From Mexican restaurants to elote stands to summertime carne asadas, many of us grew up sipping agua frescas. The refreshing Mexican staple, made by blending fruit with water and just enough sugar and lime juice, has been in our communities for generations and has pre-Columbian roots. That’s why so many of us spat out our cold elixir when we heard TikTok calling the Mexican drink spa water.
In July, TikToker Gracie Norton shared multiple videos of her mixing together a fruity anti-inflammatory drink she called spa water with her more than 500,000 followers. The since-deleted videos caused a stir, especially among Latines on the social network, who responded to Norton's cucumber, water, and sugar blend by calling the drink what it actually is — agua fresca — and her alleged discovery of the so-called “wellness drink” as another example of culinary appropriation and/or food gentrification.
Let’s be clear: As a mexicana, I don’t think there is anything wrong with people of any and all races, ethnicities, and cultural identities enjoying the dishes and drinks that come from my home country. What I, and many in my community, take issue with is the rebranding of our traditions, culture, and staples — some that have historically been mocked — as well as the lack of credit given to the actual creators.
This is neither new nor isolated. For instance, like Norton, TikToker Janelle Rohner recently made a video where she calls esquites “Mexican street corn salad.” The responses were similar. In both cases, several Latine TikTokers have made videos of them going to a typical paleta and elote establishment and asking for “spa water” or “Mexican street corn salad.” As can be imagined, the attendants often respond saying “¿qué es eso?” or “do you mean agua fresca?”
To understand the spa water controversy and why many are upset, we spoke with different Mexicans and Mexican-Americans about how they feel regarding the topic.
Daniela Rabalais, Las Vegas
On July 22, Daniela Rabalais went viral for reversing this culinary appropriation by mockingly calling hot dogs “sausage tacos.” In her TikTok video, which has more than 3 million views at the time of writing, she calls hot dog buns fluffy tortillas, which honestly is pretty funny.
“The criticism that spa water received is valid. It is definitely cultural appropriation as it’s something that we as Mexicans and Latin Americans have been enjoying for generations that is being presented as a new idea by white creators. These drinks are meant to be shared and enjoyed by anyone and everyone, but it’s important to call them by their proper name and acknowledge their cultural roots. Simply saying, 'I can’t take credit for this. This is an agua fresca, which is a popular drink in Latin American countries that comes in a variety of flavors that I’ve grown to love since I was introduced to it,' would have made this a non-issue.
Agua Fresca is, to me (and many of us), one of the beloved, simple pleasures that brightens everyday life. I decided to make my TikToks as a light-hearted way to address the issue of cultural appropriation and create further dialogue surrounding the issue. After receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from people I know personally, millions of TikTok users, and news outlets, I’d humbly say that my goal was achieved.”
Ces Heredia, Tampico, Mexico
"Spas have been offering fruit-infused water for a while now. This is nothing new. The concept of fruit-infused water is not entirely ours, either, since Asian communities are known to drink a lot of lemon-infused water as well. In fact, Starbucks has had their Refresher products for a while now, and they’re just that: fruit-infused water. But these are two different things.
For me, the main difference, and why I consider spa water to be the gentrified version of agua frescas, is this: the aguas frescas I grew up with were blended. My grandma would blend a whole cucumber or watermelon with water and lime juice. What we end up with is not an infusion.
To be fair, we all want to feel like we invented something new, like our ideas are completely and absolutely unique, so I understand where this sentiment is coming from. I guess the 'right' thing to do, though, would be to give credit to whatever sparked the 'original' spa water idea. If it’s something you saw at a spa, then say that. If it’s something that you saw during your trip to Mexico but decided to make a re-imagined version of, then say that. If it’s a cool, summer-ready alternative to hot teas and infusions, then say that.”
Jacqueline Delgadillo, Riverside, Calif.
“Honestly, I find it really annoying that this woman is calling it spa water. I’m not sure if it’s cultural appropriation, but what bothers me is that the woman in the video is acting like she invented something new, when it’s obviously not new. As usual, when a non-Latine white woman makes an agua fresca look aesthetically pleasing, it’s trendy. But Latines have been drinking this for ages.
I grew up drinking agua frescas, so for me, they represent home. I don’t mind if non-Latines drink it, I don’t think it’s meant for only Latines to enjoy, but give credit where credit is due.
I think they should educate themselves on where this drink comes from. Also, aguas frescas aren’t super rare. If you’ve eaten at a Latine restaurant, chances are, you’ve at least seen them before, so it’s hard for me to believe that they ‘didn’t know.’ And if they didn’t, now they do.”
Monserrat Hernandez, Texas
“I don’t know much about spa water. It’s literally an agua fresca. I do think I would consider it a form of cultural appropriation. While anyone can, of course, make agua frescas, talking about it as if it's ‘new’ and not acknowledging how it's been around for generations is the problem. If I went to my corner store right now, I’m 100% sure I'm going to find a natural fruit drink mix labeled 'agua fresca' and not 'spa water.' The people calling it spa water shouldn’t take offense if they’re getting called out. Rather, they should accept it, learn from it, and move on. Many ideas get taken away from our communities and rebranded as something new. I think that we just have to remind others of where those things originated from.”