Maybe the longest title for a post this semester. Today’s session we had a solid turnout, all on Zoom. This will be the way we run class, and it basically did the job. I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think it may be a better platform to try to do some discussions, and hopefully to have as many folks who can show up. I’m going to leave an open invitation to all the High School for Community Leadership students to join in anytime.
Here’s a YouTube record of today’s class.
This doesn’t show the students, but you can hear them.
As a way to get things started on our class Google doc, I wanted to quickly turn to the story of Evelia, the tamalera in Corona. (She’s still there!) This is the short documentary, “The $1 Tamale Queen of New York City.”
Note at 6:40, how Evelia describes her relationships with the women she works with. Toward the end of this short segment, she describes feeling “unidas” or “united.” What do you think she meant by this? United how?
I posed this question and received some interesting points, with a feminist approach, but also complicated just a bit when we considered different aspects of identity that “unites” the women in the story. Indeed, there is a strong feminist underlying narrative here (consider the short space her husband has in the film), but other layers about her identity as a Mexican immigrant, her social class, and her livelihood as a street vendor. That she describes being “united” means also not being alone, feeling stronger, valued, but also sharing that with those she values for sharing her struggles, but also success.
Today, we also had a smart discussion about assimilation, and how this connected to the experiences of Mexican Americans and their foodways. I was taking notes for the parts about assimilation, and the discussion there, that was useful. Got me thinking in all directions about assimilation. We’re thinking about assimilation less in one-way directions, but different kinds of positions, in different places, and across cultures, languages, histories. Think of it this way, assimilation is a model of thinking proposes walling people off from “us” and “them”: it tries to make one standard, to contain change, or to stabilize change. Walls don’t stop change though, and, in fact, walls crumble over time. So with that, assimilation to one standard has to lead to questions about who has to change for what standard, who established these standards, and what are the inequalities structured into the “game” of standardization?
With foodways, to go with such an analysis, we start to think of the “systems” of food, but, still, grounded in the experiences of people. This moves us to think about some important ideas about economics and politics, how they are linked, and how this gets complicated with transnational markets.
I pulled out these quotes from Chapter 7 of Planet Taco, “Blue Corn Bonanza.” The parts about NAFTA are important to focus on, and they will lead into our next book by Galvez, starting next week. Look at page 190 and also page 210. On page 190, this way of thinking of “free trade” masks inequalities structured into the institutions that reinforce asymmetric relations of power. Pilcher writes,
The struggle between Mexico and the United States for the international market in Mexican food took place on three distinct levels: trend-setting haute cuisine, mass-market restaurants and prepared foods, and basic agricultural exports. At each level, the US producers held significant political and economic advantages. 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 non-tariff barriers to restrict Mexican 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)**Notice in bold: that was, liberal trade policies for goods to cross borders, but restrictions for people: opening borders for capital, militarizing them to restrict movement of people; more bluntly still, more rights for corporate markets in the United States to expand into foreign lands to open up markets, but restricting the migration of people looking to work, who come from local economies that have been destabilized because they have been force to compete with multinational corporations.**
And on 210:
The blue corn bonanza, the international competition between alternate visions of Mexican food, has occurred within a context of social and economic convergence between the United States and Mexico. This has not been a marriage of equals; the US government has dominated the relationship politically, while Mexican family farms 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.**More key points here, the asymmetric relations of power are structured into the trade relationship, and for both, at the expense of those at the “bottom” of the wage labor ladder, rural farmers. In both the United States and Mexico, these workers are migrant laborers, following the labor required for agricultural industries that are transnational**
For these same rural workers in Mexico he writes, they
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 to the migration of people, these two forms of movement–one deemed legal, the other illegal–have been inextricably connected. Many observers, fearing the onslaught of migrants, trade goods, or both, have seen this as a battle between the Americanization of Mexico and the Mexicanization of the United States. Both trends are evident, and their outcome promises to shape the future of Mexican food. (211)**Movement of capital across borders: legal; Movement of people, labor: illegal. Also note “migrated to Iowa”: also New York City, the Carolinas, the Dakotas, and places in the USA that were traditionally less common for Mexican immigrants. Ironic to work on the same corn farms up north that destabilized their economics back home in Mexico, where corn was born and worshipped.**
As usual, we covered a lot of ground. I left the stuff about NAFTA up in the air, as that will be the subject for class when we meet again, Thursday morning at 10:40am. Tune in! Also, in case you can’t wait, check out this podcast featuring Profe Galvez, whose book will break down trade even further. Here’s the interview from Latino USA I mentioned, it’s a good start to learning about her work. It’s part of homework for next wee.