it. This place isn’t fancy but it’s good and affordable Mexican food. Please come back to eat, and get the word out. Our livelihood depends on it.”

DTES residents and allies will host a media conference outside of Cuchillo Restaurant at 261 Powell Street this Friday, July 5th at 6pm.