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Tortillas and the U.S./Mexico Border (Sunbelt #5)
August 1, 2023
The discussion of the U.S./Mexico border is often perverse and strategic. This conversation is framed in a way that seeks to further political agendas rather than explain an economic and social reality. The NAFTA-generated deregulation of the U.S./Mexico border has become an incubator for the movement of people, goods, and products, which are major drivers for expanding economies of scale and increased cultural homogenization.
Laresh Jayasanker writes about this through the lens of tortillas in Tortilla Politics: Mexican Food, Globalization, and the Sunbelt:
There is more to the tortilla story than Americans’ growing love of tacos and wraps. Changing eating habits accompanied the changing political economy of the Southwest, linking Sunbelt and Mexican patterns of consumption, labor relations, and retail to each other. Corn and wheat cultivated on massive corporate farms in both the U.S. and Mexico and pressed into tortillas in technologically advanced plants found their way to American tables with the help of distribution and retail innovation developed and sold by businesses on both sides of the border. The mass-produced tortilla proliferated in late twentieth-century United States and Mexico on the infrastructure of low taxes, right to work laws, low tariffs, and incentives to attract business.
Jayasanker’s study focuses on the rise of GRUMA as a vertically and horizontally integrated tortilla manufacturer that successfully sets up manufacturing bases in budding Sunbelt states while also utilizing neoliberal policies in its home nation, Mexico, as well as in the U.S., to grow its cross-border distribution and global market domination. GRUMA is a company that was founded in 1949 but experienced a technological boom in the ensuing decades in regard to forming and pressing tortillas in a mass-produced manner. Aiding this growth is the company’s use of a more generic corn meal recipe that was less labor-intensive to create. However, the price of this growth was a vast departure from the authenticity of the corn masa technique that was utilized by Mexican tortillerias, individuals, and small producers for centuries before the global tortilla boom:
GRUMA’s tortilla technology sought to improve on a centuries-old process whereby millions of Mexican women had boiled and ground corn, which they then rolled into tortillas by hand. Millions still do. In this process, women simmer corn in mineral lime overnight to make nixtamal. The next morning they grind the corn on a stone to make a dough, or masa, which they press flat and then cook over stone griddles at mealtime for fresh tortillas. The process takes hours.
As GRUMA grew to control the global tortilla market, it also aided in the creation of a distorted economy in which the very same people who were forced to migrate northward (due to the pro-GRUMA-growth disruption in local corn and wheat farmers) now ate a blander tortilla that was made in bulk and sold on the cheap. The distributors that utilized this historic, time-consuming method either found niche markets that actually served more non-Mexican-Americans than Mexican-Americans, or families and their businesses were pushed out of production altogether.
This ironic inverse is a paradox created by the neoliberal policies within Mexico and within American Sunbelt states which fostered launching pads for a global food craze around the tortilla wrap. The collateral damage was a loss of sustenance and local economic cohesion for a population of people who had been using tortillas as a major food staple for centuries.
As the tortilla market boomed in the United States, many small tortilla manufacturers found themselves in dire straits at the precise moment that they should have been profiting. Many blamed GRUMA and other large corporations for their demise.
GRUMA grew with the help of other giants.
The company supplied tortillas to Taco Bell and Mcdonald’s (as the Golden Arches ventured into Breakfast Burritos). GRUMA also allowed ADM (The Archer-Daniels-Midland Company) to buy a large share of their stock in order to give GRUMA access to more factories within the states while giving ADM access to corn and wheat production in Mexico for food processing. The result is a massive movement of people from Mexican farms to Mexican cities or across the border and into all parts of the United States. Both scenarios create a consumer base for GRUMA to sell cheap tortillas through a “Big Box” regime streamlined through Walmart’s distribution power. Of course, Walmart was a major supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which helped economically liberalize the U.S./Mexico border, as well as create a major market for stores and cross-border trade. Texas still has the most Walmarts.
As fast food (and other food industries) profited off of a growing, globalized craze for Mexican-style food, a windfall of migration is created due to disrupted small economies. The purveyors of cheap-tortillas-for-everyone (even at the cost of traditional processes and self-sustaining local economies) benefit from a pro-growth chamber of commerce politics that characterize the rise of the Sunbelt in contemporary America as well as the nation’s growingly unpopular marriage to a center-right political agenda (and culture) that only benefits a small number of people. It involves members of different political parties and, in my opinion, its ongoing success should be humbled with consideration of whether neoliberalism’s paradoxes are sustainable or just. In order for GRUMA to rise, it also had to manipulate national politicians in Mexico to get rid of food subsidies which led to further impoverishing and displacing disadvantaged Mexicans (many of who became Mexican-Americans). Jaysanker touches on this in his conclusion:
To reign over worldwide tortilla consumption, GRUMA capitalized on the Sunbelt political and economic order of free trade, low taxes, business incentives, and anti-unionism. Working from its headquarters in Mexico to its most lucrative market in the United States, GRUMA also pushed, and benefited, from the changes in the Mexican political order. Mexico’s neoliberal leaders - many of whom were educated in the U.S. and in constant dialogue with American policy-makers - opened Mexico’s banking, agriculture, and manufacturing industries to private investment and supported NAFTA’s passage alongside their Sunbelt compatriots. Concurrently, GRUMA supported the dismantling of CONASUPO, the previous system of subsidized tortilla distribution for Mexico. In concert with Walmart, ADM, and other companies that benefitted from the opening of trade with Mexico and other countries, GRUMA was able to increase economies of scale and market its products to a much larger base. It also built on great demographic and cultural changes in the U.S. since the 1960s, capitalizing on the mass migrations of Mexicans to the U.S. and the shift in eating habits toward more Latin American foods. Ironically it pushed out long-established family-run tortilla manufacturers in the Southwest, as it developed highly efficient growing, milling, and process technologies. As GRUMA, Walmart, Bimbo, and other food producers and retailers became bigger, American and Mexican consumers increasingly ate the same foods in Mexico City or Los Angeles - quite often a piece of fast-food meat wrapped in a GRUMA tortilla.
Much of the border discussion today is based in hysteria, fear, and xenophobia. This is popularized by Fox, of course. However, this superficial and base discussion regarding the lives of our southern neighbors is harmful to all of us. The perils of distorted local economies, unstable self-aggrandizing political regimes, and misplaced priorities that usually aid an insensitive deregulatory system are all factors that need to be considered when analyzing migration to the U.S., especially when it stems from our neighbors in the Global South.
This is what Vice President Kamala Harris means by accessing and addressing the root causes. Even if the process reveals something ugly about our own society’s exploitative policies in less-endowed nations, it must be done. Being honest about the U.S. relationship with Global South nations within our own hemisphere also enables us to paint a picture of how this Sunbelt economy exists within a relatively luxurious standardization that can enclose Americans in a bubble of inauthentic consumerism.
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