Food Practices and the Contradictions in Mexican Identity by Zaira Luján

Located in downtown El Paso, Texas, on the intersection of East 7th avenue and South Florence street, El Corrido Del Segundo Barrio (“The Song of the Second Ward”) proudly displays the Chicano history of immigration. Superimposed at the center of the mural are two elderly, Chicano men playing an accordion and guitar, invoking on the cement canvas a visual history of survivorship, hope, and prosperity. The emotional images of a mother bathing her child in a metal tub and of a father crossing the bridge with his two sons, are part of this corrido narrative. The borderland consciousness of being in a foreign place and calling it home, yet recalling and holding on to the past is something that is present in the minds of Mexican-American El Pasoans. One of the tools used to preserve Mexican culture in the face of  the Western hegemonic one in the United States, is Mexican food and the cultural, historical, and social values that come from it. From the use of traditional ingredients and preparation of dishes to the serving practices involved, Mexican food actively recalls and cements ties to a past that refuses to be forgotten. However, what and whose pasts are evoked are questions that arise when food is understood to exist within an economic and political framework. One on hand, Mexico is the second largest supplier of agricultural products for the U.S, shipping almost sixty percent of its produce to the States, which amounted to a $21 billion trade in 2015. The available year-round produce of vegetables and fruits for American consumers come at the cost of exploitation and hardships for Mexican farm workers. This is further complicated by the reality that agricultural merchandise can easily pass through the U.S.-Mexico border for trade, but humans become policed and regulated by the heavily, fortified militarized presence in the States. On the American side of the border, undocumented Mexican workers (among others) work within the agricultural and meat industry in order to meet the demands that have been set up corporations and distributors. With no legal papers at hand, these workers face abject violence and vulnerability. Regardless of  which side of the border food is produced and sold at, people are being exploited and oppressed by political and economic systems. Looking specifically at Chicano El Pasoans, this paper will explore the contradictions that emerge in their daily food practices. Paradoxes of being proud of their cultural Mexican heritage and finding strength in immigration struggles, while at the same time partaking in food systems that oppress members of their own cultural community. Ultimately, exploring the mechanism in place that allow such paradoxes to occur is necessary to analyze cultural memory and identity fragmentation that occurs within the Mexican self because of these food practices.   

Production within Mexico and Neoliberalism: Tío Raul and the Ranch
A four hour drive south from El Paso, Texas, to Chihuahua, México, for the past five years Tío Raul has been acting as supervisor and associate to a ranch that grows alfalfa, chile, organic fish, organic chickens, and nuts. Although admitting that the work is taxing, he expresses the joy he finds in experiencing the sun, air, and rain–“something that isn’t offered in an office setting.” Going into detail about the timeline of the production process he states that: the chile is planted on the first of February and is harvested in four to five months; the fishes (bought at a subsidy from the government) are grown and harvested in six to eight months; the chickens start producing eggs at four months and kept for two years and sold afterwards for meat when their egg production slows; and the alfalfa seeds are grown in four months and kept in production for five years. Given the energy and time that’s required for the months of cultivating and caring for the plants and animals, he reports that his real salary doesn’t come until everything is sold to el centro (“the center”).  All of the agricultural products grown on the ranch is essentially sold at a large regional market that’s accessible to corporations, industries, and distributors within Mexico–buyers can range anywhere from Walmart to ranchers who need the alfalfa for their cows. Until this happens however, the provided salaries are limited. The workers that essentially work 24/7 live on the ranch and earn approximately 1,400 pesos a week or $74 U.S. dollars, whereas the workers that work the 8am to 5pm shifts earn anywhere from 800 to 1,000 pesos a week or $42 to $53 U.S. dollars. “The pay is so low that workers have to choose between either buying clothes or buying food. The pay can only get you a kilogram of meat, a gallon of milk, and a bag of tortillas,” reports Tío Raul. He cites the lack of government support, lack of job opportunities, and expensive ranch operations as the reasons for the low salaries.  “There is no support from the government, no benefits or legal protections for farmers; the gas, water, and electricity are too expensive; and there is also corruption,” he laments. However, the life of my uncle becomes almost luxurious compared to the conditions in rural, larger farms where many of the workers are indigenous and are subject to extreme working and living conditions with lower pay. Despite the harsh realities of the Mexican agricultural worker, the Mexican government has failed to step in and protect its people as neoliberal ideas embody its functionality.

Defined by Julie Guthman in “Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies,” neoliberalism is “the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade” (190). Mexico’s governmental powers have eroded under the strong economic and political drive to be the United States’ second agricultural provider for the $21 billion trade. This highlights the worker’s vulnerability and how they are at the expense of corporation and institutions–a vulnerability that might not be fully realized since neoliberalism also produces discourse that acts as a governance through ‘rationality’ and ‘freedom of choice’ over its subjects. In other words, although the worker can have the option to change ranches and find better pay, the options themselves are fabricated and presented by neoliberalism’s ability to deeply penetrate into economic and political institutions. Not only is the agency and environment of the Mexican agricultural worker manipulated, they embody ideas of neoliberalism as they can reduce themselves to an assessment of value that stems from how much labor they can offer or produce. What does this mean for the Chicano El Pasoan? Living as neoliberal subjects as well and perceiving the world through the ‘rationality’ and ‘freedom of choice’ narrative, it becomes difficult to realize or rather care that members of their own cultural community are being exploited and oppressed in this way. They utilize the tools of assessment that create the illusion that those who have obtained education and financial means in a non-agricultural, non-physical labor method, are better than those who did not. Additionally since neoliberalism views humans as capital, any exploitation and oppression that face the Mexican agricultural worker is simply viewed as necessary collateral damage. Moreso the Chicano El Pasoans share the stories of immigration, but it’s only the stories of climbing up the socioeconomic ladder that are truly celebrated, while the others are ignored. This raises the question of who is able to immigrate, through what means did this occur, and if prosperity followed the move. Neoliberalism’s narrative of having ‘freedom of choice’ is what can push Mexican workers to immigrate to the United States even through the same systems of oppression exist there. However, Tío Raul stated that working in the agricultural fields in the U.S. is a lot more profitable than it is in Mexico since the worker no longer has to choose between buying food or clothing. But these immigrant workers and their stories will not be celebrated in the same way a wealthy Chicano El Pasoan’s story will, simply because the workers don’t embody the higher value assessment that neoliberalism desires. This indicates that neoliberalism plays a role in outlining roles of citizenship and value within Mexican culture.

Cultural Memory and Emotions in Food: Abuelita Chita and Tía Mirella Serving as the physical and symbolic center of the family web that extends beyond El Paso, and into the outskirts of Texas, California, and Nebraska, the house of Abuelita Chita is a place of spiritual, emotional, and cultural healing. Not only is it a place where advice and wisdom is shared, it’s a space where family history and memory is actively recalled and retold with the aid of pictures that show a deeper truth about ourselves and what we remember. These talks always occur on the six-person dinner table over some sort of fruit or drink, but most commonly, a homemade meal. The preparation of Mexican dishes is becoming more cumbersome as time goes on given her arthritis, but this does not stop my grandmother from making the meals that are most enjoyed by her children and grandchildren. Although the words of the songs she used to sing are fading away, she remembers with precise accuracy the differing tastes and preferences of food from the family. “Not only is the food good, but it acts as a demonstration of love and affection,” says my father. Around birthdays Abuelita Chita always calls and lets the family member know that their pastel de tres leches (“Cake of Three Milks” ) or chocoflan is ready to get picked up. Additionally, the food acts as the gateway to remember the family’s former ranch life, but most importantly, the stories that came with it; stories that carry both pain and joy, and messages about the importance of community support and love to others.

However, the rage of emotion that food is able to express goes beyond love and affection. American novelist Jonathan Foer explains in Eating Animals that the contemporary practices of factory farming means that “we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own” (143). Foer clarifies this point by going into detail about how the animals grown for the agribusinesses companies are genetically modified– “we are breeding creatures incapable of surviving in any place other than the most artificial of settings. We have focused the awesome power of modern fenetic knowledge to bring into being animals that suffer more” (159).  The animals are destined to suffer for however long they live; a life span that’s been assessed and determined by corporations and institutions in order to maximize profits. Apart from genetically manipulating the animals, they spend their entire lives in small, suffocating spaces and then die an excruciating death. Throughout the book Foer constantly questions what the food we eat tells us about ourselves. Can we taste the pain in the flesh?

Deep within a rural part in Nebraska, Tía Mirella has worked in the meat industry for the past twenty years; more specifically within slaughterhouses. Working long hours in freezing temperatures with a fast-moving conveyor belt, she can feel her tired, sweating muscles underneath her clothing and metal armor. “It’s a hard job and I’m tired,” she said at my grandmother’s table. A few years ago when she was facing some problems, her manager was unwilling to help her and the family had to get legally involved in order to protect her. With no avail from her employers, she ended up leaving the job and working at another slaughterhouse. A common thread between her old job and the new one is that every once and awhile the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raid meat plants or homes of  undocumented workers in order to deport them. Author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal, Eric Schlosser states that apart from fearing this militarized threat, the workers also have to deal with the dangers at work. He states that “the death rate among slaughterhouse sanitation crews is extraordinary high. They are the ultimate in disposable workers: illegal, illiterate, impoverished, untrained” (178). The intentionality of being able to easily replace any workers that prove to be too difficult or inefficient to deal with is a sign of what it means to be a modern subject. Diving into what it means to be ‘modern,’ Ben Singer in “Meanings of Modernity” states that “modern society is industrial society. To modernize is to industrialize” (18). In other words, people are metaphorically transformed and perceived as parts of machines within a factorized system because of the belief that a finely-tuned society will lead to societal progression. With the introduction of new technologies rose the opportunity to fundamentally change what it means to be contemporary:

“the change was fundamental. Not only did it affect the condition of industry, the lives of the workers, the means of production; not only did it change the character of the commodities used by man, the entire aspect of many parts of the country, the very character of the worker himself, it changed from the very foundations the whole fabric of society” (Singer 19).

This change was so fundamental that it changed the very aspect of how individuals live within this space, how they perceived the world, and how their operate within it. To be a modern subject is to accept the reality that society functions within parameters that will lead to the oppression and exploitation of others. For the wealthy Chicano El Pasoan to enjoy their “authentic” Mexican food that pulls ingredients from a globalized food system, there needs to be a Mexican agricultural worker in the fields to pick the tomatoes for the tacos waiting on the plate. The Chicano El Pasoan is unworried by the significance of their food practices since they are reinforced and supported by a citizenship allocated by modernity.

The unawareness or the lack of perception between food practices and what the corrido states is evident as the family still consumes red meat despite the hardships that my Tía Mirella went through. “No, there is no connection between what your Tía Mirella went through and the food that your grandmother cooks,” states my father. If we can taste the love from my grandmother’s food, why can’t we taste the pain and suffering (of animals and humans) in the meat itself? Foer argues that “stories establishes narratives, and stories establishes rules” (12). What is the narrative that the Chicano El Pasoan repeat to themselves? They are true stories of oppression, of institutional exploitation where pain and suffering was felt, yet there was power within themselves and the community to float above it. These stories are repeated throughout the borderland as a way to root the following generation into the sense of family, community, and self. Stories that try desperately to ensure the survival of the Mexican community and culture. However, this comes at the cost of forgetting about other forms of suffering that are experienced by members of the same community as soon as we accept the comfortable citizenship that modernity and neoliberalism offers. This suffering isn’t defined necessarily by the physical and mental pain that can be experienced, but as Foer puts it, “the word defines our gaze even more than what we are looking at” (77). Where and when will the Chicano El Pasoan draw the line in the sand and begin to advocate for a change in the economic and political systems that affect members of their own community?

Dealing with the Fragmentation
The unveiling of El Corrido Del Segundo Barrio in 2012 was met by the community with appreciation and pride. Existing as one of the oldest neighborhoods in El Paso, Texas, el barrio holds deep historical, political, social, and cultural stories that show the community’s ability to adapt and thrive under external pressure. Given the changing political climate and the intense militarized, mobile agents that are targeting Mexican people, the power within the community will become activated once we are able to shed the comfortability of citizenship that neoliberalism and modernity provides. It is only when we begin to seek out other alternative and fight against oppressive political and economic systems, that the suffering of others will be alleviated.