In the rough-and-tumble of cultural marketing, what does it take to make a difference?
On the Latino marketing beat, you not only get to see innovation from mainstream marketers, but also from a new class of creatives who don't put marketing on their business cards.
Over the last few months, I've gotten to know the work of an innovator who might easier carry the title of writer/rebel/cultural activist (back in November, he had interviewed me for one of his many writing projects). LA-based Sergio C. Muñoz has his hands on a wide range of cutting-edge projects - from helping a healthcare provider in Southern California bring coverage to Latinos who cannot afford it to instigating a debate on why Mexican chefs don't get the respect they deserve - by mixing art, text, and the occasional piece of digital stagecraft to get people to confront a range of inconvenient truths about money, class, and social justice.
I caught up with Muñoz a couple of weeks ago in LA, where he is in the early stages of writing a book on the Latino healthcare project, and plotting a game plan for a global children's art project called "Gamma Rae in the Americas."
Giovanni Rodriguez: You have one of the most colorful resumes I've seen in a long time. How did you get to where you are today?
Sergio C. Muñoz: I am 38 years old. I have had the misfortune of being in a generation where collapsing economies are a normal thing. The majority of the companies I have worked for, small and large, have gone bankrupt. In many of those companies, I was brought in as a creative asked to lead a change in a square corporate culture. In every instance, the squares have refused to change and failed. My work is specialized in the 4C's: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. Today, most of my clients are contracting me to have me nearby but not all the way inside, thus allowing me to have the time to be active in my local community in southern California. I am specifically active in the passage of the federal Dream Act.
GR: The "East LA Meets Napa" program is an intriguing approach to bringing in many players who can contribute to a common cause - Latino health. What's the origin of the idea, and what's in it for each of the players?
SCM: Cástulo de la Rocha, the CEO of AltaMed, is a Mexican man from Chihuahua who has built the organization from when it was just three people in East LA to this enormous entity serving millions of Latinos throughout southern California. I believe he was in a wine club with some of his friends and they began to drink some of the Latino-owned wines from Napa Valley. As they were becoming friendly with the chefs and restaurateurs around LA, they figured an event matching the two would be successful. Last year, the event raised close to half a million dollars to help the uninsured obtain health services. Everybody is in it to help the least fortunate in our community. Especially at this time when the political establishment is targeting them so cruelly with their apathy and their xenophobia. My role in the project is as writer of the book they are publishing in 2012 called "In Their Own Words." My job was to interview 19 of the participating restaurants in the project and write the narrative for their stories. Then, I was asked to write on the recipes they are putting forward and then pair those recipes to a wine from the participating wineries.
GR: Obviously, the juxtaposition of "East LA" and "Napa" was meant to provoke. There's a huge socioeconomic gap between these two worlds. How well do they mix in this program?
SCM: East LA is not what it used to be. The multitudes of people that show up at Union Station in the summer for this event are curious to learn more about the new energy in food and wine. Likewise, Napa isn't what it used to be. This generation of wine owners are Latinos who used to tend to the grapes. They are humble people that have learned to appreciate the wine culture that was originally thought to be a very European taste.
GR: I have heard you speak about the little respect that Mexican chefs and restaurants get in the world of fine cuisine. Can you elaborate?
SCM: This comes from an essay that I am writing called "The Rankings of Mexican Cuisine." In 2009, Phaidon published a giant book called "Coco." The premise was to have 10 master chefs curate a discovery of 10 contemporary chefs doing great work. In the end, not one of the 110 chefs was Mexican. My essay is an investigation into why that might be. Why the white tablecloth that exists in Mexico hasn't covered the table in places like San Francisco, New York, and Las Vegas. I think it will end up being a question of economics. Why aren't investors investing in the fine cuisine of Mexico within the United States but they are investing in taco trucks on every block?
GR: What can Latino chefs do to earn the visibility they deserve, or is this too tall a hill to climb?
SCM: I am just learning so I haven't come to a conclusion. But what I have discovered is that the restaurants that make a more bastardized version of Mexican food make more money. Two of the tremendous indigenous restaurants that I have been working with have a much steeper hill to climb. They need to educate the client much more than the place that sells burritos and margaritas. My guess is that it will be a gradual change as more investments are made in that type of cuisine. The trick is to not sell out and that becomes tough. If the client comes in asking for a burrito, well, you can either educate that person or sell them a burrito. If you need to make rent, you might end up wrapping up a pinche burrito.
GR: What's your favorite restaurant in LA?
SCM: I enjoy Casa Oaxaca in Santa Ana for indigenous cuisine. La Casita Mexicana in Bell for traditional Mexican food. The work of Chef Hugo Molina at Setá in Whittier when I want an advanced cuisine. The Villa Roma Market for when I want an Argentine steak (Entraña) with fries and a salad. On the 14th, I am taking my gal to try the Peruvian cuisine of Chef Ricardo Zarate at Mo-Chica. But if I was really trying to impress somebody, a "Chef's Table" with Hugo Molina is a very special meal.
GR: What's next for Sergio?
SCM: In March, I will begin co-hosting a cultural affairs radio show out of Cal State University, Long Beach (CSULB) with Dr. José Moreno of the CSULB Latino Studies Department. I will also be launching a children's art project at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA). So, my idea is to focus a lot of my creative energy in the port city of Long Beach. I am curious to see how big of an art-minded audience I can attract in a city that is not known for its artistic interest. I have a great spokesperson - her name is Gamma Rae. If you'd like to read her story, let me know via Twitter: @Intelatin.
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Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.
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