Pati Jinich on exploring the food and culture along U.S.-Mexico border: ‘I’ve never felt more at home’

Chef Pati Jinich stands in front of a wall of canned goods.
Chef Pati Jinich, whose TV show “La Frontera” examines the cuisine along the U.S.-Mexico border, poses for a portrait at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In 2018, Pati Jinich, a former public policy analyst turned chef, cookbook writer and host of the award-winning American Public Television series “Pati’s Mexican Table,” made a scouting mission to Sinaloa, Mexico. At the time, Netflix’s gritty series “Narcos: Mexico” was popular and suddenly the entire Mexican state had become regarded as kidnapping-and-murder central (and not just to tourists).

“My main guy said, ‘My wife is watching “Narcos,” so there’s no way I can go.’” When Jinich arrived, alone and armed only with her iPhone, instead of being greeted by drug traffickers, she learned why Sinaloa is called Mexico’s breadbasket. “It exports tomatoes, jalapenos and most of the produce,” Jinich says, describing the Sinaloense as “incredibly hardworking with strong, beautiful values.” On the next trip, the crew came with her.

In Season 2 of PBS’ primetime docuseries “La Frontera With Pati Jinich,” the Mexico City-born-and-raised author is on a new demystification tour. This time Jinich, whose Polish grandparents immigrated to Mexico City to escape pogroms, ventures to towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, some of which are — deserved or not — on the State Department’s do-not-travel list. There, she examines how cities, separated by a fence, become an exhilarating mash-up of cultures, languages and culinary practices.

Chef Pati Jinich's reflection in a mirror.
In “La Frontera” Season 2, Pati Jinich ventures to towns along the U.S.-Mexico border, some of which are on the State Department’s do-not-travel list.


Your mission has always been about putting the real Mexico on full display for Americans. How did you end up taking on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands?

My family always jokes that I’ll go to all these places that nobody wants to go. I was invited to give a speech to the Fresh Produce Assn. of the Americas in Tubac, Ariz. [pop. 1,200]. And I met all these families — some Mexican, some German, some Swedish. All have been attracted to the border because of its unprecedented possibilities in terms of technology, economy, exchange, culture, art, whatever. Many have part of their family living in Mexico and part settled in the U.S. I’ve never felt more at home.


I didn’t have to explain my deep Mexican-ness at the same time as being Jewish and now American. I feel like in the world, there’s so much pressure for people to define themselves as only one thing. At the border, there’s an acceptance that you can be so many things at the same time — which is what we all are anyway.

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June 15, 2023


Talk about how on “La Frontera,” when the unscripted exchange is in Spanish, the subtitles are in English and then in Spanish when you’re speaking English.

The conversation with PBS was to make content even more accessible. Nobody is doing both subtitles at the same time. It was nerve-racking, like, how will people react? But I was like, “These families’ worlds are Spanglish all the time. So I can be talking to you in one sentence with English and Spanish. Why don’t you do that with subtitles?” It’s been incredibly complicated and cumbersome, but the response has been incredible. People love it because everybody feels represented.

Back in the day you’d translate on camera in real time, but now I see you don’t do that.

In the beginning, they’d ask me to translate to camera out of respect for the crew. That left the [interviewee] confused. Like, “What happened? Did I do something wrong?” If I’m coming with cameras for you to tell me your story for a show that has a national platform, I feel I have to give the most agency to the people I’m meeting and there should be no interference out of respect for that. [The crew] can learn Spanish or we can hire people who speak Spanish.

Why does the food in cities like Tijuana, Nogales, Sonora, Mexicali always seem the most innovative?


What I’m going to say is going to sound crazy. I think it has to do with the laws that exist in each country and the culture too. In Mexico, you can open a shop in the trunk of your car or in your garage. Like the rules, what do you call it?

Chef Pati Jinich smiles in front of a gray wall.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Food safety regulations?

They’re different. And the ingredients. That’s one part of it. But I’ll tell you something else that’s an example about the beautiful cultural differences. In Mexico there’s this term called milusos. Like you’ll be a waiter, but you’ll also be a handyman. Or you’ll be a mom and also a writer. You’ll just put on any hat and that resembles our food. Mexicans are just resilient, reliable, resourceful, creative because we have to make do with less organization.

A vital part of your exploration of a town involves eating, sometimes even helping to prepare, local cuisine. Do you always know what’s on the menu?


Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

I have to ask: What do you do when something is not good?

I have a huge appetite. I like so many things. But if I don’t like something, I won’t compliment it. I’m not going to insult someone. I’ll try everything. The one thing I found inedible, horrible, were cow brain tacos in Sinaloa. I took one bite and it was the most acidic, bitter thing in my life. This is the first time I said, “No, I don’t like this. I won’t take another bite,” and I said it on [camera].