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Chihuahuas, Nescafé and immigration

27 April 2007

At the Greater Metropolitian Alpine Press Club today, someone who knows my financial status (poorer than most, but then, we’re poor folks out here to begin with) suggested a new financial opportunity … Chihuahuas to Chihuahua:

MEXICO CITY, April 25 Pet stores in Mexico have begun selling U.S.-bred Chihuahuas to their more high-brow customers.

“I think it’s probably partly a matter of status, this desire for an American dog,” said David Sanchez, assistant manager of the Mas-Kota shop in Mexico City ‘ s Perisur Mall. Sales of the tiny dogs from the United States have even increased in the northern state of Chihuahua, from which the tiny breed originated, USA Today newspaper reported Wednesday.

“A lot of the time these are the same blood lines we sent over the border years ago,” said Mayra Rodriguez, owner of the Mascota Pet Shop.

Copyright 2007 by UPI

I have to admit, it’s one that never crossed my mind, though importing Mexican exports isn’t unhead of. Nescafé, or… as the serious coffee-drinkers call it … ¡No es café! … still dominates the consumer market for coffee in a country that produces about 50 million tons of coffee a year. According to Nestlé,

Soluble coffee again leads the way in this market, with NESCAFÉ absolutely dominating the scene. NESCAFÉ Classico is the stongest player in the market. A sample of NESCAFÉ products sold: Decaffeinated, Diplomat, Ristreto, Dolca.

As far as instant coffee goes, Ristreto isn’t undrinkable, but outside of the traditional cafés (which mostly use the Mexican brand, Café Legal) and a few “foreign” restaurants like McDonald’s, the bigger chains like Sandborns (which used to be Chase and Sandborn way back when, and still sells their own crappy – though inexpensive – coffee), the same cafes that have sprung up everywhere the hip and pretentious gather (even in Marfa, Texas …which is why I live in Alpine: our unofficial motto is “50% less attitude than Marfa”) — and a few classic coffee houses like Cafe Habana in Mexico City, or La Paroquia in Veracruz (where Benito Juarez used to go for coffee).

Most places it’s Nescafé – Classico if you’re lucky – or nothin’. Even in the coffee-regions. The worst cup of coffee I ever had in my life was at the Veracruz bus station. I’d arrived at some ungodly hour of the morning and the only place open had a pot of hot water on the stove, into which the counterwoman dumped a jar of “No es café” and started ladling out what probably was meant for washing the dishes at 8 pesos a cup. You wonder why addicts of less legal substances turn to crime?

Some of us hard-core Mexphile caffiends resort to the simple expedient of just taking a spoonful of the stuff straight and getting it over with – it’s about as horrible, but a lot quicker than dissolving it in water and stretching out the torture. I found you can wash out the taste with some decent atole

¡NO PASARAN! Or, rather… it shouldn’t be thus.

Mexicans are traditionally not big coffee drinkers. According to an article in the October 30, 2000 Food and Drink Weekly, Mexican coffee consumption was only about 2 cups per person per week.

Which is not to say Mexicans don’t drink coffee. Traditionally, they do, and have since the 18th century. I admit that surprised me, but … and it’s amazing what you find when you start looking… a California historian named Stephen Topik presented a learned paper at the Segundo congreso de historia económica sponsored by the Economics department at UNAM back in 2004, on the history of coffee drinking in Mexico. It’s fascinating reading (or at least the PDF file makes interesting reading when you’ve had too much coffee and are up late at night):

One study puts 1785 as the date of the first coffee in Mexico while another cites 1789 as the founding year of the Café de Manrique in Mexico City. The European name “café” was adopted in Spanish but it was also supposedly given an indigenous name “acoxcapolli” which means “without sleep.”


But, most coffee consumption was local (Topik quotes from 18th and 19th century sources who talked about local coffee in the local markets, and points out that most small farmers had a few coffee trees in the growing region) and even complaints from foreigners about crappy coffee are nothing new.


The French courtiers who accompanied Emperor Maximilian in 1863 were dismayed with the quality of the coffee they encountered in Mexico. Countess Paula Kollonitz complained that “coffee, which grows here of the best kind, is so badly prepared that it is almost impossible to drink it.”


It’s that “coffee… of the best kind” that may be the reason coffee of the undrinkable kind is so prevalent today. It really shouldn’t have happened:


Guatemala’s success in the last decades of the nineteenth century encouraged foreign and Mexican plantation growers to spread the caffeinated habit with indigenous peoples adopting it; and in the north, proletarian workers accepted the habit as an extension of the United States culture of mass, home-oriented, coffee drinking.


The historiography of the Porfiriato has stressed the export economy and hence has neglected the spread of new consumption items. Mexican coffee production shot up from 10 million kilos to 45 million kilos from 1901 to 1911. However exports remained stable at 20 million kilos after 1905 demonstrating that internal consumption overshadowed exports. Joseph Walsh reported in 1902 that internal transport problems had hindered Mexico’s coffee exports “so much so that the production of coffee in Mexico has been almost limited to supplying the home demand.”


In other words, Mexicans were drinking coffee, and fairly decent coffee at that, before the Revolution. After the Revolution, the emphasis was on nationalism, and coffee was never seen as a national beverage. But it was a damn good export crop, and the government was happy to help the farmers find new markets. They subsidized coffee growers since there was a huge growth in foreign demand after 1920., though, for complicated reasons, Mexicans turned to Coca Cola for their caffiene fix.


And, the Revolution created an urban middle class, who wanted consumer goods. After WWII, when the Revolution was turned into the Institutional Revolution, the state focused on creating Mexican industries that would meet internal demand: if a product was available in the United States, the same TYPE of product would be available in Mexico, even if there was only one brand, and it wasn’t as good as the foreign variety. Thus, Café Legal Soluable entered the market in 1964.


With globalization in the 90s, foreign brands began driving the Mexican brands off the market, or making them non-competitive. Nestlé, the Swiss-based multinational, gobbled up what Mexican market there was… and heavily promoted – not Mexican coffee – but imported Nescafé. While Mexican farmers still sold about a third of their coffee on the local market, export prices remained high (and shot up between 1960 and 1990)


The largest buyer, as with most Mexican exports after World War II, was the United States. In 1989, the U.S. decided to pull out of the International Coffee Agreement, which had kept prices stable (and farmers happy). It helped consumers in the short run, since coffee buyers were free to shop the world market for the cheapest beans (and instant coffee is made mostly from robusta beans, which only grow in the Eastern Hemisphere. Mexican coffee is the “higher grade” arabica variety  ), just as the coffee craze was starting (I worked for a short time for a small coffee distributor. We called it “the drug of the 90s”).


It appeared as if more people were drinking coffee, though it may just be that people were willing to pay a premium to drink concoctions made with coffee (what the hell is a white coffee decaf latte anyway? It ain’t a cuppa Joe). That premium didn’t translate into higher prices for the arabica growers, who were rapidly going broke, just as they were being encouraged to increase production.


Cancelling the ICA in 1989 had a secondary effect.


To some extent, the 1989 decision to abandon the ICA system has come back to haunt the US. Lower coffee prices gave encouragement to many Latin American peasant farmers to cultivate coca, in order to make up lost income. Thus, the rapid upsurge of illegal drug imports in the US during the early 1990s was connected to the post-Cold War politics of coffee. Then, in the late 1990s, the US Government provided subsidies to farmers in Bolivia and Columbia to switch from coca to coffee production, which further added to world production, over-supply, and lower prices. In another example of how the decision to abandon the ICA has come back to impact on the US, the New York Times reported that ‘In Central America, the World Bank estimates that 600,000 coffee workers had recently lost full-time or temporary jobs, prompting a flight of Guatemalans and Hondurans to Mexico and a separate exodus of Mexican farmers into the US

In other words… too much coffee, too little money… too few jobs for coffee farmers. To add insult to injury, NAFTA meant the end of Mexican farm subsidies. Not growing robusta beans for the cheap coffee market, and locked into multi-year contracts by the buyers who could find cheaper arabica beans elsewhere, the Mexican coffee growers were shit out of luck.

There were some half-hearted attempts to stimulate an internal market for Mexican coffee  but with consumers already buying Nescafé, and Mexican coffee consumption actually dropping (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization ) there isn’t much that can be done.

The small growers’ association, CNOC, has done what it can, and is selling some export coffee under the Aztec Harvest label.  I sure appreciated buying REAL coffee direct from the farmers on the streets of Mexico City — but even with fair-trade agreements and the realization that coffee trees are actually environmentally useful in preserving rain forests  it’s probably too late to save Mexico from years of crappy coffee, emigration and foreign imports of national products – coffee or chihuahuas.


Save the Mex Files from cheap coffee!


5 Comments leave one →
  1. el_longhorn permalink
    27 April 2007 9:38 pm

    I sure hope you are teaching a class about this stuff out in Alpine. In Nuevo Laredo, across from the main mercado on Guerrero a few blocks away from the pedestrian bridge, there was a small coffee shop that sold roasted Mexican coffee beans (from Veracruz) and would grind them for you…it was damn good Mexican coffee that HELPED me GET through college. I haven’t been to Nueveo Laredo in more than 2 years (the longest I have ever gone without visiting), but I am sure it is gone…another victim of the drug violence.

    Me and the family may visit Alpine in the summer…if we do, you and I have to get together para un cafe con leche!

  2. 25 April 2013 9:04 am

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