Everybody Is Welcome: The Taco Shop

This summer, SFA and Pihakis Foodways Documentary Filmmaker Ava Lowrey launched an annual documentary internship program to encourage and nurture emerging documentary filmmakers. This week, we’re thrilled to share Pankaj’s Khadka’s internship film which profiles Pedro Leyva of Mundo Latino Taco Shop here in Oxford, Mississippi. Read what Pankaj had to say about the process of making the film and watch the full film below.

As part of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s summer documentary film internship, I spent June and July working on a short documentary about a taco shop which, for the last decade, has been one of the most integrated spaces and a popular food destination for locals, transplants, and visitors to Oxford, Mississippi.

My first night in Oxford was striking. I sat on a balcony at an Oxford bar overlooking the historic downtown square, breathing in the familiar Southern humid air – I went to college in Lake Charles, Louisiana – glad to have found my way back to the stillness of the American South. I spent about three hours there, familiarizing myself with a city I was yet to explore and observing passersby walking into retails and restaurants on the Square.

Over the course of the evening, I sensed Oxford was different than Lake Charles or Dallas or Boston or New York, parts of America that have been home for a finite time period. More precisely, I realized I was different: of the hundreds of people I saw that night, I could count on my fingers the people of color out on a Friday. In conversations with colleagues and others in the city, I learned that Oxford, in particular the Square, is not as integrated as I believed it would be, especially as home to one of the biggest universities in the South.

Puzzled, I sought out more integrated spaces in Oxford for my project. Time and again one name kept popping up: the Taco Shop, or Secret Taco, as locals call it. So I decided to delve deeper to understand how this taco shop brought people from all walks of life and of all colors to its tables.

When I first met Pedro Leyva, the owner of the Taco Shop in Oxford, I wasn’t aware of the journey he had made three decades ago when he decided to leave his native city of Río Grande, Zacatecas, México, and cross the river and the border into America. The journey took him across “opportunity country” before he planted his roots in the Oxford in pursuit of a better future for himself and his family.

I decided his was the story I wanted to tell: one of struggle and pursuit and determination and failures and eventual success, his attainment of the American Dream, especially in the present political climate that portrays immigrants, mostly Mexicans, as lazy, criminal, and illegal. Leyva’s story contradicts this negative rhetoric and exemplifies the majority of immigrants who come to America.

For someone who never thought of food beyond the trivial purpose of satiating hunger and appeasing taste-buds, I learned how it can serve as an entree into different cultures and a bridge that brings strangers closer to one another. This was my takeaway from my summer documentary film internship in Oxford, Mississippi.

-Pankaj Khadka