Lauren A. Wynne is an assistant professor of anthropology at Ursinus College. Her new book is in the At Table Series, which seeks to reflect on and explore not just what we eat, but the process of eating—from how and where we obtain food, to food preparation, to our dining companions.
In my book Predictable Pleasures: Food and the Pursuit of Balance in Rural Yucatán, I track the shifting relationships of residents of a rural indigenous community with food. I conducted ethnographic research in this community, which I call Juubche’, between 2005 and 2017. At this point many men were already second-generation circular migrants; in this community and many like it in this region, young and middle-aged men commute weekly to work on the Caribbean Coast, most in low-paying work in the construction or service industries.
Temporary migration is not new in this part of Mexico, but the extent to which it has supplanted, rather than supplemented, agriculture is unprecedented in the lifetimes of even my oldest informants. These labor patterns were the result of the convergence of two twentieth century phenomenon: a decline in small-scale agriculture, hastened by land reform failures, a growing population, and trade policies like NAFTA, and the development of regional tourism, which began in the 1970s in Cancun. Not surprisingly, Cancun and, subsequently, the rest of the Caribbean Coast has served as a release valve of sorts, providing wage labor opportunities for poor indigenous people, mostly men, who were no longer able to farm and, in some cases, no longer interested in farming. As a result, families increasingly relied on store-bought foodstuffs rather than items produced at home.
While I was interested in this convergence and the resulting decline in farming when I first visited Juubche’, I entered the community with an interest in health and healing: how, I wondered, did residents make decisions about seeking care from either biomedical practitioners or other healers, such as bonesetters or herbalists? After just a few weeks in Juubche’, however, it became clear to me that food was an issue that deeply concerned residents. By “food” I mean both access to food, particularly important in a place with a history of food scarcity, but also the qualities of foods: where they come from; how they taste, feel, look, and smell; and how they impact wellbeing. Many residents spent hours each day preparing food and yet more sharing it and talking about it.
My attention then turned to what people did and said in their cornfields, home gardens, local stores, and, above all, kitchens. I cooked and ate with hundreds of residents, I shopped with dozens, and I joined family and community celebrations in which the preparation of particular dishes was a central part of the event. I talked to people about negotiating shifts in their diets, many of which resulted from the political and economic changes I mentioned above, and the health effects of those changes. Related to this, residents shared their knowledge of medicinal herbs, showed me where toes had been amputated due to complications from diabetes, and reflected on the transformations in foodways they had observed during their lifetimes.
I end my book with reflections on the future of food in Juubche’. Will small-scale farming continue its decline? What about the vulnerability produced by household, community, and national reliance on tourism? Then came COVID-19. The tourist industry along the Caribbean Coast has come to a standstill, and rural indigenous workers are without work. Although I have not been in Juubche’ since January, I know that many migrants are back home in the community and families are struggling with food insecurity due to loss of wages. Some hotels along the coast are vowing to reopen on June 1, and major airlines will resume regular flights around that time as well. Without doubt though it will take much, much longer for the industry to rebound. What will people like those in Juubche’ do in the meantime? They are relying on government aid but perhaps also leaning more heavily on those in the community who still farm. I expect that some young women who have abandoned the practice of keeping kitchen gardens or raising chickens, turkeys, and pigs are taking on such work again. The expertise of older women, some of whom learned to cook during periods of food scarcity, will perhaps accrue more value as they teach others how to stretch food to feed families well during this time. I fear that many families will struggle and suffer, and I worry about people for whom I care deeply, people who have shown me much generosity during my time in Juubche’. But I also know that this is a place in which people can and will care for each other as much as they are able to, regardless of where their food comes from.