The damp gloom outside tells me it’s getting to be Christmastime, and that makes this the moment to talk about cultural imperialism. Because without the Spanish Empire we wouldn’t have the holiday at all in Mexico and because of the way it’s so easy to see American cultural influence in this season.
First, the term. One of the consequences of globalization is the diffusion of dominant cultures. The colonial age imposed western socio-political forms on the rest of the world by force. Most every country on Earth now runs on a western model, be it socialism, communism, or some form of constitutional republic, because of colonial expansion.
Today, that diffusion continues through economic, rather (or largely rather) than physical, domination. The United States’ dominion over world markets allows its goods (and by extension, its culture) to penetrate every one of its trade partners. It’s no surprise that you can get Marlboro Reds and a Coke in the remotest corners of the globe. The result of our flooding of the world with our production is the seep of our culture into every other, often to the exclusion of the original.
Not such a bad thing, proud Americans might think. The foreigners could use a little of our gumption, et cetera. Problem being that we usually export the worst parts of us—soft drinks, fast food, discount beers, shitty consumer goods, the endless drivel of our network TV. It’s part of why much of the world has so low an opinion of our culture (“You don’t have a culture” crops up). And what we might take to be passive diffusion often aggressively displaces the traditions and practices of other countries. Which brings us back to this season in Mexico.
There is a tension here in every holiday that Mexicans share with the United States between the community and family-oriented celebrations of tradition and the consumerist bonanzas imported from up north. The Day of the Dead has roots here that go back centuries before the Conquest, roots that tie Mexicans to their ancestors, to each other, and to the journey through life to death that governs all human action. It has a hand in the Mexican comfort and familiarity with death and their healthier societal response to it. This year, though, I had to hitchhike up into the hills to find a celebration of the Day on the day. My town had involved itself in an anemic Halloween, one of the US holidays that has detached itself from its religious roots and doubled down on consumption.
After the first of November, the most obvious thing is Christmas trees. They’re a German import to the States, along with Saint Nicholas, but after more than a century, they’re as much ours as they are the Germans’ or the Canadians’ or the Brits’, especially since we’ve divorced them from a Protestant early-modern heritage to be receptacles for lucre. The going shindig for hundreds of years in Mexico was the period between the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the 12th of December and Three Kings’ Day on the 6th of January. They hold posadas, caroling marches with tamales and the hot corn drink atole which culminate in Mass and the breaking of a piñata; they celebrate la Noche Buena, Christmas Eve, with Mass and huge family parties, and then use the day itself for rest; Three Kings’ Day was the present-giving occasion in which the Wise Men, not Santa, bore gifts (which makes more sense, really).
If you go to any town square right now, alongside the elaborate crèche (announcement, incarnation, and birth as a minimum) you’ll find a Christmas tree. In Jalpan, it’s going on twenty-five foot, a massive construction of iron and plastic. With it, blinking lights, blow-up Santas, and American Christmas music burbling out of tinny purpose-built speakers.
It’s garish and tacky and driven by the lowest element of our Christmas celebration—consumption. The posada takes place neighborhood by neighborhood, reaffirming each colonia’s collective identity through shared food, festivity, and faith. Three Kings’ Day brings family groups together, and the whoever-gets-a-Jesus-doll-in-their-Three-Kings’-bread-has-to-host-the-party-in-February game give a sense of continuity to proceedings. The Christmas tree doesn’t come with Bing Crosby or all the Norman Rockwell baggage that it has for us—it’s a depository for gifts that imported American movies and television have taught Mexican children to beg for. It’s the same process that causes secular Jews in the States to put up their own trees—if the kids want it, why not just do what everybody else is doing?
The answer, or my answer, to that question, is that distinct cultures have value, and that cultural homogenization, whether from the States or anywhere, is something worth resisting.
Let’s talk about something more cynical, more intentional. Let’s talk about Coke. Coke is the campo. Its sponsor and official drink. If you’re in a community after a long day of work, don’t count on water to greet you at home. Count on Coke, and count on taking flak if you refuse it. Coke is on every dinner table, in every fridge. Coke floods the countryside with ads, and even the tiniest tiendita can get a representative to come out and paint a giant logo on the side of their building. Coke Life came out a couple of months ago, and I can tell you that there’s at least one banner in every pueblo in the Sierra, even the ones you have to pack into on foot.
Coca Cola started a campaign here a while ago called “Compartir una con…,” share one with.
Each bottle and can comes stamped with a name, and I don’t know a family that hasn’t done some collecting to get the full set of relations. It’s brilliant, because it plays on the strong familial connection here, and given that I’ve seen a ton of weird names, I’d be unsurprised if they’d made Juan just as rare as Rohelio. There are even rumors that in Oaxaca and Chiapas, the poorest and least educated states of this Republic, company reps have gotten in touch with curanderos, witch doctors, so that they’ll implement the drink in religious ceremonies, making its consumption both sacred and obligatory.
And the thing is, it’s killing these people. The incidence of diabetes in rural Mexico is obscene. These people don’t have the access to the kind of health and alimentary education they’d need to make good choices about their drinking habits. The force arrayed against the company, the student doctors who make one year tours out to the countryside, is vastly outnumbered by advertisers and reps. I see kids getting Coke when they’re too young to stand on their own and I see them drinking it until they hit an early obese grave in their mid-thirties.
Maybe a more explicit example yet. Corn syrup may be on its slow way out in the States, at least HFCS, if not for a few decades yet. We’ve at least added a discussion of its effects into the zeitgeist. Not so in Mexico, a country that lives and dies by corn. Maize is the staple grain of every meal and most every snack, and syrup made from corn (or ‘corn honey,’ depending on the packaging) sounds inherently kosher.
So it was surprising to me that around Christmas, I could not for the life of me find Karo syrup for a pecan pie. Here of all places, I thought, it should be around. Of course, I was looking in the wrong place. I was out of town in an unfamiliar store and I happened to wander into the baby aisle, and there I saw it. Big, clear, and…pink. With a blown-up Gerber-style baby drawn on. I read the back. ‘There will come a time when your mother’s milk is no longer nutritious enough to sustain your child. When that moment arrives, add Karo syrup to your formula to make sure your child gets the nutrition it needs.’
Leave my negativity towards American business and marketing aside and think about this a second. Until your baby is toothy enough to eat solid food, there is no time when your milk is not good enough. And there are few things you could feed your kid (few food-based things) worse than corn syrup; you’re seeding an unconquerable sweet tooth that will lead them to crave junk food, overdosing them with calories and training their bodies to produce fat at a time when they’re developing metabolic processes that will last a lifetime. If you want your kid to grow up huge and diabetic, there’s nothing better you could throw in their milk than Karo syrup. Somebody at the company had to write that copy, somebody else had to edit it, a third had to approve it, and many more had to participate before it made it onto the shelf above. People, thinking people, collaborating in a process that’s fundamentally wrong.
It’s killing us as volunteers. We’re here in part to help out the valiant, underfunded efforts of the Mexican government to better feed, clothe, educate, and medically treat their rural areas, work carried out by hordes of heroic and unrecognized Mexican volunteers, health workers, teachers, and low level bureaucrats in the face of apathy, crime, and rampant corruption. Rather than the US wholeheartedly assisting its neighbor to the south, we get to see our largest, most successful, least-in-need-of-rural-Mexican-pesos companies use all their savvy and all their might to grind these people down and down.
Mexico runs on dichos, on sayings, and one of their closest held is “So far from God, so close to the United States.” It sounds ambiguous, but it’s not, and it has no right to be.