“San Guivin” and #ChefsForPuertoRico

A few years ago I wrote this post, recounting memories of Thanksgiving (or “San Guivin”) in Puerto Rico. This holiday marks the commencement of the long Christmas celebration, quickly transitioning from Thanksgiving’s pavochón to the actual lechón (pork), accompanied with arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and pasteles.

26 old pavo

From a past Thanksgiving meal, featuring pavochón, arroz con gandules and mofongo stuffing. 

This year, the holidays will find Puerto Rico in post-Maria reconstruction. In light of this occasion, I wanted to use this post to highlight the ongoing work of Jose Andres, World Central Kitchen and the many local chefs and volunteers assisting with this effort:

World Central Kitchen, Andrés, and their coterie of chefs and volunteers plan to serve an estimated 40,000 Thanksgiving meals this week. They plan to serve “families throughout the island including San Juan, Vieques, Naguabo, Adjuntas, Ponce, Dorado, Utuado, Aguadilla and Manatí” as well as volunteers. – From Eater.com

Photo: @chefjoseandres / Twitter (in Eater.com article)

Chef Jose Andres has provided a spotlight on the chronic food crisis in Puerto Rico. His efforts have been supported by many local Puerto Rican chefs, including: José Enrique, Enrique Piñeiro, Victor Rosado, Wilo Bennett, José Santaella, and Manolo Martinez, as well as the food truck network – Ocean Deli, High Kitchen, Lemon Submarine, Pisco Labis, El Churry, Yummy Dumplings, Peko Peko, Acai on the Go, and The Meatball Company (see here).

The work of World Central Kitchen and these chefs underscore the important role of members of the culinary sector in assisting communities in times of need. I will continue to follow their efforts and contribute to their ongoing work. If you want to join me, follow this link for more information.

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Maria

My last post was a celebration of one dish that always reminds me of home, the arroz con salchichas – what I called “el arroz del resuelve.” I described the dish as “nostalgic”, a dish that I enjoy on special occasions, by choice, from my table away from home. My choice contrasts with the more usual occasions the dish is consumed – that is, during times of need and limited possibilities, such as right after a natural disaster. A few weeks after I wrote my post, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, followed, a week later, by the historical devastation brought by Hurricane Maria. Today, almost two months after, most of Puerto Rico remains without electricity and water, in what has turned out to be a humanitarian crisis with repercussions for years to come.

In an interview published by the Association for the Study of Food in Society, Puerto Rican Historian Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra provided an insightful historical and contemporary assessment of the ongoing crisis,

Food crises have been with Puerto Ricans through history. During the Spanish conquest, when the majority of Taino Indians were forced to work in las vetas auriferas [gold mines], reducing cassava cultivation for a long period, those who could escape to the mountains probably resorted to eating marunguey (Zamia pumila, Zamia debilisi), a poisonous tuber that the Taino had learned to use by making a bread from its roots. Older rural people followed a tradition where, once the bread was ready, it was put out in the open until it began to ferment and bugs started to eat it. Informants say the bread is then ready to eat, as the poisons have been extracted by the insects. [After hurricane Maria] it has been reported that people are using what remains on the ground–plantains, bananas, breadfruit, and other fruits as their sole daily food–eating them raw, because water, often used to boil them, is scarce. – See complete interview here

Since the hurricane, long lines have become an everyday activity. People have stood in lines for hours to enter  supermarkets, often requiring lines beforehand to get gasoline and cash. At the end of the line, people have encountered empty supermarkets, and many foods were rationed. What are people eating in these times of crisis? Ortiz Cuadra provides some insight “from the ground”,

In the long lines I have been in, while waiting for a bag of ice (only 45% of the running water system is in place and practically no electricity), I have asked this question and various women have answered “mac and cheese” with Spam (we call it jamonilla) and also with Vienna sausages.

These processed foods – the salchichas (Vienna sausages) and jamonilla (Spam) – have been provided by FEMA, as part of the controversial food aid in the island,

JoshSanchez FEMA tweet

Oct. 12, 2017 viral tweet by sports journalist Josh Sanchez. 

FEMA’s aid has been controversial in its inclusion of skittles, and other “junk foods.” The local newspaper El Nuevo Dia reported FEMA boxes including inapt products, such as packets of ketchup, cooking wine and meat thermometers. As such, Hurricane Maria has grabbed the news attention not only for the size of its devastation, but for the severe mismanagement of the recovery efforts, including the appalling (yet not surprising) mediocre response from the sitting president. Still today, the number of deaths remains unknown and rising, with hundreds still unaccounted for and the deaths continuing to accumulate as a result of the slow recovery efforts. The situation is compounded by the ongoing exodus. Two weeks after the hurricane, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were already on their way to Florida. Others are choosing New York and other various destinations across the States where families and friends continue to receive loved ones on a daily, often rotating basis. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies provide sobering estimations of the post-Maria exodus,

Between 114,000 and 213,000 Puerto Rico residents will leave the island annually in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. From 2017 to 2019, we estimate that Puerto Rico may lose up to 470,335 residents or 14% of the population. In other words, Puerto Rico will lose the same population in a span of a couple of years after Hurricane Maria as the island lost during a prior decade of economic stagnation. – See Research Brief by Melendez & Hinojosa (Oct 2017) here.

The outflow will have political and economic consequences not only for the island, but also in the United States, particularly  in Florida.

Despite the continuing crisis in the island and the consequences in the States, the news cycle has since moved on from Puerto Rico. Thankfully, many continue to work to address this chronic crisis. Of note is the work of George Washington University Public Health Nutrition Professor Uriyoan Colon-Ramos who is working to  document food aid in Puerto Rico, and develop needed nutrition guidelines in these trying times, in collaboration with people on the ground. I am also following the work of Casa Pueblo, a local organization working hard to address the electricity crisis, with the potential of bringing solar power as a sustainable solution. Community kitchens have also opened up providing needed food, including and beyond the (now concluded) amazing effort led by Chef Jose Andres in collaboration with local Puerto Rican chefs.

Still, the recovery continues to be painfully slow and quite difficult to follow from a distance. If this post inspires you to help or get involved, check out this recent Take Action article by Ariana Rosas Cardenas on The Nation, along with many others articles providing a variety of ways to help (see here and here, among others).

 

A nutritious holiday find

During this year’s holiday visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this recipe manual written in 1980 by nutritionists in the town of Caguas:

The recipe manual was distributed at some point to the town’s residents, more than three decades ago, as a collection of various traditional recipes with the “highest nutritional value”, with a simple reminder that we should  always eat in moderation:

Now, the Christmas menu (and celebration) in Puerto Rico is best summarized in the chorus of El Gran Combo’s 1985 hit, La Fiesta de Pilito:

A comer pastel / a comer lechón / arroz con gandules / y a beber ron / que venga morcilla / venga de tooo

The last line, venga de tooo, roughly translated to “bring it all”, characterizes the indulgence of the holiday season. Our plates are filled with pasteles, pork, rice with pigeon peas, and blood sausages, downed with beer and rum. 

Hence, I was curious to see the nutritionist interpretation of this celebratory menu…

The suggested menus stay true to traditional favorites – with the omission of alcohol. Pork (lechón) remains at the center of the celebration, with favorites like morcilla (Blood sausage) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), still present. The recipes do not reflect the fat-free craze of the 80s, featuring lard (manteca) as the cooking fat, as seen in this recipe for arroz con gandules,

Instead of changing traditional menus and recipes, it seems that the nutricionistas cagueñas that authored this recipe collection opted to add vegetables to the festivities, through simple salads to accompany the usual fare.  

While I am skeptical that green salad substituted the usual potato salad in Christmas celebrations in 1980s Caguas (or today), the intent of the menu is still commendable and relevant today. 
Happy 2017! 

———–

A special thanks to Norma for sharing this recipe manual with me. 

Jamonilla

Tulip, Tulip, jamonilla  / Deliciosa, siempre fresca / Tu la comes con el pan
Y la comes con arroz. / Tulip, Tulip, va con todo. / ¡Es el resuelvelo todo!
[Tulip, Tulip, lunchmeat / Delicious, always fresh / You can eat it with bread
And you can eat it with rice. / Tulip, Tulip, goes with everything / It’s the solve it all!]

The lyrics above are my remembered version of an 80s (or 90s) commercial for Tulip’s canned luncheon meat, jamonilla. It came back to mind after attending “The Empire of Spam” kitchen workshop a few months back, at the ASFS/AFHVS/CAFS* Annual Conference hosted by the Culinaria Research Centre at the University of Toronto Scarborough.  The workshop focused on Spam as part of the Pacific culinary imaginary – discussing our perceptions about Spam while tasting it at the same time.

Empire of Spam Kitchen Workshop facilitated by (right to left): Hi’llei Hobart (New York University), Adrian De Leon (University of Toronto) and Josh Levy (Univerity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). 

Spam musibi (grilled Spam over a block of rice wrapped with nori drief seaweed). In our version, we doubled the Spam.

Much has been written about Spam (click here for a brief history). During almost eight decades of existence, the brand has gone from a soldiers’ staple during World War II to a culinary mainstay in the Asian Pacific and Hawaii (including the annual Hawaiian festival celebrating Spam -the Spam Jam festival). While celebrated today, the popularity of Spam in the region in marked by US military occupation. These are the same forces that also brought similar canned meats to Puerto Rico.

The influence of canned meats is seen in dishes like arroz con salchichas (rice with Vienna sausages), corned beef (also known as “carne beef”) and the classic party staple, “sandwichitos de mezcla“:

colores03-300x300

Sandwiches de Mezcla – Photo by Panaderia Facciola. 

Yet, dishes like these are only a part of the culinary repertoire. More often than not, they are the go-to food in times of scarcity, a “resuelvelo todo”, as Tulip’s jingle states. To my knowledge, among the many festivals celebrated in the island throughout the year, there is no equivalent to the Spam Jam Festival in Puerto Rico. And this is not for a lack of food-related festivals! Just in the next four weeks festivals around the island will celebrate  breadfruit, longaniza, jueyes (land crabs), and molleja (sweetbread), to name a few.

The connections between Hawaii and Puerto Rico have been intriguing me for some time. Our shared, but unequal love for canned meat is another piece of this growing puzzle that started with the Borinkis’ pasteles. We are connected by a shared  insular geography and a history of US military occupation which has altered both archipelagos’ food systems, increasing the reliance on processed food sources like jamonilla. Why one is more salient in one place versus the other is still a question that remains to be answered, potentially involving a comparative look at the histories shaping the different ethnic (and food) identities in these two contexts. In the meantime, I’ll close with some “food for thought” – “Mom’s Puerto Rican Spam Flan”, a dish featured in the 2014 Spam Jam Festival that continues to connect these islands through Spam:

Mom’s Puerto Rican SPAM Flan from Buenos Antojitos. #SpamJam @spambrand @waikikispamjam @beachcomberhi (at Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Resort)

Photo by jknakas1 (tumblr) from the 2014 Spam Jam Festival. 

 

Do you have any Spam or Tulip thoughts, memories or recipes to share? 

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*The acronyms stand for three academic societies: The Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS), the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and the Canadian Association for Food Studies (CAFS).

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

*******
Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting. 

 

Cookbooks in transitioning societies – a new publication

Close to three years ago I discovered the parallel stories of Carmen Aboy Valldejuli and Nitza Villapol, the Julia Child caribeñas. These women and their cookbooks left  a lasting impression in the culinary histories of Puerto Rico and Cuba, respectively. This serendipitous discovery led me to many hours interacting with their work, both in the library and the kitchen. Their books provide a different way to analyze the important political and economic transitions happening in the two islands, spanning  across the later half of the twentieth century,

Capture

It is my pleasure to share one of the final products of this journey – the article, Writing Cuisine in the Spanish Caribbean: A Comparative Analysis of Iconic Puerto Rican and Cuban cookbooks,  published in the latest edition of Food, Culture and Society, summarized as follows:

Puerto Rico and Cuba, linked by a common colonial history, culture, and tropical environments, have similar cuisines. The islands’ shared historical trajectories have been increasingly divergent in the last century, especially since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. This paper analyzes the concurrent social changes since the 1950s in these two contexts, through the work of two iconic cookbook writers, Carmen Valldejuli (Puerto Rico) and Nitza Villapol (Cuba). Writing and publishing during the second half of the twentieth century, these women’s books became an important part of the culinary imagination in their respective islands and diaspora communities. This article analyzes how their work reflects their personal stories and changing social contexts by comparing the earliest and latest editions of their books. Differences between Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisines, as portrayed in the cookbooks, are assessed and contextualized in their respective sociopolitical contexts. This analysis of the production and transmission of culinary traditions offers a novel insight on local and transnational manifestations of these islands’ sociopolitical transformations during these decades.

Interested in reading more? Access to the article is available through this link.

The Borinkis and the Pastel

It’s Christmas time, 115 years ago, in 1900. Close to sixty Puerto Ricans arrived to the shores of Honolulu, Hawai’i. The journey lasted for a month, originally consisting of  about 100 travelers. The numbers dwindled as many abandoned ship, faced with food and water shortages [1]. After the US occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898, the sugar industry was on the decline, leaving many unemployed. Puerto Rican agrarian labor was being recruited around the world, including sugar plantations on the other side of the globe, in Hawai’i.

photo of a Puerto Rican family

Puerto Rican Family in Hawai’i, 1900 (Photo: Blase Camacho Souza) [1]

Sanchez Korrol describes this migration as follows:

“Between 1900 and 1901 eleven expeditions consisting of over 5,000 men, women and children were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association to work alongside Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the pineapple and sugar fields of those Pacific islands […] As early as 1903, 539 Puerto Rican children were enrolled in Hawaiian schools. Within three years this figure rose to 650, and there are indications that Puerto Rican women were already employed as teachers as early as 1924. Puerto Ricans constituted 2.2 percent of the Hawaiian population in 1923, just over 5,000 individuals. Despite increased outmarriage, dispersal and isolation of Puerto Rican workers throughout the islands and limited involvement with the homeland, 9,551 individuals claimed a Puerto Rican identity in the 1950 census.” [2]

Puerto Ricans in Hawai’i came to be known as the Borinkis – a name derived from Boriken, the Taino name for Puerto Rico. More than a century since their arrival, the Borinkis are part of the interesting ethnic mixture found in Hawaii. According to recent estimates, Puerto Ricans make up the largest proportion of the growing Latino population in the state, followed by Mexicans [3]. Culinary heritage is maintained and reinvented. This includes the ganduri rice (arroz con gandules, rice with pigeon peas), bacalao salad, and the pasteles – although Borinkis refer to these as pastele. Puerto Rican food seems to be popular in Hawai’i, especially the pastele, including a variety of “Pastele Shops”, as the one below:

The Pastele Shop - Honolulu, HI, United States. Nana hungry for some pasteles.... Me too!!

The Pateles Shop (Honolulu, HI) (Photo: Yelp)

These shops denote the shift in the traditional significance of pasteles. In Puerto Rico, more than an everyday food, pasteles, along with its inseparable accompaniment, the arroz con gandules, is typically eaten in Christmas. Granted, we do save pasteles in the freezer, spreading them out on ocassion throughout the year. Yet, it is still strongly associated with the Navidades.

Furthermore, the Borinkis have reinvented the pastel into new interesting dishes.

First, the pastele sausage. I stumbled upon a version made by Kukui Sausage Company, in Hawai’i.  The sausage contains pork, bananas, salt, black pepper, tomato paste, and achiote oil, along with sodium phosphate and sodium nitrate:

Photo: Tasty Island Hawaii [4]

Photo: Tasty Island Hawaii

Tasty Island blogger describes the sausage as follows: “My favorite, and certainly the one shining with the most character and most true to it’s labeled name is the Pastele Sausage. While I won’t say you can taste the bananas in it, there’s something about that ingredient that gives this sausage its signature flavor. It’s really hard for me to describe this, but it’s really good and taste, well, like Pastele Sausage! Shouldn’t it?” [4]

Aside from the sausage, there is also a stew. The “pastele stew” is a less labor intensive concoction, served alongside white rice. Instead of creating the rectangular dumpling filled with meat and wrapped in a plantain leaf, the stew cooks everything in a single pot – and is also served at the pastele shops:

The Pastele Shop - Honolulu, HI, United States. Stew bowl with white rice

Pastele Stew from The Pastele Shop (Photo: Yelp)

Interested in trying this at home? Follow the recipe of Auntie Bea Rodrigues, directly from Hawai’i:

And if you have tried the pastele sausage or stew, please share your stories with us!

Buen Provecho and Feliz Navidad!

~~~~~~~~

  1. Chapin, HG. “Puerto Ricans Arrive in Hawaii”, https://www.hawaiianhistory.org/time-capsules/firsts/puerto-ricans-arrive-in-hawaii/
  2. Sanchez Korrol, V. “The Story of US Puerto Ricans, Part 2”, http://centropr.hunter.cuny.edu/education/puerto-rican-studies/story-us-puerto-ricans-part-two
  3. Hawaii’s Fastest Growing Population? Latinos, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2013/05/08/hawaiis-fastest-growing-population-is-latinos/

  4. “Kim Chee, Pastele and Chorizo Sausages”

    http://tastyislandhawaii.com/2007/07/28/kim-chee-pastele-and-chorizo-sausages/

Habichuelas Colora’s: Red beans through time and space

Next to white rice / it looks like coral / sitting next to snow
Hills of starch / border / The burnt sienna / of irony
Azusenas being chased by / the terra cotta feathers /of a rooster
There is a lava flow / through the smoking / white mounds
India red / spills on ivory
Ochre cannon balls / falling / next to blanc pebbles
Red beans and milk / make burgundy wine
Violet pouring / from the eggshell / tinge of the plate.

“Red Beans”, by Victor Hernández Cruz, from Maraca: New and Selected Poems 1966-2000

img_20140528_195420801

Red beans – habichuelas colora’s – are a staple, important dish in Puerto Rican cuisine. The dish, the name, differentiates our beans (our habichuelas) from most of the other Latin American beans (their frijoles). These beans are part of our culinary memory, making a strong connection between our palates and home, the moment the “terra cotta feathers”, the “ochre cannon balls” are savored alongside rice. In short, red beans are part of Puerto Rican traditional cuisine.

Now, while we often think of tradition as a concept fixed in time and space, traditions are constantly changing, moving with people across borders and generations. Does the moving nature of tradition translates in our plates? How is a simple dish like red beans written and recorded across time and space?

bean recipes

There are close to 100 books published on Puerto Rican cuisine. The first one, El Cocinero Puerto-Riqueño, was published anonymously in 1859. This book shows us that in these early days, the habichuelas were frijoles. It is in Cocina Criolla, the still iconic book of Puerto Rican cuisine, that the classic habichuelas rojas are presented. The non-specified spices in El Cocinero are expanded in Cocina Criolla, with the sofrito. The recipe becomes meatier, complementing lard with other animal fats coming from tocino and ham.

A few years later, and miles from Puerto Rico, the habichuelas rojas are transformed into Basic Beans in the Nuyorican kitchen, as written by Oswald Rivera in Puerto Rican Cuisine in America: Nuyorican and Bodega Recipes. Contrary to other Puerto Rican cookbooks written in the US (mainland), Puerto Rican Cuisine in America seems to establish a Nuyorican cuisine, separate from the island. As part of this, the Nuyorican identity is described, in opposition to the insular Puerto Rican identity:

“A Nuyorican most likely attends a public school or parochial school, plays stickball in schoolyards throughout the city, listens to Salsa music at home or in social clubs located anywhere from the Upper West Side to Brooklyn, enjoys baseball, probably speaks English first, Spanish second, and the Spanish he or she does know is usually an amalgam of Americanisms combined with the traditional Spanish verbs, the Spanglish of East Harlem” (p. ix).

Moreover, it also distinguishes a Nuyorican cuisine as one that “combines elements of traditional Puerto Rican cooking with infusions of new ideas and new ways of doing things inspired by the new urban environment of New York.”

How are the habichuelas colora’s translated in this new home? They become simply beans. They lost their distinguishing red color. The pumpkin is replaced with potato (although this recipe is followed by one for white beans with pumpkin). Tocino and ham are replaced by a bouillon cube. Olive oil replaced lard.

Beans are an important healthy component of Puerto Rican diets. The journey of the Puerto Rican habichuelas colora’s demonstrate how this traditional dish has moved across time AND space. Some changes seen from Cocina Criolla to Puerto Rican Cuisine in America fit recommendations by dietitians, including the use of olive oil and diminishing the use of animal products. Yet, beans are just one piece of a larger, traditional foodway that needs to be understood in its moving and changing nature. These changes and how they are perceived and interpreted are part of the bigger understanding of food systems, eating behavior and its nutritional outcomes.

Related post: Convenience, Modernity and Beans

Puerto Rico and a New Generation Of Small Farmers

This week, NPR’s The Salt blog featured this story about a school teacher in the central town of Orocovis in Puerto Rico, trying to motivate students to go back to the land. This is part of the burgeoning agricultural initiatives in the island, working to shift the stereotype of agriculture being an occupation for those who have nothing better to do, and the stigma against the jíbaro – the rural peasant.
 
“Although it’s a tropical island, perhaps surprisingly, Puerto Rico produces very little of its own food. After decades of industrialization, the U.S. territory imports more than 80 percent of what’s consumed on the island. There are signs, though, the trend is changing.”

Read the story here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2015/05/06/404649122/puerto-rico-is-sowing-a-new-generation-of-small-farmers

Soda and happiness during the holidays

Catching up after a Christmas visit to Puerto Rico, I came across this interesting post in Marion Nestle’s Food Politics Blog, Christmas health advocacy, Mexican style. Mexico has been at the forefront fighting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including implementing a soda tax, which has decreased soda consumption in the country. These efforts have been in response to Mexico’s high obesity rates and incidence of related health conditions, including diabetes.

The latest in these health advocacy messages target drink choices during the holidays, including an ad featuring Santa Claus. The video shows Santa apologizing for “being part of a company that denies information to the consumer and takes advantage of children”, ending with his resignation from the company and a plead for children to “stop drinking these drinks”:

This ad, along with the active government role in addressing soda consumption, stand in sharp contrast with my recent observations during my short Puerto Rican Christmas. The island, like Mexico, also suffers from high rates of obesity, and diabetes is one of the leading causes of death and disability. Yet, little, if any, public health initiatives or advertisement is seen to combat this. On the contrary, companies like Coca-Cola, are enjoying the benefits of more sales! This recent trend is related to their newest campaign, “Share a Coke”, where consumers are able to find their names or family names in the bottles. This simple addition has reversed the downward sales trend for the company. And – of course – Puerto Rico got an adapted (or creolized) version of this campaign:

Source: El Vocero

Source: El Vocero

The campaign includes the most common last names in Puerto Rico, colloquial nicknames (for example, “Panita” and “Jevo”), as well as positive emotions such as “love” and “happiness”. Quoted in a local newspaper, Puerto RIco’s Coca-Cola marketing director underscores the role of this soda in “uniting people for more than 128 years to create moments of happiness” (my translation). Yet, the same moments of happiness can be achieved over an icy cold glass of water, lemonade, or an equally cold Medalla (the local beer, in moderation).

The “Share a Coke” campaign was rolled out in September of last year (2014), about two months after the local health department published a page-long ad against sodas and sugar sweetened beverages, featuring the familiar image of the drinks alongside a multitude of sugar packets,

Source: Radio Isla

Source: Radio Isla

Not surprisingly, this ad was received with criticism from representatives of Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Sadly, the opposition was also shared by members of one of the main political parties, the (pro-statehood) Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), claiming “negative effects for the consumer”. Similar opposition can be found from a proposal for a soda tax of 14 cents per liter in the island. In the end, push-backs like these, masked as being in favor the consumer, are unfortunate examples of the political barriers facing public health, despite the deleterious effects for the population.