Holy Fizz: Rethinking the Role of Coca-Cola in Rural Mexico

by by Julieta Cárdenas

1906: “Great National Temperance Beverage”

1937: “America’s Favorite Moment”

1945: “ A Passport to Refreshment”

1948: “ Where There’s A Coke There’s Hospitality”

1955: “Americans Prefer Taste”

1958: “Refreshment the Whole World Prefers”

1975: “Look Up America”

1985: “America’s Real Choice”...

2010:  I’ve seen more advertisements for “America’s Favorite Moment” in Mexico than I have in the United States. There isn’t a gas station, restaurant, or convenience store without a hand painted sign on its facade that advertises proudly: we have Coke.

I’d always thought Coca-Cola was a symbol of America, a symbol of globalization, of exploitation, and of imperialism. After taking a Development Studies course at Brown, I figured people in third-world countries didn’t actually want to drink Coca-Cola; I thought it was a matter of limited choices, the ease of shipping carbonated beverages to places lacking potable water on account of non-existent infrastructure, or else infrastructure in a state of perpetual construction. But that didn’t seem to be the case in Mexico: The tap water will make you sick, but there are still plenty of places to buy liters of clean bottled water. Despite that, the people of  Chamula seem to prefer buying, selling, and drinking Coke. The local embrace of what I felt was the exportation of manipulative American advertisement, culture, and values floored me.

I sensed that there was pride involved in carrying the beverage in your restaurant. Over the summer, while in Chiapas, a southern region of Mexico, I wondered if Mexicans carried the beverage in their stores because tourists from around the world would recognize it, feel a sense of home, of hospitality, and might stop by, eat, and pay for a meal, the Coke serving to dilute the foreignness of it all. Coke, a symbol of the first world, could make squeamish tourists feel comfortable in the poorest regions of Mexico. I wondered if the corollary was true—if carrying Coke made Mexicans feel more cosmopolitan, made them feel that they had something in common with the gringos who swarmed their cities in the summers. Or if maybe it just tasted good.

Coke and Candles

In Chamula, Coke is everywhere. Not just in small businesses and eateries, but also places of worship. Within the ash-covered walls of the Church of San Juan, women wearing black llama-fur skirts kneel on floors flooded with pine needles. Men and women alike melt the bottoms of the candles and use the liquid wax as an adhesive to stick candles of different colors onto the floor, arranging intricate, abstract patterns. These patterns are complemented by the carefully arranged coke bottles that sit adjacent to them. I look aroundthere are many, many gallon bottles of Coke on the floor of this church. The aromatic warmth from the pine and smoke is contrasted by the cold-red plastic label of the bottles. All around me, people are using these branded, corporate soft-drink bottles for prayer.

Chamula is an autonomous town about 30 minutes by van from San Cristóbal de las Casas. The people there, of Mayan descent, gained their freedom from the Mexican government and Catholic Church by ejecting foreigners from their town in the 1970s. Chamula maintains its own leadership, police force, and prison system. It is independent to such an extent that it forbids people born elsewhere to live in it or join its culture: that is to say, it is endogamous.

I had come to Chamula because I had remembered the town from a previous visit when I was fourteen, and wanted to revisit and try to learn more about the culture than I had before. I had also wanted to get some pictures, but photography was forbidden inside the church, and  I had to ask permission before taking pictures of anyone. These rules, although reasonable, made me feel like an outsider in a town where, ironically, residents make a considerable profit from sales of artisan crafts to visitors. Although the small town is a site of tourism, as a non-resident of Chamula you cannot help but be constantly reminded that you are only a visitor.

It was peculiar to observe an exclusive community—stringent about upholding a boundary between the indigenous and the imported—also incorporate a first-world soft drink into their religious practices. Luckily our guide, a man from San Cristóbal who spoke English, Spanish, and Tzotzil—the Chamula Mayan dialect—offered an explanation.  After leaving the church, we headed to the home of a local woman, who demonstrated her weaving techniques on a handmade loom with homespun thread, and gave us homemade tortillas sprinkled with pumpkin powder and rolled into delicious cylinders. Standing in the path of a number of hens, and against a backdrop of finished textiles, our guide elaborated on the significance of Coke in religious terms. The people of Chamula believe in a syncretic religion—a hybrid of Mayan and Catholic beliefs—that mixes the iconography of the Saints with more ancient symbols like colored corn, which comes in red, yellow, black, and white varieties, each color bearing spiritual significance. This color symbolism manifests throughout the church, in candles made from animal fat or beeswax and most prominently in half-filled glasses of vibrantly colored beverages. Among these beverages are Pox (pronounced posh)—a white sugarcane-based liquor—various orange-flavored drinks, and, of course, Coca-Cola.

A Refreshed Perspective

Coke, distinctively dark brown, has become a representation of the black corn that is sacred to the people of Chamula and to many of Mayan decent. (Black candles are thought to get rid of envy. White is for the tortillas, an offering to the Gods. Yellow is for money, and red is for health.) Each color means something, and the specific placement of the candles on the floor represents different votive pleas to the Saints.

Coca-Cola has not only found its way into Chamula culture for its color. It serves a functional physical cathartic purpose as well—the gaseous qualities of Coke make it invaluablein the context of the preexisting religion; its carbonation has taken on spiritual significance. The Chamula people believe that burping is a purgative mechanism. It provides an outlet for the body and the soul, a release for the negative energy that affects a person in need of healing.

As I walked through Chamula I realized that Coca-Cola, which I assumed was an invasive and stubbornly American substance, is actually a malleable symbol, adaptable to many societies and time periods. This symbol, an icon of American leisure, a marketing campaign that is so widespread that we forget to notice its presence in South Africa’s World Cup, may actually be the “Refreshment the Whole World Prefers.” That is to say, at the very least Coca-Cola has been re-appropriated by the very cultures it once invaded. Maybe this isn’t about Coca-Cola. Maybe it is about misconceptions of American presence in other countries. Perhaps these reflections are about guilt, about making Coca-Cola the bad guy in hopes of alienating myself from the consequences of the Mexican-American War or about feeling guilty for not actively protesting against immigration laws in Arizona and then pouring this guilt into the image of Coca-Cola. I assumed a power dynamic that I did not see manifest, not realizing that cultures have as much of an effect on an imported object as the imported object may have on the culture.

Julieta Cárdenas B’13 actually prefers Pepsi.