Criminals & Tacos: A guide in the practice of giving the benefit of the doubt

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By: Khaya R. Dillon

“Criminals and Tacos.” The first time I heard about this controversial restaurant name was when a group of peers brought it up in a journalism class–Media, Movements, and Community Engagement. The mission of this journalism course was to harness communication technology to “help forge progressive social change.” One of these peers, acting as unofficial head of the group, described the restaurant’s name as wrong and racist, and implied that something had to be done about it–that we can do something about it. This was a social justice class afterall.

In this context, though it never had to be said, the first thing I thought of when I heard this restaurant’s name was Mexicans. It was only after my social injustice class had concluded that these thoughts cleared up enough for me to consider that the owner of the restaurant might not have had the intention of playing on Mexican stereotypes when naming his restaurant. The person who came up with “Criminals & Tacos” might not have the same experiences and knowledge I have that tells him this is politically incorrect. I only knew one side of the story, and I’m one who practices the benefit of the doubt to the very end.

Criminals and Tacos is the new Mexican restaurant opening on Easton Avenue,  New Brunswick. This is in close proximity to Rutgers’ College Ave Campus

The first step in practicing the benefit of the doubt is recognizing you’re assuming something. Research shows that people have the natural tendency to overestimate internal versus external factors when judging other people’s actions, more so in the western world then the eastern world. In psychology, this is called ‘fundamental attribution error.’ When someone makes a mistake or does something inappropriate, we first assume that it’s because of their personality rather than their circumstances.

If you’re curious, the second step is getting your assumptions ratified or nullified by exploring the other side. Doing a background check on the owner, Chef Andrew Schiff, I found out he has been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years. Apparently, Schiff went into the food business after dropping out of law school with his wife. He became owner of a successful organic restaurant in California called “Spread”, which served more than a hundred flavors of peanut butter. His catering business has served for the Emmys, Golden Globes and Sundance Film Festival. Like Spread, Andrew Schiff plans to have multiple locations of Criminals and Tacos across the country, specifically in college cities. Rutgers University, New Jersey’s largest university, is just the beginning. One of the restaurant’s missions is to provide cheap, but quality Mexican food to financially struggling, ramen noodle eating, college students.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Brunswick is 26 percent Mexican. Chef Andrew Schiff is actually moving to New Jersey from San Diego, a major city in California. According to the U.S. Census Bureau of 2010, 28.8 percent of San Diego’s  total population is Hispanic, with 25 percent of the city being Mexican American. Technically New Brunswick has a slightly higher Mexican population, but because San Diego has more more of a hispanic culture, did Andrew Schiff come to New Jersey with the idea that he was bringing hispanic culture with him? If this possible idea is true, however, why isn’t he more politically correct?

In an interview Chef Schiff had with the Daily Targum, he explained the name of his restaurant is based off of an idea that is “so much older than Donald Trump.” According to this interview and the one he had with New Jersey Business, he explains that the name “Criminals and Tacos” is inspired by an underground taco shop that was filled with criminals and located under the kitchens of Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz is a small rocky island located off the coast of San Francisco Bay in California, and in the years 1934 to 1963, had a large federal prison that contained America’s most dangerous felons. Following this criminal theme, Chef Andrew Schiff plans to have mugshot photos hanged on the wall and have menu items named after judicial sentences.

Even outside the context of my social injustice class, many’s first reaction is to depict the name of the restaurant in a negative light. Going around the College Ave campus, I asked Rutgers students if they were familiar with the new restaurant and their first impressions of the name “Criminals & Tacos.”

“I heard there are a lot of people questioning the name and I think they should reconsider it. It’s a little offensive,” A male student who had prior knowledge of the restaurant responded. I informed that the name is actually suppose to be inspired by an underground taco shop, according to Chef Schiff. The student remained unconvinced. “Isn’t the actual logo like sombrero and sugar skull or something? I think he just needs to rectify his image. Even if that wasn’t his intention, it’s still offending people.”

Another Rutgers student, Drashti Parekh, had not heard of the restaurant before when I approached her. “It seems kind of prejudice in a way, because it implies… it goes along with that stereotype that hispanic people are like criminals,” Parekh gave her first impression. I informed her that the name is suppose to be inspired by an underground taco shop. She, too, remained unconvinced. “I don’t think that justifies it, no, because no one is going to think of that when you hear the name, so it’s kinda just forwarding that stereotype. ”

Criminal and Taco’s logo is a skull with eyes and marking that closely resemble the sugar skulls (‘calaveras’ in spanish) that are used in the Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos). The restaurant’s calavera theme, along with the name “Criminals and Tacos” both insult us with thoughts that point to Mexicans. Though Chef Andrew Schiff voiced that he is not trying to play on stereotypes in his restaurant’s name, how it comes across to potential customers is important, both in a business and ethic sense. The underground taco shop that existed in Alcatraz Island according to Chef Andrew Schiff, is not well known by the public, Mexican heritage and stereotypes are–this is what most of the public is going to think.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t, yeah…” Shaja Darji, a student that also had not heard of the restaurant before, responded when asked how she felt about the name. She did not think of Mexicans when hearing “Criminals and Taco” for the first time.

From my experiences, America sometimes becomes so round up in being politically correct that, in the act, they show they are subconsciously racist. It’s okay to associate tacos with Mexicans because that is indeed part of their culture, but are we the ones being racists by instinctively associating criminals to Mexicans, when Chef Andrew Schiff might not have been? Are we assuming his intentions, and accusing him of  racism and oppression because he is caucasian?

While exploring the other side of the story, I found many more questions come up, and none of my instinctive assumptions had been clearly nullified or ratified. I still have my suspicions and I still had my doubts–I did not have any proof to confidently come to any conclusions. Accusing someone when you have little evidence should be avoided–you should have little doubts, not little evidence. Whether someone practices the benefit of the doubt can be the difference between that person being skeptical or prejudice.

“I didn’t choose the name, the name has always been out there. It is something that is associated with the most important culinary history. It’s so important. It is probably one of the most exclusive dining clubs ever on the planet… It was made by people who were anything but Mexican,” Chef Andrew Schiff explained to the Daily Targum.

Searching the interwebs, I tried to find traces of this underground taco shop on Alcatraz island that Chef Andrew Schiff mentioned, but to no avail. Was it so exclusive that it’s hard to find information on it now? If it’s so exclusive, how did Schiff learn about it?

To fact check this, I ended up calling the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary museum and speaking to a park ranger.

“There is no taco shop on Alcatraz Island, I can tell you that,” the park ranger said on the phone. “Never been, never will be. No, no, no. We do not have any food services on the island… we keep the food to a minimum on Alcatraz Island. A taco stand on Alcatraz?” The sound of disbelief in his voice grew, “This is a sandstone rock. The military built a insulation down here during the civil war, so there’s history back to 1863. They had food services for the people, of course, that lived here, but there was never a taco restaurant. This was an army post, and then an army prison, then a maximum security prison. They fed the prisoners in the cell house with a kitchen, but there was never a restaurant on the island. It has always been federal property, and their has never been a restaurant on Alcatraz for a taco stand.”

Being imprisoned in our minds inevitably causes us to be delusional, because we form beliefs based on false or incomplete information. There are always unknown unknowns, so though you may think you know something well, a new piece of information has the ability to prove you wrong. Or right.

With this new piece of information, there were no more doubts in my mind. Not only was Chef Andrew Schiff being insensitive, not considering how others would receive his restaurant’s name, but it seems like he was trying to be racist and controversial on purpose. I’m under the impression that when the name “Criminals and Tacos” was being received too negatively by the public, he made up this underground taco shop story as a cop out.

“Oh, now that you say that, yeah, now I see it,” Shaja Darji said after I had asked her directly whether the name made her think of Mexicans.

”Just avoid any kind of stereotypical statements, because there are so many names they could possibly pick. Why just…’Criminals and Tacos.’ I feel like there are so many choices in the world. Pick another name, don’t pick a name that’s going to get…”  Shaja Darji advised. When asked why she thought this name was chosen, she responded, “Maybe he thought it’d attract people?”

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