Review: Broccoli & Desire

Broccoli & Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala

By Edward F.  Fischer and Peter Benson
Stanford University Press
(212 pages)

Reviewed by Miriam S. Chaiken
Indiana University of Pennsylvania


The authors of Broccoli and Desire have used this poetic title to lure readers into an examination of the complex impacts of globalization on Mayan subsistence farmers in Guatemala. The opening of the book invites the reader to see the threads that unite the rural farmer who grows the broccoli for markets in North America, with the average health-conscious consumer in the Kroger’s supermarket in Nashville. The premise of this book is that the threads that unite these two worlds are numerous and woven into a complex fabric, and that the impacts they have on each other are equally complex. The authors carefully carve middle ground in the debate on globalization, noting both the beneficial and the insidious impacts of the process, for both the Guatemalans, and the North American consumers.

The motivation for the Guatemalans to give up traditional subsistence production and establish small plots of intensive vegetable cultivation, especially broccoli, is their desire to advance the welfare of their families and provide “something better” for their futures. They are well positioned to fill a niche in production of high value vegetables, as their relative proximity by air to North America makes it more cost effective to ship produce than more southern locales, and their peak growing season coincides with the winter slump in local production in the US. In the 90 days it takes the Guatemalan farmer to grow a crop of broccoli, he contributes to the estimated 60 million pounds of broccoli shipped to the US annually, a rate of production that grew over 900% in two decades (25).

The authors provide a detailed and interesting window into the production cycle and the marketing options for the broccoli farmers, who are subject to market pressures to ensure unblemished, richly colored produce. To produce perfect broccoli necessitates heavy labor investments, as well as high levels of chemical inputs to ensure optimal production. This has resulted in greater incorporation of family members’ labor into the production process, and has reversed a process of labor out-migration that was common in earlier times when the subsistence cultivation was the only option available.

The incorporation of Guatemalan farmers into cash crop production has resulted in other sweeping changes in the local communities – local middlemen use cell phones to negotiate optimal prices with buyers in large US cities, farmers have become vulnerable to the vagaries of price fluctuations of a distant market (notable when prices dropped precipitously after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US), and a crop failure can leave a family destitute. But conversely, successful production and good wholesale prices can mean greater opportunity to send children to school, to purchase consumer goods that are highly desired, and to have a sense of pride at one’s accomplishments.

Broccoli cultivation provides a more attractive option for acquiring cash than employment in the maquiladora industries that offer low pay and deplorable working conditions, which used to be the only viable alternative to subsistence cultivation for poor Mayans. In addition, market crop production reinforces ties with the land, the self-determination of the independent farmer, and the value of hard work and agriculture – elements deeply important in Mayan culture.

The reference made throughout the book to “desiring” goes beyond wishful thinking and thus “desiring refers to the process by which things come to matter deeply, certain goals become compelling, and anticipated futures are thought to be up for grabs (13),” thus the production of broccoli goes beyond mere cultivation and becomes a metaphor for the shifting world view of the Mayan smallholder. This shift in perspective is not necessarily noted by local politicians, economists, and development professionals who tend to view Mayans as traditional and resistant to change, as obstacles to the goals of development. The authors note that this intransigent view of “outsiders” fails to acknowledge the subtle ways in which Mayans resist hegemonic domination and satisfy their own goals and agendas (80).

This does not, however, imply that the Mayans have weathered the forces of globalization and resolved all their problems – indeed this population remains very poor and disadvantaged compared with the Spanish speaking populations that dominate Guatemalan economic life. Nor does participation in market production liberate people, especially women, from what they term “’traditional’ cultural hegemonies” which may be exacerbated as women’s labor becomes more valuable, and thus more subject to control by the traditional patriarchy.

As the contemporary population of adults lived through the genocidal violence of the late 20th century, it is not surprising that they view their options as more promising than in the past. The book discusses the push and pull of local politicians and national politics, and the ways that many local Mayans became unwitting victims of this explosion of violence, and how in recent years some have begun to fight back when violent eruptions are brewing, though many remain fearful of becoming the victim of random violence. The rise of the Zapatistas on the Mexican side of the border gives some evidence of this new unwillingness to be victimized again.

The strength of this book is the ethnographic descriptions of the economic and social realities of the Guatemalan Mayan farmers in this era of rapid social change – there is a real dearth of strong, contemporary ethnographic portraits, and this book represents a positive step to address that gap. The book also seeks to frame the discussion of this particular situation in a broader theoretical context, but at times seems to veer oddly from a post-modernist position to a more political economy approach. The long theoretical discussions make this book less accessible to undergraduates, and so I would not recommend this as a text for use in undergraduate classes, but for graduate courses on globalization, food studies, or Latin American studies this would be a suitable choice. The greatest strength of the book are the passages where the authors capture the views and ideas of their respondents, and I might have wished for more examples of this to be incorporated into the book.

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