Negative news reports about the U.S.–Mexico border are litany, but Pati Jinich is here to tell anyone who will listen that la frontera, as it’s known in Spanish, should also be celebrated.
“Borderland communities exist and live and thrive and get challenged in all sorts of ways, under very unique circumstances,” says the chef and TV host, “so there are these creative possibilities for art and music and religion and food that just couldn’t happen in other places.”
Jinich, already a James Beard Award winner and Emmy nominee for her long-running PBS series Pati’s Mexican Table, is shedding light on the wonders of the border in La Frontera, the second season of which premieres on PBS this month. She got the idea for the show back in 2016, on a trip to Laredo, Texas. While speaking to residents and dipping her toes in the Rio Grande, she recalls, “I’ve never felt more at home. I was like, This is my mission. These are my people.”
It makes sense that Jinich was drawn to the area: Born and raised in Mexico City, and a U.S. resident for more than 20 years, she’s constantly straddling languages, cuisines, and cultures. “We’re made to feel like if you’re a combination of things, you’re a lesser person,” she says, “but it actually means that you have more. You’re richer.”
As a chef, Jinich does much of her exploration of the border through food. A carne asada burrito in San Diego, a salty cheese empanada made by Mennonites in Chihuahua, a Hatch chile burger in New Mexico—each of these dishes tells a story of cultural fusion, of civil rights, of immigration, of ecology. “So many of the foods that we don’t know if they’re Mexican or American—like nachos, fajitas, burritos, fish tacos—all those things come from the borderland,” she explains.
As much as she relishes the culinary combinations, Jinich also found herself pleasantly surprised by the unity she saw among people. “On both sides of the border, people love the other side so much,” she says. “They live their lives in a continuous balance: I get my tortillas in Mexico, but I get my Costco in the U.S.; I get my perfume on the north side because I like that brand better, but I go to church on the south side because I like the singing better.”
Of course, Jinich acknowledges that there are problems on the border—abuse, corruption, environmental degradation, and more. While the show’s mission is celebration, she notes that she’s not ignoring those issues. “In this second season, [we’re still] finding the stories, the unprecedented, the things that can only happen at the border,” she says, “but we also walk a little bit more into the sad parts, the difficult parts. We really try to do it from a very human perspective that’s not sensationalist.”