BY SUSANNA SHARPE
In 2012, Mexico attained the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s number one consumer of soft drinks, passing previous first-place holder the United States. And although Mexico is no longer in first place (Argentina now claims that title), the increasing consumption of sugar and ultra-processed foods is the topic of a national conversation about diet and the rise of chronic diseases in the country. According to historian Pilar Zazueta, this conversation has been a long time coming.
Zazueta is lecturer and undergraduate faculty adviser at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. Last February, she brought her considerable expertise in food history to bear as co-organizer, along with Raj Patel, of the 2017 Lozano Long Conference, “Revoluciones Alimentarias” (Food Revolutions).
In her work on the history of food consumption in twentieth-century Mexico, Zazueta identifies key and contradictory forces that have contributed to the modernization of the Mexican diet. Last century, Mexicans underwent a nutritional transition from mostly vegetarian meals that were low in dairy and based on locally grown staples and grains, to the consumption of ultra-processed foods high in fat, sugar, and simple carbohydrates. Demographic expansion, urbanization, and growth in household incomes all contributed this shift in dietary habits, as did interaction between government, producers, and consumers.
Some of these changes were set in motion by the post-revolutionary governments of the PRI. “After the revolution,” says Zazueta, “the government saw itself as an engine of economic development. Diet was seen as an area in need of intervention.” The agrarian nature of the revolution prompted state attempts to balance rural interests with urban ones, incentivizing industrialization and promoting urban development. Such government policies favored the soft-drink industry, ushering in Coca-Cola franchises, whose bottling and distribution generated jobs and revenue. This also benefited the agrarian sector: sugar production increased to support the manufacture of soft drinks.
Reflecting current observations about the ills of the world’s food system, Zazueta’s research points to the paradox of scarcity and plenty. On the one hand, she investigates the effects of food insufficiency—the lack of food; on the other hand, she looks at the damaging effects of diets abundant in calories, fat, and sugar.
After the Mexican Revolution, the government promoted health and well-being of the population by investing in sanitation and health services, and by trying to improve people’s diets. Yet, according to Zazueta, “government investments in Mexico were never enough to keep up with demographic growth. In order to feed its citizens, the Mexican government imported food and sold it at subsidized prices, to the detriment of national producers, especially the most vulnerable ones.” Urban consumers were the main beneficiaries of these subsidies. By the 1960s–70s, hunger was no longer a problem in cities. Now, it was diseases associated with affluence and the sedentary lifestyle—obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
Meanwhile, also in the 1970s, medical publications began calling attention to the harm of sugar and ultra-processed foods. In 1976, Mexico’s Consumer Protection Agency began to actively educate the public about diet and nutrition. Yet these initiatives would lose steam a few years later, when Mexico was gripped by an economic crisis in 1982. Since then, says Zazueta, nongovernmental agencies have emerged as champions of consumer protection, especially after the year 2000. Despite negative reactions in the food industry, Zazueta regards NGO efforts as very successful: “their triumphs have included soda taxes and efforts to regulate the marketing of ultra-processed foods to children,” she says.
Zazueta is writing a book that traces the history of the nutritional policies of the Mexican state. She describes some of the factors that have led to their failure:
“The government intervened on both the supply side, through investment in local agriculture and importing food, and the demand side, attempting to induce behavioral changes through education and public information campaigns. The food policies always fell short of their goals and were vulnerable to corrupt practices, but by the late 1970s became broad and reform oriented. After the oil crisis, Mexico underwent a process of economic restructuring, and by the 1990s the country did not have a comprehensive national food policy. Instead, the government built a patchwork of focalized antipoverty initiatives and individual family-based nutrition programs. Yet cohesive strategies to increase access to healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, are still largely lacking.”
Zazueta’s book promises to be a fascinating contribution to understanding the history of food in Mexico, and how good intentions on the part of government were no match for economic reality. The global lessons and implications of the shifts in Mexicans’ diet and health are still unfolding.
Zazueta has taught at The University of Texas at Austin since fall 2013. She teaches the capstone seminar for Latin American studies majors and Politics of Food in Latin America. In addition to authoring articles and commentary in English and Spanish on food and health in Mexico, she is a frequent contributor to television reporting on US politics for Telemundo, and has authored op-eds on Mexican culture in Texas newspapers.
Laura G. Gutiérrez
To understand what interests Laura Gutiérrez, try watching a few videos of Astrid Hadad. You will see colors and over-the-top costumes, you will hear a variety of Mexican and Caribbean music, some of it with satirical lyrics, you will see scenes laden with layers of cultural references and messages both subtle and outlandishly humorous. Hadad is a queer political cabaret performer, one of the artists featured in Gutiérrez’s book Performing Mexicanidad: Vendidas y Cabareteras on the Transnational Stage (University of Texas Press, 2010).
Since fall 2013, Laura Gutiérrez has been associate professor of Performance as Public Practice in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas at Austin. She was hired by the department to build bridges with LLILAS and Latina/o Studies. In this capacity, she organized the 2015 Lozano Long Conference, “Nuevas Disidencias: Youth Culture and the Remaking of Politics in the Americas.”
Through the primary lens of performance studies, Gutiérrez looks at a range of types of performance, from cabaret to civil disobedience, in settings both live and mediated (i.e., “where there is a screen”). “I think of the body as an important meaning-making site for expanding our understanding of discourse beyond language.” To this examination of the body in performance, Gutiérrez also brings critical race theory and feminist and queer theory.
Currently, Gutiérrez is combining these ways of thinking about the body and ways of viewing performance to write about Mexican films from the 1940s and 1950s that feature cabaret performers; in particular, she explores the figure of the “rumbera.” One aspect that interests Gutiérrez is the films’ portrayal of Afro-diasporic dance and culture, references that are “displaced onto a white body” in the films (think Carmen Miranda). Gutiérrez asks, “Where is blackness within Mexican cultural production, and what sort of work is it doing?” This is particularly interesting, as she points out, if we consider that this era in filmmaking coincided with the height of mestizaje and nation-building in Mexico.
“When you examine these mid-twentieth-century films through the lens of race versus the lens of gender and sexuality, you straddle a line between being critical/analytical, and admiring the way in which gender and sexuality norms are pushed in the context of conservative Catholic society,” Gutiérrez says. “But these ways of thinking need not be separated.” Her current research ponders this notion and others. And since present-day performers still draw on elements from the films, often via parody, she continues to explore the films’ connection to contemporary performances, as well as the history and different meanings of cabaret in Mexico and the implications of its increasing accessibility and proliferation today.
Since arriving at UT Austin, Gutiérrez has been active in the leadership of the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies (MALS) in the College of Liberal Arts, serving as either associate chair or interim chair since fall 2015. She will transfer her affiliation from Theatre and Dance to MALS in fall 2017, where she will teach undergraduate and graduate courses on Latina/o and Latin American performance and visual culture.
Step into Zhandra Andrade’s office and you will see evidence of world travel. An ornate metal box from Mexico, inlaid with blue-and-white tiles, sits atop an embroidered Chinese tablecloth. Andean scenes jump out of hand-sewn squares from Peru. On the bookshelf, a tiny Australian koala dressed for a journey through the Outback is kept company by several alebrijes, Mexican fantasy animals made of papier-mâché and painted in bright colors. The only thing remaining of some Colombian coffee is the decorative bag it came in, while a green tin of Japanese tea has not quite been finished. The bar of soap from Greece might not get used, since the label is pretty, and somewhat unusual.
Andrade herself has lived in three different countries, but the souvenirs in her office are tokens of appreciation from visitors from across the globe. As LLILAS Benson’s Visitor Programs Coordinator, she welcomes and orients researchers who have come to campus to use the vast resources of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. She loves this aspect of her job—receiving people from all over the world, learning about their research, their place of origin, and their culture.
A native of Valencia, Carabobo, Venezuela, Zhandra Andrade has worked at LLILAS Benson since 2013. In addition to coordinating visitors, she is the course scheduler, a systems job that satisfies her “geek side,” she says. She is widely known by colleagues to be a whiz with spreadsheets, numbers, and all things IT. She is also known and admired for her tenacity and discipline: she earned her master’s in educational administration from The University of Texas at Austin College of Education in May 2017 while working full time and raising two daughters, Kazandra, eleven, and Zamantha, six, along with her husband, Miguel, a U.S. Army veteran.
Andrade was the first in her family to go to college. She began her higher education at a Grays Harbor Community College in Washington State. Her mother, Cecilia, was prohibited from finishing high school, and her late father, Ramiro, was orphaned at age seven and never finished elementary school. He encouraged his daughter to get a college degree. Both parents were born in Colombia, and lived as immigrants in Venezuela during Andrade’s childhood and younger adulthood.
Andrade says the higher education master’s program sharpened her awareness of the struggles common to minority and first-generation students—struggles that set them apart from many of their peers and with which she herself can identify. “I was told when I started community college through a workforce program, that my only option, the only degree I could choose out of the whole college, was the hospitality program, nothing else,” says Andrade. Through the encouragement of an adviser from Colombia, she earned associate degrees in both arts and business, and went on to study management information systems at Washington State University for her bachelor’s degree.
She hopes to be a similar voice of encouragement to others. She would also like to find a way to work with veterans who are pursuing a higher education degree. Her firsthand knowledge of the hurdles faced by veterans who have returned from combat makes her highly qualified to be of service to them.
In her newfound free time, she hopes to do more dancing (salsa and merengue) and some camping with her family. She avidly keeps the cultures of Venezuela and Colombia alive for her daughters, preparing arepas and other traditional foods at home. Is there a PhD in her future? At the moment, that is not even a question. For now, on the heels of two years of hard work, Zhandra Andrade plans to play a little more.
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