Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

In the first chapter of D.H. Lawrence's late novel, The Plumed Serpent, an Irishwoman named Kate has a terrible experience at a Mexico City bullfight. The book is set during the Mexican revolution. Kate is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds in the arena and by the murderous event itself. Afterward, she tells a driver:

"Take me to Sanborns, where I can sit in a corner and drink tea to comfort me."

Sanborns—no apostrophe, because in Spanish there are no apostrophes—was founded as a pharmacy in 1903 by two brothers from California, Walter and Frank Sanborn. The brothers soon added a soda fountain and kitchen. Sanborns became a trendy hangout for expats and Mexican socialites. It advertised itself as a safe refuge for people like Kate—a small slice of civilization in an uncivilized place.

Now Sanborns is one of the biggest brands in Mexico, with more than 400 locations across country. Walter and Frank are long gone. The chain is publicly traded, majority-owned by Carlos Slim, the world's second-richest man. In addition to pharmacies, contemporary Sanborns restaurants come attached to department stores that sell everything from Playstations to ships in bottles.

The restaurants themselves resemble Denny's locations dressed up in the vestiges of pre-revolution Mexico. Waitresses at Sanborns wear huge colorful dresses meant to make customers feel like they own a hacienda or two. The menus and bathroom signs are written in a fancy, old-time font. The food is bland and overpriced. The service usually disengaged.

Still, there's something about Sanborns. Despite celebrating an era in which a vast majority of Mexican people were treated terribly by their government, it is insanely popular. Sanborns leverages nostalgia for a past that was not particularly pleasant. But the affectation of being a high-class, comforting restaurant is executed so enthusiastically that it is almost self-fulfilling. Sanborns remains a nice place to sit in a corner and drink tea.

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

Jack Johnson arrived in Mexico City in 1919. He had fled the United States seven years earlier after being sentenced to 366 days in prison for the trumped-up charge of transporting a white prostitute across state lines. But he was still the biggest star in boxing, even in exile. Still the man whose reign over the heavyweight division inspired sports writers to go searching for the original Great White Hope, and still the man who knocked the Great White Hope out.

Thousands greeted Johnson and his wife Etta at the Mexico City train station. They were feted by generals and politicians. Mexico was remaking itself in the wake of a long and convoluted revolution. Johnson's arrival was a chance to demonstrate that the country was ready to take a step forward – from agrarian dictatorship to modern, industrial democracy. The prizefighter would spend nearly a year in Mexico, putting on boxing exhibitions, shilling for sporting goods companies, even signing on with a real estate concern that sought to convince African-Americans to buy land in Mexico.

One afternoon early in their stay, Johnson and Etta – who was white – walked into the famous Sanborns cafe in Mexico City's historic center for lunch. But before they could even place their order, owner Walter Sanborn refused to serve Johnson on racial lines. Johnson went and found a few of the generals he had met and told them what happened. They returned to Sanborns together and all sat down at the counter. They ordered ice cream. Everybody was served except for Johnson.

The generals argued with Sanborn but he would not budge. They called in police reinforcements. Some newspapers reported that they even threatened to revoke Sanborn's restaurant license and shutter his business. According to a story in the Chicago Defender newspaper, two of the generals pointed pistols at Sanborn's head, informing him that Mexico "was not a white man's country." The crowd chanted "Viva Johnson, viva Mexico!"

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

I lived in Mexico City as a white man for just under two years. Not very long, but long enough to realize that the generals were wrong—or at least were coming at the topic of whiteness in Mexico from an aspirational, as opposed to realistic perspective. Race is a complicated subject in Mexico, encompassing far more than just skin color. Nationality, conquest, and class play into it. The very notion of a Mexican identity is subjective; a perpetual wrestling match between old and new, pre-Hispanic and Catholic, more fraught than the simplified notion of a mestizo culture that is half indigenous and half Spanish.

The story of white men in Mexico begins with Hernán Cortés and La Malinche, the indigenous woman who became his mistress and translator. According to the national mythology, La Malinche sold her own people out or the sake of the conquistador. She spied on the people of Cholula, and told Cortés about a coming sneak attack. In turn, Cortés did to La Malinche what white people have been doing to Mexico since. In the words of Octavio Paz, he "forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over." He had a son by her, but they never married.

La Malinche lives on in the term malinchismo, used to describe the phenomenon of servile, overly accommodating behavior directed at white foreigners in Mexico. The term came into common use in newspapers in the middle of the twentieth century as a slur against businessmen and politicians who did things like promise up sweet trade deals to American interests. NAFTA was criticized as malinchista, as was the recently passed energy reform bill that will privatize parts of the national oil industry.

But if you want to actually see the ways Mexico remains a white man's country, all you have to do is turn on the television or look up at one of the many billboards looming over Mexico City. For example, last year, the airline Aeromexico got in trouble when some text from a commercial casting call was leaked publicly. Specifically, the airline was looking for people with white skin, and a Polanco look. Polanco is Mexico City's poshest, and whitest, neighborhood. The implication is not just white, but rich. The two are inseparable.

Nor was Aeromexico alone. Structural malinchismo plays out everywhere. The people seen in advertisements here rarely look anything like most Mexican people. They are perpetually fair-skinned. Jack Johnson might have made boxing big in Mexico, but today the country's most popular and commercially successful fighter has white skin and red hair. And it's most famous restaurant chain was founded by white Americans with a white expat demographic in mind.

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

Last year, a reporter for the newspaper La Jornada wrote a short profile of an anonymous Sanborns waitress, focusing on her low income. The reporter, Enrique Galván Ochoa, called the poverty level wages she faced "Sanbornomics." The waitress worked six days a week and earned about $375 dollars a month after tips. Curious about the math, I went to a Sanborns near my apartment and spoke to a waitress named Rosa Irene.

Rosa Irene is a chatty, joyful 26-year-old. She is from a town in Mexico state about ninety minutes' drive from the city. Before coming to work in a Sanborns two years ago, she had only eaten in the restaurants a couple of times, on special occasions. Her favorite dishes are the carne asada and the enchiladas suizas – which legend has it were invented by a Swiss chef working in a Sanborns kitchen. She also loves the elaborate Sanborns cakes.

When I first asked Rosa Irene for an interview, she hesitated. She said maybe on her break. Then she looked around at her section of the restaurant, and saw that it was empty. I offered her a seat at the table, but she refused it. The bosses would frown upon that, but she was very happy to talk. She even brought over a coffee table book about Sanborns from the adjacent department store.

Working six days a week at Sanborns, Rosa Irene earns about $165 USD a month before taxes and tips. If she is lucky, she might sell the most of a particular product on a given day and earn a weekend off. She had to buy her own uniform. She has to log all of her tips in a booklet, so management can ensure that she is allotting 40 percent to kitchen staff. Her Sanborns income is not enough to live on, so she works on the side repairing computers for people (she is studying to be a systems engineer).

Rosa Irene likes Sanborns—especially her location, beneath a hotel with tourists frequently stopping in for meals—because unlike when she is studying or working on computers, she gets to be around people. But the irony of her situation is self-evident: she works in a restaurant owned by the country's richest man that celebrates an era when Mexican workers suffered for low wages under wealthy landowners. A century after the revolution, her pay is so low she has to work a second job to get by.

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

Soon after I moved to Mexico, I was asked at a job interview if I had experienced malinchismo yet. At the time, I didn't even know what malinchismo was, much less whether I had experienced it. The man interviewing me was an American, and he explained things quite frankly. He told me that I would soon experience malinchismo and that it would be terribly uncomfortable. But I never did, at least not explicitly. I never caught people falling over themselves to help me simply because I was a white foreigner. Mexico City is notoriously polite. It was hard to tell where that politeness ended.

But sometimes I would think about malinchismo when I was working on a story. Had I not swooped in from the United States to live far more affluently in Mexico than I ever could have at home, exploiting the favorable exchange rate, and mining the country's history and culture for articles that I could turn around sell to advance my career? I had that thought when I started writing this essay, back when I was living in an apartment in Colonia Roma. I would walk around the neighborhood and say hello to my neighbors and hope that the reason people opened up to me in Mexico was because I was respectful and genuinely interested in my subjects and treated their lives with dignity. But then again, how would they know that? Maybe they would not have been so quick to speak if I was just another Mexican journalist. Maybe Rosa Irene only answered my questions because I was a white American customer and her job as a Sanborns waitress was to make me happy.

Some days I would catch a reflection of myself in a shop window, or find myself staring over the crowds in a subway car and remember that I was tall, white, a gringo. Or else somebody working in a taco stand or a store would call me güero. Güero is a slang term for a fair-skinned person, generally a blond, but it also has class connotations. It's often spoken "upward." I'm not blond, but I fit the description. My friend Alfredo, who is dark complexioned—he would be called moreno or prieto—owns a little restaurant. He once told me with some amazement that when he goes to buy vegetables in the city's massive central market, he gets called güero by the shopkeepers working the stalls.

Which is to say that in Mexico, race and socioeconomic status are completely intertwined. The country is at once tremendously diverse—with major regional and cultural differences, and scores of indigenous languages still spoken—and so homogeneous that class can stand in for race. Racism exists in the context of money and power, which are concentrated mostly amongst light-skinned people who flaunt their status by isolating themselves the same way wealthy people do in other countries, and by assuming an obscene deference from people poorer and darker than them.

For instance, well-to-do Mexicans tend to call waiters jóven, which literally means youngster, even if they are twenty years old and the waiter is seventy. And they tend to say it with a touch of disdain. The comfort with which some of the people around me in Mexico wore their privilege made me consider my own. Maybe I wasn't noticing malinchismo because it had always been there. Because I'm a white Jewish dude from L.A. who always had it good.

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

The most complete picture of the Jack Johnson incident at Sanborns comes from Theresa Runstetdtler's biography: Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line. She quotes a colonel as saying, "You are in Mexico, not in the United States! Here there are no color differences, here everyone is equal!" But Sanborn still denied his celebrity customer service.

The situation escalated to the edge of violence. A lawyer threatened to beat Walter Sanborn with his cane. Johnson's wife Etta appeared and spoke her mind. Johnson even stood up in front of the crowd and addressed the proprietor: "I am a negro, Mr. Sanborn, my skin is black, but I have a whiter heart than you."

Finally, perhaps because of the generals' pistols pointed at his head, Sanborn apologized. He shook Johnson's hand and served him a bowl of ice cream. Johnson left Mexico City within the year and returned to the United States to complete his prison sentence.

It is easy to see why Mexico, where slavery was banned in 1829, was so appealing for African-Americans stuck facing down Jim Crow north of the border. After all, thousands of slaves had escaped south of the Rio Grande before the Civil War. And Mexico's combativeness over slavery in Texas was one of—if not the—principle factors that led Texas to declare its independence in 1836.

It is also easy to see why a man like Jack Johnson would go for a business venture that sought to sell land in Mexico to disenfranchised African-Americans. An item from the June 7, 1919 issue of the New York Age, quoted Johnson as saying the following: "You, who are lynched, tortured, mobbed, persecuted, and discriminated against in the boasted land of liberty, the United States. Own a home in Mexico. Here one man is as good as another, and it is not your nationality that counts but simply you."

Some people came. Langston Hughes' father moved to Mexico City and worked as a lawyer. Hughes himself spent six months there writing and translating. Negro League baseball stars like Cool Papa Bell would play in Mexican leagues. But Johnson's venture fizzled out, and the promise of Mexico as a land without racism went unfulfilled.

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

Around 1917, the Sanborn family acquired what would become the crown jewel and flagship location of their company: the Casa de Azulejos, or House of Tiles in the historic center. The 16th century palace had been previously occupied by the Jockey Club, and briefly, by the Casa del Obrero Mundial, the House of the Worldwide Worker, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. The building still lives up to its name: a stunning two story palace covered with blue and white tiles. Diners can eat in the converted central courtyard, painted with gentle wildlife scenes, or at the soda fountain in the back, or go up the stairs past the Jose Clemente Orozco mural and have a drink in the bar.

In the years after the revolution, the Sanborns beefed up their business. They began to sell artisan silver products imported from other parts of Mexico, and to wholesale pharmaceuticals. Walter Sanborn returned to the United States, leaving Frank and his two sons in charge of operations. Frank commissioned the logo that Sanborns still uses today: three owls perched on a branch, to represent the father and his two sons.

In 1946, the Sanborn family sold the company to Walgreens, who partnered with a Mexican firm and turned Sanborns into the giant corporation it is today. They began to manufacture candy, and home products. Sanborns—along with the Mexican economy—expanded rapidly in the 1950s through '70s. Meanwhile, the restaurant side of Sanborns began to take on its present form as a diner chain. Diners came into vogue in Mexico around the middle of the century. Sanborns rivals Vips opened in 1965, Wings in 1968, and Toks in 1971. Outside of those antiquarian touches, many contemporary Sanborns locations still feellike streamlined mid-century diners.

My mother-in-law Cheryl moved from Tacoma to Mexico City in the early 1970s, and she loves Sanborns to this day. When she came down to visit us, she would stop into Sanborns for a mid-morning coffee or a mid-afternoon banana split, and pass the time chatting with the waitresses or reading a book. She doesn't love Sanborns for the food, she loves it because it hasn't changed.

Sanborns remains an innately comfortable place. You see business people sitting alone at booths, drinking coffee, picking at the same plate of chilaquiles, working for hours bent over a laptop. You see lots and lots of tourists. You see retirees wasting a Tuesday morning away before tea and molletes. This is why I like Sanborns too. It feels oldin a way that is only half-contrived. Sure, there are mahogany pretensions and elaborate white and blue tableware. But there are also superfluous bathroom attendants and weird two-for-one specials on fruit drinks.

In the 1980s, the Mexican economy crashed, causing Walgreens to sell their stake in the company. Sanborns fell into the hands of an investor named Carlos Slim. Slim would soon purchase the recently privatized national telephone company Telmex, making him one of the world's richest men and rendering Sanborns a small part of his portfolio. But under his watch, Sanborns has continued to expand.

In 2010, Slim pondered opening a New York City Sanborns, but ultimately decided against it. Finally, last year, Slim took Sanborns' parent company Grupo Carso public, selling 18 percent on the Mexican Stock Exchange for about $11.3 billion pesos, or $854 million dollars.

Take Me to Sanborns: Swiss Enchiladas and Race in Mexico City

I left Mexico City. Back to the United States, where Jack Johnson eventually served out his prison sentence. Back to the United States, where sick of Mexico, Walter Sanborn returned in 1929.

I miss the chaos. I miss walking around wondering why anybody would ever want to live anywhere else. I can still do that, but not in Mexico City with the sun out and the jacaranda blossoms falling to the sidewalk and everything one could possibly want in close reach. Not with Cortés and La Malinche, dead for centuries but still pulsing through the city around me. Walter Sanborn and Jack Johnson. Carlos Slim and Rosa Irene. There is a reason people are drawn to Mexico City. It is magnetic and contradictory. It is an endlessly growing feast.

When I first moved to Mexico, I was too bold with regard to the endless menu before me. I was overwhelmed by it. I suffered the consequences of too many tacos. I spent days locked up with ginger ale and saltines. There were days when I could taste the pollution on my tongue and the whole neighborhood seemed to be crowding into the metro station at once. I would wonder how a person could live there, 8,000 feet above sea level with more than 20 million fellow humans, and realize that I understood nothing about this place.

There were days when the very idea of the city beyond my window was overwhelming. The street sounds: the ringing bells and honking horns and steam whistles and the recorded incantations offering to sell tamales or buy broken-down microwaves. I would try to consider my place in it all. I would find myself in a Sanborns like a D.H. Lawrence character, eating enchiladas suizas—Swiss enchiladas, malinchismo in a single, spice-less, overpriced dish. The opposite of the flavorful and mysterious offerings cooked up on street corners. The opposite of everything that made Mexico City special to me. And at the same time, exactly what made Mexico special, exactly what made it Mexico.

Eric Nusbaum just moved from Mexico City to Los Angeles. He has written about Mexico for Vice, Outside, ESPN the Magazine, and Sports Illustrated. Reach him @ericnus.

[Image by Jim Cooke]