Alyshia Gálvez: Our Fates Will Rise and Fall Together
Alyshia Gálvez’s book, Eating NAFTA: Trade, Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, examines how the North American Free Trade agreement and subsequent policy shifts have impacted Mexican food systems, culinary practices, and communities. Gálvez, a cultural and medical anthropologist, writes about farming and foodways in rural communities, NAFTA’s disruption of Mexican agriculture, the health impacts of immigration to the United States, and how, as Mexican-inspired fine dining becomes trendy around the world, Mexicans themselves have less and less access to fresh, traditional ingredients. She urges readers to go beyond consumer activism, writing: “To strive for more equitable and just solutions … attention to the inherently binational nature of the situation we are in is required. We are intertwined and inseparable, and our fates will rise and fall together.”
Gálvez spoke to me about her research, community projects resisting the erosion of Mexican foodways, and her love of Tuesday night food—the delicious, simple dishes that get served when you don’t know someone’s coming over for dinner, you only have a short time to cook, or you’re trying to clear out your larder.
How did you come to write Eating NAFTA, and what was that process like for you?
I started this research project because I had studied migration for a really long time and had developed very close relationships with people who are from Mexico who live in New York City, as well as with their families back in Mexico. I've always been interested in food—I’m someone who enjoys eating and can always find ways to talk about food with anybody. I was very interested in the changing foodways of people that I know, especially in rural communities in Mexico, and the changing health profile of those communities, because so many people began to experience diabetes and other chronic diseases that really have impacted their health and in some cases taken their lives. And I was struck by how rapidly the shift seemed to be occurring—it seems to me that the people who were left behind in those communities were not being exposed through migration to a changing food landscape, right? Because in migration studies, we know that when people migrate, they change their way of eating because they no longer have access to the same food and they’re exposed to new ideas and new lifestyles. But there were people who were staying put, who weren’t moving, who were changing their foodways. So I began to look at it more systematically and see how the food system in Mexico is changing. That's what really led me to understand how radical the shift was to the food system in Mexico after NAFTA.
What are some ways that NAFTA and related policies have negatively impacted food systems and nutritional access in Mexico?
The way that NAFTA is structured is very much about promoting foreign direct investment and enhancing the relationship between the Mexican economy and the global economy in all areas. But food is a particularly affected sector because Mexico has long had politicians, whether they're more left-leaning or more right-leaning, who have had an understanding of the countryside as a location in need of improvement, in need of greater efficiency and modernization. This is something that we can trace back to the colonial period and the anti-Indigenous views of the Spanish conquerors who, depending on the era, either didn’t see the Indigenous people as human or maybe had respect for the Indigenous people but felt that they needed to be brought into modernity and made into better citizens.
So there’s these very long standing ideas about the countryside and rural people, especially Indigenous rural people, being not modern, not efficient, and needing improvement. A lot of times these ideas are very overt and visible, and sometimes they're very subtle. We can see with NAFTA this idea that the countryside was not productive, that the countryside was not ready for globalization. So the economic policies and the policy makers were oriented around this idea that Mexico needed to come into the 21st century through industrialization and globalization. And if that meant not farming because the farm sector was seen as inefficient, then that would be fine because foreign investment and the move towards industrialization would bring such prosperity that [Mexico] would be able to import all of its food from elsewhere. The United States, for example, could provide Mexico's corn because the United States is so “efficient” at growing corn.
All of these ideas are really problematic because the Mexican countryside is not inefficient. In every shift in Mexico’s economy, every time that Mexico didn't fall into famine or made a move towards greater prosperity or greater sovereignty or economic clout globally has been because the countryside has fed such a significant portion of the populace. So to blame the people who have literally subsidized the prosperity of Mexico forever is very ironic and very sad. At the same time, the United States agricultural sector is not efficient because we subsidize it heavily, so we don't even know how productive it is because it's such a distorted economy. A lot of the ideas that are underlying the way that development is being framed, the way efficiency is being framed, the way that prosperity is being framed, are things that I really wanted to break apart and question, and be very skeptical about and try to figure out, you know, is it because I'm an anthropologist and I'm misunderstanding efficiency, or is “efficiency” really being twisted to support an ideological paradigm that is based on putting the profits of corporations and elite investors over the large majority of the population?
You write about the health impacts of migration to the United States and how these impacts are linked to both changes in eating practices, and the cumulative stress and trauma that many immigrants experience before, during, and after their journeys north. Could you talk a bit about this?
Migration is very closely related to health and health outcomes in a number of ways that researchers have traced over the last couple of decades. There's a keen awareness that migration tends to transform the health of migrants, and this can happen in very complex ways. Oftentimes, the people who migrate are people who are healthy because migration is very physically challenging, it's very difficult. Oftentimes, the person in the family tapped to go or who volunteers to go is someone who has stronger health. So in some ways, there's already a built-in advantage that we see healthwise. We see that when people migrate to the United States—oftentimes immigrants arrive much healthier than the average person born in the United States. In the early years of migration, [there are] very low rates of chronic disease, very low rates of mortality. Immigrants are less likely to die in a given year than the native born. But over time we see that the United States, for whatever reason—there are many reasons—wears on people and can cause a decline over time in health.
Some of this is attributed to what we call dietary assimilation, where immigrants begin to eat like the rest of us in the United States who tend not to eat very healthily. Behaviors can rise that are unhealthy—for example, tobacco use increases over time in the United States. But there's increasing awareness and data demonstrating that a lot of the ways that the United States wears on people has to do with our highly unequal and racialized society. Experiences of racial discrimination and bias, of violence, the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, take a toll on the body physically. We can see rising cortisol levels, for example—there was a recent study that was done that shows that immigrant moms in the last two years since Trump was elected have higher cortisol rates, and that seems to be related to the rising incidents of family separation, deportation and overt anti-immigrant sentiment that’s circulating in large parts of this country. We see, in a lot of ways, what Geronimus calls the weathering hypothesis—the idea that discrimination wears on the body, and makes the body less capable of coping and combating toxins and exposure to other kinds of environmental factors.
Something that I’ve studied in the past and I was interested in [with this book] is how we might prevent that decline in health over time. How can we as a society in the United States do a better job receiving immigrants and learning from immigrants rather than making immigrants learn from us and see a decline in health? I was interested in the healthful practices that people bring with them and how over time they stop doing those things. A lot of those practices have to do with food.
The thing that I was curious and saddened by with this research study was that I began to see that not only did people no longer need to migrate to start eating the way we do in the United States, no longer do people need to migrate to experience the trauma of migration. In a lot of rural communities in Mexico that historically were somewhat unaffected by migration, we’re seeing rising rates of trafficking—including trafficking into the sex trade, violence, rising rates of drug use. We see rising rates of chronic disease of all kinds. And then just the trauma associated directly with immigration in terms of family separation, detention, deportation. All of these things take a toll. So with this project I was really able to see the syndemics of chronic disease in a very powerful way. This is the intertwining of things like—as Emily Mendenhall describes in her work on syndemics—violence, immigration, abuse, depression, diabetes. These things are really going along together and feeding one another. Because of the current situation where people have so little mobility and there's so much injustice and trampling on people's rights, we're seeing the health consequences of that.
Eating NAFTA begins with Danish celebrity chef Rene Redzepi “searching” the Yucatán Peninsula for Indigenous dishes he can replicate in his fine dining restaurants, as well as positioning himself as a savior of the tortilla and other “undiscovered” aspects of Mexican cuisine. You write: “I posit that the kind of food that Redzepi celebrates can only attain such a high value globally by being lost to those who customarily ate it.” I’ve heard a lot of excitement around Mexican food being elevated, so it was interesting to hear the other side of that.
How does the commodification of Mexican cuisine in elite circles impact access to traditional ingredients in Mexican communities?
When I initially started doing the research for this book, I thought, “How strange is it that NAFTA has really altered the food system in Mexico at the same time that we seem to be having a global love affair with the taco and with high-quality, fresh Mexican food?” I thought that it was an odd coincidence that these two things were happening. The more I delved into it and the more I came back to my anthropological training and thinking about ideas like fetishism, I began to understand that we can't have high-end Mexican food like Rene Redzepi’s pop-up in Tulum—in which he charged $600 for one dinner—if delicious, fresh Mexican food is readily available to everyone in Mexico. Economics really depends on the principle of supply and demand, and scarcity is so important for driving up price and value. If something is available, it's going to be cheap; if something is hard to get, the price rises. NAFTA and food trade policy have made scarce the very kinds of food that [Redzepi et al] claim to be discovering and elevating.
[These chefs] use words like “discovery” which are words that, in the Latin American context, we can't divorce from the Columbus moment of Europeans claiming to “discover” something that was not theirs to discover, that was there before. It's a kind of plunder, of conquest. It's a kind of violence and appropriation. It's not just about, “Look, I can make a taco, too”, it's about really deliberately ignoring a lot of the people for whom this food is theirs historically. There's Indigenous forms of knowledge that are required to properly, for example, process corn so that its vitamins are bioavailable. Even the banking structures—the way that Redzepi operated when he was doing this restaurant in Mexico really was about shifting money from around the world [from dinner ticket sales] to his bank account in Denmark. It bypassed Mexico in very literal ways.
I think he was alerted to the fact that people might question the price point, and ask, “Why is this dinner so expensive and what are you doing for local people? Local chefs and restaurant workers? What are you doing for local communities and the local tax base?” He was ready to say, “Oh, we're giving internships to local culinary students, we will have discounted dinner prices for local restaurant workers, and we will pay our workers well.” But at no point do you see profit sharing, do you see investment. The very nature of a pop-up is that it comes in and it goes down again a very short period of time later. There's literally no infrastructure that lasts. To deliberately create something that’s so ephemeral and in which capital from around the world is flowing away from the place where the event’s going to occur, it makes no sense.
How are Mexicans resisting the erosion of traditional foodways, both in Mexico and in the US?
We can see, on both sides of the border, people articulating contestations to the status quo. Some of these are larger-scale, some are smaller-scale, but I think they’re really powerful. Some of the larger-scale ones we see are things like Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without Corn There is No Country), which is a movement to try to promote corn as a sacred element of Mexican culture historically and ancestrally; and to try to promote farming knowledge and the landrace species of corn so that [that knowledge] doesn't get lost and is invested in. We see some small-scale things—there’s a cooperative of amaranth growers, for example. Amaranth is another pre-Columbian, Indigenous food staple. The Spanish thought it was associated with the devil because the Méxica or Aztec would make effigies of the dead out of amaranth. So the Spanish tried to ban amaranth, but it's one of these very high protein, high quality plants that we’re probably all going to need as climate change continues to take a toll. We can see Indigenous farming collectives really developing new strategies for using amaranth in a diversity of ways, growing it and distributing it and making it available. We can also see a growing movement—and some of this is very private and personal, but sometimes it is more communal—of people talking about decolonizing their diet. There is the book Decolonize Your Diet by Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel, who are in California. But if you Google “decolonize” or search on Youtube, you can see a lot of videos of people addressing how they’re decolonizing their reading list and their diets and their shopping. There are a lot of different ways that people are thinking through some of these issues that are really radical and heartening.
Probably the biggest national movement right now in Mexico is the electorate who voted for a president with a very different view than anyone in recent memory. López Obrador, who took power is December, for the first time probably since Cardeñas was president in the 1930s, is saying he wants to invest in the countryside and that he believes that Mexico's prosperity will come from the countryside, and that he wants Mexico to be food sovereign again. And he was elected with a big majority. So I think that is an encouraging sign that there's going to be a pendulum swing away from a dependency on foreign investment and corporations, and towards the countryside and rural people and their efforts to live in the communities that they are attached to and to make those communities prosperous.
Thank you. And my last question: What's your favorite thing you ate while researching Eating NAFTA and why?
My favorite food is not a specific food, it's an idea. It’s the thing that you eat when you show up to somebody's house on a Tuesday night and they don't know you’re coming. My favorite foods are the humble foods that people eat not as part of a celebration, not as part of any sort of social context, but what people eat at home and in a family situation when there's nobody to impress. When I think of foods like that, I think of tacos de papa, potato tacos, that are simple and easy and delicious with a fresh hot salsa or eggs. Enfrijoladas, which are tortillas bathed in beans that might be stuffed with eggs or with other kinds of vegetables. Nopales, cactus paddles. I just really enjoy the simple foods that people eat at home on an average weekday, those are my favorites.
Recipe: Plátanos con mole poblano
With this recipe, I give thanks to Irwin Sanchez of Tlaxcal kitchen, who taught me to make mole and the meanings of the Nahuatl words and Indigenous ideas that are a key part of milpa-based foodways.
The best mole is made by someone whose grandmother or mother taught them to make it. So, if you can source your mole that way, that’s ideal. If you develop a relationship with a paquetero who transports mole to the US, that’s another great source. Also, there are people who make mole by hand and sell it in the US. A well stocked Mexican grocery store may sell tubs of semi-homemade mole in the refrigerator section. I don’t recommend the mass-produced jarred varieties except in a mole emergency. If you wish to make it, I suggest taking Irwin’s course, Tlaxcal Kitchen, in NYC or learning from someone who is willing to show you the steps. Once you have your mole, the rest of this recipe is simple. I came up with this recipe because I don’t eat meat or poultry, and oftentimes mole is served with turkey, chicken or other animal protein. Plantains are one of the ingredients in the mole recipe, so their flavor is echoed in the mole itself. I love their sweetness as well as how substantive they are. This recipe can be vegan if the mole is vegan and the butter and sour cream are omitted).
Mole is a colonial recipe: it includes ingredients that came to Mexico from the Eastern Hemisphere via Spanish conquest and colonization (eg cinnamon, raisins, apple, sesame) and ingredients indigenous to Mesoamerica (eg chiles, cacao, tomatoes, corn masa, peanuts). It is often made with pork lard, but there’s no reason vegetable shortening or oil can’t be used instead. It is said that mole was made by religious sisters cooking in a convent in the state of Puebla, and while it has become metonymic for Poblano cuisine and is often described as an indigenous dish, it is a product of the clash of European and Mesoamerican cultures. This recipe pays homage to Mesoamerican knowledge, but like much of what we eat, also includes some of the ingredients that have been most destructive to the Americas (sugar, dairy, and lard).
3 or 4 very ripe but not mushy plantains (the peel will be black or yellow with lots of black spots, and should be easy to remove but not so easy that the plantain disintegrates)
2 tb butter (or oil if you prefer to make the recipe vegan)
2 tsp sugar (optional. If the plantains are not fully ripe, I recommend adding this)
1 cup mole poblano
½ c crema agria mexicana or sour cream (optional)
Peel the plantains (run a sharp knife in a single line following the lines of the peel, along the outer curve, then use your hands to peel back the peel) and cut them in thick slices. If you angle your knife, you can get broad oval slices which are better than circles. Melt butter or olive oil in a skillet and, if using, sprinkle sugar over the surface of the pan. Place the plantain slices inside, moving them gently with a wooden spoon to make sure they are flat on the skillet bottom. They can be crowded, but ideally will be in direct contact with the skillet, not piled up. Cook over a medium flame.
Refrain from poking at them. Only after the butter or oil and the edges of the plantain start to smoke slightly and darken, flip them. They should have browned and the sugar will have caramelized. If not, leave them longer. Each side can take 7-10 minutes. If you omit the sugar from the recipe, the caramelization will be less visible. When they are nicely browned on both sides (you may need to flip more than one direction to get heat to all of the surfaces), remove from the pan and place on a plate.
Let cool 7-10 minutes. In the meantime, warm the mole in a small saucepan. It can be diluted with a little water or stock until it is glossy and smooth, if it’s too thick.
With the back of a teaspoon, gently but firmly press into the plantain disks, creating a small well, but being careful not to flatten the plantain so much that it cracks. Then, spoon a teaspoon full of mole into the well. If desired, top with a drizzle of crema or sour cream. Serve warm or room temperature. This recipe works well as an appetizer or side dish.