There’s a collective of bartenders and restaurant industry professionals that has for the past two years organized pop-up events celebrating Mexican cuisine and culture.
To get to the story of Los Tlacuaches, let’s take a step back and look at another.
There's a Mesoamerican myth of El Tlacuache (in English, The Opossum): In ancient times, when humankind was stuck in darkness, a lone courageous opossum volunteered to trick its way into the favor of demons who smoked tobacco and drank mezcal around a campfire. Through a series of cunning ruses, the opossum is invited to the campfire by the demons, uses its pouch to steal enough mezcal and tobacco to share with the humans and finally steals away the flame by lighting its own tail on fire.
The tale demonstrates the character of El Tlacuache: an unexpectedly resourceful and generous trickster who brings knowledge and resources to humanity. One could describe Los Tlacuaches founder Jose Gonzalez in similar terms — intelligent and inspiring, generous and knowledgeable, but relatively underestimated and overlooked.
Through the pop-up events organized by Los Tlacuaches, Gonzalez and his collaborators address the various forms of cultural appropriation that have denatured regionally specific, culturally authentic cuisine.
They’re also carving out a place for themselves in an industry that relies so heavily on the labor of Hispanics — and often immigrant — workers who have “great ideas but are getting overlooked for whatever reason,” Gonzalez says.
Part culinary experience, part history lesson, each Los Tlacuaches production is a form of practical education — not unlike the role theatre has played across the world for centuries. Guests are drawn in with the promise of delicious cocktails and cuisine, but they ultimately walk away with a deeper knowledge of Mexican history and culture.
Los Tlacuaches organizers spare no effort to make their pop-up events special — they create costumes, write scripts and transform spaces with decorations for each pop-up.
A 2019 event reimagined Las Almas Rotas as a mock battlefield. Gonzalez and his team decorated the bar as a trench and gave speeches to educate attendees about Batalla de Puebla and the lives of Mexican revolutionaries such as Ignacio Zaragoza.
Another event retold the story of the Mayan equinox with elaborate costumes and performances.
“It’s like the stars aligned,” Gonzalez says, reflecting on the events that led him to this point.
In 2017, he started working as a barback at Midnight Rambler, the hot downtown cocktail spot in the basement of The Joule hotel, where he later became lead bartender.
That same year, the animated film Coco took the United States by storm, Gonzalez notes.
“I was particularly moved by the impact that Coco had for Mexican representation in American culture,” says Gonzalez, who began more actively exploring the history of his immigrant mother’s family in Mexico after seeing the film.
Around the same time, he had been inspired by the success of pop-ups near and far: Santos y Pecadores, a mezcaleria pop-up by Daniel Zapata at Bowen House, and Trash Tiki (soon to drop the “tiki” from its name, for various reasons), a Canadian-based anti-waste cocktail pop-up that inspired many of the drinks at Los Tlacuaches events.
These threads were tied ultimately together by a series of deaths and a serendipitous encounter that led them to find their first pop-up space.
In 2018, several of Gonzalez’s friends and coworkers in the restaurant industry died. To celebrate their lives and recognize their deaths, Gonzalez and his collaborators held the first La Ofrenda (the altar), on Nov. 1 that year at La Acapulqueña Mexican Restaurant in Dallas.
La Ofrenda is a Dia de los Muertos-inspired celebration of dancing, handcrafted cocktails and loteria-based fundraising to benefit a local nonprofit. A share of the 2018 proceeds benefited the North Texas Food Bank.
“It was a huge community effort — family, friends and coworkers coming together to feed people food and celebrate our culture,” says Gonzalez, who credits Orlando Trejo, Saul Avil Hernandez, Andrea Headley and his little brother Flavio for putting in the work to make the dream a reality.
Since then, Los Tlacuaches has held a series of culturally informed pop-up events across Dallas to touch hearts and educate minds, one stomach at a time.
This past November marked the third year Los Tlacuaches have held La Ofrenda at La Acapulqueña. A portion of proceeds from this year’s event benefited two nonprofits: the Harvest Project — an immigrant-founded food rescue and redistribution organization — and the Undocumented Workers Fund of Dallas.
In lieu of dancing — a welcomed change amidst an ongoing pandemic — a vegetarian three-course meal crafted by chef Diana Zamora was offered alongside Gonzalez’s masterfully crafted cocktail pairings. A favorite was the vegetarian pozole verde, which substituted hibiscus for carnitas. It paired excellently with a Nixta corn liquor-based cocktail with ancho chile, Ojo de Tigre Mezcal and lime.
Gonzalez says the growth of Los Tlacuaches would not have been possible without the support of partnerships the group has been able to develop over time, such as El Tesoro, who sponsored La Ofrenda II in 2019.
“Anyone and everyone can be a Tlacuache if they want to help out,” Gonzalez says.
Indeed, Gonzalez's approach appears to be working, with this years’ La Ofrenda boasting six sponsors — Heavy Metl, Victory Wine Group, Abasolo, Nixta Licor de Elote and Ojo de Tigre.
On the other side of the equation, Gonzalez emphasizes the importance of partnerships with mission-oriented nonprofits, and he continues to find ways to use Los Tlacuaches as a vehicle for good.
Despite the growth and success, Los Tlacuaches has not strayed far from its community-based roots.
“My mom literally was at one of our events handing out tamales,” says Gonzalez, who also cites his younger brother as a constant collaborator.
Like the eponymous marsupials, it appears Los Tlacuaches is here to stay. Gonzalez is working on securing locations, sponsors and nonprofit partners for 2021 events.
“I’m just happy that we’re able to show the true meaning of holidays like Cinco de Mayo or the Day of the Dead, where otherwise people might think of them as Drinko de Mayo or Mexican Halloween,” Gonzalez says.
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