There are a few theories as to why the burrito got its name, which translates to “little donkey” in Spanish. The most common explanation is that it refers to the shape and size of a burrito, which resembles a stuffed little donkey or mule. Just as a donkey or mule can be loaded up with goods to carry around, a burrito is stuffed with a variety of fillings wrapped in a flour tortilla. The long cylindrical shape of a burrito also resembles the body of a donkey or mule.
Etymology of “Burrito”
The word burrito first appeared in the dictionary in 1895 as a Mexican Spanish word meaning “little donkey.” It was derived from the Spanish words burro meaning donkey, and the diminutive suffix -ito. Burro itself comes from the Latin word burricus meaning “small horse.”
There are a few theories about how the food item got this name:
- Some claim that the name refers to the resemblance of a stuffed, wrapped burrito to the shape of a little donkey or mule that is loaded up with goods.
- Others say street vendors in Mexico would walk around selling burritos from the backs of donkeys. The food item took on the name “little donkey” to refer to how it was transported.
- Another account claims that people would carry their burritos in saddlebags as they traveled by donkey or mule, so the food item was associated with the animal.
It’s hard to say for certain which theory is correct, but they all refer to the size, shape, or method of transport that linked burritos to donkeys in Mexican culture.
Burritos as Packed Provisions
One of the central theories about the burrito’s name suggests it comes from its resemblance to a stuffed pack animal. Just as supplies and cargo can be secured to the back of a donkey or mule, burritos act as portable packages of food.
In the early 1900s when the burrito first emerged, workers and travelers in Mexico would often journey by donkey or mule. Their provisions and belongings were loaded onto the animal’s back and secured in place. The long cylindrical shape of a rolled up burrito stuffed with meat, beans, cheese, and other ingredients mirrors the look of a loaded pack animal.
As a highly portable food item that contains multiple food groups wrapped up neatly in a flour tortilla, burritos were an ideal meal for life on the move. The ingredients are neatly sealed into the flour tortilla casing and can travel without making a mess. This evokes the idea of a donkey or mule carrying its cargo in bundled packs on its back.
With its efficient portability and shape, it’s easy to see why the burrito earned a comparison to a hard-working donkey loaded up with equipment and goods. The burrito functions as a convenient, mess-free way to eat a nutritious stuffed meal by hand on the go.
Burritos Transported by Donkey
Another account of the burrito’s naming origins claims that the dish is linked to real donkeys that were used to transport and sell them. According to this theory, street vendors in Mexico would prepare burritos and then load them onto donkeys to be sold in markets and villages.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, donkeys and mules were common forms of transportation in Mexico. Food vendors would sometimes travel between towns and cities to sell regional specialties. Loading up donkeys with burritos to sell in different location would be an effective mobile business strategy.
As the story goes, villagers would wait eagerly for the arrival of the burrito vendor with his donkey. They became accustomed to buying burritos from these traveling merchants. Over time, the popular food item became associated with the little transport donkeys, hence the name “burrito” meaning little donkey.
While burritos are sold from carts and stalls today, their origins as movable feast perhaps contributed to their reputation as an on-the-go meal. The link between loaded up donkeys and stacked burritos reinforced the concept of the burrito as food designed for portability.
Burritos Carried in Saddlebags
Rather than visualizing vendors transporting burritos to market by donkey, another theory suggests the traveling customers carried burritos in saddlebags themselves.
In old Mexico, workers or travelers would pack burritos in their saddlebags to eat during long trips by donkey or mule. The saddlebags, draped over the animal on each side, allowed convenient access to the burritos when hungry. This method of transport led to the dish becoming known as the food carried in donkey saddlebags.
There may be some overlap between the idea of burritos as vendor goods loaded onto donkeys, and burritos as customer provisions stored in saddlebags. But the common thread is the burrito’s reputation as traveling food, whether supplied by merchants or prepared by individuals.
Carried in saddlebags as supplies for a journey, burritos were quite literally the food of donkeys. The saddlebag burrito theory underscores howwrapped, stuffed burritos were an optimal meal for eating on the move while mounted on the back of a mule or donkey.
Reasons Why Burritos are Called “Little Donkeys”
Looking at these different theories, there are some core reasons why burritos likely acquired the name “little donkey”:
- Shape: A burrito rolled up and stuffed with ingredients has a long cylindrical shape like a donkey or mule body.
- Portability: As a contained, handheld food item, burritos are ideal for eating on the go, like cargo carried by a donkey.
- Transport: Donkeys were actually used to convey burritos to market by vendors, linking them to the food.
- Carrying: Burritos were easy to pack in saddlebags and eat while traveling by donkey.
While the exact origin is up for debate, these factors all contributed to the burrito becoming known as the “little donkey.” The name captures both the physical resemblance to a donkey body, and the practical connection between burritos and donkeys in Mexican trade and travel.
The donkey burrito theories also underscore how burritos were considered Mexican fast food from their earliest days. As a non-messy, easy to eat meal that could travel, burritos were the ideal on-the-go food for life on horseback. So while modern diners may think of burritos as fast casual Tex-Mex food, their portability and association with donkeys reveal deep roots in Mexican convenience culture.
Modern Legacy of the Burrito
While burritos may have gotten their start as traveling food eaten by workers, travelers, and merchants using donkeys for transport, they have come a long way over the past century. From humble origins, burritos have evolved into an internationally popular food enjoyed both on-the-go and in restaurants.
Some key milestones in the global spread of burrito culture include:
- 1900s: Burritos become popular portable food in the Mexican countryside and border towns.
- 1930s: Burritos expand beyond northern Mexico and the borderlands to Mexico City as rural migrants bring them to the capital.
- 1960s-1970s: American fast food chains and restaurants begin offering Tex-Mex style burritos and tacos.
- 1990s: Mission burritos develop in San Francisco featuring larger burritos with more fillings.
- 2000s: Burritos become a global phenomenon with chains like Chipotle, Qdoba and others taking them worldwide.
While Mexican street vendors may have started the trend of selling burritos from donkey-mounted food carts, Mexican American restauranteurs like Juan “Big John” Ortega and Febronio Ontiveros expanded burrito culture in LA, and Glen Bell popularized them through Taco Bell. Today, burritos are beloved across the Southwestern US, Mexico, and the globe.
Next time you bite into a meaty, bean-stuffed burrito, think back to its humble beginnings on the backs of hardworking little donkeys in old Mexico. The story of the burrito is the story of an efficient, portable, and delicious food item evolving from workaday origins to worldwide popularity.
So why is a burrito called a little donkey? Most likely because its size, shape and portability by pack animal evoked images of a hard-working donkey loaded up with equipment and goods. The name also reflects how burritos were easy to transport and eat on the go for travelers and merchants using donkeys. While the exact origin is unclear, the theories all point to the burrito’s beginnings as food on the move, conveyeed by or eaten alongside donkeys.
Over time, the convenient stuffed flatbread meal evolved from humble Mexican origins to become globally famous fast food. But the burrito’s nickname still reflects its start as the food of donkeys. The story of the little donkey burrito illustrates the journey from workaday food to multi-billion dollar international phenomenon.