"I don't put ketchup or Valentina on my pizza, I'll have none of that. Just garlic and chile, nothing more and nothing less."
All photos by the author.
Recently, on a visit to Tlapa—a dusty urban center tucked deep away in the mountainous part of the southeastern Mexican state of Guerrero—my friends asked me if I wanted to go grab a slice of pizza. I wasn't trying to be rude, but I'm a New Yorker; I couldn't help but make a skeptical face. But then, I remembered that the nickname of this urban center was "Tlapa York," and thought it might be worth a shot.
Migration from Tlapa to New York started in earnest in the late 80s, and eventually became a rite of passage for young men from Tlapa and the surrounding mountain towns. Isabel Margarita Nemecio, who worked for almost a decade assisting recently deported migrants at Tlachinollan, a local human rights center, says that the majority of them worked in the food service industry in NYC, so Tlapa's pizzerias have provided a valuable niche for the recently deported. "The local pizza shops have become a regional reference that gives Tlapa a certain status as an urban center," she says.
We headed to the edge of town, where, nestled in between a dried-up river, a garbage dump, and a small highway, lies La Siciliana Pizzeria. La Siciliana looks like a classic Tex-Mex establishment, with cow skulls, horseshoes, and cactuses everywhere, but their specialty is New York-style pizza.
The owner, Evaristo Ayala Gonzalez, migrated to New York in the 90s. He worked at a few different kinds of restaurants—Gray's Papaya, Chinese, Greek—but always had a fascination with pizza. Eventually, he was hired as a dishwasher at a pizza place, and little by little, by paying attention to what was going on around him, he figured out how to make pizza. One day, when the chef didn't show up, Gonzalez filled in, and soon he became a pizza cook as well.
When Gonzalez returned to Mexico a few years later, he saw that pizza shops were really starting to take off: "Tlapa is a city where people converge from all of the mountain towns. All of these people migrated to the United States and returned, making this a great market for pizza," he clarifies.
The most common condiments for pizza in Mexico are ketchup and Valentina hot sauce. At Siciliana, you can get both sauces, but you'll also find shakers of garlic powder and chile flakes on every table as well. "I don't put ketchup or Valentina on my pizza, I'll have none of that," says Ayala Gonzalez. "Just garlic and chile, nothing more and nothing less."
"It's too difficult to build a house here without going north to work," says Alfonso Villalva, while taking a break from serving pizza at Pizzeria Dany. There are few things in Pizzeria Dany that alert you to the fact that you are in Mexico and not in NYC. The decor is similar, and the pizza's crust is thin and crispy like a proper NYC slice should be. It's open seven days a week from 10 AM to 10 PM, and there is a constant flow of pizza eaters, as it's just a few blocks away from the city's main square.
"I've always liked pizza. I thought, 'I need to get ahead in life, I'm gonna go north and work in a pizza shop,'" Villalva continues. He worked at one in Brooklyn for ten years, where he earned around $600 a week. Disillusioned by life as a second-class citizen without papers, Villalva returned home with a chunk of cash, allowing him to build a home for himself and his family in nearby San Nicolas Zoyatlan. He commutes 30 minutes daily to Pizzeria Dany, where his job is "a bit of everything." Dani's most popular pizza slice is Hawaiian; Villalva's favorite is the Mexican pizza, with refried beans, chorizo, and chiles.
Here, a pizza slice costs 18 pesos—about US $1—which will get you about a third of a slice in NYC (the going rate for a single slice as of today is $2.75). But if you earn minimum wage in Tlapa, you could only buy three slices a day; in New York, you'd be able to afford three slices an hour.
Three flags fly outside Gonzalez's pizzeria: Italy's, Mexico's, and the American flag. Since Trump's election, he says, the occasional drunk will harass him to take down the latter. He responds by explaining: "Italy invented pizza; we're in Mexico; and the United States is where I learned [how] to make you this pizza."
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