For years, 27-year-old Esteban Castillo entertained the idea of starting a food blog. After serving as the art director and food columnist for El Leñador, a bilingual student newspaper, during his time at Humboldt State University, he knew he didn’t want a cookie-cutter blog. Struggling to come up with a vision that showcased both his personality and allowed him to talk about the Mexican food he grew up eating, he dragged his feet. But when the media began to give President Donald Trump the platform to disparage Mexicans and Latinos, Esteban felt the need to act. Then, he saw a tweet from Solange Knowles that further motivated him. “She was talking about creating like our own everything,” he tells me in a phone call. “We should be doing this for ourselves, because no one else is gonna do this for us.”
So in October 2016, he finally unleashed Chicano Eats unto the world – though it initially ended up being exactly what he didn’t want. In the beginning, he set the food he created against plain backdrops. Feeling like his blog was indistinguishable from others, Castillo – who works in marketing and graphic design – decided to embrace the things that brought him joy.
“I was like, you know what, I’m not really happy with this, and when I was in art school, I really gravitated toward the bright colors, the textures and just a minimalist aesthetic,” Castillo says. “And so I was like you know what, I’m just gonna go back to what I know, and I love it.”
Now, he uses vibrant red, blue, and yellow backgrounds – and even Mexican textiles – to highlight his food. The stylized photos give his blog an edge, but so do his mix of recipes. He’s cooking up staples like aguachile and guacamole while playing with Mexican ingredients, which is how he came up with Tajín Peeps for Easter and mole glazed chicken wings for the Super Bowl.
Though plenty of blogs and food websites offer their takes on Mexican cuisine – especially on a day like Cinco de Mayo – Esteban’s Chicano Eats stands out. It goes beyond sharing recipes and pictures of delicious foods. He writes about his experiences as a Chicano, and he shares the stories of his parents and his culinary heroes – his abuelos who live in Mexico. When Esteban turned 21, for example, he sponsored his formerly undocumented parents. So in a blog post about piña colada, Castillo described the constant fear he felt as a child because of his parents’ status. Like many Latinos in his home state of California and across the country, he understood that his parents could face deportation at a moment’s notice.
At a time when Mexican chefs don’t always get to be the face of Mexican cuisine in the United States, Castillo knows that his voice is valuable. “I really started noticing how people were talking about Mexican food and who was actually talking about it,” Esteban says. “I was like well I think this narrative could definitely be cleaned up, and I think I can do a better job of relaying all of this information to the mainstream.”
This blog pushes Esteban to sharpen his culinary skills – something that he didn’t have as much interest in while growing up. As a kid, he didn’t really cook – though it wasn’t because his family believed that cooking was an inherently feminine role. “I grew up in a very traditional, very machista household. But cooking wasn’t seen as something feminine,” he says. “My dad was always in the kitchen making something. Whenever my mom needed help with something, he was always there to jump in or occasionally, he would just take over.”
He started dabbling in the kitchen his senior year, which came in handy when he left for college, where his favorite Mexican foods weren’t readily available. “I really almost had to start cooking out of necessity, because in Humboldt [County, California] there’s not a very big Latinx presence, so just trying to find a lot of the things that I was craving and that I wanted just weren’t accessible,” he says. “That’s really when I started getting in the kitchen a lot more.”
These days, he’s back in Southern California and Mexican food is everywhere. But he also spends time at Cardenas, Northgate, and Superior grocery stores so that he can prepare homemade Mexican food. And though his blog is very much about showcasing Mexico’s rich culinary history, he also hopes it encourages others to live their truth. “It’s OK to be yourself right now. I encourage you to be brown, to be queer, to be different” says Esteban, who highlights his queer identity on his blog. “I think right now it’s a really important time to be visible, to make our bodies visible and to really just say that we’re here.”