Traditional healers put Coke to the test

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 14, 2004

ZINACANTAN, Mexico --Doña María Lopez lights lines of candles in front of a homemade altar in her adobe brick house in this town in southern Mexico. She is getting ready for the ritual known here as a "cura," or cure, to relieve son Diego's body aches.

Over an old sweater and rough woolen skirt, Lopez wears a brightly colored, hand-loomed and embroidered ceremonial shawl. She kneels on the packed-dirt floor and keeps other offerings nearby: sprigs of basil, a jar of homemade sugarcane rum, and two bottles of Coca-Cola.

Lopez is an ilol, or shaman, who conducts the rituals central to the life of the Tzotzil Maya populations of this region. Coca-Cola plays a key role in those healing sessions, along with a homemade rum called pox (pronounced posh).

"One of the most important ceremonies among indigenous people is that of drinking, of sharing," said Alejandro Valdivia, who is half-Tzotzil and conducts tours here. "It functions as an element of union among them . . . and it marks the hierarchy among a group of people."

Mexico's per capita consumption of Coca-Cola products surpasses even that of the United States. Part of the reason for the drink's popularity is rituals like the one Lopez is about to perform.

As she finishes lighting the candles, Diego sits beside her. Lopez begins a singsong prayer in the Tzotzil language. After several minutes, she lightly swats Diego's head and shoulders with the basil sprig to draw out the sickness. She repeats this several times and then pours the rum into a small cup, taking a sip before giving it to Diego and other members of the family. She sprinkles the rest over the candles, which flare as the alcohol ignites. In a moment, she does the same with the Coca-Cola, pouring a cup for each person so they can all drink at the same time.

After more prayers, Lopez rubs an egg over her son, so it, too, can absorb the causes of the ailment. She then breaks the egg into a glass of rum and "reads" the tendrils formed by the egg white as it settles. Shortly after, the ceremony ends.

Catholicism, Indian beliefs merge

Zinacantán and nearby San Juan Chamula are known worldwide for the way Catholicism and traditional Indian beliefs have combined to form a unique religion. About 80,000 Tzotzil Indians live and practice the syncretic faith here in a closed society that merges religious and political power and fiercely resists outside authority.

Walk into the church in the town square in San Juan Chamula and you will find dozens of people in small groups, kneeling like Lopez, in front of rows and rows of candles on the pine needle-strewn floor. The air is thick with the smoke from the candles and the murmur of voices.

The church is unfurnished save for tables holding hundreds more votive candles and glass cases containing statues of a pantheon of saints unrecognized by the Catholic Church. Over them, up front and center, rules St. John the Baptist, Chamula's patron saint.

Each group pays for the ilol to conduct a variation of Lopez's ceremony that sometimes involves a live chicken.

Lopez is a weaver by profession, like most of the women who live here. But she was trained from childhood as an ilol. People come to her home and pay her to perform cures — the men on Tuesdays, the women on Thursdays.

The rituals have become an important part of the economies of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, since the families have to pay not just for the shaman's services, but for the trappings of the rituals, said Miguel Rolland, an Arizona priest who has worked for years in Chiapas and has studied the Tzotzil culture. Merchants do a lively business in front of the church selling candles, soft drinks and rum for the rituals, which might be performed several times a year.

But are they effective?

Sergio Castro Martínez, who runs a museum dedicated to highland Indian customs in nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas, said they have vast symbolic power, and for some, that may be enough. He said the carbon dioxide in the Coke makes people burp, and the Indians interpret that as expelling the sickness.

But even Lopez knows the limits of tradition. Sometimes, when her own children become very ill, "We do go to the doctor," she said.

In Chiapas, cola is king
Popular soft drinks saturate all areas of life in Mexican state

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the dusty villages that dot the highlands near this town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the cola wars are one family's feud.

Two branches of the same powerful clan control distribution of Coca-Cola and Pepsi to tiny shops in towns blanketed with advertisements for the soft drinks, Coca-Cola in particular.

It's a monopoly that has made the family of Salvador Tuxum the lords of the realm in one of Mexico's poorest states.

Coke is much more than just a thirst quencher here. Since the 1950s, when this very American product made its appearance, Coca-Cola has played a central role in every aspect of the lives of the indigenous groups that populate the area — from their rituals to defining their social standing and economic prosperity.

"It has become very important in all of life in Chamula, and in the indigenous population of other towns in the highlands of Chiapas," said Gaspar Morquecho, a local journalist who studies Indian conflicts in the area. "Coca-Cola connected itself not only to the economy but also to the powerful groups, the elite who have political, economic and cultural control."

In Chamula in the 1950s, that elite was the Tuxum family, said Jan Rus, coordinating editor of the journal Latin American Perspectives, who has studied Chiapas Indian groups. "He was a brilliant man," Rus said.

Now in his mid-80s, Tuxum eschewed the accoutrements of wealth and power that came with the distributorship rights for the soft drinks.

He always made sure nobody could gossip about him, dressed like his Indian neighbors and lived in a humble house, Rus said.

His children were another story. Rus said they drove flashy cars, built lavish homes and flaunted the power the family wielded in the region.

That power is enormous. The Tuxum clan decides who sells the drinks and who doesn't. In a part of Mexico where soft drinks constitute a major portion of a shop's sales, it means that the Tuxum clan decides who can and can't do business there.

Despite the family monopoly, Coke and Pepsi compete vigorously, Morquecho said. They put distributorships right next to each other and engage in price wars. A Coke in these small villages costs half of what it might cost in larger cities.

Sales volume more than compensates for low price.

"It's cheaper to buy Coca-Cola than to buy milk in the city," said Miguel Rolland, a priest who for years has worked with Indian groups in Chiapas. "Indians here have Coca-Cola once or twice a day."

Adriana Valladares, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola de Mexico, said per capita consumption in Mexico of Coca-Cola products is the highest in the world.

"It's a reflection of how Coca-Cola has become integrated into the culture," she said.

In some areas, the lack of clean drinking water makes Coca-Cola the beverage of choice. And Rus said Coke even contributed to the government's reformist goal of curbing alcoholism among the indigenous population.

When Coke arrived on the scene, Indian elders already were looking to substitute the homemade rum they call pox (pronounced posh) as they realized the damage it wreaked on their livers.

Soon, festive occasions that had once called for sharing pox were instead marked with the purchase of round after round of the curvy Coke bottles.

Baptisms are among the most festive of those occasions. The parents invite friends to come "hug" the baby, which means to share a drink with them. Rus said members of the family try to outdo each other in offering their hospitality.

One can guess a guest's prestige by the number of bottles that collect at his feet as he sits chatting with family members.

"In the last 25 years or so the value of soft drinks instead of pox has become even more pronounced," Rus said.

The move away from pox to Coke and Pepsi even sparked religious conflicts that roiled this area in the 1970s.

At that time, Protestant evangelists started making inroads in the area, claiming converts from among the local religion, a syncretic version of Catholicism that was rejected by the Vatican.

Rituals, drinking linked.

Sergio Castro Martínez, who runs a museum about highland Indians in nearby San Cristóbal de las Casas, said much of the religion revolved around the drinking of pox in rituals and celebrations.

It also involved special jobs, both secular and ecclesiastical, that are passed on from year to year among community members.

But as the Christian converts turned down alcohol, they also turned down these duties. Angry leaders began expelling them from their communities. Invitations to drink pox instead of Coca-Cola became a test of loyalty to the old ways.

Those who opted for Protestant evangelism settled in large "refugee" neighborhoods outside San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Over the years, however, Coke and Pepsi became so ubiquitous that neither the Chamulans nor the Protestants could be identified by what they drank.

Morquecho said the wealth generated by distributorships also enabled the cola lords to turn to another profitable business: money lending, at exorbitant interest rates of 10 percent to 20 percent per month, to laborers traveling to the United States.

"They are financing the trips of undocumented people to the United States," Morquecho said. "The Chamula Indian has to lay out about $3,000 for the trip, but since the family stays behind, repayment is guaranteed. Even if the person dies, he has a relative from whom they can take what little the family has."

Unlike in several other parts of the world, the one thing that Coke is not in this isolated corner of Mexico is a symbol of American cultural imperialism.

For instance, in 1994, the neo-Marxist Zapatista Army of National Liberation launched a rebellion against the central government to protest globalization policies. In particular, the Zapatistas targeted the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Locals here said the Zapatistas periodically tried to block the company's trucks and organize boycotts against Coca-Cola. The efforts never caught on.

"The Zapatistas drink Coke just like everybody else," Morquecho said. "It just doesn't make any difference."