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Quesadillas: A History and Look into Its Politics

Quesadilla de Pollo from Taquería Coatzingo.

When thinking about Mexican food there are a variety of foods that come to mind and leave stomachs growling. Just like mine right in the moment of writing this blog post. Tortas, Cemitas, Tostadas, Enchiladas, and one can continue on into the different foods that can satiate that hunger for food. One food in particular that I love eating, and you can see it above, is none other than the quesadilla. I’ve probably eaten more quesadillas than I can count and all of them consisted of a variety of colorful flavors. Many of these quesadillas my Mama made for me and my brother, and I can remember the day when I wanted more but there were none left for me to grab. Why the long talk on quesadillas? Well, part of it is because why wouldn’t one want to talk about it? The combinations that can go into a quesadilla are endless, and of those endless possibilities, the end result is the same: complete satisfaction. However, the other part on this topic of quesadillas is to fully unwrap the origins of this delightful meal and what made it such a popular Mexican food not only in Mexico but also here in the United States. To begin the story of the quesadilla one needs to first take a small detour to the meal’s foundational ingredient, tortillas.

Depiction of Aztecans with corn by Peter Isotalo.

The origins of how the first tortillas were made are unknown to the modern-day, however, the tradition of tortilla-making has been long-lived and passed down for thousands of years. The little knowledge that we do know of the mysterious tortilla invention was likely to have been done by a woman as during the times of hunters and gatherers the women were responsible for cultivating and “gathering” produce while the men hunted for meat from wildlife (Alvarez). In order to make a tortilla one must take maize and leave it “washing” and soaked in an ash solution known as Cal. This is also understood as being the nixtamalization process. Once this process is complete, the hard shell of the maize becomes softer and peels off and what is left is what is known as masa. This masa is massaged into a dough-like form that makes it ready to make tortillas from it.

Youtube video showing how corn tortillas are made.

Due to this process of making tortillas, corn became one of the main staple foods that allowed for several civilizations to thrive in Mesoamerica. Corn tortillas would be made with other foods such as squash and pumpkin which contributed to the diets of the Aztec peoples. However, with the arrival of the Spaniards entering Mesoamerica the corn tortilla would not be the only kind of tortilla that would be made. When the Spanish came to the “new world” they brought with them various foods and livestock — among other things — with them as they began to colonize what would be known as New Spain. In this process of land colonization, it also meant that the Spanish wanted to control the way the indigenous people lived their lives both spiritually and what they ate (Pilcher 22). Wheat was a crop that was well consumed in Europe and because of this, its movement into Mesoamerica was bound to occur. With the Spanish wanting to impose their grain as being superior to that of corn, the creation of the flour tortilla was made with the unfortunate intentions of altering the traditions of the indigenous peoples to reflect their own traditions.

Image of stacked flour tortillas. (

Despite the Spanish making attempts to “eradicate” the traditions of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, it was to no success (Pilcher 22). Hundreds of years later after much violence transpiring, the corn tortilla remains as one of the fundamental foods in Mexican cuisine today. One can find corn tortillas as chips, tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, and various other delicious meals. However, despite the corn tortilla surviving the historical climate it underwent, the flour tortilla also survived and has found a home in Mexican cooking; one particular food that uses the flour tortilla is none other than the quesadilla. 

Blue corn quesadillas being made in the streets of Mexico. (BBC)

The quesadilla is an interesting dish because it has undergone different iterations prior to and after European and American involvement. As mentioned prior, squash and pumpkin were two foods that were used along with corn tortillas as part of their diet. The stuffing of the squash and pumpkin, and then baked in a clay oven, would serve as a dessert that the Aztec people enjoyed. This can be considered the ancient “quesadilla” given the nature of how this meal was prepared. However, with the Spanish introducing dairy and meat in New Spain, this changed the way the ancient quesadilla would be prepared as the incorporation of cheese, meat, chicken, and flour tortilla were used. With flour tortillas being integrated with the quesadillas dish, it is not shocking to see its influence in the American sphere of food consumption. The appropriation of the quesadilla has already undergone one “phase” with the Spanish, but with the Americans, the quesadilla will experience another phase of appropriation that challenges the politics of the Mexican dish.

Glen Bell founded Taco Bell and arguably was the one to take the appropriation of Mexican food to a massive scale.

What popularized an American interest in Mexican food is arguably be due to Glen Bell and his establishment of the Taco Bell franchise. When opening his fast-food taco chains, his intentions were far beyond being one with Mexicans and Mexican culture; what drove him to establish this franchise was simply to produce a lucrative profit that competed with the likes of McDonald’s and other fast-food chains (Arellano). With Taco Bells spreading across the nation, more Americans were exposed to what they viewed as Mexican food despite it not being so. Among the foods that one would find in a Taco Bell would be none other than the quesadilla itself, and it wouldn’t be long before other “Mexican” fast-food chains and American chains began appropriating the food into their menus to profit over the popularity.

Screenshot of Chili’s quesadillas.

Restaurants such as Chili’s and Unos are some examples of how influential quesadillas have been on American restaurant menus, but its connection to the Mexican people is non-existent. The macro-level of cultural appropriation is one that is definitely a mode of conversation when looking at how quesadillas are incorporated on American menus. However, alongside the macro sphere of appropriation that the quesadilla undergoes, there is a micro-level to this appropriation that furthers the complications over the politics of quesadillas.

Youtube video trying quesadillas with and without cheese.

When looking at the ingredients that go into a quesadilla, the American understanding of it would be a flour tortilla that has various cheeses, meat, and maybe peppers ready to be eaten. As much as this can be a quesadilla that Mexicans can prepare themselves this is not necessarily the norm when looking at how it is prepared in Mexico. All around Mexico one can find a quesadilla that has cheese as standard. It would seem as it wouldn’t be an afterthought given the name of the meal has “queso” and “tortilla” in it. However, when going into Mexico City the quesadillas there come with no cheese unless it is asked to add it in. Other ingredients that can be found in the quesadilla are “squash blossoms,” “mushrooms,” “corn fungus” and other foods. If one decides to want cheese in their quesadilla then the source of cheese would be Oaxacan cheese which is something you wouldn’t see on an American quesadilla. This contrasts greatly from the more Americanized understanding of the quesadilla.

There is even research done looking into the definitions of the quesadilla from both Mexico and from Spain. In Mexico, the definition includes flour or corn tortilla that is folded in half with various food to stuff it. Including or not including cheese. In Spain, the understanding of a quesadilla is a corn tortilla that is stuffed with cheese along with other ingredients served hot (BBC). Both have a similar agreement to how the quesadilla is prepared but how the food is applied in a setting to be eaten to the wider public is another story.

The quesadilla is a dish that never ceases to impress. The dish has a long history tracing back to the Aztecan peoples and the Spanish, and because of this history would allow for the quesadilla to take its shape in the generations to come. The dish’s influence has spread widely as Mexicans and Americans together can appreciate the food, but the history that the quesadilla suffers from corporate interests and cultural distancing from where the dish originated from. Thankfully one can find a genuinely Mexican quesadilla in different locations around the United States, but if you are in Mexico City you can help yourself with some street quesadillas that look amazing; Con queso o no.

Works Cited:

Alvarez, Steven. “Taco Literacy Class Notes”

Arrelano, Gustavo. Taco USA.

de Cardenas. “Quesadilla 101.” Caciquedilla Club,

Pilcher, Jeffery M. Planet Taco

Tomky, Naomi. “Travel – Where There’s No Queso in Quesadilla.” BBC, BBC, 29 May 2019,

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