Tag Archives: Mexico

“La gente tiene que comer”: Food and COVID-19

Lisa Grabinsky
Oregon State University

“La gente tiene que comer.” (“People have to eat”), my mother replied when I decided to study Nutrition and Food Science, believing that such a career was going to result in a well-paid job offer once I graduated from college, especially in Mexico —a country whose population has grappled with metabolic illness for nearly 30 years, but also whose cuisine is considered Intangible Cultural Heritage (UNESCO 2010). When I began looking for employment during my last semester, however, I was confronted with the reality: only a small number of dietitians are able to secure the steady and well-compensated job I envisioned for myself at the tender age of 18. The rest will most likely have to set up private practices—a service that the general population associates more with unattainable beauty standards than with long-term health and wellbeing. In addition, a traumatic event during my first-ever experience within a hospital left me dreading working in one; this significantly reduced my options either to private consultation or to institutional food services. In the latter, I would have had to harshly enforce company policies against kitchen employees “stealing” food, even if their reason to do so was an exploitative salary that made them unable to feed themselves and their families. I learned from this job hunting experience the sad truth: the hard work of insuring that all people have access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate food —a most basic human need— is almost worthless within the Mexican economy.

live from agriculture

Image 1 Facebook post stating: “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?”

Fast-forward to April 5th, 2020. I am browsing through my social media and navigating the waves of COVID-19 news —fake, veracious, and questionable—, and I stumble upon a post a friend and fellow Food Studies scholar shared (Image 1). In the image, the statement “Have you realized yet that we do not live from mining but from agriculture?” is displayed in all caps, along with pictures of the fresh produce one fortunately can still easily find in grocery stores here in Corvallis, Oregon (USA), where I have been living for the past two years while I obtain my Master’s Degree in Applied Anthropology at Oregon State University.

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds and governments worldwide issue orders of social distancing and staying at home, concerns in regards to food supply arise, along with images of panic buying that have left grocery store shelves completely empty. A dear friend living in a village in Italy —where stone-built houses from the 13th century stood strong and tall through two World Wars— describes these images as evidence for “a war without bombs”.

Since —as my mother wisely says—people have to eat not only to keep a strong immune system in these times of epidemiological emergency, but also for physiological need, those working at any point of the food production and supply chain are now deemed as “essential workers”:

  • The farmworkers —whether international or national immigrants— who endure long hours of hard work in the fields for barely livable salaries and little-to-no access to social services;
  • Chefs and food servers currently struggling to keep their businesses afloat with take-out curbside pickup and delivery options;
  • Store clerks constantly re-stocking shelves, cleaning, and sanitizing, while also maintaining a friendly attitude towards the customers; and
  • Many other intermediaries that are vital for families all over the world to have nutritious food on the table.
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Image 2 Breakfast omelet with vegetables from a local organic farm that employs immigrant farmworkers (photo by the author)

 

This status of “essential workers” issued to people working in the food production system, however, adds an enormous amount of pressure, for they must now work double or triple to keep up with the increased food demand that panic buying has caused. In the process, their contagion risk grows. Becoming “essential workers” in the eyes of the public —even though they always have been so because, again, la gente tiene que comer— does not necessarily translate into better, or even decent, working conditions. Half of all recently declared “essential” farmworkers in the US are undocumented, which makes them still ineligible for almost all public benefits (Bacon 2020), such as Medicaid and SNAP or WIC benefits. In this small college town in Oregon where I sit to write this (around 60,000 people), I have already signed three hazard pay and safety precautions petitions for employees working at different local grocery stores.

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Image 3 Oat flour, roasted peanut brownies (recipe and photo by author)

At the end of one of my classes in a course called Advanced Medical Anthropology, Dr. Melissa Cheyney asked us what a possible silver lining from the COVID-19 pandemic might be. I replied that it made me hopeful observing on social media that as people are encouraged to stay home, they are starting to cook more and more elaborated recipes, either as a way to cope with stress, anxiety, and/or boredom or as an effort to comply with the WHO’s “eat healthy” recommendation to protect their health from COVID-19. I myself have uploaded a few pictures to my Instagram stories of new foods and dishes I have recently experimented with, particularly baked goods. My anxiety and feelings of isolation and loneliness have made me crave certain comfort foods that I cannot simply go out to purchase at a store. I even tend to accompany each picture with the phrase: “Keeping sanity through cooking”.

People are finally realizing the importance of food in their lives, as well as just how hard “essential workers” must labor to make our eating possible. A friend from high school and her partner had been complying with the “stay at home” order when they decided to make quesadillas de chicharrón prensado from scratch. From the preparation of the Guajillo chili pepper salsa to their improvised tortilla press using two plates with which they shaped the masa, my friend documented the whole process and shared it as Instagram stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed going through. However, what stayed with me as food for thought (no pun intended) was her final story —a message in which she acknowledged the amount of time and effort that just went into cooking foods that we Mexican urbanites so often take for granted when we unthinkingly purchase inexpensive antojitos from female street vendors, whose own diets depend greatly on their daily earnings. At this very moment, these women cannot afford to take a single day off to stay at home, let alone consider a prolonged quarantine.

I feel optimistic seeing people in their kitchens re-connecting with their own food and building community around it, from young professionals in Mexico City currently engaging in home-office, to celebrities, such as comedian Iliza Schlesinger with partner chef Noah Galuten. These two in particular are doing “#DontPanicPantry”— a series of live cooking tutorials in which the couple prepares a variety of nurturing dishes using pantry staples present in most US homes. They even hosted a virtual Passover Seder, which —as an Ashkenazi Jew celebrating Passover alone for the first time— I appreciated greatly.

I have also seen people back home in Mexico City going beyond just cooking food and starting to grow their own, whether they live in a house with a garden or in a small apartment with nothing more than perhaps a small balcony where they can place a couple of pots. People in both Mexico and the US are supporting local businesses by ordering food and sharing pictures of it, making sure to refer viewers to said business’ accounts through their social media handles. Others have begun to seek out and enroll in CSA programs with local farms. The Central de Abasto in Mexico City —considered the biggest market in the world—will not only continue operating, but has also implemented a delivery service. Here in Corvallis, university-based institutions at OSU —specifically the Coalition of Graduate Employees and the Human Services Resource Center— have established mutual aid services for “all students and community members regardless of their citizenship status (Hurtado Moreno 2020)”; food assistance is one of their major pillars.

“La gente tiene que comer”, my mother says. People have to eat indeed, but we needed a major life-disruptor like COVID-19 to open our eyes to the incredible amount of human work that goes into producing, distributing, and cooking food in order to be able to do so— pandemic or not.  This experience has enabled us to see how fragile the current global food production system can be. As the situation unfolds, my hope is that more people will realize this and truly value these “always-essential workers”, advocate for the rights and wellbeing of the most vulnerable, and continue taking actions towards food sovereignty that have already been set in motion through these and other acts of solidarity we are all witnessing virtually.

References:

Bacon, David. 2020. “America’s Farmworkers—Now ‘Essential,’ but Denied the Just-Enacted Benefits.” The American Prospect.

Hurtado Moreno, Argenis. 2020. “El Virus: A Contagion of Racism & How Networks of Care Can Stop It.” Somatosphere.

UNESCO. 2010. “Traditional Mexican Cuisine.” Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Lisa Grabinsky is a Mexican Fulbright Scholar in her second year of the Applied Anthropology MA program at Oregon State University, minoring in Food in Culture and Social Justice.

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Filed under anthropology, food security, food sovereignty, Mexico

The Market as a Village

Blog editors’ note: This is the summer edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other regions in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts: sfouts@umbc.edu

Tiana Bakic Hayden

“This is like a village,” said Toño, a lime merchant in Mexico City’s main wholesale food terminal, La Central de Abasto. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips.”

If La Central is like a village, it bears little resemblance to the pastoral imaginary of small houses dotting crop-covered hills and domesticated animals milling about. Inaugurated in 1982, La Central covers over 300 hectares of land in the southeastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa. It is a sprawling, modernist complex of concrete warehouse and storehouse spaces, divided in grid-fashion by roads and alleys, which are invariably clogged by produce-laden cargo trucks. A purely commercial space, nobody lives—officially at least—in La Central, but the market is alive day and night, every day of the week, all year round. Inside, there are restaurants, shops of various kinds, banks, a day care, an art gallery, conference spaces, administrative buildings, garbage processing facilities, and much more. Daily, between 300,000-500,000 visitors are estimated to come to La Central, searching for the best deals on kilos or even tons of watermelons, blackberries, avocados, or dried spices.

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A street shot of La Central. Photo taken by author.

Food markets are often thought of and represented in largely visual and sensory terms, and indeed, La Central is a place that is striking for the senses. The sight of tons of fruits, jostling bodies passing money, an endless line of vehicles, the smell of putrefying produce mingling with exhaust are all part of La Central. But what interested me was the sorts of networks, informal rules, and vernacular mechanisms according to which the market worked. How, I wondered, were prices set? How was commerce regulated in a space where so many transactions—between employees and employers, buyers and sellers—were in cash and left little in the way of a paper trail? What sort of culture of commerce existed in La Central?

I quickly found that, while merchants and administrators were generally open to interviews, these tended to be stilted, bureaucratic affairs where I learned little in the way of how things actually worked. In a particularly memorable interview, the president of the produce wholesalers’ union UNCOFYL, simply read to me fragments of the market’s and the union’s Reglamentos (internal statues) in answer to my questions about the day-to-day operations of the market. Merchants were usually happy to complain at length about the administration, the nation’s political or economic climate, or share their ‘origin stories,’ but extremely reluctant to speak about who they bought produce from, how much they paid per kilo, or how they dealt with bureaucracy like paperwork and inspections.

Moreover, since wholesale food markets are centralizing nodes in larger commercial networks, communications with sellers in rural areas—large and small agricultural producers, packing plants, rural traders and brokers—are largely carried out over the phone or via email, and there was not much that could be observed. My questions about pricing were often answered in generalities about “supply and demand” and the “laws of the market”, or simply avoided altogether. Often, I would spend all day with a merchant, only to have him (for it was almost always a man) step away discretely to take phone calls, make deals with regular customers, or talk to the accountant working upstairs.

mexico market men

Merchants hanging outside of their storefront in the market. Photo taken by the author.

Slowly, I realized that my frustration around lack of access to information was in fact a reflection of my interlocutors’ own experiences as they navigated the market. Merchants had to gather and then piece together information from different sources, to come up with an understanding of the market’s potentials and risks. One banana merchant, for example, told me that he paid a monthly sum to a “runner” who would go around the terminal each morning and manually count the number of trucks carrying bananas and their state of origin. From this information—scribbled on a scrap of paper—the merchant would try to get a sense of how much his competitors were selling, from where they were sourcing their goods, and how much they would charge that week. Another regularly asked his employees to go and get gossip from the employees in other parts of the market to get a sense of how much their competitors were selling, about their health, and other goings on. Meanwhile, being too forthright with information could be seen as suspect. One day, while I was speaking to a watermelon merchant, his neighbor and competitor came over and started telling him about a shipment of watermelons he was waiting for which he had acquired for a good price from a new producer. When he left, my interlocutor was suspicious and kept making comments out loud, wondering why his competitor had told him what he had told him, asking himself why it might be so.

I realized that merchants, while reluctant to speak of their own finances and dealings, were often eager to speculate and gossip about their competitors. La Central was indeed like a village in this sense; everyone was interested in everyone else’s business, and gossip was the only way to access this information, since there were no real official channels to do so, and since direct conversation was mistrusted. For merchants in a perishable food market, gossip is an essential resource for piecing together the contours of the commercial landscape in which they participate with partial knowledge. As Clifford Geertz wrote of another market in a different time and context:

…the search for information—laborious, uncertain, complex, and irregular—is the central experience of life in the bazaar. Every aspect of the bazaar economy reflects the fact that the primary problem facing its participants is…not balancing options but finding out what they are. Clifford Geertz (1978).

This is a useful insight for ethnographers doing research in food markets to keep in mind. Behind the conviviality of these spaces, their sensory pleasures, their photogenic qualities, food markets are spaces in which information circulates among many different channels. Following our interlocutors’ own struggles to navigate these networks is important, and gossip is a tool in piecing together knowledge which can only ever be partial, but which shapes the circulation of foods in the bazaar and beyond.

Reference

Geertz, Clifford. 1978. “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing.” The American Economic Review 68(2): 28–32.

Tiana Bakic Hayden is a researcher at the Instituto Gino Germani in Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 2019. Her work is broadly concerned with understanding the interplay of political, sociocultural and technological factors in the production and regulation of urban food systems. She has conducted research in Mexico City and Buenos Aires on street food markets, wholesale food terminals, and the relationship between food security and everyday mobilities.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, markets, Mexico

Mezcal: Hybrid Authentication

The third in our series of abstracts of papers submitted for SAFN’s annual Christine Wilson Award. Winners have been selected and will be recognized at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. From Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet, this one raises important questions about what, exactly, is being preserved in efforts to insure that foods maintain their “authenticity.”

Mezcal: Hybrid Authentication

Nicolas Fabien-Ouellet
University of Vermont

How can foodways thrive in a global market and still maintain their local characters? In January 2016, students from the UVM Food Systems Graduate Program went to Oaxaca, Mexico to study such challenges. During our stay, we met Adolfo who showed us the art of making “authentic” mezcal, that iconic drink of the Mexican terroir some say has the potential to provide the economic incentives needed to repopulate Oaxacan communities impacted by outmigration. This micro-macro analysis deconstructs the “authenticity” dimension of mezcal production, to expose authenticity as a flexible social construct that resembles social branding. By incorporating ethnographic elements, the authenticity branding is coupled with Adolfo’s hybrid approach of production to suggest a way to foster community economic development: concurrently producing a hand-made, “authentic” mezcal for locals and tourists visiting Oaxaca, and another that is scaled-up to capitalize on the global market economic opportunities by convincingly putting the “authentic” Mexican terroir in the people’s mouths around the world. This paper argues that in order to protect Adolfo’s foodways, the aim should not focus at preserving mezcal itself, but primarily at preserving communities where mezcal is produced, and that the mezcal denomination of origin (DO) should be reformed accordingly.

mezcal-production

“Authentic” Mezcal Production: Mezcaleros cutting cooked agave piñas. In the background the open vessels made of an entire cow hide where the crushed piñas are mixed with water for the fermentation process.

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Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, awards, Christine Wilson

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