Category Archives: Mexico

Review: Eating Nafta

 

Eating NAFTA by Alyshia Gálvez

Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico. Alyshia Gálvez. University of California Press. 2018. 260pp. ISBN:9780520291812.

Joan Gross

Oregon State University

Alyshia Gálvez has written a very important and timely book about the connectedness of international trade agreements, migration, diet-related diseases and the loss of biodiversity. She focuses on the two decades plus since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994 and its impact on the lives of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Gálvez interweaves large scale statistics from reliable sources with her own ethnographic encounters with people from various walks of life, rural and urban, labor migrants and politicians. She complements her decades-long ethnographic fieldwork with discourse analysis and policy analysis, linking the micro with the macro. She pays particular attention to the changing lifestyles of rural Mexicans who no longer can support themselves with milpa agriculture since the USA began dumping subsidized corn in Mexico. Not only have their diets changed, but they can no longer maintain multigenerational households as they have been sucked into a cash economy and family members have migrated to cities and abroad in pursuit of cash. She tells us that today Mexico imports 42% of its food and has a 55.1% poverty rate. She tells us that the top three causes of death and disability are now diet-related chronic diseases. She tells us that in 2007, 12.8 million Mexicans were residing in the USA. She proposes in the Introduction that we consider this as a kind of structural violence. “’Gringos’ clamor for handmade tortillas, while Mexicans have become the world’s top consumers of instant noodles” (p. 10).

Chapter Two provides an ethnographic look at the elevation of traditional Mexican food into the world of haute cuisine, blessed by René Redzepi, the celebrated Danish chef. Gálvez examines “the role of narrative capital in telling certain kinds of stories that simultaneously romanticize specific elements of cuisine (like hand-ground landrace corn), while cleaving them from the historical conditions of their production and the people responsible for their development and custodianship over millennia” (p.30). Mexican cuisine was inducted into UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2010. Gálvez addresses the timelessness of the UNESCO description, while providing examples of changes in Mexican cuisine since the Spanish conquest, and notably since NAFTA. Some farmers of landrace corn fed it to their animals because the price and demand was so low, but today, top chefs are paying premium prices for ancestral corn that they serve along with huitlacoche, insect larvae, mezcal, and other traditional Mexican foods that have been newly discovered by elite chefs and diners. Gálvez stresses the importance of stories and who gets to tell them. She recounts stories that Mexican farmers tell about hybrid vs. criollo corn. Hybrid corn “requires more water and pesticides, costs more, and behaves like a spoiled baby” (p. 60) according to Nahuatl-speaking farmers of  Asunción Miahuatlán. Other farmers justify the higher cost of raising hybrid corn with market demand for the larger ears eaten as corn on the cob.

Chapter Three shifts from corn to goats, but repeats the messy pattern of some people deciding to continue raising criollo goats which taste better while others follow the advice of government agronomists to invest in fancy goats. Gálvez rehearses for us the history of Mexico’s development policy and the constant desire to make agricultural production more “efficient.” She argues that small-scale agriculture is compatible with other subsistence and economic activities and it ensures biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Central to her argument is the contrast between a market-driven food security model promoted by free trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and a food sovereignty model that calls for democratic control of the food system. As marginalized rural residents are blamed for Mexico’s “inefficiency,” their displacement has led to increased consumption of US products and labor migration to the US, both actions subsidizing the US economy.

Chapter Four begins with a description of Doña Yolanda’s small store, filled with candy and other processed foods. Stores like this are typical in many poor countries, so I was glad that Gálvez spent some time explaining the attraction of getting into this type of business and the competition they face from larger chains, such as Oxxo and Walmart. She describes how processed food at first marked cosmopolitan modernity, but now is associated with lower status. Mexicans have embodied free trade and the nutrition transition in the form of widespread obesity, though Gálvez questions whether the cause is skyrocketing consumption of sugar or the myriad chemicals used in farming and food processing. She states that chemical exports from the US to Mexico increased 97% in the first decade after NAFTA was passed.

Chapter Five addresses strategies to combat obesity and diabetes in Mexico. Here, Gálvez points out that the solutions to this problem always seem to rest on the individual and don’t address changes in the larger food system. She, then describes three parts of the Mexican government’s response to diabetes and obesity: the soda tax and regulations on food marketing; the anti-poverty program, Prospera; and the Crusade against Hunger. She shows how the latter two strategies propel people towards a cash-based economy and away from traditional knowledge concerning healthy food. She ends the chapter with a discussion of women’s labor and how, even when working outside the home, women are expected to be responsible for the diets of their families. As their access to money increases and their time decreases, they are more likely to rely on prepared foods. The author points out that it is not fair that they and not the state should be held responsible for obesity.

Chapter Six looks at diabetes and asks about the role of migration in the rise of this disease. The focus is on the relationship between stress and diabetes on one hand and stress and migration on the other. She cites Mendenhall’s work on syndemic suffering which calls attention to the intersection of both diseases and epidemic social problems. Research is only beginning to explore the connections between diabetes and stressors such as separation from family members, discrimination, labor exploitation, poverty and lack of health insurance. The diets of migrants change, but also the migradollars they repatriate increase the consumption of larger quantities of processed foods back home.

Chapter Seven begins with watercress, a food that many Latin Americans have a nostalgic response to, but that never figures into stereotypes of Latin American cuisine. Gálvez asks “how many humble but clearly significant foods are forgotten in the transition to more urban lifestyles or with migration?” (p. 174). She also asks how much of our nostalgia for certain foods is nostalgia for the contexts in which they were produced and eaten and notes that migration intensifies nostalgia for specific places and tastes, especially when free circulation is prevented. Decontextualization enabled traditional foods to be appropriated and commodified like the expensive tamales offered by Williams -Sonoma or McDonald’s McBurrito. In response, food activists are promoting traditional foods and their health benefits as part of food sovereignty. At the same time that traditional Mexican cuisine is going global, global products like Coca-Cola have invaded indigenous culture and ritual and this, in turn, has become a useful marketing tool.

In the Conclusion, Gálvez tells the story of one Mexican migrant to New York who found his way back to the land with help from a non-profit called GrowNYC. The migrant in this story stands in contrast to the multitude of Mexican migrants who have become “’surplus bodies,’ and bodies as repositories of surpluses, storing the products of overproduction and uneven trade negotiations” (p. 192). Gálvez proposes that the rise of diet-related illness in Mexico is “a logical result of the prioritization of foreign direct investment, industrial agriculture, theories of comparative advantage, and a specific role of development that sees no role for small-scale agriculture” (pp. 192-193). At the end of the book, she takes us back to alternative movements such as GrowNYC that promote social justice, resistance and resilience  while promoting ways of eating that “build our connections to each other and to land and culture” (p. 199). Nevertheless, she warns that solutions require more than consumer activism at the local level.

Throughout the book, Gálvez often shifts her discourse from explaining to giving the reader insight into the conversations and observations that led her to make particular points. Sometimes these are descriptions of encounters; at other times, direct transcriptions from interviews in Spanish. These are not translated in the text, but merely summarized and commented on. (Interested readers can find the exact translations in the endnotes.) It’s a refreshing style that maintains reader interest in the topics at hand while also opening the research curtain. Gálvez successfully presents the complexity of a food system gone awry and the important role played by NAFTA. I highly recommend it as a text in courses dealing with food systems, social justice, migration and public policy, as well as courses on Latin America.

 

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, cuisine, diabetes, economics, globalization, Mexico, neo-liberal public policy

Where (You Might Think) There’s No Tienda

This fourth installment of the series, “Latinx Foodways in North America,” introduces the work of Teresa Mares, Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Vermont. Mares’s fascinating look at migrant farmworkers allows us to consider the intersections between labor and food security at the “other border” through interviews conducted with Latinx farmworkers in New England. If you would like to contribute to this collection, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts, at saf817@lehigh.edu.

Mares Chiles

Born in New Mexico, raised in Colorado, and spending a good chunk of my adult life in Seattle, I had grown accustomed to having a ready supply of Mexican foods and ingredients close at hand. Whether it was the small tortilleria cranking out corn and wheat tortillas in the strip mall next to the Chuck E. Cheese’s in my hometown– or the taco truck in the shadows of the Amazon headquarters that I could walk to during a break from my dissertation — I never questioned the ease with which I could satisfy my own cravings. And then, in 2011, I moved to Vermont.

Sure, there’s the farm-to-table restaurant that slings delicious tacos and burritos filled with local pork, and based on the season, wildcrafted ramps and fiddlehead ferns. And yes, tucked in the bulk shelves of my local coop you might be lucky to find organic dried anchos and pasillas. There are even two tortilla factories (including one just down the road from my house) nixtamalizing, grinding, and pressing tortillas made from northern varieties of flint corn. Nearly seven years after making my way to this northern border state, these locavore offerings keep me somewhat satiated. And yet, my collection of Mexican cookbooks has swelled exponentially to guide my own attempts to reproduce meals that have that sabor that I often find myself missing, often using traveling foods that I purchase in urban locales of the U.S. and Mexico.

Here’s the thing though, I live fairly chose to Vermont’s largest city and I have the freedom to move around the landscape in search of these flavors. For farmworkers who have moved from Latin America to work in Vermont’s rural dairy farms, these advantages are not a given. Up to 95% of the migrant farmworker population in Vermont lacks personal transportation, even following the passage of legislation that allows state residents to secure a driver’s privilege cards regardless of citizenship status. Moreover, there is a realistic fear in Vermont’s border counties that visiting a food access point such as a local grocery store, farmers market, or food shelf could result in detention and ultimately deportation.

Vermont is home to an estimated 1000-1200 farmworkers, the majority of whom are men from central and southern Mexican states coming to secure year-round work in the milking barns of the state’s large industrial dairies. As of 2017, amidst the ongoing consolidation of the dairy industry, a significant number of Vermont’s dairies employed immigrant laborers. It is estimated that 68% of the state’s milk comes from farms that rely on immigrant workers (with a yearly sales of $320 million), and 43% of New England’s milk supply coming from these farms (Wolcott-MacCausland 2017). Despite contributing to the state’s economic wellbeing and the food security of millions, I have witnessed the repeated and continual disconnection between farmworkers and their foodways, a disconnection that, more often than not, began with the dispossession of rural lands and livelihoods back home. As I have discussed in my other writing, these disconnections are only exacerbated by a particular confluence of border hostilities and resulting fears that have worsened since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

At the same time, I have also observed the resilient actions of farmworkers to remain connected to the foods that provide a tangible link to their families and their dinner tables south of the border, echoing what Meredith Abarca refers to as “culinary subjectivity.” These efforts include supporting the entrepreneurial efforts of Mexican women who have started home-based catering operations to deliver tamales, mole, and enchiladas out of the trailers they share with their husbands who labor upwards of 70-80 hours each week. It is seen in the kitchen gardens grown behind these same trailers with the support of Huertas, a shoestring project that I co-direct. It can also be observed in the deliveries that many farmworkers order and receive from mobile vendors who bring packaged and frozen foods from places as far away as New York City and Boston. These deliveries are the source of the Jumex juice cartons, half-empty bottles of Valentina hot sauce, and bags of chicharones that are often scattered on the countertops of farmworkers’ homes. Continue reading

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, food security, Mexico, migration

A Sandwich Story and a Street Food Network

David Beriss
University of New Orleans

An article about a monumental sandwich, the torta Cubana, crossed my path recently. Mixing religion (and Mormon missionary work), gender, national identity, and what might be a sandwich induced conversion experience, this is inspiring food writing. Inspiring to go find a torta Cubana, of course, but also inspiring to think about the implications and history of street food and sandwich names. Why does Mexico have the Cubana, but (at least according to the article), Cuba the Cubano? Do people even think about Cubans (of any gender) or Cuba when they eat one or the other? Here in New Orleans we have the “po’boy” (or “poor boy”), a name with roots in a 1929 street car strike. The history, written by my colleague Michael Mizell-Nelson, is fascinating, but I suspect that most people today are unlikely to pause to honor the struggles of the street car workers before digging in.

There are people who are looking into these questions. And asking more serious ones too. In fact, having read the Torta Cubana piece, I found this email from Richard Wilk, with information about a network of such people. Here it is:

The Street Food Global Network (www.streetfoodglobalnetwork.net) was created in 2012 with the aim to link people and organizations directly involved or interested in street food trade and governance worldwide.

The network is meant to be an multidisciplinary space where members can find, share, develop and implement best practices, instruments and strategies fostering an innovative street food.

Members can access a rich documents archive and participate in forums and mailing lists, to share information and ideas.

Rather than a mere virtual space, the network is meant to achieve real cooperation, joint projects, and collective publications.

To date, 180 people from 60 countries have joined the SFGN. Among them: 70 scholars from several fields (Nutritionists, Economists, Sociologists, Anthropologists), 25 professionals working in non-profit local and international organizations (eg. FAO), and 15 public managers.

Several members of the network have recently particpated in the editing of the book “Street Food. Culture, Economy, Health and Governance” by Cardoso, Companion, Marras (eds.) (Routledge, 2014).

The SFGN is managed by the Street Food SQUARE Association (www.streetfoodsquare.org).

 

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Filed under anthropology, Food Studies, Mexico, New Orleans, sandwich