What Was the Point of Mexican Week on 'The Great British Baking Show?'

The beloved baking competition made some major missteps in its presentation of Mexican cuisine and culture.

The cast and hosts of The Great British Baking Show
Photo: mark bourdillon/Netflix

Mexican food is one of only three on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list due to its complexity and rich history. And yet, you wouldn't know it by how it's mocked and presented on The Great British Baking Show, during their "Mexican Week." The production's official account tweeted a promo image of its co-hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas in colorful sarapes and sombreros making a joke using the name "Juan" as the punchline. Things only went downhill from there.

The food is mispronounced ("glockymolo" for guacamole) and misinterpreted (among other things, beans, a traditional side for tacos, are used as a taco topping). Jokes are made at the expense of Mexican identifiers including names and history (Kevin calls his pyramid cake "Aztec," then uses "Mayan" interchangeably, conflating two distinct empires). There isn't an attempt by the show or majority of the contestants to explore the culture they're focusing on for three different challenges over the course of several days. They openly admit to knowing little or nothing about Mexican food. Their ignorance is practically worn with pride, is hardly challenged, and there doesn't seem to be any desire to change it.

Which begs the question: What is the point of GBBS exploring cultural weeks if they're not actually encouraging learning and appreciation among their contestants and viewers?

"It is disappointing that we are still seeing content like this produced at this level," says Jackson Flores, president of DishRoulette Kitchen, a restaurant development center specializing in providing financial assistance to small, independent businesses owned and operated by women, people of color and undocumented entrepreneurs. "But now we can have a healthy conversation about how to honor the Mexican identity without making it a punchline."

Let me be clear: None of the cultural insensitivity presented in this week's episode is anything new. The jokes, mispronunciations, and lack of basic knowledge around Mexican food (or any culturally-specific food or topic for that matter) is a common experience for a person being "othered." We've learned to look past the insults, give people grace, educate them or ignore them.

But in countless previous episodes of GBBS, judges and contestants take extra time to pronounce French names of pastries and techniques with moderate effort. It seems the same diligence could not be conducted for Mexican week. Head judge Paul Hollywood even mentions he's just returned from the Latin American country, as if it's enough to fully understand all the regional varieties of a food in a country with 32 states. And yet while Hollywood easily pronounces French desserts, such as an apricot couronne, he cannot bear more effort to properly pronounce pico de gallo — the ignorance is more biting than his trademark criticism.

The episode reveals an air of superiority by the hosts and British contestants disguised as sweet cluelessness. Such insidious behavior is weaponized by fans defending the episode. One social media user commented: "As a Mexican and an avid watcher of the show, I don't find this offensive at all. The whole show is very whimsical and makes fun of itself more than anything. Nothing is derogatory." But such a takeaway gaslights fans left feeling disappointed by the GBBS crew. Because there is absolutely a problem when a show from Britain, a country with a colonial past of subjugating nations, reduces a non-European culture to a joke. Through GBBS' dismissive attitude towards Mexican culture and its food, they're saying it is not actually worth their time or attention.

"If we're going to have conversations on the intrinsic value and depth of Mexican food, we need to demand that international shows represent our cuisine and do better," says Lyanne Alfaro, founder of Moneda Moves, a newsletter tracking Latino purchasing power. "Do it right. Learn how to pronounce the names of our food at bare minimum, don't turn mispronunciations into a quippy quickcut for your show and hire Mexican studied talent to judge the dishes."

GBBS's reputation as a whimsical and peaceful place where contestants are kind to one another, the antithesis of more cut-throat shows like Survivor and Top Chef, has grown its cult following. Perhaps that's what prompted cultural critic Roxane Gay to weigh in by tweeting "How did they get here? They're so good at staying in their lane."

However, this isn't the first time the GBBS has allowed casual racism to permeate its show. In October 2020, Lucas mocked a German contestant's accent. For any English-as-a-second-language speaker, this is a special kind of torture. To be fully fluent in another language and be marginalized because you've branched out of your comfort zone — only to have it mocked — is cruel. And in November 2020, the show released its Japanese Week to outrage when, among other infractions, most contestants opted to use Chinese and Indian influences, perpetuating a stereotype of all Asians being the same even though the "Asian" label represents more than thirty different nationalities and ethnic groups.

In "The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley," X describes how he learned to distinguish between racism and ignorance at an early age. Instances like Sandro's decision to slap a stereotypical mustache to his showstopper round cake or Fielding and Lucas' cultural cosplay, demonstrate ignorance. The obtuse business decision by Channel 4 and Netflix, the network and streaming partner that allowed this episode to be aired to benefit a billion-dollar industry at the expense of an ethnic community, falls into the category of systemic racism.

"I've worked in show production and it's the duty of the team to run content by a diverse and representative team before it airs," says Alfaro. "I hope to see GBBS address concerns from its viewers and talk about next steps to ensure respect around global cuisines."

Mexican cuisine does, in some way, get its quiet revenge during the episode. In the pan dulce signature challenge portion, the contestants fall short of being able to produce the light, fluffy bread found in a concha. And while it is unclear how tortillas fit into the baking constructs of the show (in Mexico, tortillerias are their own standalone businesses, independent of bakeries), I was happy to see that the difficulty to produce a thin, yet pliable container for meat and vegetables was indeed highlighted.

Hollywood and his counterpart, Prue Leith, never come out and say "making Mexican food is really hard, labor intensive, and requires precision." However, actions speak louder than words and when contestants failed to rise to that occasion, that's the message they sent. In the process, they shined a light on the intense expertise of Mexican bakers who roll out large trays of conchas fresh daily, and the tortilla makers who can take up to 16 hours to produce a batch by hand. The disregard for such difficulty set its contestants up to fail, offering some delightful karmic retribution for them underestimating my culture's food.

Ignorance about Latinos is more unwarranted than ever. Latinos are shaping culture as we know it. Bad Bunny's Spanish-language "Un Verano Sin Ti," is making him the king of Spotify. We account for 20 percent of the U.S. population, 51 percent of all new population growth and our purchasing power is expected to exceed $2 trillion in less than two years, according to Adweek. While this should be celebrated, this is not a win if our purchasing power doesn't buy us respect and if we look the other way when other groups are marginalized and othered.

GBBS might be a low-stakes cooking show, however, it can no longer hide that it has, at best, a cultural insensitivity problem, and, at worst, is perpetuating racist views of cultures they claim to celebrate. "Mexican Week," could have been a softball win for GBBS during Hispanic Heritage Month. Instead, it left fans disappointed and airing their grievances on social media.

Missteps like these make it obvious that there's still work to do. It's easy to dismiss them as frivolous, but if we let these acts of subtle ignorance slide, they become casual racism. They must be called out, not to embarrass or shame anyone — we're all learning and will make mistakes in the journey forward through progress — but to explicitly say that isn't okay.

It's a new week, and while the remaining bakers will move on to face a new set of set challenges, now is the time for the producers, hosts, and judges of The Great British Baking Show to face their own challenge: Treating cultures and foodways with the attention and accuracy they deserve.

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