Friday, September 11, 2015

Food and the Politics of Identity in Mexico: The Paradox of Turtle Eggs from El Istmo

The Mexican government has launched a campaign to protect several species of threatened and endangered sea turtles that reproduce on the country’s beaches, enacting measures to prevent poaching of eggs in Oaxaca and other areas. The government’s primary effort involves a scheme to increase monitoring beaches where turtles make their nesting grounds, particularly the olive ridley turtle. The Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) recently acquired two drones from the Secretaría de Marina (SEMAR) to monitor the Escobilla and Morro Ayutla beaches in Oaxaca during the summer months. The two beaches account for 90% of the olive ridley turtle’s nestings in Mexico. SourceMex, Sep 2, 2015
 By Jake Sandler
“Hrutuaa’ dxitabigu’, dxitabigu’ guero!” shouted an older indigenous Zapotec vendor outside of the central marketplace in Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca, Mexico. ‘I’m selling turtle eggs, I’ve got turtle eggs white boy!’

She knew just by looking at me that I was not from around there, not so much because of my physical appearance but because of the clothes I wore, or even more so the way I wore them, the way I walked through the market, looking excitedly around at everything. I had been living in Juchitán for over a year, and I had bought turtle eggs from that same woman several times before. But they never stopped being a very special treat. And I never stopped being a güero.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Turtle eggs are not to be eaten all the time; they are precious, relatively expensive, and, after all, should not be over hunted. This is known locally and is a part of the cultural knowledge that surrounds them in the Isthmus region of Oaxaca. For instance, it is known that these eggs are incredibly high in cholesterol, fats and other things to be eaten in moderation. This helps keep consumption down to a level that ultimately would not seriously harm the local population of turtles and the surrounding ecosystem. Furthermore, they are regarded locally as an aphrodisiac, a sort of Viagra for the pre-pharmaceutical age. Therefore, unlike iguana meat or other local specialties, the consumption of turtle eggs is linked to gender and sexuality; men typically eat them, but they may also be considered a special and spiritual stimulant for woman. In any case, they are to be eaten with care and treated with reverence (at the end of the article, look to see the typical way to eat a turtle egg). However, despite this local reverence and moderation, the recent growth of interest and demand in the turtle eggs from outside has caused an economy of export in which the turtle eggs are being over hunted.

This is part of a much larger pattern in which objects imbued with cultural meaning find demand in cosmopolitan centers where a high price is placed on their exoticness and cultural value, while from the very same cosmopolitan centers emanates the environmental reform movement and the discourse against poaching and over-fishing. However, there is a distinction between, on one hand, black market trade in exotic foods and animals and, on the other hand, foodies who simply enjoy consuming pre-Hispanic or otherwise culturally loaded gastronomical products.

In other parts of Oaxaca, platos típicos (“typical dishes”) include pollo con mole coloradito (chicken smothered in a dark sauce made from dozens of local ingredients that include chocolate, chiles, bananas and peanuts), chapulines (grasshoppers, toasted and seasoned), nopales (pads of the Opuntia “prickly pear” cactus, sautéed and served with an egg omelet), huitlacoche (corn smut, a naturally occurring black corn fungus, served as a filling in quesadillas) and perhaps the most internationally recognized mezcal (a liquor distilled from an agave mash, using multiple species of the plant).

Photo: Jake Sandler
Unique offerings at the market in Juchitán
In turn, none of these dishes are considered iconic of the the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region, or simply el Istmo en local parlance. Rather, at the marketplace in the center of Juchitán de Zaragoza, the cultural epicenter of El Istmo, los platos típicos include huachinango al horno (red snapper fried in a light batter) and camarón fresco (fresh shrimp from the lagoon, sometimes served in a tomato cocktail), or you can have a stew with your choice of meat: ngupi, leshu, or guchachi’ (armadillo, rabbit or iguana, respectively).

One of the most prized of all Isthmus gastronomical specialties is turtle eggs. Turtle eggs are called dxitabigu’ (pronounced jee-tah-bee-goo) in diidxazá, the Isthmus Zapotec language, and they are consumed as much, if not more, for their medicinal or spiritual value as they are for nutrition. Oaxaca is Mexico’s fifth largest state, and it is the largest state south of Durango. It is also one of the three poorest states in the nation, along with its neighbors Chiapas and Guerrero. Aside from long stretches of Pacific coast, all three of these southern states are mostly mountainous, relatively difficult to traverse and contain rural populations and communities that are spread out over great distances. Lacking the wide scale industrial development of northern and central Mexico, these southern states rely heavily on tourism for economic revenue.

But no other state has conquered the tourism market of southern Mexico like Oaxaca. Oaxaca’s cultural bureaucracy has worked within a national project of indigenismo, a particular ideological interpretation of indigenous culture that has been central to national politics and tourism marketing since the Revolution in the early 20th century. Arts and crafts took center stage in this nationalized exhibition of culture – the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, the woven wool textiles of Teotitlán del Valle and the flower embroidered huipiles (traditional women’s blouses) of the Isthmus. In time, a number of important artists emerged from this climate of cultural production and promotion, including perhaps the most famous, Francisco Toledo, an Isthmus Zapotec, or binnizá, born and raised in Juchitán de Zaragoza.

Graphic arts, poetry musicians and journalism united the cultural commodities that the national government had promoted and funded since the post-Revolutionary era with their own desires for local autonomy and the political power to fend off the increasing presence of multinational interests. Through the work of artists like Toledo, an entire visual lexicon was created, a sort of catalogue of symbolically, and therefore politically, important objects. Toledo often drew the figures of the iguana and the turtle. Poets, too, used those animals as metaphors, and even musicians used the bichuga bigu, a turtle shell used as a musical instrument.

The turtle, the iguana and other small game and fish popular in the cuisine of Juchitán took center stage in the cultural symbolism deployed throughout the grassroots resistance movement that was taking place. By 1980, Juchitán became the first municipality where the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was defeated in municipal elections since the revolution. The PRI lost to  COCEI Coalición Obrera, Campesina y Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI), a leftist party that used the diidxazá language as their principal mode of communication and the central marketplace in Juchitán as its soapbox, staging grounds and performance center.

Photo: Jake Sandler
Environmental hypocrisy?
Not coincidentally, the late 1970s and early 1980s was the time that a movement for environmental awareness and policy reform began to represent an important role in global economies and domestic political discourses. Therefore, the success of politically and culturally organized juchitecos to imbue their material world with real political significance was running head on with emerging discourses about resources and the environment.

While the juchitecos were using consumable objects such as turtle eggs as symbols of resistance against the salt mines and petroleum refineries in Salina Cruz, transgenic corn seeds from Monsanto, and Latin America’s largest wind park in La Ventosa, the national government was enacting policy reforms that favor capitalist interests in salt, oil, corn and wind energy as commodities while making the sale and consumption of turtle eggs illegal. An important question for Mexico’s national government arises: If you are going to actively police turtle egg poaching because of its environmental danger, why not do the same for transgenic corn?

However unfortunate or ironic, turtle eggs find their way to markets outside of Juchitán in a more environmentally detrimental way than, say, a painting, a book of Zapotec poems or a music album. No matter how politically important it is for juchitecos that elements of their local cuisine are being demanded and consumed in the cultural and fashionable hearts of the national capital, the Mexican government’s priority is stopping turtle egg poachers. Whether in terms of gastronomy, language, dress or artistic styles, el istmo is a region of its own within the state of Oaxaca, and although it is not significant part of the state’s tourism economy, certain elements of the iconic istmeña culture, such as turtle eggs, cannot help but find their way into the vogue of the nation’s capital from time to time. Turtle eggs are only the latest example.

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