The Brief History of the Taco Emoji Now Has a Happy Ending

Our smart phones have 14 automobile emojis. So what does it mean in our modern world that there's only one taco emoji out there?

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Nov 9 2016, 9:00pm

Welcome back to our newest column Tacology, in which taco sage José R. Ralat explores the development of tacos and taco culture from Mexico to the world. He'll tackle taco memes and myths. He'll take us to nascent taco operations across Europe and Asia.

Want to adopt a stretch of road in your town? Pick one. Want to adopt a star? Why stop there when there are galaxies up for grabs? Feel the need to sponsor a child in a third-world country? The Save the Children organization can help with that. And now, thanks to the Unicode Consortium, you can even adopt one of 12 train emojis for as little as $100 or as much as $5,000. Or in the case of Lucas Welti, who did not want to comment for this article, snatch up the crunchy taco emoji.

According to Unicode, adoption helps fulfill its mission: "to help modern software and computing systems support the widest range of human languages." That includes emojis, which, according to one study, is used by 3 billion people worldwide. Approximately 130,000 orphan characters are up for grabs. That's right, the organization responsible for the creation and management of emojis allows individuals or companies to permanently adopt one of their nifty pictographs. But not the taco emoji, because there's only one to choose from.

That's a problem.

After years of clamoring, a Facebook page dedicated to the availability of a taco emoji with 1,710 followers and a petition from Taco Bell with 32,783 signatories, the Silicon Valley-based Unicode Consortium settled on an image representing a pre-fabricated commodity hard-shell taco within arm's reach of anyone in a supermarket's ethic foods aisle. The emoji chosen by Unicode was an abomination to some, the stuff of American family taco tonight, the taco exported worldwide masquerading as Mexico cuisine, the taco made famous by Taco Bell. When the character was released in 2015, the Internet was divided into one faction ecstatic to finally have a taco emoji and another furious the icon chosen wasn't a legitimate Mexican soft taco. Taco Bell's petition, which appeared on Change.org the day Unicode released the next round of emoji candidates including the taco emoji, must have had something to do with it, they suspected.

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Nope.

"Our position was that there are five mailboxes. There are a dozen trains. But there is literally no taco," says Matt Prince of Taco Bell's public relations department. "We knew we had a responsibility as Taco Bell that we had one of the loudest voices when it comes to tacos. We wanted to be really clear about what our position was. We just really wanted this to be on the keyboard of taco fans everywhere. We really didn't want this to be a Taco Bell emoji. That was really important too." The Unicode Consortium confirms this. When I reached out to Unicode with several questions—including inquiring about the emoji's creator and whether the group was considering other taco forms—the organization's office manager passed along a statement from the board. "The 'inventor' was the Unicode emoji subcommittee," the response read. "It decided to propose a taco emoji after considering candidates in various categories, including food items that fit criteria for emoji that had been developed at that time, including potential for high usage and high user interest. The decision to propose the taco emoji predated any petition for a taco emoji."

In other words, we only have ourselves to blame.

There are 14 automobile emojis. So why can't we have other taco emojis? Unicode didn't respond to that query. However, Prince was more than happy to talk. When asked if Taco Bell would support supplemental taco emojis, like, say, an open-faced taco, a trompo, the vertical spit on which pork al pastor is cooked, or simply lightening the color of the shell. Prince replied with a simple, "Yeah."

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Alternatives do exist—sort of—in the form of sticker packs and smartphone applications, the oldest of which is Taco Text from Austin, Texas-based developer XOXCO. "One weekend, we were joking that there is no taco emoji. It's a huge oversight. This was in the days before an official taco emoji. So we thought: This is what we'll do: Give people a super simple app that gives them the ability to send a taco to their friend and say it's time for tacos," says XOXCO co-founder Ben Brown. "I really thought it was going to be something that I would have on my phone and a couple of friends and we would laugh about for a couple of days. But in the first couple days, our stats showed that a quarter-million tacos had been sent. We didn't expect it to be big. There are now tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of downloads of this app on iOS and Android all over the world. People still use it."

Taco Text stands as a model. Yes, one of the options is a hard-shell taco, but there is also a whimsical 8-bit taco icon and a taco stuffed with a rubber chicken. There's even a hot sauce bottle and a bowl of chile con queso. While the initial round of Taco Text icons were designed quickly, updates made for a thorough and contentious design process. "We argued that the burrito was just at the wrong angle," Brown says. "'Or the soft taco doesn't look enough like a soft taco.'" Brown understands the complexities of visualization and how it is as equally complex to graphically represent something as deceptively simple as a soft taco with its nearly endless variations. "A soft flour tortilla: What does that really look like? Do you show it in somebody's hand? Do you show it folded in half?" Brown ponders before accepting the hard truth and admitting alternatives are needed. "A crispy taco is pretty iconic, and it was a little bit of a bummer when [the hard-shell taco emoji] came out. Still, I would love to see more. I want a breakfast, lunch, and dinner taco. There should be like 16 different types of taco emojis."

But Apple is doing us a solid with its iOS 10.2 update, which includes Unicode's updated taco emoji, which has been adapted to resemble a soft taco. Huzzah! Taco lovers everywhere—or at least those with Apple devices—can better communicate their soulful addiction. Unfortunately, as Emojipedia shows, that from Google to Samsung, the crispy taco remains the standard taco emoji. The hope is Apple's version will soon influence its competitors.

Nevertheless, we need more options, and if Unicode is not considering adding more taco emojis into the mix, I propose reconsidering the burrito emoji. Released alongside the taco emoji, the pale-colored icon is open at one end and could be argued to represent a rolled taco emoji. The burrito is already a type of taco, and rolling a taco makes for easier consumption. Classic examples of rolled tacos include Diego Rivera's 1932 lithograph, El niño del taco, or dine at an El Huequito location in Mexico City, where tacos al pastor are served rolled.

Who's with me? Of course, you could always submit a request for new emoji, coding and all. Here's how. In the meantime, raise your rolled taco in the air and let Unicode know it's time for more.