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Boy chewing gum

Tzictli – part 2

Mexico is the home of chewing gum - here are plenty more ‘Tzictli’ facts to get ‘stuck’ into... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

19. Mural at entrance to Caste War Museum at Tihosuco
19. Mural at entrance to Caste War Museum at Tihosuco (Click on image to enlarge)

In the same century, during Mexico’s ‘Caste War’, the poorest descendants of the Maya in the Yucatán peninsula rebelled strongly against their unjust treatment at the hands of first the Spanish and then the rich ‘creole’ Mexican ruling class, and sold first hardwoods and then (as the foreign market began to grow) chicle to the British (through Belize) in exchange for weapons.

20. The Monroe Doctrine - a US cartoon from 1912
20. The Monroe Doctrine - a US cartoon from 1912 (Click on image to enlarge)

Suddenly, however, they fell victim to world politics of the time and the British pulled the plug on them by accepting the US ‘Monroe Doctrine’ (basically ‘Don’t meddle in our backyard and we won’t meddle in yours’). As always the losers were those caught in the middle – the ordinary, poor chicleros struggling to earn a living in Yucatán. (Learn more by making a virtual visit to the Caste War Museum - see below)

21. Packing chewing gum near New York at the turn of the 20th. century
21. Packing chewing gum near New York at the turn of the 20th. century (Click on image to enlarge)

Still, the US demand for chicle grew at a phenomenal rate, until it peaked during the Second World War, when chewing gum was included in the military GI rations:

22. ‘Got Any Gum Chum?’ by Helen Millgate
22. ‘Got Any Gum Chum?’ by Helen Millgate (Click on image to enlarge)

150 billion sticks of gum were exported between 1941 and 1945! Worldwide, chewing gum sales grew to 5 times those in the pre-War US. But this sounded the death knell for the chicleros of the Yucatán:

23. Chiclero Juan Bautista May Tuyup truly ‘up a gum tree’
23. Chiclero Juan Bautista May Tuyup truly ‘up a gum tree’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Sapodilla trees need to ‘rest’ (after being tapped for chicle) for 3-8 years: though they may have a productive life of 40 years or so, each tree can only produce at most about 3 kg of chicle at 3-yearly intervals. Giant companies tend to grow impatient with nature, so a huge shift took place in the 1950s and ‘60s from using natural chicle gum to ‘synthetic’ alternatives.

24. A block of ‘the real thing’
24. A block of ‘the real thing’ (Click on image to enlarge)

So how is the real thing made? The Sapodilla (Manilkara Zapota) can only be tapped during the rainy season which nowadays – due to climate change – lasts only from late October to mid-January. Each tapper (chiclero) works independently, making his own path into the forest. His journey begins at dawn: he carries with him machete, sharpener and collecting bags, plus spurs and rope to help him climb the trees.

25. Zig-zag cuts made by the chiclero
25. Zig-zag cuts made by the chiclero (Click on image to enlarge)

Before climbing, the tapper makes the first cuts, carving a channel and twisting the piece of bark to form a tongue. The collecting bag is attached to this carved tongue using a clavito (nail shaped hard wood); after making some more zigzag cuts in the bark, the resin starts pouring into the bag.

26. Chiclero Juan Bautista May Tuyup from the village of Señor, tapping in the Ejido X-Maben
26. Chiclero Juan Bautista May Tuyup from the village of Señor, tapping in the Ejido X-Maben (Click on image to enlarge)

Using rope (tied round the tree trunk and his back) and spurs (firmly gripping his shoes) he manoeuvres his way slowly up the tree; all the while, he continues to carve a zigzag channel with his machete. The resin pours ceaselessly down. A skilful chiclero can tap 5 or 6 trees in an hour. Next day he pours all the resin into the collecting bag, which holds 12 kilos.

27. Chicle connoisseur Eugenio Balam from the town of Pino Suarez...
27. Chicle connoisseur Eugenio Balam from the town of Pino Suarez... (Click on image to enlarge)

About once a week the tapper starts ‘cooking’ (dehydrating) the accumulated resin at home.

28. Filtering the chicle
28. Filtering the chicle (Click on image to enlarge)

This process, which takes several hours, involves constant filtering and stirring of the resin till all impurities have been removed, the gum is pure white in colour,

29. ... stirring and dehydrating the resin as it cooks
29. ... stirring and dehydrating the resin as it cooks (Click on image to enlarge)

and the final product has reached optimum consistency and elasticity – all factors that require years of experience for a connoisseur tapper to recognise.

30. Cooling down...
30. Cooling down... (Click on image to enlarge)

After further steady stirring while the resin cools down, the gum is spread out over a canvas or other smooth surface, to be moulded by hand into a wooden frame (marqueta).

31. A ‘marqueta’ or block of chicle
31. A ‘marqueta’ or block of chicle (Click on image to enlarge)

It takes 10 to 15 minutes to form the compacted mould, release the wooden frame and obtain a compact block of chicle. Each block is marked with the initials of the chiclero and a code that identifies the cooperative he belongs to (Juan Bautista, the tapper in photos 23 & 26, and Eugenio, dehydrating the resin in photos 27 to 32, both work for the José María Pino Suarez Cooperative). The cooperative manager pays the tapper up front for each chicle block received: during the 2004-2005 season tappers received 32 pesos (approx. £1.50) per kilo.

32. Part of a family of chicleros
32. Part of a family of chicleros (Click on image to enlarge)

Tapping chicle is one of the main sources of livelihood for the modern Maya and is one of the very few ‘industries’ that encourage conservation of the Yucatán forests. Some 8,000 families (mainly Maya) still depend upon the market for natural chewing gum, and we should actively encourage trade in it.

33. Fair trade ‘Jungle Gum’
33. Fair trade ‘Jungle Gum’

One or two attempts have been made in recent years to market fairly traded natural chewing gum, one (in the US) being ‘Jungle Gum’ and another (more recently in Europe) being ‘chicza’ - see below)

34. Mass produced chewing gum
34. Mass produced chewing gum

Of course these are minuscule compared with the industry giants. Today over 500 companies produce chewing gum in 93 countries – the biggest of these, William Wrigley’s, has 13 factories and sells gum in over 100 countries, producing sales of over 2 billion US dollars. In the UK alone we buy around ONE BILLION packets of chewing gum every year! Yet we ‘chew below our weight’ and are currently ranked only 10th. in world gum consumption. True to tradition, Mexicans still chew more gum per head than any other nationality - and they savour each piece for an average of 12 minutes (The Guardian, 8/2/07).

35. Illustration by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby
35. Illustration by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby (Click on image to enlarge)

We hope to build links in the future with the Union of Chicle Cooperatives in Chetumal, Yucatán, who are working with researchers in the Department of Geography at King’s College, London to tell the story of chicleros’ historical struggles and way of life, both via an exhibition and workshops in a local museum and by publicising their campaigns internationally.

36. The ORIGINAL chewing gum!
36. The ORIGINAL chewing gum!

At long last (May 2008) it looks as if we will soon be able to recommend you to a source of genuine fairly traded organic chewing gum - ‘chicza’ - that was launched at the Natural & Organic Products Europe 2008 trade fair in the UK. In the meantime, if you’d like to be kept informed, just ‘stick’ your name right here... info@mexicolore.co.uk. With special thanks to Dr. Oscar Forero, Geography Dept., King’s College London, who took all the field photos in the Yucatán (nos. 6,7 & 17 in Part I, nos. 23-32 & 36 in Part II), all © Oscar Forero 2003.

37. Professor Redclift’s pioneering book
37. Professor Redclift’s pioneering book

If you want to study more about the ‘politics’ of chewing gum, there’s an essential book you need to get hold of, ‘Chewing Gum – the Fortunes of Taste’ by Professor Michael Redclift of King’s College London (Routledge, London, 2004): it’s easily orderable online. Michael Redclift and Oscar Forero undertook research on chicle, which informed some of the material for this article, as part of the ESRC/AHRC ‘Cultures of Consumption’ programme between 2003 and 2005 - our thanks are due to them both.

38. ‘Chicza’ organic gum, produced by the Consorcio Corporativo de Productores y Exportadores en Forastería
38. ‘Chicza’ organic gum, produced by the Consorcio Corporativo de Productores y Exportadores en Forastería
Caste War Museum
Distributors of Jungle Gum
Organic chewing gum ‘chicza’
Read The Guardian’s article (31/12/08) on the new organic chewing gum
‘Behind the label: chewing gum’ article in The Ecologist
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