Coca-Colonization and Christmas Cheer in Mexico

December 21, 2015

Editor’s Note: This guest post is a strong reminder of the economic, social, cultural, and even ontological complexity of cross-cultural cooperation, whether in the context of development, international volunteering, or global service-learning. The post was sparked by a Coca Cola advertisement in Mexico. The company has pulled the ad following considerable critique in Mexico and around the world. In addition to surfacing the complex questions at the heart of idealized cross-cultural cooperation, the ad also serves as a reminder that within-country, domestic cross-cultural efforts often have all of the features of international development or international service-learning partnerships.


 

Jordan Thomas, Kansas State University 

Coca-Cola recently wished the Mixe indigenous community in Oaxaca, Mexico a Merry Christmas in what may be the most problematic holiday greeting of the year.

On the surface, the advertisement glows with positivity. The video states that many Mexican indigenous groups are ashamed to speak their native languages, and it shows beautiful white youth going to a Mixe village to wish them a Feliz Navidad. The young beauties guzzle Coca-Cola as they bring light to the indigenous village, and the ad ends with a final plea: “open your hearts”.

The manipulative genius of the ad very smoothly creates an association between accepting indigenous cultures and drawing them into the consumer economy.

Coca-Cola is not selling a product, but an idea: opening hearts equals drinking Coca-Cola. Drinking Coca-Cola equals opening economies.

The white youth are bringing acceptance and love to the indigenous by bringing them commodities. Beneath the bubbly surface, connections are created between acceptance and love, commodities and consumerism.

This association can spell the death and degradation of indigenous cultures.

Many indigenous cultures in the world retain lifestyles that pivot upon local economies, local food cultivation, and trade within the community. The values, beliefs, and languages of these groups tend to be intrinsically intertwined with this lifestyle. The cash economy is often supplemental, rather than entirely necessary. This grants indigenous groups a level of choice and autonomy.

Spending nearly a year travelling throughout Latin America, I observed this first-hand. I planted beans, carried water, and salsa danced with people who, by modernist economic development standards, could be classified as the “dire poor.” They had minimal incomes and were largely self-sufficient. As I accompanied a shepherd through a grove of eucalyptus trees in the northern Colombian Andes to trade wool for milk, however, I realized that many of these “dire poor” actually live well in their village environments. Kinship, trade, and social ties, often revolving around food systems, maintain living standards and enhance the survival of the culture by providing a network of social support that can be relied upon during economic failure or misfortune.

The autonomy enjoyed by communities somewhat independent from the consumer economy is being lost as corporations like Coca-Cola work to expand their consumer base.

Coca-Cola and other corporations are harnessing the noble public urge to aid the “poor”, and are using this urge to move into new markets. Coca-Cola is not interested in helping the poor, but in increasing profit margins. Indigenous populations who can supply themselves with adequate food are potential consumers, and need to be manipulated into abandoning traditional livelihoods so that they can transition into the wage economy and buy Coca-Cola.

In southern Mexico, a little Mayan boy tugged on my shirt and described this new wage economy with five pleading words: “Un peso por una tortilla?”  Nearby, I watched an old woman who could have been this boy’s grandmother standing in a light drizzle, proudly adorned in a vibrant blue floral gown. Moving closer, she smelled richly of wood-smoke, sweat, and rain, but her wrinkled brown face was drawn under the weight of the cheap hoodies piled in her arms. Passerbys disregarded her with an inhuman disconnect. Those who stopped haggled with her over pennies. As I watched her sink under the weight of the hoodies and the weight of her degraded position in the now-global economy, I couldn’t help but hope that she was one of the thousands of masked Mayans who led the indigenous-based Zapatista insurgency to seize the state of Chiapas in 1994.

The insurgency was launched on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. Paraded as a means of raising incomes across the board, NAFTA was viewed suspiciously by some indigenous community members who were outraged by the potential of the agreement to undercut their local economies, imposing a capitalist lifestyle at odds with their values and cultures.

Standing in the drizzle with the hungry child and the old Mayan woman, I was struck with irony. NAFTA had surely succeeded in a sense. The few pesos rattling in her gown may not have existed prior. But if it were not for the imposition of the pesos, she might be in her village with loved ones, and the little boy might have a full tummy.  But at least they had Coca-Cola.

Now, watching Coca-Cola advertisements targeting indigenous communities, it is clear that the tactics have shifted.

The recent Mixe advertisement is not an isolated incident. Coca-Cola representatives are also sent out into Papua New Guinea to put on performances in indigenous self-sufficient villages to show the locals that eating yams and other staple foods are backwards, demonstrating that the locals should be growing rice to make money so that they can purchase Coca-Cola. Coke has also been heavily criticized for buying water sources and wells in Indian villages and charging for use so that the populace needs to join the wage economy.

To Coca-Cola, it seems, opening your hearts means opening your wallets.

The Mixe Christmas commercial raises a good critique of one of the gauges sometimes used to measure the success of development, which is income. According to this gauge, all of the coca-colonized populations would be under improvement because they abandoned their traditional lifestyles for wage labor, thus raising their incomes. Many times, however, income is raised, but living standards decrease. When individuals are forced to rely on an income for food, the quality of the food can decrease drastically from when it was grown in the community, and the hours worked for sufficient money to buy food often borders on slavery. Languages and cultures adapt to this wage-labor lifestyle, and all of the ecological, historical, and ontological knowledge encoded within the traditional languages and cultures is lost (See Wade Davis’ Ted Talk, Dreams from Endangered Cultures).

This advertisement can help us understand why 90% of the world’s languages and cultures are expected to be extinct by the end of the century. I am inclined to be as extreme as saying that much of the contemporary corporate advertising targeting the developing world borders on ethnocide.

This advertisement may also be disturbingly analogous to many modern development efforts, especially those which are faith-based, in which the beautiful white youth enter native communities believing that they are offering the indigenous the light of the world, while in fact they may be unraveling important lifestyles by expanding the consumer base of the larger capitalist society (A critique in the tradition of Ivan Illich’s To Hell with Good Intentions).

Perhaps we should ask ourselves what the developing world is developing into.

Us?

Perhaps we need to consider who stands to gain from having the world “develop” into us. Perhaps we need to consider Coca-Cola.

Perhaps we need to consider who stands to lose from this.

Perhaps we need to consider those in the process of being “developed.”

Adoption of capitalism, and even development efforts that facilitate this, is not intrinsically bad, but must be carried out on a community’s own terms, with an awareness of the possible effects. In this process, critical eyes are important to ensure that we ourselves, in our efforts to aid the poor, are not unwittingly manipulated into becoming corporate tools, doing nothing in the end but eradicating cultures, padding elite pockets, and furthering the exploitation of the powerless.


 

Jordan Thomas is a senior in anthropology and political science at Kansas State University. In 2014 Jordan bicycled from Kansas most of the way to Colombia. He was recently awarded a Marshall Scholarship to study anthropology and international development at Durham University and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

 

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