The tortilla slap challenge has gone viral on social media. Why not everyone is laughing

Daniel Gonzalez
Arizona Republic

To millions, the videos of people slapping each other in the face with tortillas are hilarious.

Each person takes a swig of water and then takes turns slapping the other, not with the hard palm of a hand, but with a pliable flour or corn tortilla. The playground game Rock, Paper, Scissors, determines who slaps first. The goal is to not spit out the water. The first who does, loses.

The sting is not as painful as a real slap. But the sound of a tortilla smacking the soft flesh of a cheek is the same, which presumably is what makes the videos funny rather than violent. 

It's called the tortilla slap challenge. The videos have gone viral on social media. Some  have racked up millions of views. One that pairs diminutive Kevin Hart against Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in a David-versus-Goliath square off had nearly 19 million views on TikTok.

It's easy to dismiss the tortilla slap challenge as nothing more than silly, harmless fun. 

"OMG I haven't laughed this hard in a long time," a person commented on one tortilla slap challenge TikTok video with 5.9 million views and 107,000 comments.

But not everyone is laughing.

La Canasta: Her family made tortillas in Phoenix for 60 years. Now, she's a Hall of Famer

Some see the game as First World privilege, a waste of food at a time when many households in Mexico survive on little more than tortillas and watery beans and record inflation and soaring food prices have hit the poor and working class especially hard in the U.S.

Other see the game as insensitive and offensive, considering the tortilla's iconic, almost sacred, status as the most important food staple of the Americas dating back thousands of years. 

Placed into political context, the tortilla slap challenge is even seen by some as racist. They point to the way tortillas have been used as a bigoted insult by hurling them like frisbees at brown skin people during sporting events and protests. 

To critics of the challenge, using the tortilla to slap someone is another cringe-worthy example of how Mexican food, culture and people are often dismissed as disposable.

"I have a great sense of humor. I love all kinds of funny things, and I'm not easily offended," Carmen Tafolla said.

She is professor emeritus of English at University of Texas, San Antonio, and the 2015 poet laureate of Texas. She is also the author of the short story collection "Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans."

"I think it's a beautiful thing to try and be playful with cultural icons," Tafolla said. "But this one stands apart because it seems derogatory and it seems disrespectful of not only the main food item that kept people alive on this continent for millennia, but it seems negative towards the value of Mexican culture. And we hear too much of that. We're surrounded by negativity towards Mexican culture." 

Anti-Latino backdrop behind the tortilla slap challenge

Jun 27, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Flour tortilla production line at La Canasta Mexican Food Inc. in Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

The tortilla slap challenge has gone viral amid a white nationalist, anti-Latino backdrop.

The U.S.-Mexico border is sometimes referred to as the "tortilla curtain" a reference to the cultural, political and immigration barrier between the United States and Latin America.

In a barrage of TV ads, migrants arriving at the southern border are portrayed as "an invasion" by right-wing politicians fueled by the previous president's "Build the Wall" rhetoric.

"If those environments did not exist, maybe people could laugh it off," said Roberto Rodriguez. He is a former Mexican American studies professor at the University of Arizona and scholar of ancient corn now living in Mexico. "But people are tired of being political pinatas and tired of getting insulted and staying quiet about it."

He and others views the tortilla slap challenge as part of a long history of disrespecting Mexican culture through stereotypes in the media going back decades, from the Speedy Gonzales and Slowpoke Rodriguez cartoons to the Frito Bandito and Taco Bell Chihuahua TV ads.

"There's a tradition of of stereotypes and the comeback always is, 'It's just a joke. It's funny.' And so they flip it, like we're the problem," Rodriguez said. 

Ridiculed for eating tortillas

Jun 27, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Flour tortilla chip production line at La Canasta Mexican Food Inc. in Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

Corn, or maize, was first domesticated by indigenous people in what is now southern Mexico and then spread throughout the Americas.

But when Europeans arrived in the Americas in the 1500s and first encountered corn they wouldn't eat it.

"They relegated the corn to pigs and cows, so they didn't see it as fit for human beings," Rodriguez said.

The Aztecs, meanwhile, considered corn as valuable as gold, Rodriguez said.

Mexican Americans growing up in the Southwest were ridiculed at school for eating tortillas, said Vanessa Fonseca-Chavez, an English professor at Arizona State University who grew up in New Mexico.

"My grandparents, for example, were made fun of in school for bringing tortillas in their lunchboxes and not having, you know, white bread sandwiches," she said. 

Rafael Martinez Orozco is a history professor at Arizona State University and a big follower of social media. He admits some of the tortilla slap challenge videos made him laugh. 

They reminded him of Cachetadas, a flat stretchy Mexican candy, which literally means "slapped" in Spanish.

"When we were kids, we would get these candies and we would slap each other," Martinez Orozco said. "That's why I laughed. I thought of these childhood connections to these candies."

But the more he watched the tortilla slap challenge videos, and the more he thought about the tortilla's cultural and historical importance, the less funny to him the videos became.

The tortilla is 6,000 years old

Professor Rafael Martinez at ASU Polytechnic Campus on Aug. 4, 2022.

The tortilla dates back 6,000 years to pre-conquest times in Mexico, Martinez said. It was made from ground corn flattened into a disk then baked on a comal over a wood fire. Later, tortillas were made from flour, mostly in northern Mexico, after Spaniards brought wheat to the Americas. 

"Tortillas of maize or corn is a way of life. Tortillas are a staple and a centerpiece of Mexican diet," Martinez said. "We have to understand that tortillas for Mexicanos represents a cultural food symbol that links them to their indigenous roots."

Similarly for Mexican-Americans in the United States, the tortilla is "one of those cultural symbols that links them across generations, across borders to their roots, and to their home country in Mexico," Martinez said.

Martinez was born in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. But he grew up in a working class family in Los Angeles. His family ate tortillas daily because they were part of his Mexican culture, but also because they were economical.

For Mexicans and Mexican Americans on both sides of the border, the tortilla "represents one of the most affordable, economically speaking, food items as part of their daily diet," Martinez said.

For Martinez, participating in the tortilla slap challenge is not just culturally insensitive. It represents the dichotomy between people with First World privileges and the economic struggles of the poor, especially those living in Mexico and other Third World countries.

"Not only are they not able to participate in these challenges, but they see the realities of what it means to waste" a tortilla, Martinez said.

Professor Rafael Martinez at ASU Polytechnic Campus on Aug. 4, 2022.

Wasting food while others go hungry

Poverty was already high in Mexico. But the pandemic made it worse. About 45% of the population, or about 56 million people, lived below the poverty line in 2020 about $4 a day in rural areas and $5.60 in urban areas. That was up from 42%, or 52 million people in 2018, according to a report by Mexico's National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. 

The number of Mexicans living in extreme poverty increased to 11 million, up by more than 2 million, the report said. 

The tortilla slap challenge is like a slap to the face of the millions of poor people in the United States, said Carolina Bank Munoz, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, State University of New York.

"It invisiblizes the fact that in the United States there are 14 million people who are food insecure," Bank Munoz said.

The tortilla slap challenge also ignores the labor that goes into making tortillas. Her book "Transnational Tortillas" exposed exploitative working conditions in tortilla factories on both sides of the border.

"There's a lot of repetitive motion injuries. Wages are low, working conditions are bad," Bank Munoz said. "So then there are people using this product, again, to slap people around."

Miguel Pulido, 21, has seen the tortilla slap challenge on social media but would never participate himself. He was buying tortillas for his family's Mexican restaurant, Salsitas,  at La Sonorense Tortilla Factory on South Central Avenue in Phoenix. 

Tortillas made the base layer which eventually wrapped the giant chimichanga.

"It's definitely a waste of food," Pulido said.

Manny Lopez, 27, a Mexico City native was pushing a cart of groceries through the parking lot of Los Altos Ranch Market, a Mexican supermarket off 16th Street and Roosevelt in central Phoenix.

Lopez said he had seen the tortilla slap challenge on social media and didn't like it.

"Food is holy for us," said Lopez, who runs a food cart. "It's a blessing from God. You aren't supposed to play with it."

Inside the store, freshly baked tortillas slid down a long conveyor belt, and were sold in steaming hot stacks of 50.

Mirna Cortez, 55, another Ranch Market shopper, also found the tortilla challenge offensive. 

"They are being wasteful with food, especially in this economy," Cortez said, leaving the store.

Her daughter, Genesis Cortez, 27, however, admitted she laughed when she saw the video of Kevin Hart and The Rock slapping each other with tortillas on Tik Tok.

"It's funny, yeah," she said.

French crepes instead of tortillas?

Josie Ippolito sees both the humor and the unease over the tortilla challenge. To her, some of the videos are funny, but she does see them as a waste of food.

But the tortilla slap challenge has been good for business.

Her Phoenix company, La Canasta, producer of the My Nana's brand of tortillas, makes 1.5 million corn and flour tortillas daily.

"It brings attention to the product, let's put it that way," said Ippolito, who is Mexican American.

Jun 27, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Josie Ippolito, President of La Canasta Mexican Food Inc., and founder of My NanaÕs Best Tasting Products at her tortilla factory in Phoenix. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-Arizona Republic

She believes those who see the tortilla challenge as racist need to lighten up.

"This whole thing about race, it drives me crazy because people are accusing people of being racist and they're really not," Ippolito said. "It's in the form of humor."

Tortillas are more popular than ever, Ippolito points out, even more popular than the bagel. The tortilla's popularity is a sign of how mainstream Mexican culture has become. 

"We are very relevant. Very, very relevant," Ippolito said.

Maybe so, but Tafolla, the Texas author and poet, wonders if the slap challenge would be as funny using French crepes instead of Mexican tortillas.

It's doubtful, Tafolla said, because French things are seen as "an elevation of status and value."

She looks forward to the day the tortilla gets the same respect.

Reach the reporter at daniel.gonzalez@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.

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