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Identity, junk food, and trash

27 August 2020

Photo: Nayeli Cruz/El País

Are traditional values progressive? How the tiny Zapotec town of Yalálag, where the movement to ban junk food started not to control diabetes and improve diet, but to cut down on trash.  And divided a community.

Translated from Pablo Ferri, “Prohibir las patatas fritas: una decisión identitaria en las montañas del sur de México” (El País, 26 August 2020).


Three years ago, the Zapotec town of Yalálag Oaxaca banned the sale of commercial potato chips in stores, along with Cheetos, Doritos, packaged ramen and similar products.  The town’s health official at the time, Vidal Aquino, explains that at the time, the issue was garbage collection. “There was a lot of garbage on the streets, a lot of plastic,” he recalls. Without knowing it, this Zapotec community in the Sierra de Oaxaca paved the way for the State legislature to pass a bill two weeks ago banning the sale of junk food to children.  It is a pioneering law, perhaps having international impact, but in Yalálag it has gone almost unnoticed. The neighbors here have been arguing for years about food, recycling, and the environment.

Vidal Aquino is a quiet man. He hardly raises his voice, except when talking about commercial processed food. “Those companies are motherfuckers!,” he exclaims. In 2017, when he served as health councilor, he also tried to also ban soft drinks and other junk food: cookies, packaged pastries and candies. “But it couldn’t,” he says. Emiliano Aquino, his brother, murmurs that a year — in Yalálag, public office is only for a year — was not enough time to make the changes his brother was proposing.

As in much of Oaxaca, Yalálag is government by an “usos y costumbres” assembly.   There are no Western elections every few years, and no political parties. Every October, the members of the assembly – slightly more than 600 of the 2,500 inhabitants of the town – meet and elect authorities for the following year. The councilors, the municipal president and the trustee, among others.

Vidal started his year strong. He took office on January 1 and on the 20th he presented his initiative in the assembly to ban packaged potato chips and other snacks.  It was approved, although the initiative had more to do with dealing with trash and recycling than with public health.  Over time, however, from the news and internet research, Vidal came to realize the products were harmful on their own.   “People don’t know what they are eating,” he reflects.

Emiliano and Vidal still remember the face of the Pepsico dealer, the main distributor of processed snacks in Mexico, the first day he arrived in town after the 2017 assembly. “He was told that he could not enter,” says Vidal. Then they wanted to reach an agreement ”, he adds,“ but no, no ”.

In Yalálag, the health managers also take care of the garbage collection service and Vidal innovated what he could. “We put a gate to separate the garbage cart. We managed to rescue 100 kilos of nylon plastic, as well as PET plastic and tetrabrick ”, he says. Then he took it to the city of Oaxaca to recycle. In that year, 2017, Vidal and his team also introduced Yalálag’s first community compost heap. “We forced people to separate even the shells from the eggs,” he explains with amusement, allowing himself one of the first laughs of the afternoon.

Of Huaraches and lawsuits

The sun hides among the exuberant green of the Oaxacan mountains. The last rays of the sun slip through the windows of the Aquino brothers’ workshop. The workshop is in the upper part of the house, on one of the slopes from which the town hangs. Emiliano and Vidal are fourth, or fifth (the disagree on this) huarche-makers.

The brothers were interviewed as they worked,  amid knives, pieces of rubber, and the smell of curing leather and dissolved chemicals. Emiliano says that the health councilors who succeeded his brother have not followed up on his propsals.  “It’s that people are like this here,” he says, although he doesn’t develop his idea. Then Vidal remembers that in his year as councilor he bought 500 hard plastic glasses. “People could come and borrow them for their parties,” he adds proudly, “but they didn’t pay much attention.”

Vidal leaves the workshop and immediately retuns with carved, hollowed-out bull horns that serve as glasses. Then he takes out a bottle and fills the horns with “artisan” mezcal. Here, and when he goes to parties, he always carries his own horn. No disposable cups for him. At the second mezcal, Emiliano starts talking about the lawsuits. Yalálag is famous for lawsuits, he says. Not that there’s anything strange about that… which town has no problems? But what do community lawsuits have to do with plastic and nutrition? That, Emiliano, is at a loss to explain.

Yalálag has been through a series of crises dating back to the 1970s.   For years, the town was an important commercial coffee center,  not so much for the cultivation as for the sale. At the same time, a small local industry, making huarache was becoming economically important. Between the coffee crisis and later industrialization, life became increasingly difficult for the sandal artisans. And then, in the late 1990s, there was a political crisis.

Two community was split over the Aquino brothers vision of progress.  The dispute appears to be more emotional than having to do with any discussion of the merits of its promoters.

Anthropologist, and Yalálag native, Ana Alonso explains that what happened in the town “was the product of Yalálag’s opening to the world. One side is committed to communal life and the traditional internal organization system, and the other group sees in this a way of not developing and it doesn’t seem like it.” Alonso concludes: “There is a lot of resentment and the groups oppose each other out of emotion. And … of course, it just happens with the Sabritas (potato chips)  and everything else. The social fabric was broken and now it’s a fight just to fight the opposition.”

And along came COVID

The pandemic is the latest update to the conflict in Yalálag. In March, when the virus began to spread in Mexico, local authorities decided to close the town. For more than two months, no one, not transporters, merchants, travelers, or relatives could enter or leave Yalálag, with few exceptions. In practice, the ban on potato chips was extended to sugary soft drinks and a host of other products. Vidal liked that. “We consume the pure locally grown vegetables,” he says.

Many others saw the ban as a ruse by the group in power to maintain control. Some chose to smuggle soft drinks and pastries and others demanded a change in the assembly. The protesters demanded that Yalálag be reopened, that the soft drinks be returned to the store refrigerators, that the traffic be free again. But the assembly voted no. Still, the measurements have been relaxed and the shelves are full again. To avoid conflict, the authorities turn a blind eye. 

For Cuauhtémoc Aquino (no relation to Vidal and Emiliano) the village butcher, the pandemic has been an opportunity to improve the community’s diet.  “For several months we could not go out and we ate what there was, squash, quelites, beans,” he says. “Now many people wonder if this is not the best, the vegetables here. The pandemic has made us think about self-sufficiency ”, he argues.

The covid-19 crisis has made many in Yalálag aware of other problems that until now seemed inevitable, like diabetes. Cuauhtémoc, the butcher, explains that “in a few years the cases of diabetes and hypertension increased a lot” in the community. Where it wasn’t noted before, now the number of cases is in the dozens.  People are aware that diabetes is a risk factor for the virus. And that junk food doesn’t exactly help prevent the sugar disease.

The path seems clear, the problem is the lawsuits. In the June and July assemblies, the debates on whether or not to maintain isolation in Yalálag led to new clashes between the groups, accusations against the municipal president and even the dismissal of the community’s only paid position, the village secretary. The atmosphere is somewhat tense in the community and any topic now becomes weaponized. Even seemingly innocent discussions about junk food.

Anthopologist Lourdes Gutiérrez, who has studied migration from the community to the United States for 20 years says that “what matters is that the groups reach an agreement on the future of the town. That is what is at stake in this long crisis, the meaning of being a Yalalteco today, in this historical moment ”, she explains. There are more Yalaltecas in the United States than in Oaxaca. “The importance they give to language is at stake and their notions of progress and backwardness. What defines them as a people.” 

The end of the conflict seems far away, although perhaps it involves reaching agreements on minor issues. In these months of pandemic, the two groups have agreed that if the Yalálag stores are going to sell soft drinks, but only in recyclable cans. 

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