History and Origins of Burritos

Here’s a look into the history and origins of the lauded Mexican fast food item.

National Burrito Day

A burrito is a Mexican or Mexican-inspired food, and since Spanish is the main language in that country, burrito is a Spanish word. It translates to English literally as “little donkey”—burro means donkey and the ito makes it diminutive. What’s the meaning of that? Etymologists think that the burrito is so named not because it looks like a donkey (nor was it because donkey meat was ever used), but because a tightly-packed and rolled burrito looks like a bedroll or packs that a burro put to work would carry.

There’s another theory about the name, and it relates to one of the supposed inventors (or popularizers) of the food item itself. In the 1910s and 1920s, a street vendor named Juan Mendez started out selling tacos in the Mexican city of Juarez. To get his supplies to the street each day, he carried them on a donkey, a.k.a. a burro. At some point, he decided to keep the homemade food items warm by tightly wrapping them in a huge flour tortilla…until he realized that that was a pretty good way to serve up the ingredients in the first place.

However, the story of Juan Mendez inventing (and or naming) the burrito in such a way might be apocryphal. Dictionaries of Mexican phrases date the origin of the word to 1895…more than a decade before he set up shop in Juarez. An entry in the Diccionario de Mexicanismos says that a food item called a burrito, consisting of a rolled tortilla filled with meat and other ingredients, was popular in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. The same food was eaten in areas like Yucatan and Mexico City, where it was known as a cocito and taco, respectively.

Those burritos were much smaller than the giant tortilla packed tightly with meat, beans, cheese, rice, and sour cream served by Taco Bell, Chipotle, and other American restaurant chains today. The American style burrito popped up in the 1930s. A restaurant in the Mission District of San Francisco called El Faro reportedly whipped up a batch of double-size burritos for a group of firefighters, only for operator Febronio Ontiveros to realize that most everyone would and could enjoy a giant burrito filled to the breaking point.