Vegetarianism in Mexico

In the preface to the book The Sociodemographic Effects of the Crisis in Mexico, Selby and Browning wrote:

Unemployment, and underemployment and the fear of losing one's living became paramount features of many Mexican families' lives. Older people, once laid off, could not hope to the foothold in the formal sector of the economy. A specialist carpenter who did fine work for builders and contractors could find himself out of work and reduced to building pencil boxes to be sold by his children in the school or from door to door, and this was a terrible blow to his dignity. Children could not afford to set up their own households because of financial stringencies, and although staying on to live with the parents could not be accounted a hardship, it betrayed the implicit promise of eventual independence that Mexican young people had counted on for years. Diets were changed: meat eaten less regularly, recipes from the rancho revived, and in some cases vegetarianism obliged, even if hunger did not return. Social pathologies increased, including crime and alcoholism. In the middle class, luxuries were foregone, children were taken out of private school, and families were obliged for the first time to go to the doctors in government service in Seguro Social, rather than to their private physician. Vacations eliminated, respectability imperiled, children's futures truncated, and a kind of lace-curtain penuriousness installed which, in the end, is defeating to the spirit. Families turning en masse to petty commerce, or to the provision of respectable services (catering, photography) which they had eschewed before. These are not tales of catastrophe, but years of worry take their toll, and breed a kind of pessimism and apathy that betokens the loss of control of one's life and one's destiny.


There is a sentimental reason for this book, as well as an academic one. With all the hoopla surrounding North American integration, the recovery of official party's fortunes in Mexico in the elections of 1991 and 1992, and with the emergence of the received opinion in North American that Mexico is on the road to recovery, it could be easy to forget what the Mexican people went through in the past ten years. But the onset of the devaluation crisis in December of 1994 reminds us that Mexico is not out of the woods yet, and that the same people are paying for the continuing crisis as before: the popular clases, what we call "ordinary Mexicans". There is no Mexican literature of the common man, but common Mexicans have had to summon up all their powers of endurance in the last decade, more than at any time since the Revolution, and their suffering should not be forgotten. The effects of this crisis may well be with them for a long time to come in the truncated lives of its survivors. Let us not forget the demeaning encounters of fathers when they confessed to their children that they could no longer find jobs of any dignity and had to rely on their children's wages, or what mothers had to say to their families when they concocted recipes "learned in the rancho" for newly vegetarian diets, and how young women felt when they were compelled to do the meanest of tasks for the meanest of wages, obliging their hire by accepting miserable wages in the work place in that ugly transformation of Say's Law which tells people that there will always be a demand for the doing of awful work for awful wages, if awful wages are all there are to be had. No need to be sentimental for the "common man of Mexico" is a realistic person, And sentimentality would belie their experience. But no need to forget either and divagate into some mindless cheer for capitalism, when so much that is bad has been done in its name and for its saving, and so much that is bad remains to be made up.

In this article, we will deal with the diet-related sentence: "Diets were changed: meat eaten less regularly, recipes from the rancho revived, and in some cases vegetarianism obliged, even if hunger did not return."  Our reference point will be the 2003 TGI Mexico study.  This is a survey of 8,290 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old conducted during the year 2003 in Mexico.  During the survey process, the survey respondents were shown the statement "I am a vegetarian" and 4.6% said that they completely agreed with the statement.  This is a low incidence, but it projects to 1,585,000 persons within the survey universe.

In the first chart below, we show the incidences of vegetarianism by age/sex groups.  This distribution does not exhibit any monotonic trend.  There are any number of plausible explanation.  On one hand, there may be the hypothesis that this is a result of generational patterns, which means that people within certain age groups are more likely to be vegetarian (or not) according to the traditional practice.  On the other hand, there may be the hypothesis that this is a result of secular changes, in which we are observing the low vegetarianism among the 20-24 and 45-54 age groups due to the specific historical experiences.  Both these hypotheses can be supported if we have a time series of data.  For the first hypothesis, we would see the exact same pattern over.  For the second hypothesis, we would see the same peaks and valleys moving on as time goes by.  Unfortunately, we only have the data for one moment in time.

(data source:  2003 TGI Mexico)

But our stated intent is to look at how vegetarianism relates to economic conditions.  In the following chart, we show the incidences of vegetarianism by socio-economic level and consumer confidence (based upon the question: "We are interested in how people are getting along financially these days. Would you say that you and your family are better off, or worse off, or about the same financially than you were a year ago?").  In both cases, vegetarianism is more prevalent among the groups who are more stressed economically.  This would seem to support the hypothesis that vegetarianism is traceable to economic conditions.

(data source:  2003 TGI Mexico)

But it is basically wrong to assume that economic factors are the sole determinants of human behavior.  While Marx and Engels may have theorized that the material "base" (e.g. the mode of production and the underlying system of economic forces and their relationships) does condition the "superstructure" (e.g. social institutions such as family, education, religion, politics and art), they could never suggested that the relationship is one of total pre-determination.  In the next chart, we show the incidences of vegetarianism first by those people who completely with certain attitudinal statements and then by those people who are currently using prescription drugs for certain medical conditions.  The incidences within these subgroups are all significantly higher than the total average of 4.6%.  In the first instance, it is clear that vegetarianism is correlated with a health-conscious lifestyle.  In the second instance, it is clear that vegetarianism is often recommended for people who suffer from serious health problems.

(data source:  2003 TGI Mexico)

We will also suggest that there is in fact absolutely nothing wrong or embarrassing with vegetarian recipes concocted in the ranchos once upon a time.   In New habits, a fatter Mexico, it was pointed out that the country has a more serious problem due to unhealthy modern foods and lifestyles:

The theme of Mexico's Revolution Day parade is physical fitness, but this November's event showed that many Mexicans are marching briskly toward the same bad eating habits and weight-related health risks as their northern neighbors.  Bureaucrats wore baggy sweat suits that couldn't hide growing calves. Pom-pom girls sported spare tires. And some of the wrestlers were clearly bulking up -- intentionally or not.  And so it was with the spectators, who munched on tamales, potato chips and imitation pork rinds made from wheat flour, along with cups of sugary soft drinks.

Suddenly, Mexicans are nearly as overweight as their U.S. counterparts. Among industrialized countries, Mexico is at the bottom of the list in education and healthcare but No. 2 in obesity -- right behind the United States and before the United Kingdom.  ''People have become sedentary,'' said Hector Hernandez, 43, a Mexico City office worker who carries a few extra pounds.

The rapid urbanization of Mexico, which gives more people access to modern conveniences and processed foods, is creating a nation of overweight couch potatoes, experts say.  But what's so surprising about Mexico's growing weight problem is that it comes in a nation where nearly half the 100 million people live in poverty. Observers blame radical changes in eating habits and less physically demanding lifestyles, caused by what some see as the Americanization of Mexico.  The consequences for Mexico's stretched-to-the-limit public healthcare system are ominous. Already, Mexico ranks among the top 10 nations in the world in the percentage of diabetes cases.


An average mom-and-pop store in a typical Mexican neighborhood has a selection of chips and cakes and cookies and chocolates and candied fruit so extensive that there is little room for anything else. Soft drinks dominate every cooler, and Mexico is No. 1 in the per capita consumption of Coca-Cola.  Now, having effectively caught up to the United States in the junk-food craze, however, Mexico is slowly coming to realize that it may be time to slim down, experts said.  ''People are much more conscious that they have to change their behavior, and this is a good thing,'' said Suverza, ``but everybody's looking for an easy remedy.''

(posted by Roland Soong, 01/03/2004)

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