Taquerias: neighborhood mainstays around Houston and most of Texas, built up by brick and shining bright with buzzing neon signs, holy houses of tacos. Taquerias are pieces of living art, at least to Houston-based photographer Chuy Benitez whose latest photojournalist exhibition, Taquerias Southmost, hangs at Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts Center until March 4.
Through upwards of 60 images, Benitez explores themes of entrepreneurship, family and tradition in a “documentary-type” photographic display that captures the vibrancy of the communities created from taquerias in Brownsville, Texas.
“In that area they tend to be really secretive and keep things to themselves, and we were definitely told that over and over again,” Benitez says. “It was a good thing to have that inside connection to do this project.”
Cristina Balli, Director of Texas Folklife, the statewide nonprofit cultural organization that commissioned Benitez’s exhibit, has relatives who own a taqueria in the South Texas town. Since Benitez didn’t know any of the businesses, he felt fortunate to have had help in contacting the eateries.
To give a sense of the distinct environments and neighborhoods, Benitez took numerous detailed photos of the different kitchens and their many cooks, the crowds filling up the dining areas, the building exteriors, and of course, the tacos themselves.
Although the exhibition focuses particularly on the restaurants, one memorable experience for Benitez during the weeklong shoot was when he visited a local factory that supplies tortillas to the taquerias. Rather than churning out one iteration of tortilla for all the taquerias, the factory uses each shop’s special tortilla recipe, so every place truly has its own one-of-a-kind taco.
“[The factory is] the ‘gatekeeper’ of the taquerias,” Benitez says. “ It’s an interesting look at the mechanized side of taquerias and how there are different ways to make [the tortillas].”
Of the taquerias documented, one that left a profound impact on Benitez was Tacos de Marcelo—not just for its large kitchen and bustling assembly line of workers, but also for the business’ seemingly strong familial connections. Benitez noticed Marcelo’s owner and his family eating in the dining space, which was a remarkable image to the photographer.
“It was very apparent that everybody enjoyed being there and they worked hard to make a good taco,” Benitez explains. “In a way, having the owner there felt like being in his house. It felt very comfortable.”
Family and neighborly bonds are pivotal focuses of Southmost. Given how widespread many of these taquerias are from each other, Benitez sought to emphasize how every taco enterprise has its own unique culture and way of bringing the townspeople together through delicious Mexican cuisine.
“We did the visual research to show a bigger sense of community that the taquerias do have,” Benitez adds.