Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highlands Chiapas

Abstract

In this article, I trace consumption chains motivated by religious and secular rituals that have promoted demand for water, rum, and soft drinks in Mesoamerican communities for over 2,000 years. It describes transformations in the social organization of water systems, and how these transformations have affected indigenous communities in particular. In preconquest ceremonial centers the collective effort of the entire community contributed to the engineering of water projects and the celebration of deities who ensured the supply of water. Spanish rule brought a new array of saints, often identified with deities of natural forces, and with them cane sugar and rum with which Indians celebrated sacred holidays. Religious fraternities that once promoted imbibing of rum to facilitate communication with the gods and saints during the colonial and independence periods turned to Coca-Cola and other commercial beverages in the 1970s. The Coca-Cola Company promoted the health effects of their nonalcoholic drink and religious brotherhoods provided the infrastructure or local promotion of the drink during celebrations that once served locally distilled cane liquor in the annual cycle of fiestas. Federal concessions for extracting the groundwater of Chiapas now enable the company to produce their internationally sold products along with their newly featured bottled water. Rituals once made to the rain gods as givers of water are supplanted by political concessions to transnational corporations working with local officials in contemporary Mesoamerican communities. The transformation from ritual propitiation of the gods that engaged entire populations in collective action, to the private expropriation of water resources, has a profound impact on indigenous pueblos that are major consumers of these costly products.

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"Lake Texcoco." November 2007 via June Nash.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays that examine relationships between corporations and local cultures. See, for example, Suzana Sawyer’s “Bobbittizing Texaco: Dis-Membering Corporate Capital and Re-Membering the Nation in Ecuador” (2008); David Pedersen’s “The Storm We Call Dollars: Determining Value and Belief in El Salvador and the United States” (2008); and Thomas Williamson’s “Incorporating a Malaysian Nation” (2002).

About the Author

June Nash is a distinguished professor emerita of anthropology at City University of New York.

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Editorial Overview

In the November 2007 issue of Cultural Anthropology, June Nash calls for sociocultural analyses that help “ensure sustainable development and equitable distribution” of natural resources. Nash’s essay, “Consuming Interests: Water, Rum, and Coca-Cola from Ritual Propitiation to Corporate Expropriation in Highlands Chiapas,” examines different practices by political, religious, and transnational actors that exemplify the politicization and commoditization of water in a neoliberal economy.Arguing that “water has a human rights dimension,” Nash tells the story of water systems in Mexico during contemporary, colonial, and preconquest periods. The extraction of water by The Coca-Cola Company in Chiapas not only deprives local communities of a fundamental resource, Nash reasons, but also results in “growing conflicts among indigenous people.” The essay demonstrates the impacts of Coca-Cola’s extraction of a resource “once considered a gift of the gods,” and how indigenous communities are now major consumers of Coca-Cola beverages. Nash’s compelling essay weaves histories of water systems with cultural analysis of the shift from rum to soft drinks in indigenous rituals, together with changing relationships among corporate and political authorities, local and national. This essay will be especially relevant to readers interested in neoliberal economies, resource privatization and expropriation, ritual, indigenous politics, the intersection of religion and consumption, Mesoamerica, and Chiapas, Mexico.

This essay was published as part of a cluster of essays on the "Coke Complex," put together following an endorsement by the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Cultural Anthropology of boycott actions against The Coca-Cola Company. See 'Editors' Introduction to the "Coke Complex"'.

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