Years ago, I heard an NPR report on some researchers who were tracing the history of the burrito. Because it has a flour tortilla wrapping, they reasoned, it must come from either Northern Mexico or the U.S. Their conclusion was that it originated somewhere near San Francisco in the 1930s.
About 3 years ago, I got into a discussion on Facebook with a Mexican friend on the same subject, and of course, there was no particular conclusion. The crazy coincidence was that I stepped away from the computer that evening and picked up a novel I was reading, and the main character went to the library to research the origins of the burrito.
Here’s what Wikipedia says:
Cuisine preceding the development of the modern taco, burrito, and enchilada was created by Mesoamerican peoples of Mexico, who used tortillas to wrap foods, with fillings of chili peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, squash, and avocados. The Pueblo people of the Southwestern United States also made tortillas with beans and meat sauce fillings prepared much like the modern burrito we know today.
The precise origin of the modern burrito is not known. It may have originated with vaqueros in northern Mexico in the nineteenth century; farmworkers in the fields of California’s Central Valley, in Fresno and Stockton; or with northern Sonoran miners of the 19th century. In the 1895 Diccionario de Mexicanismos, the burrito was identified as a regional item from Guanajuato and defined as “Tortilla arrollada, con carne u otra cosa dentro, que en Yucatán llamancoçito, y en Cuernavaca y en Mexico, taco” (A rolled tortilla with meat or other ingredients inside, called ‘coçito’ in Yucatán and ‘taco’ in the city of Cuernavaca and in Mexico City).
An often-repeated folk history is that of a man named Juan Méndez who sold tacos in a street stand in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Ciudad Juárez, using a donkey as a transport for himself and the food, during the Mexican Revolution period (1910–1921). To keep the food warm, Méndez wrapped it in large homemade flour tortillas underneath a small tablecloth. As the “food of the burrito” (i.e., “food of the little donkey”) grew in popularity, “burrito” was eventually adopted as the name for these large tacos
Another creation story comes from 1940s Ciudad Juárez, where a street food vendor created the tortilla-wrapped food to sell to poor children at a state-run middle school. The vendor would call the children his burritos, as burro is a colloquial term for dunce or dullard. Eventually, the derogatory or endearing term for the children was transferred to the food they ate.
In 1923, Alejandro Borquez opened the Sonora cafe in Los Angeles, which later changed its name to the El Cholo Spanish Cafe. Burritos first appeared on American restaurant menus at the El Cholo Spanish Cafe during the 1930s.] Burritos were mentioned in the U.S. media for the first time in 1934,] appearing in the Mexican Cookbook, a collection of regional recipes from New Mexico authored by historian Erna Fergusson.