One Sunday, a man from Tlacoapa showed up in the town square carrying fourteen bottles of black water in his bag. He didn’t sell anything that first day, but he returned every week until an older woman finally bought a bottle from him. “This is great. It tastes really sweet,” she said. When the other townspeople heard that, others approached the man. As was the custom back then, they offered him corn, beans, and peaches in exchange for a bottle of the black water. But he told them, “You can’t barter for this, you have to purchase it with money.” Curious, people started getting together in small groups, pooling their money to come up with four rome, which was then the equivalent to four centavos, so they could buy a bottle. And when they finally tried it they loved it. It was so sweet they named it iya maskoria (the water of mercy), saying it was black and sweet the way they imagined heavenly water should be. The man selling it told them, “It’s really called Pepsi Cola.” In fact, they liked it so much they chose two people from the community to go look for the place it was made, and they took off, walking as far as Colotlipa and Tlapa. That’s how we started buying that water. It came to be sold in the plaza every Sunday, and people started using it to arrange marriages, offering it to important visitors, and drinking it whenever they got together: at festivals and when they went to work. They started drinking Pepsi Cola for each and every occasion. They even baptized children with Pepsi Cola.
This is the story of numerous communities whose notions of use value and exchange value were changed by the global market’s expansion into every corner of the planet, altering the philosophies and ways of life embedded in the local economies of diverse peoples. Globalization arrived in the mountains of Guerrero between 1980 and 1990, but our elders remember that until at least the 1960s, economic relations were very different from the way they are now.
Globalization is an economic, cultural, and ideological phenomenon that began in the 1970s, thanks to capitalism. It’s based on the reproduction of capital, buying, and selling. Globalization universalizes cultural identity so that all people become consumers, regardless of their language, traditions, history, or culture.
With the arrival of Pepsi Cola in the communal marketplace, you find the displacement of community-based economic relations and the displacement of the knowledge necessary to produce things for oneself. It is in the era of globalization that money becomes the sole means of acquiring goods, goods which are transformed into objects and merchandise. The need for money creates new needs, like needing to find salaried work to be able to buy basic necessities. These new needs give rise to the division of labor, a concept which had never existed in the community before and which reinforced its machismo.
Xuáá (the plaza) was the place of exchange (ná náxtíkuro’ò), but it was not necessarily a fixed space. Whoever needed to barter would go to the town where people made whatever they needed and offered their wares for exchange, trading things like corn, seeds, beans, animals, pots, or other cookware. Exchange value was based upon the needs of each town. They say that you used to be able to trade beef for scissors, pork for a machete, an axe for two goats, a griddle for beans, coffee for pots, and hats for pulque. Mbukha (money) certainly existed, but not in the way we know it now. Work was paid for in cuartilla, also known as meliu’, a box that measured out between three and four kilos of corn, beans, or other grains, which people in the region consider to be basic human necessities. The cuartilla held the same value as money, but the products we exchanged were still understood as having a consciousness and a history, and they held the value that we as humans gave them.
For us, what the global market refers to as “merchandise,” “things,” or “objects,” are living beings who possess a consciousness just like we do. These beings arrive in the market fully cognizant of their role in generating and sustaining life. Our grandparents tell us that long ago these beings, which we now think of as products, could talk, that their existence made ours possible, that we owe our own existence to them, and that we must treat them as equals, not as merchandise, which is why we make offerings to ears of corn, why we perform a ritual for the pulque before we sell it, and why you cannot hit squash.
In Mè’phàà towns “they say not to dig up camotes on Sundays because the camotes go down to the market . . . . If someone wants to dig them up, people say you should put a tray filled with water and a corn grinding stone near the plant to stop them from going down to bathe in the river.”
The linguist Carrasco Zúñiga even collected a story about two men digging up camotes, which is as follows:
The old man said, “Come with me to dig up some camotes, maybe they are back from swimming in the river.” And so they left. It was already dark when they got to the chayote plant. The older man started to dig and quickly started sweating big, fat drops . . . . A camote suddenly appeared, but he accidentally split it. He gave the cut half to his friend, while the other half was still in the ground.
“Hey, this smells like soap,” the young man said jokingly.
“Of course it smells like soap, they lather up when they bathe in the river,” the old man replied.
“But where do the camotes get money to buy soap?”
“They bring it back from the market. Don’t you know they go to the market?”
“I know they go to the market, but what I don’t understand is where they get the money to buy soap.”
As this story shows, for us the things that the market displays as mere products are actually beings with histories, who are aware of their own value. These beings are preceded by work through which they achieve their identity, like the camote that labors to become a chayote plant and the seed that works to become a squash. In turn, each of these beings has a function that helps sustain the existence of all beings.
A second kind of exchange: as people of “this time” we bestow a value upon these product-beings according to the labor we exert to make them, according to our own recounting of each of the product-being’s histories. For example, compare coffee and a pot. Cutting, drying, and grinding the coffee has the same value as the process of preparing the clay, firing it, and giving the pot its shape. When these are accounted for, the exchange value becomes fixed. When a product-being requires less work and time in its production, its acquisition is supplemented with rí nàkha mbá tsúdúu nè (that which helps), which evens out the trade and sustains relations of exchange between families and towns over the long run. For people to feel good about the perpetual exchange of their product-beings, we always add what we call rí nàkha mbá tsúdúu nè, which elsewhere is referred to as a bonus. You give this something extra, since sometimes the product-being is overvalued or undervalued, depending on the particular needs of the people who are trading.
By refusing to trade, the man who arrived in the market to sell Pepsi Cola introduced the community to a new way of valuing things. Since no one knew the history of Pepsi Cola, and the time and labor required to produce it, Pepsi Cola held an unknown value. That’s why people overvalued it. Money broke the community’s sense of harmony, and from then on people stopped recounting stories about the identity of each product-being. As value now originated from outside the community, so began the systematic colonization of our knowledge by the economics of the global market.
The global market’s arrival in this and other Indigenous communities meant new needs arose, and these needs entailed the loss of community-based self-sufficiency. The idea of progress arrived, and with it the ideologies of political parties who promised better drainage in exchange for votes but that actually wound up polluting the rivers. Organic fertilizer was replaced by chemicals under the premise that it produced better plants in less time, but the land has gradually gone sterile as a consequence. Construction materials arrived and with them the idea of “respectable housing.” To purchase these materials and build a “respectable house,” many people left for the United States. Others began planting poppies. Despite the fact that traditional houses are better than those made with cinder blocks, they were now considered poor people’s dwellings. These changes meant that knowing how to build your own house out of adobe became increasingly rare.
Assistance programs arrived with food and money for the poor, but never addressed the actual problem: poverty. Different politicians use these programs to court votes and, as is the case with all the assistance programs operating in the Mountains, they progressively lead to the abandonment of self-sustaining, communal work.
Neither health, nor education, nor a respectable living arrived with globalization. What did arrive was an entire economy wherein we became dependent peoples, and so were subject to being plundered. All capitalist societies are based on relations of exploitation and dominance, and that leads to the privatization of land. As Camilo Valqui puts it, “Capital is a social relation founded on the exploitation and domination of men and women throughout the entire planet, transforming people into miserable, unfortunate, and easily discarded merchandise.”
The logic of the market and competition turns everything and everyone into an object. Within this logic there are no collectivities, only individualities: “Production does not simply produce man as a commodity, the human commodity, man in the role of commodity; it produces him in keeping with this role as a mentally and physically dehumanized being.” The rationality of the market, with all its logic of objectification and alienation is derived from these processes.
Confronted with this reality, we have to think about the present and past of the global moment, question the values that the global market has imposed upon us, and think about the reconstruction of an identity that provides alternative practices to capital’s depredations.
This story about Pepsi Cola provides us with a starting point from which we can think about the loss of knowledge and autonomy we are experiencing in Indigenous communities, and how to dialogue with other communities about these experiences in order to propose solutions to the economic dependence from which we all suffer. When Pepsi Cola arrived, diabetes, now one of the deadliest, most widely prevalent illnesses in the region, came with it. Surviving diabetes entails spending money most people don’t have. Soft drinks, the products of transnational business, have condemned us to a long, slow death.