NAFTA in Planet Taco

Today in class we dove back into NAFTA and how this has shaped culinary trends in Mexico and the USA, but also how it has affected migration. As a preface to this, we considered what “privatization” means, and how this relates to the selling of public goods. I gave the example of a public park, a close one is Flushing Meadows. We noted that there are no barriers for the public to go to the park, and how this park is subsidized by public money.

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It’s a public park! Related to this, we also considered public institutions like public schools as being similar. That is, access for the public and supported by the public. Now, what would happen if the park were bought by a private corporation, for example, Alvarez Inc. Alvarez Inc. might change the name: a good name: Alvarez Land. And in Alvarez Land, Alvarez calls the shots, and Alvarez might charge admission. With that, Alvarez Land owners would of course not want just anyone coming in, maybe the Alvarez Inc. folks would build a fence to keep folks who don’t pay admission out. And then, maybe Alvarez Inc. might purchase a bunch of parks, start a chain. And, since folks no doubt would try to sneak in, Alvarez Inc. would put armed security to patrol the perimeter. Suddenly, the private park would be something like a “country club” and the former public of the park would be excluded.

This example is a little zany, admittedly, but it also presents an example of how privatization happens with public goods–look to the movement of charter schools in this nation as an example. The struggles to integrate public schools meant that many folks fled to private schools where certain children wouldn’t have to mingle with “the public.” I won’t even go into the militarization of security in schools, students already knew this well enough.

For class, this brief interlude into Neoliberalism led into a discussion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in Pilcher’s Planet Taco. Pilcher does a great job getting to the point about movement of goods and bodies, but how the opening of borders for capital simultaneously meant the militarization of the border and the restrictions of people to move across nations. NAFTA also gave us insight into how Mexican folks ended up in places like Iowa, Kentucky, and South Dakota–areas in the US that historically hadn’t seen much Mexican migration. Pilcher writes:

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), implemented in 1994, allowed subsidized Midwestern corn and beans to move freely across the border, devastating small farms in Mexico, while the United States used nontariff barriers to restrict Mexican agricultural exports. The growth of Mexican migration, an unintended consequence of NAFTA, actually helped to promote the spread of Mexican regional cooking through the opening of family restaurants across the continent. (190)

As rural Mexican subsistence farmers were not able to compete with corn dumped by the US, they looked for work elsewhere–first in the cities of Mexico, then to the north. But we have to ask ourselves, beans and corn are staples of the Mexican diet, and we remember that corn was born in Mexico. Now, after NAFTA, it was cheaper for Mexican folks to buy corn grown in the US then locally. This left a lot of small farmers unable to compete, and, thus, searching for other ways of supporting their families. For this, we can see a wave of Mexican men who left their families to work abroad, to send money back home (remittances) to support the small plots of lands that families owned, lands that were distributed during the Mexican revolution, but which were being bought up by large corporations. In the US literary sense, you can imagine this is a kind of Grapes of Wrath situation, but with corn, and Mexicanos. Pilcher points out, however, that this movement of Mexicanos to places in the US also meant more “family restaurants” from folks migrating from different parts of Mexico and opening up restaurants. Think of Beatriz’s family restaurant as an example.

(One thing I will quickly say is that the last two classes we’ve practiced close readings of passages in the book, teasing out meaning, and reading deeper into the significance of what Pilcher was hinting at. The spots are where we practice the first step in composing PIE paragraphs [which for this class we call “Quote Tamales”]. The paragraph above is good example of such a paragraph, that has a key quote in the center surrounded by a masa of my words that first introduce the cited quote, followed by my words that examine the passage in question under a microscope and give further interpretation. This is something we’ve been practicing all semester.)

In the conclusion chapter of the libro, Pilcher returns to a discussion of the Midwest and NAFTA with some further illumination that got us thinking in class. The structural inequalities between the US and Mexico NAFTA exacerbate power differences between the two. A question raised by Richey was why Mexico even signed on to this agreement knowing they wouldn’t get ahead. That’s a great question. What would have compelled Mexico to engage in an agreement that didn’t serve their best interests? Catherine suggested that perhaps this was to solidify trade exchanges between nations, maybe even to eventually lift the economy of the Mexico to that of the US. Certainly, that’s how it was sold to the US and Mexican public, but it was actually much more complicated than that, and, as Pilcher noted, it has unforeseen consequences. Rather than equalize inequalities, NAFTA actually did the reverse. Pilcher writes:

This [NAFTA] has not been a marriage of equals; the US government has dominated the relationship politically, while Mexican family farmers have struggled to survive through the collective labor both of migrants and of those who stayed behind on the land. Moreover, the inequalities arising from this convergence have resulted as much from urban disdain for rural dwellers both in Mexico and in the United States as from conflicts between the two countries. When negotiating the agricultural provisions of NAFTA, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari gave away the farm. Unable to compete with subsidized commodity maize from Iowa, some Mexican farmers have tried to grow higher-value crops, either through off-season fruits and vegetables or by following the European terroir model, which cultivates a “taste of place” in the hopes that knowledgeable consumers will pay for more distinctive goods. Other campesinos (rural workers) have migrated to Iowa to labor on the commercial farms that undercut their livelihoods at home. Because NAFTA lowered barriers to the trade in goods, but not the migration of people, these two forms of movement–one deemed legal, the other illegal–have been inextricably connected. (211)

As we read this passage over in class, we focused on the aspect of movement, of goods and people, but the policing of people specifically. The dichotomy between “legal goods” and “illegal people” is the most troubling, but as Pilcher notes, the corn from Iowa that flooded Mexico also pulled Mexicans to Iowa to harvest this corn. Pulled undocumented labor, that is, as a way to further exploit the labor of agricultural work under the guise of “flexibility”. We can see how this movement has had ripple affects, from small farmers attempting to grow “fair trade” crops, or “organic” crops that are unique to the regions grown, but for an upscale consumer base, or those folks who “buy ethically” and who have enough income to do so. But with this, we also see how Mexican folks arrived in places like Iowa, following the work after their local economies were destabilized as they were then competing beyond a local economy to a global one. The true competitors in global markets are the large corporations, and small farmers are structured, therefore, to lose. Or, rather, to at least send one family member abroad in order to send money back to support the local farm. This gets further complicated as folks living abroad begin to develop roots abroad, and perhaps even give up hopes of ever returning.

Back to Richey’s question: why would the Mexican people willingly decide to take part in an agreement that didn’t serve them well? The answer comes in the quote referring to former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. This corrupt president, a businessman, literally threw his nation under the bus, but in the end, he was able to personally capitalize.

I will end with that. The danger is that the people of the nation didn’t necessarily agree to this, but the leaders of the nation who saw themselves get richer through the agreement, did. That is, it could be considered treasonous in one sense, to literally sell one’s nation to a foreign government and foreign corporations, but in another sense, this is business.

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