Photographs by Kurt Hollander.
There is a real possibility that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will be scrapped and that commercial trade between the United States and Mexico will be sharply curtailed, directly affecting the importation to Mexico from the USA of, among other things, food. This, however, might not be all bad for Mexico. Mexican culture has survived for thousands of years in large part due to the food the people living here have produced and consumed, but today Mexican food in Mexico is no longer so Mexican.
I arrived in Mexico City in 1989 (four and a half years before NAFTA went into effect). The endless variety of cheap, tasty foodstuffs available on the street, in markets and in simple restaurants was amazing. At that time, food in Mexico City was relatively inexpensive and you could still find food everywhere that represented an uninterrupted continuation of millennial traditions. Today, the food eaten in Mexico City, especially in the “trendy” neighborhood of Condesa where I’ve lived since 1989, has changed radically, and these changes affect more than just food preparation and reflect more than just culinary trends.
The Condesa wasn’t yet a neighborhood when the Jockey Club’s dog track and polo field were built there at the end of the 19th century. After the Revolution, when the playgrounds of the rich were being dismantled across the country, the racetrack was converted into a park. A community soon grew up around the park, populated in large part by European Jewish immigrants and characterized by the Art Deco architectural style brought over from the Old World. For most of the 20th century, Condesa was a mixed neighborhood, both in terms of class, nationality, in its residential and commercial mix, as well as its variety of food options.
The European immigrants, in an effort to conserve their own culture, started up several neighborhood restaurants that served the emigrant community. Besides these traditional European restaurants, there were also several fondas, the term for family-run, home-style restaurants that serve comida corridas (a succession of small portions of soup, rice, main course, fruit drink, dessert), and several taco restaurants that offer all kinds of meat wrapped in tortillas.
A rich variety of indigenous cooking, developed long before any European set foot in the city, has long been found on the streets of Condesa, as well. Throughout the week, women hunch over large metal comales, fanning the coal burning underneath, tending to quesadillas stuffed with beans, nopales, huitlacoche (corn mold) and pumpkin flowers. Pushcarts with glass display cases roam the neighborhood offering plastic cups chock full of sliced mango, papaya and other native fruits, with lemon and chile powder sprinkled on top. Fried plantains and camotes (sweet potatoes) are sold from a metal drum mounted on a three-wheel pushcart, a homemade portable steam table that resembles a steam engine and that announces its arrival with an earsplitting steam whistle. An oversized tricycle with a flatbed rigged to the front crisscrosses the neighborhood selling Oaxacan-style tamales (stuffed with chicken in mole or tomato sauce and wrapped in banana leaves), calling to potential clients by means of a portable loudspeaker hooked up to a tape-recorded loop. Once a week, a pickup truck parks in front of Parque Mexico, its cab overflowing with goods brought in from Oaxaca, including corn tostadas, various flavors of solid mole, and bags of large, crunchy grasshoppers. Some street stands have been located on the same sidewalk spot for years, outlasting most of the neighborhood’s trendy restaurants. Every weekend in front of the Nuestra Señora de Lima Church you can nibble on corn niblets scooped from a large gas-heated pot or chomp on a corn-on-the-cob smothered with mayonnaise, lemon, chile and grated cheese.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, Condesa has morphed into the city’s most condensed international food emporium. Dozens and dozens of international-style restaurants (sushi bars, French bistros, Argentine steak houses, Italian trattorias), as well as a slew of hamburger, hotdog and pizza joints have opened in the neighborhood. Although great traditional Mexican food can still be eaten in my neighborhood, most of it has been marginalized into the informal sector of the economy and forced to survive on the street, while the traditional foodstuffs that supplied the basic diet for thousands of years in Mexico, such as locally grown corn, cactus leaves and beans, are absent from most Condesa restaurant menus.
Condesa used to be called Fondesa, but almost all of the old-style fondas have been squeezed out of the neighborhood by rising rents and their spaces have been converted into international-style restaurants. Unlike the European immigrants who settled here and sought to preserve their traditional culture and diet in a strange land, and unlike the street vendors that have served the same style food for decades, the new restaurateurs seek out the latest trendy international food options, usually creating imitations of foreign fare with little relation to the originals (the most popular sushi is served up with Philadelphia brand cream cheese).
The problem of local fare being elbowed out by foreign food exists not only in Condesa. Today, half of all food consumed in all of Mexico is imported from the United States, which makes the choice of what to eat not just a question about taste but about economic autonomy. Over the last couple of decades, in large part the direct result of NAFTA, the Mexican government support for local farmers, including the assurance of decent prices, credits, distribution and points of sale evaporated, completely undercutting the industry’s competitiveness abroad and at home. Mexico has gone from being a producer and exporter to having to import even its most traditional products (such as sugar, milk and even corn). It is now cheaper to import certain foods into Mexico than to produce it here.
Foreign direct investment, that is, multinationals that own and operate companies within Mexico, are even more disruptive of national food production. With the signing of NAFTA, the government was forced to open up certain sectors of the economy previously restricted to Mexican nationals, allowing for up to 100 percent foreign ownership. In Mexico, food sales from U.S. foreign direct investment are now almost five times as high as the value of U.S. food exports.
One-quarter of all money earned from the sale of US food products in Mexico goes to a single company, Wal-Mart of Mexico, which controls nearly 30% of the local market and reaps annual profits of around 2 billion dollars. Besides its own mega-stores, since entering the Mexican market in 2001 Wal-Mart has bought up several chains of Mexican department stores that sell food (Sam’s Club, Suburbia), several chains of restaurants (Vips, El Porton, Ragazzi), and supermarkets (there are two Superamas in Condesa). With more than 2,400 stores in Mexico, Wal-Mart is the single largest private employer in the country.
The rapid expansion of Wal-Mart within Mexico during the last decade was specifically designed to put its competition out of business, and in this it has been very successful. As it has expanded in Mexico, Wal-Mart has left a trail of undernourishment, health problems and corruption in its wake. As it was recently revealed, executives at Wal-Mart in Mexico spent over 24 million dollars over the past couple of years greasing the palms of government officials in order to carry out this market blitzkrieg.
To make matters worse, it is estimated that for every two jobs the company creates, three jobs are lost in the area where the store is located. By importing most of the food sold in its stores in Mexico, Wal-Mart has put out of business thousand and thousands of Mexican farmers as well as workers in local markets that couldn’t compete with Wal-Mart’s low prices of imported products. When workers in Mexico lose their jobs they often migrate to the informal economy, selling pirated CDs and DVDs on the streets, selling drugs for the narcos, or are forced to cross the border illegally into the United States to find work (Wal-Mart was recently forced to pay a fine of $13 million for employing illegal aliens in their stores in the USA).
Nearly three-fourths of the U.S. foreign investment in Mexico is from companies that produce processed foods. This has had a disastrous effect on the diet of Mexicans, which is now oversaturated with sugar and fat, and millions of Mexicans have become converted into industrial processed, junk-food junkies. Seduced by flashy ad campaigns, Mexican consumers that have whole-heartedly embraced this new diet of industrially processed, genetically modified food, have seen their bodies balloon into obesity. As these imported products tend to be cheaper than local natural products, the lower classes are the biggest consumers, and they are also the ones who tend to be the most undernourished and overweight, victims of what is called ‘poverty obesity.’ Since NAFTA, obesity has become part of a nation-wide health epidemic that has led to a precipitous rise in all the chronic diseases people in Mexico City and across the nation now most commonly die from, including diabetes, heart disease, circulatory illnesses and cancer.
Globalization fuels gentrification. The current social problems that beset Condesa, such as the hordes of yuppies and tourists (including droves of young gringos) on weekend nights, acute traffic and parking problems, exorbitant rents, the never-ending construction of concrete and glass condominiums, are directly attributable to the rise in the international-style restaurants and bars in the neighborhood which rely on imported products and thus contribute to Mexico’s lack of food self-sufficiency.
The demise of NAFTA, as damaging as it might be to other segments of the economy, could help give Mexico an opportunity to regain control of its own food supply, lessen Mexican’s addiction to industrial processed and genetically modified food, and even provide much-needed employment for the migrants forced to return to Mexico.
Kurt Hollander is a writer, photographer, and author of Several Ways to Die in Mexico City. He is looking to publish a new autobiographical book, The Joyous Life, about sex and culture in Cali, Colombia.