Like a pocket-sized tour guide, Peter Szok’s Restaurantes rumba y más: A Gringo’s Guide to Latino Fort Worth challenges residents and visitors alike to explore the city’s rich and often overlooked Hispanic enclaves. The book, though, is more than just a list of sights to see and events to experience (and foods to eat). Szok, who teaches Central and Afro-Latin American history at Texas Christian University, serves up history and insight into the creation of Latino Fort Worth.
Through Fort Worth’s visitors’ bureau, the city broadcasts a finely calculated image as a place for cowboys and culture, to appeal to pretty much everyone. Of course, there’s so much more to the Fort than a couple of honkytonks and some wonderful museums. There’s a vibrant underground rock music scene, for one thing. Also, at least based on this book, Fort Worth’s Latino culture is almost as rich and diverse as San Antonio’s. And it’s not all unwelcoming to gringos.
The Latino story, Szok writes, began in the early 1880s as Mexican workers migrated to Fort Worth to build a rail line that stretched to the New Mexico border. Most of the immigrants settled on the North Side, where many Mexican-Americans still live today. The newcomers who weren’t working for the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway Company were probably working in Fort Worth’s numerous meatpacking plants in the same area.
The historic neighborhood and environs are still loaded with exceptional Mexican eateries, including Dos Molina’s Mexican Restaurant, one of several restaurants featured in Szok’s opening chapter. Along with a ton of trivia –– yes, we know that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son frequented Original Mexican Eats Café and, yes, that the guy who owns Saint-Emilion also co-owns Paco & John Mexican Diner –– Szok offers readers some real meat. He describes traditional dishes such as birria (a Mexican goat stew) in great detail and explains such traditions as serving menudo and barbacoa after mass on Sundays.
As important as food is in most cultures, especially Mexican and Mexican-American, it’s not a defining characteristic. One phenomenon that seems specific to Latinos has a place in the Fort, Szok writes. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Hispanic men across the country (though mostly in the Southwest and California) reacted against their marginalization by white-dominated society through their cars. Low-riders, or cars with hydraulic suspensions and crazy-cool paint jobs, have become synonymous with Latino culture, and the best place to see these super-jalopies in town, Szok writes, is North Main Street on the weekends.
Another phenomenon that’s uniquely Hispanic is jaripeo. In a ramshackle complex in south Fort Worth, dozens of folks regularly gather to watch brave (crazy?) Mexican horsemen ride bulls without stirrups or saddles. As you can imagine, Szok says, things tend to get a little rowdy.
Another popular gathering place is the OK Corral. Described as “the Billy Bob’s of Latino Fort Worth,” the nightclub at La Gran Plaza Mall features DJs and live music mostly of the norteño, banda, and cumbia varieties.
Along with the stuff that gringos have to seek out, Szok says there’s also a lot of stuff that comes to them, including TCU’s Latin American Music Festival, the Mexican dance group Ballet Folklórico, and the annual Day of the Dead parade and celebration at Rose Marine Theater. Szok also offers some recommendations for celebrating events such as Cinco de Mayo at home and also where to take in some boxing matches.
With his book, Szok clearly isn’t trying to make some sort of grand sociopolitical statement. However, he is trying to be comprehensive, and for the sake of comprehensiveness, he could have let his gringo readers know that, well, popping into Outlaws Bar on North Main Street for a beer late on a Saturday night probably isn’t the best idea. Szok also focuses his attention on Mexicans, to the detriment of Fort Worth’s significant Colombian and Puerto Rican populations.
Those populations and others, Szok says, will continue growing here in town, in part because many Latin Americans are desperate to be free from their native countries’ drug wars and poverty.
Fort Worth freelance writer Edward Brown can be reached at email@example.com.