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Globalizing Tequila: Mexican Television's Representations of the Neoliberal Reconversion of Land and Labor

Globalizing Tequila: Mexican Television's Representations of the Neoliberal Reconversion of Land and Labor
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  D uring the twentieth century, Mexican identities wereshaped in great part by the ebbs and flows of mass cul-ture. e specificity of gestures, the discourses aboutmasculinity and femininity, the language and ideas proper tosocial interaction are generally traced back to the films of theGolden Age (1935-1955), the broadcasting of mariachi music,boleros, and other musical productions as well as to televisedspectacles (Martín Barbero 166; Monsiváis,  Aires  58-59 and  Amor perdido 76-82; Murphy 251; Ramírez Berg 20-28). Butthe depiction of glamorous faces of film divas like María Félixand Dolores del Río, or the bravado of masculinity derivedfrom the acting of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete would havebeen less effective if a consumer culture did not accompany these visual discourses (Joseph et al. 10). Once Mexico enteredin the fifties to the category of what Debord calls the societiesof spectacle, consuming clothes, soaps, drinks, and food wereakin to consume music and images.One of the most salient products from the time of theconstruction of this modern national identity is tequila. Evenif many of the values and nationalist symbols of Mexico’sGolden Age of cinema were abandoned or displaced by othersat the end of the century, media portrayal of tequila as theMexican drink   par excellence  is still a current practice. How-ever, what the stereotypical and modern marketing of tequila as a fashionable drink almost always fails to communicate isthat this beverage is the product of a long colonial history.On one hand, tequila emerges from the local knowledgeand agricultural practices of pre-Columbian times, directly related to the production of   pulque  “nectar of the gods,” Daniel Chávez received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has taught at Vassar and Middlebury Collges. He was director of  Latin American Studies at Washington University inSaint Louis and is currently  Assistant Professor of Filmand Visual Culture in the Dept. of Hispanic Studies at Te University of Kentucky.His areas of research include Latina/o and Latin Ameri-can film and visual culture,new media and Mexicanand Latin American cultural studies. His articles on co-mics, photography, telenove-las  , and film have appeared in journals in the U.S., Spainand England.  Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies  Volume 10, 2006 Globalizing Tequila: MexicanTelevision’s Representations of theNeoliberal Reconversion ofLand and Labor  2  Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies  and with the production of textile fibers widely used in ancient Mexico (Nabhanand Valenzuela 6, 15; Wisnieski 11). 1 Onthe other hand, tequila production was only made possible by the imposition of Euro-pean distillation technology on indigenouspractices (Sánchez and Fentanes 27; Nabhanand Valenzuela 9). In this sense, the hardliquor embodies the “purification” processrelated to the racial and economic practicesof stratification associated with Europeancolonialism. 2 Later on, during postcolonialtimes, tequila came to symbolize the tri-umph of  mestizaje  with all the implicationsfor modernization and internal colonialismthat this ideological concept brought aboutin Mexican history (Nabhan and Valenzuela 14). As a result of this long association withMexican identity, tequila has been hailed asthe drink of the nation since the nineteenthcentury (Muriá 48). With historical roots emerging frommillennia of indigenous history, and thenflourishing as a specific practice of colonialproduction, tequila is now, in this new era of globalization (which began in 1492) be-coming one of the most prominent productsof Mexican transnational trade. 3 In a way,tequila corporations are leading the processof “globalization from within.” is is to say,a process in which a local industry reachesthe “free markets” of the world in similar orbetter conditions to comparable industriesstemming from developed countries. 4 In thefollowing pages I consider the implicationsof this process of globalization from within,at two different levels. First, I discuss itsimpact on labor and the cultural practicesof the rural population of Southern Jalisco,Mexico. Second, I will analyze the visualculture attached to the mythology of tequila as the “national” drink and its symbolicreconversion by the television industry. 5    Agave Cultivation: Salvation orReproletarization of Mexican campesinos  ? e images of fields covered with agave   plants cannot be more dramatic. A plant witha phylogenetic history of millions of years withsome rather harsh and primitive characteris-tics, the agave  is identified by its numerous,elongated and thorned leaves (Garrido andRodríguez 5). e high production of sug-ars—mostly in the form of fructose—in thecore of this porcupine of a plant, is the mostimportant element for the preparation of alco-holic beverages. Its prolonged life cycle, lasting from seven to nine years, is the best indicatorof its rugged and strong condition (Sánchezand Fentanes 14). In terms of labor, the mostintensive phases of its cultivation are the trans-planting of the buds or hijuelos  and the cutting of its leaves, a process called  jima  that leads tothe final crop of the agave  “heads”(Figs. 1 and2). In between, there are field chores involved,mostly related to the cleaning of other compet-ing species, which can be done through manuallabor or by using chemical herbicides. Anotherimportant but optional activity is the annualfertilization (Nabhan and Valenzuela 33-44).Symbolically, in the cultivation of  agave  andin the production of tequila there is a mixtureof traditional, non-mechanic labor (cultivationand  jima  ); tasks related to the most advancedagro-technology (usage of tractors, fertilizersand GPS mapping), and chemical processing (the production and distillation of alcohols). While many other beverages and food prod-ucts share some of these characteristics, it isonly the marketers of tequila who insist upondisplaying this multiple temporality as a way of emphasizing the recently-acquired globalstatus of their product without losing its ap-peal to tradition. 6    Daniel Chávez3 Despite the fact that agave  lookslike a plant related to cacti, the former isgenetically very different from the sahuaros   of the Sonora desert. Nonetheless, it doesshare some of the low requirements for an-nual precipitation of the desert species. isquality makes it suitable for lands withoutirrigation or for those with low levels of precipitation. e relatively few conditionsrequired for the production of  agave  makesthe cultivation of this crop an alternativeto the seasonal planting of corn, the mostimportant activity in many rural areas of Southern Jalisco and the rest of Mexico. Of course, where the soil is better and richer, agaves  thrive.More than other species, agaves  cangrow on land with significant inclines; theonly limitation is the circulation of the trac-tors and trucks needed for the mechanizedmethods of corporate agriculture. However,all these favorable conditions would not beas important for the rapid multiplicationof land devoted to agaves  if it were not forthe dramatic changes the Mexican economy and the tequila industry faced during thelate 1980s and early ’90s. With the Agrarian Law of 1992the ejidatarios  —communal land hold-ers—could acquire the property rights totheir plots and associate with private capitalfor the exploitation of land (Kurtz 176-78;Klooster 111-12). is defacto “privatiza-tion” of the agricultural system was the lasteffective political strike against the legacy of the revolutionary era (1910-1940) (Krauze422; Soederberg 176). 7 e neoliberal poli-cies of the eighties and nineties gave legal ex-pression to the end of the “Mexican dream”of the previous era of modernization: tenacres and a tractor with free education in a  welfare state that never had the economicFig. 1Fig. 2  4  Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies  means to be one. In the late ’90s, after thedoors opened for privatization, journalistsand economists feared the return of  latifun-dia  with its quasi-monopolistic accumula-tion of land in the hands of a few and thedispossession of thousands of  campesinos  .ese conditions were not unlike those thattriggered the uprising of Zapata and Villa inthe Mexico of the early twentieth century.But those fears proved to be unfounded.More than ten years after the formal endof  ejido , things did not turn out that way.e privatization of communal lands havebeen very slow but the consequences for thepeasants were quite the same: rampant pov-erty (Kurtz 182). Due to the loss of incomeand lack of employment 400,000 Mexicansmigrated each year between 2000 and 2004(SAGARPA 67). e majority of these mi-grants came from rural communities.e long-lasting crisis faced by 25%of the Mexican population who make a living from agricultural activities can besynthesized as follows:1. In the last twenty years, neoliberalrestructuring programs have acceleratedthe historical transference of capital to thefinancial institutions and to transnationalcorporations that control the productionof seeds, fertilizers, and chemicals.2. As a consequence of the 1995 crashof the Mexican economy and of the gener-alized default on private loans caused by the re-privatization of the banks, financialinstitutions are deliberately slow—if notoutright refusing—to extend credit to smalland medium agricultural entrepreneurs.3. e terms negotiated for the ag-ricultural chapter of NAFTA allowed forextraordinary advantages for powerful cor-porations like ADM, Cargill, and others. Inthat, they indirectly receive the benefits of large subsidies given by the U.S. government.is process allows for American companiesto introduce grains and basic foodstuffs atdumping prices without comparable com-pensations for Mexican producers.4. Mexican governments, including that of Vicente Fox, failed to promote theappropriate policies for the reconversion of agricultural production and were not ableto create new employment opportunitiesrequired for the absorption of the surplus inmanual labor that resulted from the radicalchanges introduced by the North AmericanFree Trade Agreement. is situation furtherfueled the need to emigrate for large sectorsof the rural and urban poor.5. e economies of scale necessary for the survival of the modern agribusinessrequire cultural and economic conditionsinaccessible to the vast majority of peasantsand small producers (Chávez 87-92; Kurtz162-203; Rozo 115-124).Given these conditions, for many  campesinos    with small plots and no chances of obtaining credit from the newly privatized banking system, the option of planting corn whilethe transnational giants systematically sur-passed the market quotas with highly subsi-dized transgenic grains was a choice betweenlosing money while working for themselves,or leasing their land and selling their laborto others in order to earn a bare subsistence.Faced with this choice, the chance to rentthe land to the highest bidder became a mat-ter of survival. us, conditions were ripefor the reconversion of peasant land from anagriculture of subsistence to the productionof more marketable products.e Mexican countryside has a com-plex structure. Along with the ejidos  mostof the agricultural production was tradi-tionally in the hands of small and middleagro-entrepreneurs. e latter groups werethe first to invest in the production of aga-  Daniel Chávez5 ves in the early 1980s. Due to the soaring prices of tequila, numerous independentproducers jumped at the opportunity tomake a “sure” profit on the production of  agave  heads. Unfortunately, by 1995 rising financial costs compounded with falling prices due to overproduction resulted inthe bankruptcy of many small and largeindependent farmers. Open conflict arosebetween the associations of rural producersand the tequila manufacturers (Rivera;Nabhan and Valenzuela 60). e days foradventurous farmers investing in “greengold” were numbered. With the structural weaknesses inboth the private and communal agriculturalsectors setting in by the mid ’90s, and asa result of the fluctuations in productionand pricing, the big tequila houses startedto look seriously at the possibility of taking over the agricultural side of the business,an idea they had thus far avoided. TheSauza, Cuervo and Herradura corporatio-ns—major players in the production of tequila—started to offer an annual rent of $60 US dollars—and in exceptional cases$120—per acre to ejidatarios  and smallfarmers. Aside from this, some campesinos  qualified for a yearly supplemental govern-ment subsidy called “Procampo” of $32 peracre. Altogether these monies translated intoa steady flow of $92 per acre annually, for a period of seven to eight years, which was thestandard for an agave  production contract.In this way, numerous campesinos  becamerenters or even absentee owners of a smallplot of land. Meanwhile, they were also freeto sell their labor force as seasonal workersfor the same tequila corporations, or for thehigh-tech fruit and vegetable companies, or,as many chose, to emigrate to the U.S. 8 Since many  ejidatarios  in the regionhad a plot of ten acres, their annual inco-me reached $920. In theory, this money could bring a small family out of extremepoverty without compromising the laborof the campesino . At first sight, the rural worker appears to have the opportunity to receive a small amount of rent while working for others, and also the freedomto join the ranks of the under-employed by going into the informal sector in the citiesunder a system that was liquidating his way of life, and thus barely contributing to his own survival. In contrast, for the big tequila houses, the newly gained hegemony of the cultivation of  agave  translated intoan uncontested ability to control pricesand levels of production while becoming a steering force in the determination of landrenting prices. e globalizing ambitionsof the tequila corporations were closer tocrystallization than ever. Unfortunately fortheir poorer counterparts, these measuresalso resulted in the re-proletarization of therural worker.is volatility in the economy of agavecultivation, however, presented another dra-matic turn of events by the mid 1990s. Dueto the rising demand for the product andthe introduction of international regulatory measures in 1994 which effectively repo-sitioned the Mexican industry as the soleauthentic producer of the liquor, the sector was seeing an unusual period of prosperity (Sánchez and Fentanes 24). Levels of tequila production rose rapidly and the need for raw matter to feed the agave furnaces grew fasterthan anticipated. is time, it was the smalltequila producers’ turn for trouble. By theend of the millennium a reduction in thesupply of raw materials forced the closing of the small tequila factories that were notable to invest in acquiring or renting large
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