By Aidan Wolfe Murray
I found myself on the shores of the Yucatan in the scorching heat of summer, with only the pack on my back and a handful of rumours about where I was.
Mexico, land of the ancients. A great peninsula stretching from the base of the USA all the way into Central America. One enormous coastline treading the mighty Pacific and the other surfing the warm waters of the Caribbean. As richly diverse as it is welcoming. A trip to an ancient site or the famous Museo de Anthropologia, will reveal a cultural goldmine!
There began a journey across many mountains and more miles, trailing around the southern states for two years.
Before we begin, let’s get something to drink! Oh, they have a lot of Coca-Cola…
Although Coca-Cola is not the only soft-drink manufacturer profiting from the rich market that Mexico has become, it is almost certainly the most far-reaching. Without fail, trudging the dusty tracks through the most remote hamlets, the red and white sign can be seen above one doorway or another. No matter where you go, it is unheard of to be unable to buy a bottle of Coca-Cola. It is looked upon as a point of pride – we have a high-quality product rather than the fruit and veg anyone can find in the field. I had no idea coke was so prevalent, or so prestigious, but the revelations were just beginning.
In 2019 Mexico was the biggest consumer of soft-drinks in the world, worth an estimated $25bn. When I did more research I discovered a troubling rise of obesity and type two diabetes. The degree to which people understand the connection between excessive sugar consumption and diabetes is unclear. In my experience of the few who seem to know something about it, there is an apathy or a disregard for the consequences. I remember a man walking towards me carrying two-litre bottles of Jarritos (a Mexican soft drink) in each hand. He saw me looking, gave me a knowing smile and said “puro veneno” (pure poison).
In the high mountains of Chiapas in the South-East lies the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. A beautiful alpine environment, circled by mountains and blessed with relatively clean air. Unfortunately it has seen falling water levels over the last few decades.
Talking with the locals of San Cris, I was informed that a nearby Coca-Cola bottling plant has the rights to the local water supply. There are demonstrations against this as well as a great deal of complacency and ignorance. The officials say that the factory draws from deep underground and does not affect the water available to locals. What then accounts for the drought?
A piece of graffiti in town was a great image of how some perceived the giant corporation. It was a coke bottle with its hands around the world (a glass bowl of water) and a straw in its mouth greedily sucking it all up.
With water shortages common in some neighbourhoods, the sale of coke shoots up as it is the cheaper option. Some people are drinking as much as half a gallon of cola per day. Coca-Cola, however, insists they are meeting their goals for water replenishment.
San Juan Chamula
Coca-Cola first appeared in Mexico in the 1960s with an ad-campaign that used religious imagery as an entry into the predominantly Catholic country. Flash forward to today and coca cola is used in religious ceremonies and even as a curative by some practising shamans. Near to San Cristobal is a small but famous town named San Juan Chamula where they practise religious ceremonies using Coca-Cola. One healer was using coke to treat diabetes.
It is easy to understate how integrated Coca-Cola is with the lives and culture of Mexico.
Coca-Cola may never have come as far as it has without the work of Vincente Fox. As a sales rep in the 1970s he was able to dissuade then-President Luis Echeverria who wanted to nationalise coke in Mexico, and gain its secret formula!. He may well have saved coke from losing what was to become one of its most lucrative markets. Like Nixon before him, Fox used his position with a soft-drink corporation as a spring-board into the Presidency.
When Mexico ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) it meant that coke could be sold even more cheaply. Although some praise NAFTA for opening the Mexican market to higher-quality merchandise, it had undeniable consequences for the health of the Mexican people. It has been highlighted as a major factor in the rising epidemic of obesity across the country. A question arises: Do profits justify the sale of products that damage human health?
With Sugar on Top
Mexico is under the spell of Azucar (sugar). On top of soft drinks, there is massive consumption of processed snacks and meat. The basic bread that is sold is called “pan dulce” (sweet bread) which is white bread with a high sugar content. This comes in a variety of shapes and sugared fillings. One has to be vigilant and read labels to avoid the ubiquitous added sugar. When I walked into my first little “tienda” (shop) I quickly found that there was nothing I could justify buying, nutritionally speaking. With supply being a mirror to demand, it soon became clear that the Mexican diet was replete with ‘junk’ food.
Despite regulations on processed food and soft drinks in the region of Oaxaca, the legislation is ignored and not easily enforceable. Mexico exhibits an unusual balance of politics and disobedience; the people decide when they want to do something. This can be a protection against coercion, but when influence comes from subliminal advertising, an uninformed public can be manipulated by the savvy marketer. With a culture who show great pride in their cuisine, it is a difficult subject to broach.
Mexico is a culturally diverse country with a rich history and hard-working, warm people. It has suffered much over the 400 years since the Spanish conquest, but one of the main issues facing it today is that of ill-health. The poor diet that has arisen is cemented by a cultural fixation with artifices such as Coca-Cola.
Coke has become a way of life.
Issues of water scarcity and disease have highlighted Mexico’s plight to many of its people. Recent legislation has aimed to curb the huge issues they all face, but will the people listen? The call has been taken up around the world to rouse this great Feathered Serpent to reveal its true splendour!
For more detail on this story here is a great article published by The Guardian after I left Chiapas in June 2023: Sugar rush: how Mexico’s addiction to fizzy drinks fuelled its health crisis