L.A. Taco covers food, culture, and the taco lifestyle in Los Angeles, CA. For updates, follow @lataco

After the fight to save the notorious #EggplantFriday hashtag, how could anyone deny the mighty influence of the emoji in contemporary discourse? For the past couple of years, L.A. Taco and its cohorts have been involved in a another seemingly inconsequential Internet battle over a kernel-sized, yet powerful object: the taco emoji. While we’d never compare our quest to real online-activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter, our efforts do come from deeply felt belief—the taco emoji should be modeled on an authentic taco.

What constitutes an authentic taco? That topic alone can be a controversial and divisive. The history of the dish goes back hundreds of years and has its roots firmly planted in Mexico. An authentic taco is a Mexican taco, therefore, and one that combines some sort of filling inside of a tortilla. While there are infinite combinations that can work within those simple constraints, a standard authentic taco is as much about what it contains (meat, onion, cilantro, corn tortilla) as what it doesn’t (cheddar cheese, tomato chunks, lettuce).


The official new taco emoji.

Since 2012 we’ve advocated for a taco emoji, which originally seemed like a fun, playful thing to get upset about, especially here in America’s taco capital, Los Angeles. After all, there were five kinds of sushi on the emoji keyboard, but not a single taco? Here at L.A. Taco, our purpose is to document the taco lifestyle, and as an essential part of this city’s fabric, it seemed wrong that you couldn’t text your friends a taco emoji at 1am while lining up to get al pastor at Leo’s Taco Truck in Mid City.

L.A. Taco’s alternative design for the emoji (photo: L.A. Taco/Andy Eo)

Last year, however, the taco emoji campaign was co-opted by fast-food giant Taco Bell, which garnered major-media coverage with its petition to officially codify a taco emoji. What seemed like a tongue-in-cheek campaign actually had deeper implications: the Taco Bell marketers realized that by pushing for a taco emoji—specifically one that looks like their product—it would help them “own” the mind-space around tacos in their most transmittable form. Look at it this way: Since emoji is the new norm for communication, this is almost like if Doritos Locos Tacos appeared in Webster’s Dictionary as an exemplary form of the dish.

Suddenly, those of us rooting for a real taco emoji realized this was a high-stakes game that could be exploited by large corporations to push their version of what a taco is and should be—and ultimately control the conversation. If the Taco Bell taco were to be enshrined by the emoji designers at Apple, Google, and Microsoft, it would be a slap in the face to the creators, originators, and purveyors of authentic, non-corporate tacos all over the world.

With Unicode’s most recent announcement, that sting hurts more than ever—the taco emoji is finally here, but not the one we hoped for.

Bill Esparza, a leading expert in Mexican food in the United States and the voice behind the prominent blog Street Gourmet LA, understands the nuances of taco culture better than anyone—and why the new iteration being released doesn’t cut it. “While Taco Bell is definitely a big part of American fast-food culture, their tacos are non-existent in the current national dialogue about tacos, whether we’re talking traditional or non-traditional. And, Taco Bell tacos don’t even exist in Mexico, nor does the brand.”

Photo: L.A. Taco/Andy Eo

What the Taco Bell or “gringo taco” does have going for it, though, is a strong and colorful visual identity, which is a primary concern when designing something as minuscule as an emoji. Hard yellow shell, bright green lettuce, brown ground beef, orange cheese, red chunks of tomato—it might make a substandard taco, but it positions itself as a clearly recognizable image.

So how do you depict an authentic taco into a universally recognizable form? Our solution was simple: highlight the authentic aspects that visually pop. Instead of lettuce, we used bright cilantro. Instead of tomatoes, we substituted hot sauce. Instead of ground beef, carne asada—with white onion pieces to add contrast. Our designer’s authentic taco is clearly a taco, and we think Apple and Google’s designers should’ve been able to do the same thing. While cartoon representations naturally rely on broad stereotypes, here we missed a rare opportunity to preserve the integrity of this dish and raise international awareness.

Pioneering chef Eddie Ruiz of Corazon y Miel told us, “When I ‘emoji,’ I want to be taken seriously. If I shoot a homie a taco emoji, I want them to know I’m talking about a serious L.A. taco, like Guerrilla or BS Taqueria, not a taco supreme with Del Scorcho.”

Of course, not everyone feels as strongly as we do. Perhaps the best taco chef in our home city, Wes Avila of Guerrilla Tacos, concedes, “I think it’s funny. A taco is more recognizable in [the Taco Bell] form than any other. When I had a customized taco piñata made, the Raza at piñata district made it that way, so it’s fine to me!”

On the other hand, taco scholar and author Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly already has his eyes on the next frontier: “Fuck the taco emoji; where’s the enchilada one?”

The current version of the emoji taco is everything we are fighting against. Even more frustrating is that the franchise taco titan has taken the reigns once again on how the taco is perceived in America.

Of course, Bill Esparza already has an alternative remedy: “Perhaps the Taco Bell taco could be the emoji for the runs.”