Did the Pace Picante commercials of the 1990s predict our current culture wars?

New York City. It’s the way the then-infamous trio let the name linger and reverberate with incredulity. It was no accident. The aggrieved Salsa Men knew what they were doing.

They were making the metropolis, long the cultural and financial capital of this nation, out to be a far-flung hedonistic land out of touch with Real American Salsa. The place where people just couldn’t understand the problems of San Antonio and lands adjacent. A gold-plated island with pyrite for authenticism. A heartless and vapid outlier not congruent with the Heartland.

Real America is a dish that takes time. There are no shortcuts. Our ways are passed down through generations, in looseleaf pages with scientific recipes to be followed meticulously.

Bitter politics were at play in the 1990s Pace commercials. We didn’t firmly grasp seeds of a culture war back then, perhaps we should have. Perhaps this, like all other things, is How We Got Trump.

In this iconic clip, Roy is seated around a campfire with three colleagues or friends. Everything is fine until he is asked to produce more Pace Picante sauce without so much as a “please.” Against all odds, he is able to flip a fresh jar of salsa across the fire with the speed of a shortstop beginning a double play. Roy is then chastised for offering a different brand with escalating intensity. When the third friend reads the label and reveals production is centered in “New York City,” Roy’s goose is cooked. He is bound and affixed to the back of the group’s vehicle like a beloved but no-less-frightened Romney family pet.

That these men praised Texas for its jarred condiments flew firmly in the face of the coastal sensibility, where New York City was lauded as the bastion of condiment diversity—from the chutneys of the East to the mayo-ketchup of the Caribbean.

The Pace Picantes commercials were about salsa, yes, but they were also the first signs of the Two Americas put forth in a purely capitalistic endeavor. All parties represented are hungry, a universal desire. It’s how they should satiate which draws out the tribalism. The Pace commercials were meant to be funny, perhaps even absurdist. Almost charming. You could even see a New York, cultured man agree that true salsa, should in fact, come from Texas. But dammit if they didn’t forecast our current dystopia, a place where compromise is passed over in favor of hostile words and, at points, brutal violence.

It is quite clear that Roy, if he were real and able to survive another two decades of violent attacks from those close to him, would be a Hillary Clinton voter. Though presumably a Texan and, by all indications, a somewhat hard man, Roy accepted the globalist tentacles reaching out and impacting his day-to-day lif—though perhaps passively and with some ignorance as the revelation that his salsa was made by outsiders likely came as a surprise to him.

The other three are representative of a fundamentally fractured but still codified and powerful Republican party. The first man who asks Roy for the salsa is from the Establishment Wing, willing to reach out across the aisle for ideas or seasoning. The second man is more reactionary, a man convinced his ideals are true and correct, open to civil debate but no less entrenched. And the third is why the right has become the Party of Trump.

A Liberal Salsa was not just an affront to the taste buds, it was an affront to their values. Salsa was to be made by True Salsa Knowers, not outsourced. True Salsa Knowers had innate knowledge Yankees could never grasp. The type gleaned from sun-drenched evenings on the front porch swing and a second helping of Sunday chicken after church. All the fancy education in the world couldn’t buy this knowledge. That an outsider dare peddle his salsa wears on their soul was an affront and they felt backed into a corner.

The men had seen too many good jobs leave the San Antonio area for the coasts or, worse, seen honest jobs taken by those who weren’t like them. A New York City salsa meant that the rapidly-changing world had passed them by, and they fought like hell to keep those wheels from crushing them. This impulse is understandable. How the men, challenged with the issue, responded is the issue. The Pace Salsa commercials are peppered with examples of extreme and sometimes implied deadly consequences for minor infractions.

Its canon is consistent and unsparring.

Stuffing a man into a boiling pot with glee would, at the very least, change the dynamics of an old-timey Dip-Off. There’s little subtext there. When a cook fails to grasp the difference in products, it’s suggested a posse will be getting a rope to hang the man. Being left to die in the desert is another explored consequence.

This is perhaps the most telling and instructive footage demonstrating the complicated politics of the Pace Picante universe. A man being branded into the salsa cult against his will. All of this for tomatoes and spices used to dip a chip into.

Absurd, right? No less absurd than using trivial and tenuously connected culture wars to inflame a base. No less absurd than political leanings dictating one’s feeling on straws, Kanye West, professional football, economy delivery pizza, or any number of consumer products thrust into the pools of politics and summarily drowned with the weight of importance.

Make a man care deeply about the trivial and you can get him to selectively care about the crucial. 

It is not ridiculous to think similar ads in 2018 would be subject to deep analysis and, perhaps, a boycott if a cause could be cobbled together out of whole cloth.

An army of Raya-using New Yorkers, who watched the election results from the shadow of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign Brooklyn headquarters, would fly out of LaGuardia in search of the Pace Salsa Voter. What did they, high-rent neighbors of the Off Brand Factory, miss? And how could they miss it? Answers complex and largely unanswerable—at least satisfyingly unanswerabl —would be reduced to a simmering red sauce with bits of local color chunks thrown in.

In the end, there’s a discomforting comfort in the knowledge that the eyes see the ears hear what they want to hear. Like the way the Salsa Men say New York City. Three short words, perhaps unimportant. Or perhaps the key to everything, the key to understanding of our current political zeitgeist. Who is to know?

But in a way, they all exemplify something truly American: ignoring that salsa actually came from somewhere else. That is it the sum of parts diverse and nuanced. That there is no one correct way to make it. That what was good for one man’s tastebuds could assail another’s.

And most importantly, that’s best enjoyed communally, with differences put aside in the interest of a common hunger. A more flavorful and rich slice of life.

Maybe one day.

Kyle Koster

Kyle Koster

Kyle Koster is a senior writer for The Big Lead, where he covers the NFL, NBA, MLB, and just about everything else. A Michigan State alum, his work has also appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and Uproxx.