In this article:
- When translated from Spanish, the name “burrito” literally means “small donkey.” Why was this delicious food item named after a hooved animal? No one really knows.
- The burrito is essentially a different form of the taco, a food that has been a staple of Mesoamerican diets since 1500 B.C.
- However, the history of burritos and when the separation between them and tacos occurred is still a mystery.
- Most believe that the burrito was invented as a convenient food that could be transported neatly and easily on a donkey, and so the burrito was named after its original mode of transportation.
There I was, in the streets of Mexico City, sitting on a red plastic chair next to a metal street food stand, munching on a burrito. In the past few months, I had been traveling through other parts of Latin America, including Panama and Colombia, picking up more and more Spanish all the while.
A certain memory bubbled to the surface of my mind: I was standing on a street in Rincon del Mar, Colombia, staring at a donkey when a man approached me and uttered the word burro. Evidently, this was the word for donkey.
I glanced down at my half-eaten burrito and the wheels began to turn. If the diminutive form of “burro” is “burrito”, does that mean that burritos are named after little donkeys? That was it. I had to know.
Unfortunately, seeing as my mobile data did not work in Mexico, I had to wait until I got back to my hotel to get on Google.
I was greatly pleased to learn that my assumption was correct. Well, sort of.
The origins of the burrito and its name are somewhat up for debate. There are several different stories about how the burrito was invented and how it got its very strange name, none of which can really be confirmed or denied.
So, in this article, let’s take a look at the different theories about how the burrito came to be and why its name technically means “little donkey.” This is the secret history of burritos.
The Birth of the Taco and the Pre-History of Burritos
Our story begins as far back as 1500 B.C. with the Maya civilization of ancient Mexico and Guatemala, far before the Spanish ever landed on American shores.
The ancient Mayans used a molcajete (similar to a modern pestle and mortar) to crush dried corn into cornmeal. They would then mix that corn meal with water to create dough. This dough would be flattened and cooked, thus creating a tortilla.
These tortillas presented a convenient way to eat all sorts of combinations of foods. The Mayans would fill them with chili peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, squash, avocados, and a variety of other harvested items.
This is the origin of the food that would become known as the taco, and it’s still as popular in Mexico today as it ever has been.
Now, you might be saying, “I thought this was an article about the history of burritos, not tacos!” Well, contain your outrage for a moment because you can’t really talk about the history of burritos without first understanding the history of tacos.
The Origin of the Burrito
No one can pin down the exact origin of the burrito. While it originated in Mexico, several different locales across the country have tried to claim the dish as their own invention.
It’s also possible that the burrito could have been invented independently in several different places. After all, burritos are little more than a taco in a larger flour tortilla. Feel free to trash me in the comments if you disagree.
Because the burrito is an extremely popular cuisine in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, some have speculated that this state in central Mexico is the motherland of the burrito.
A book from 1895 called Diccionario de Mejicanismos is often used as evidence for this argument. In the book, the author describes a “rolled tortilla with meat or other ingredients inside,” which some people have claimed is a reference to a burrito.
However, the author very clearly identifies this food item later as a taco, not a burrito. Nice try, Guanajuato.
There is also a very famous story from Ciudad Juarez about a man named Juan Mendez. He lived during the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1921 and sold tacos out of a small stand in the neighborhood of Bella Vista.
Mendez, in search of a way to transport his tacos around more effectively on his donkey, began wrapping his tacos in large flour tortillas.
Eventually, the people in his neighborhood began affectionately calling the food “burrito” in reference to the small donkey that Mendez would ride around on. While this story is very sweet, it’s more than likely just urban legend.
Others claim that the burrito was first created in Ciudad Juarez around the 1940s. As the story goes, there was a man who used to sell tacos wrapped in large flour tortillas to the poor students at the local middle school.
He would call the children “burritos,” which was a colloquial term for a fool at the time. Eventually, this endearing nickname was transferred to the food that they ate.
There are others yet that believe that the origin of the burrito’s name comes from the fact that the rolled tortillas resemble the ears of a donkey or the rolled packs that people put on the back of their donkeys.
I can see how they resemble a rolled pack, but a donkey’s ear? I’m not buying it.
Finally, one theory suggests that the burrito was invented in Sonora as a food that would be easy to carry around on donkeys. This theory seems fairly plausible due to the fact that the state of Sonora is famous for the production of wheat, which is the main ingredient of flour tortillas, the hallmark of the burrito.
Out of all of these different stories, none can be solidly confirmed as the undisputed history of burritos. The world may never know who wrapped the first burrito or when or where they did it.
Burritos Across Borders
Though the burrito came into being in the beautiful nation of Mexico, this iconic food item has spread all over the world. These days, you can probably find some sort of a burrito in any major city throughout the world.
People have expanded upon the traditional burrito by making breakfast burritos and sushi burritos. However, the first time that the burrito traveled across borders was when it crossed over into the United States.
Back in 1923, a man by the name of Alejandro Borquez took his love of the burrito to Los Angeles and opened up the Sonora Cafe, which would later be renamed to El Cholo Spanish Cafe. This restaurant is credited with being the first to introduce the burrito to the United States.
Today, people throughout the United States absolutely adore burritos with chain restaurants such as Chipotle and Qdoba being extremely popular. If fact, in a 2021 survey from Top Agency, 53% of Americans claimed that they’d rather have a delicious burrito than a romantic date. That is one tasty food.