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Dispatches From Mexico

October 9, 2008

By Angel Herstlet

I was recently living on a farm just outside of a small town called Mazatepec. Cows and chickens dotted the countryside, yet the families that own them buy their milk and eggs from the store. The milk their own cows produce is picked up by a Nestle truck that rolls through town each week. This perversion of a local food supply isn’t the only effect globalization is having on the Mexican countryside.

I read an essay titled ¨Mexico´s Pepsi Challenge: Traditional Cooking, Mass Consumption, and National Identity¨by Jeffrey Pilcher. It discusses the advent of mechanization in tortilla-making and the effect it had on gender roles and household labor. In the 1920s, corn mills began to appear in large numbers, both in the city and countryside, typically at the request of women, and the horror of men. Hours of grinding corn by hand on the metate could be spent in other industrious ways.  Yet women who had more money and time for leisure often continued to grind their corn by hand to signify to their dinner guests their social standing. The answer isn’t hard: homemade tortillas are more finely ground and hold together better. 

Today, however, it is rare to find homemade tortillas; instead they are purchased from the corner market, or perhaps made in the home from masa harina, most likely produced by the corporate giant Maseca. Maseca refuses to fortify the corn with proteins or vitamins, though it would only cost them $10 a ton.

According to a study done by the National Nutrition Institute from the 1960s to the 1990s, the average Mexican derives about 20 percent of his or her calories from processed foods. I’ve seen it myself in the past few weeks: cookies, chips, candies, soft drinks, etc. can be found in every corner store. Sheer quantity aside, the cultural perceptions of these foods are changing: Jeffrey Pilcher chronicles the advent of soft drinks in a traditional Mexican pueblo:  

¨Rather than drinking Pepsi as a daily snack in imitation of the middle classes in either Mexico or the United States, the Chamulans incorporated the soft drink into the community´s ritual life, for example, giving cases of Pepsi as dowries for brides. Religious leaders celebrated church services with Pepsi instead of wine, telling parishioners that carbonation drives off evil spirits and cleanses the soul. The natives even hung Pepsi posters in their homes beside the family crucifix, for as one person explained to an anthropologist, ´When men burp, their hearts open.’ ¨

Even when we put the ´junk´ food aside and just consider canned vegetables for example, we run into a few problems. Mexicans have been eating corn and beans together forever. This traditional combo comes not only out of gastronomic logic, but also good biological sense. They each provide important amino acids missing in the corn, and vice versa. Meat of course can provide protein as well, but in cases where meat is too expensive for regular consumption, if beans are substituted for canned vegetables, the nutritional consequences are disastrous. As is the case over and over, it is the poor who suffer the most.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2008 2:43 am

    Angel! What a wonderful article — we had an incredible performance of “A Sense of Wonder”, a play about the life and works of Rachel Carson based on her journal entries, here in Delhi. It was incredible to discuss the impacts of Rachel Carson’s work and life around the world.

    Afterwards, with the incredible Kaiulani Lee, we talked about pesticides around the world, and how it remains the poor who are suffering most from the use and abuse of pesticides. Not to mention we discussed many parallel stories here in India, regarding how the poor are exposed to far too many pesticides, and of course, have lost the traditional farming practices and farming seeds to large agro-business. The tide is slowly turning, maybe, back to traditional seeds and traditional practices (as it remains in many parts of the nation).

    Always lovely to hear your thoughts, Angel. Can’t wait to speak with you soon!

  2. Jaime permalink
    October 10, 2008 5:30 am

    The trouble with looking at things like this is that globalization remains the cheapest way of getting people food. That’s the sad thing – the broken system we have works, if you’re thinking about it purely from what’s cheapest for the consumer — and it’s difficult to get people to think past that.

    So what do we do about it? I mean, can we just tell them ‘sorry, but you have to pay more to make food that’s better for you’?

  3. gwaterg permalink
    October 14, 2008 2:22 am

    Very good information. Excellent page. I live in Mexico.

    My site is

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