Photo by Claudia Pardo 

In a world where reminders of political correctness and expectations for endless tolerance disguised as acceptance are incessant, it would seem dimwitted for a business to cross that line, especially if it is a well-known national restaurant chain. Yet this is just what led to the controversy behind Chipotle Mexican Grill’s “Cultivating Thought” marketing strategy.

The idea for the “Cultivating Thought” series came from American writer Jonathan Safran Foer. He suggested that Chipotle figure out a way to offer its customers something to read while they enjoyed their Mexican meals. Steve Ells, Chipotle’s founder and co-CEO, fell in love with the idea and began the marketing campaign to put stories from noteworthy authors on the restaurant’s takeout cups and bags.

Ten authors and celebrities, including Malcom Gladwell, Toni Morrison, Bill Hader and Sara Silverman, were chosen to write short essays; yet somehow, the Mexican restaurant neglected to include a Mexican author in the lineup. ¡Ay caramba!

Most people know that Chipotle’s food, albeit tasty and vastly popular, is far from being authentic Mexican cuisine. This is particularly true if you live in California where the choices of diverse cuisine are vast. The restaurants serve white rice and tofu, for Pedro’s sake! But, no matter how pseudo-Mexican they are, they do market themselves as a Mexican Grill. Shouldn’t they include a Mexican, Mexican-American or Latino author to participate in the series? For a company that promotes itself as having “food with integrity,” what are they really “cultivating” here?

For many, whether the oversight was unintentional, it is still not justifiable. Needless to say, this led to a big backlash from the Latino community, not to mention lovers of ethnically-diverse-literati. For the creative types, however, it presented an undoubtedly endearing opportunity to respond with art.

Anna Bermudez, curator of collections at the Museum of Ventura County and El Rio native and author, Michele Serros decided to respond to the Chipotle blunder via the exhibit “Cuento Cups: Because our Stories Matter” at the Tool Room Gallery on the grounds of the Bell Arts Factory.

“Cuento Cups” is an interactive and all-inclusive exhibit. It prompts visitors of all ethnicities to write their stories on a blank paper cup or brown paper bag. The cups and bags are exhibited side-by-side on Plexiglass shelves along the walls.

The shared stories cover a vast spectrum of experiences. Somebody wrote about finding the key to happiness. Another shared his experience as an illegal immigrant. Of impact are the many cups with complex line drawing, illustrations and caricatures. The simple concept is conducive to honest and raw sharing of experiences that are vastly different. There is no theme, therefore, people can write about anything!

Here is something to chew on — or write on a cup: According to the United States Census Bureau, the Hispanic population of the United State as of July 1, 2013, made up 54 million. Hispanics constituted 17.1 percent of the nation’s total population. I am confident that there are a multitude of good writers in that group.

Bermudez invites the public to use a simple paper cup or bag as a canvas to express a compelling cuento (story) before the show closes.


“Cuento Cups,” through October at Bell Arts Factory, Tool Room Gallery in Ventura. For more information, visit toolroomgallery.com.