Justin Garcidiaz, bartender
“what better way to be political than through food and drink, the one thing that we all have in common.”
In early October, Justin Garcidiaz and I met at a rooftop bar in Portland’s Old Town for cocktails and a view of the sun setting over the West Hills. He had just finished up training for the (then) soon-opening Hoxton Hotel and I was excited to sit down and talk at length about his background, bartending, and growing up in San Diego.
I met Justin in early 2016 while photographing spring cocktails for a local publication. Over the years, we’ve collaborated on several projects and just keep running across each other around town, united in our love for good drinks and our half-Mexican heritage. As political tensions around immigration have escalated, we’ve both found our own ways to unite our craft with action. And, of course, involved the other person in the process. Justin with his Mexico City-inspired brunch pop-up Desayuno, which I photographed. And now me, with sharing his story on Becoming Mexican.
Carly: Let's start with your background.
Justin: My dad grew up in Mexico City, but he was born in Michoacán. He moved to the U.S. when he was 5 or 6 because he had an older brother that lived here. He went back to Mexico for a while and returned to Los Angeles when he was finishing high school. He got married, had kids, divorced, and then a few years later met my mom. My mom grew up in Arizona, she was as white as can be. Then they had myself, my little brother, and my little sister. There was no real Mexican influence at home. I mean I can count in Spanish and I can curse in Spanish, but a lot of it came from growing up in San Diego, which has a concentrated Latino population. So I grew up around it, but I didn't have a lot of exposure to it at home.
My grandparents lived in Mexico City. I've met them when I was very little, but I never saw them after that. I talked to them on the phone and my dad would tell me what to say in Spanish and I would parrot it back.
Carly: Oh, interesting! Did you understand what you were saying?
Justin: No, I really didn't know what I was saying at all.
Carly: What was San Diego like?
Justin: To me, San Diego was boring, which is why I moved away as soon as I could. Growing up was fine, it's a very idyllic, pretty place to grow up. It's all about going to the beach, the weather's always perfect, which is what makes it a little bit boring. At least for someone like me. I can't just go to the beach everyday, I wanted something else to do with my life. It's also a very conservative part of the country. The big Republican think tanks go there. It's a very big military town. There's a lot of that influence, but that luckily didn't affect me too much. I grew up in Imperial Beach which was the most southwesterly city. It's a weird little beach town that was founded by Hell's Angels - bikers on their way to Tijuana started a town.
It's just a surf town and not a lot happens there. A lot of the people that I grew up with or went to high school with still live there and have kids now. I wanted to get as far away as I could.
Carly: Were the people that you grew up around Mexican?
Justin: There were a lot, it was a pretty mixed bag. A lot of Mexican heritage and Latin influence, a lot of Asian, South Asian.
Carly: So you didn't grow up speaking Spanish, but did you get exposure to the culture around you?
Justin: I don't know if you know much about the history of California. San Diego was the first city that was founded when the Spaniards started moving up the coast. The first mission that was built in California is in San Diego. There's that confluence of the Spanish influence from Mexico and how that affected the indigenous population and how that brought the Mexican population. There's this area that is old town San Diego and it was the site of the original foundation of this city.
It's a touristy, historical district. There's bunch of restaurants that are in the old haciendas. I spent a lot of time there. When I was in elementary school, we would take field trips there to visit the museums, or growing up my family would go to the Mexican restaurants for celebrations, birthdays and such. We didn't have a lot of money, but when we went to special occasion dinners it was always Mexican food. That was where we always went.
It was touristy, the performance of Mexican culture.
I would see the Day of the Dead stuff and I would see the mariachis play. As kitschy as that is, I've been to Mexico and that shit's there! It's kinda hard to figure out what is performative and what is real.
That's what I grew up around. I think that my biggest connection, which I think is a lot of people's connection with other cultures, is through the cuisine, the food. In high school, when I wasn't going to the historical area, my friends and I would go down to the beach and go to taco shops on the way. That was the big connection for me at first.
Carly: Did you ever feel an affiliation or did it seem like something that wasn't part of you?
Justin: It's weird because you can't look at me and know that I'm Mexican. My dad's dad was half-French heritage and his mom was Spanish heritage. I have to tell people if I want them to know. Because of that there wasn't an overt connection. When I grew up and became more conscious of the world and myself, I've always said that I was mixed or that I was Mexican-American. It's something that I sought out and went after on my own as I got older.
Carly: Why do you think that is?
Justin: I think a lot of it has to do with my older half-siblings who are all full-blooded Mexican. They all speak Spanish, they spent time growing up in Mexico City. They have a much stronger connection. When I was younger it felt like it was my way of connecting more with them. When you're a little teenager and your older siblings are in their mid-twenties, and they're living in Los Angeles, they're super cool and all you want to do is be like them.
I didn't have a lot of connection to my grandparents and I never went to Mexico. The only time my dad was in Mexico was when his family got sick or died. We didn't have a lot of money, so we weren't traveling a lot. And I grew up with my mom's side of the family and they were all very classic American.
Carly: It was a similar situation with me, growing up with my mom’s side of the family here in Oregon while my Mexican side of the family was all in Chicago.
Justin: Yeah, I had so much of that that I felt like I needed to explore my other side.
Carly: So you looked to your half-siblings?
Justin: That's kind of what started it, wanting to identify with them more. I was older than my brother and sister by a couple of years. It was also the '90s and my older siblings were cool with just about everything. They had gay friends. I would go spend a week with my sister in Santa Monica in summer and she'd be like, "Oh this is my best friend, he's gay," that was way before even I figured it out by myself. To see that and "Oh okay, that's cool," I need to connect to that more.
Carly: When it comes to exploring your identity, it seems like you had multiple angles to explore, more than the average person. Your heritage, your sexuality.
Justin: I think so. When I first started to explore identity, it came first through the gay lens. Doing research, learning history, reading books and things like that.
Carly: When was that?
Justin: That was probably when I was around 20 or so, when I met my first long-term boyfriend. That's when I started learning about art and that sort of avenue of the gay or queer experience. Then figuring out the Mexican side of it became important.
I realized that you have to learn your history before you can form your identity.
Carly: Why do you think learning your history is so important?
Justin: I just don't think that you're born with this information. Especially when it comes to something that you don't grow up with. Not a lot of people grow up with exposure to gay culture. And a lot of people, like you and me, don't grow up with an exposure to Mexican culture or Latin culture in a way that it would just become a natural progression of your identity.
Carly: So you started to look at your own identity when you were in your twenties? And then how much exploration have you done into Mexican culture?
Justin: I feel like I've done quite a bit, I don't know if there's a way to quantify it. I'm definitely not an expert.
Carly: I guess that’s a strange question. Because where do you start and where do you stop?
Justin: Exactly. There's so much. It's an entire civilization.
Carly: Do you ever see your interest in your Mexican heritage coming through in your bartending?
Justin: Absolutely. My growth and experience in the food and drink world coincided with the time when I started connecting with and wanting to learn more about my Mexican heritage. It started in San Francisco when I started working at Gracias Madre, which is a very hippie Mexican vegan restaurant. They did this thing there called 'clearing'. Every day before we started our shift, instead of having a lineup where we talked about business and food, we would pair off and talk about our feelings with one another.
Carly: Oh my gosh, I love that.
Justin: Most of the kitchen staff were Mexican immigrants who didn't speak a lot of English and really couldn't give two shits about talking about their feelings. You would start this conversation and they just wanted to come to work, make their money, and send it home to their families.
I was learning about working in the bar world and about Mexican food. I had experienced and enjoyed Mexican food, but didn't know much about it really. About traditions, like how corn, squash, and beans are the three sisters. When I moved to Portland, I got a job at Xico, which for better or for worse really informed and educated me about Mexican cuisine and Mexican tradition in food. It's run by white people, but I learned a lot about mezcal, ingredients, and flavors.
I started thinking about how to apply what I was learning ABOUT MEXICAN FOOD to what I was doing in the bar.
I worked really closely with Chef Kelly, who is awesome. She knows a lot about Mexican cuisine, the flavors and ingredients, and I was able to bounce ideas off her and learn a lot. Those things went hand in hand for me. I continued to do that even while working at places where it wasn't Mexican cuisine, like Aviary and St. Jack. How to use Mexican ingredients was always in the back of my head.
Carly: When it comes to your new position at the Hoxton, you’ve returned to a sphere of Mexico-inspired restaurants. What does that mean for you?
Justin: I'm excited about it, the food more than anything. I like his [Chef Johnny Leach] interpretation of Mexican food and I'm excited work around him. I like the drinks so far, but it's also the very first menu and I think a lot of times, specifically when it comes to cocktails, where it starts and where it ends are always two different places. I think it takes a minute for any cocktail program to get to where it wants to be. It's hard to say now how it's going to end up. I think it has the potential do really cool things.
Carly: And it has a Mexican twist to it, a Mexican approach to mirror the menu?
Justin: It does. I mean, that's the intention of it. I don't know if I would necessarily say that today's cocktail menu is Mexican inspired enough, but I can see bits and I can see where it's going and I think that it has a direction and will continue to evolve in that way.
Carly: What do you think it is about food and drink that helps people connect?
Justin: I think for one thing it's universal. Everybody has to have food and drink. You can't live without it. Food can provide a basic connection to someone, even on the most basic level.
Food and drink are tied to memory. Your cuisine, what you grew up eating – it's a connection to your family, to your childhood, to your heritage.
You innately want to share that with other people, whether you recognize it or not. Take Thanksgiving dinner. It changes from sitting around with your family to inviting your friends over when you're a young adult and you're making Thanksgiving dinner at home for the first time in your new apartment. But you make the same foods. When you're traveling in a different country, you're experiencing their culture, their childhoods, the things that they love, and the things that they don't love. What better way to get to know people? Plus you're probably drinking, so that helps too!
Carly: When I finished my undergraduate degree, I went to live in Seoul. It was incredible and the food is just amazing, I had such a fun time. But the food was also very different for me. I had eaten Japanese and Chinese food growing up, but I had never really had Korean food before. So when I went there, I was exposed to all these new foods and loved it.
Later, when I was living in Amsterdam, every year for Thanksgiving I would make a somewhat traditional Thanksgiving dinner that I would feed to my Dutch and German friends. It was kind of this tension between experiencing all these new foods and then wanting to remember the foods that anchor my soul.
Justin: It's funny, I always say that I could eat Mexican food everyday. Because it's what I grew up eating. But it’s just part of it. I also grew up eating meatloaf and tuna casserole. But guess what I don't want to eat every day.
Carly: Yeah, I think we both grew up in this era where the women felt liberated because there was access to easy-to-prepare food and they didn’t have to spend hours in the kitchen. But that food doesn’t create memories.
Justin: Because my mom was white, I didn't grow up having real Mexican food at home. Our Mexican food at home was flour tortillas and refried beans from a can. None of it was actual homemade Mexican food.
Carly: Does your dad identify as Mexican?
Justin: He lived in America since he was a teenager. I don't know how he feels because I haven't really had the discussion with him. But the way that I experienced it is that he spent a lot of time identifying more as white. Blending in, almost. I don't think it's a bad thing necessarily, but it definitely informed my connection to my Mexican heritage.
Carly: That is very much a story shared by many of the people I've talked to. All have been in their early 30s and most of our parents emphasized that assimilation was the most important.
Justin: I think that says more about the times than it does about the individuals. I don't know if that's necessarily the way things would be now. You know? Of course, in some populations and in some parts of the country it might still be that way.
Carly: I think that's so great that you grew up in a part of the country with a lot of people from Latin America and Asia. Growing up in a place where I was one of the few people of color was so strange.
Justin: Yeah. I would imagine so.
Carly: I didn't realize I was different until other people made me aware of it. Then it was like being under a magnifying glass. Whether it was more my feeling or reality, it was a strange experience.
Justin: And I don't appear to be Mexican, so I had the opposite experience. Me trying to insist that I was Mexican and people not believing me.
Carly: Even though you have a Spanish-sounding last name?
Justin: I'm fairly certain that my last name was made up by my father. There are conflicting reports. Like many Mexicans, he has a very complex long last name. But the story goes that when he moved here, he just combined a couple parts of it and created his own version of it. There are only four Garcidiaz's in the world. Well, that's not true, my brother has kids.
Carly: Before we end, I want to talk about Desayuno. You helped raise over $2,500 for Pueblo Unido in Portland through the pop-up. What was the inspiration?
Justin: The inspiration was partly that I wanted to see if I could do it. To see if my talents and my vision were something that other people were interested in. It was a test for myself, my connections in the industry, and whether or not people would be interested. There are many people who are well-known in this industry in town, I wanted to see if I could keep up with them. So it started off selfishly.
Then it became my way of giving back. I didn't want to capitalize on Mexican culture. Although I'm half-Mexican, I'm not from Mexico. I don't speak Spanish and I don't have enough of a connection that it would feel authentic to myself or other people. With everything going on with the administration, the children in cages, if I was going to raise money, I wanted it to go to something noble. I don't have my own personal money to give to charity. I don't have a lot of time to go to every march. I don't have a lot of time to volunteer, but these are things that I'm conscious of and that I care about. I wanted to find a way to use what I have to help out this community and to help out causes that are so important.
Carly: Do you think you're going to do the pop-up again?
Justin: If and when I ever do another pop-up or an event like that, it has to be political. Besides voting, I don't have a lot of other opportunities to make my voice heard. And what better way to be political than through food and drink, the one thing that we all have in common.
Food brings people together who might not normally be engaged. I'm sure there were plenty of people there who didn't really think or care too much about immigrant rights or DACA recipients, they just thought they were going to brunch.
Everybody that showed up to the pop-up, everybody that spent money, everybody that donated their products and their time, all the staff that showed up for free, the guests, everybody that was involved in it, they were doing a political act. They were standing up for something they believed in whether they thought of it that way or not. We've passed the time where being apolitical is acceptable. We can't anymore. You have to stand up and you have to make your voice heard.
This interview has been edited and condensed. First published November 27, 2018.