coca loca

Empty 2.5 – liter coke bottles fill a refrigerator- sized cardboard box at the foot of my host family’s stairs. I’m not sure why we save them rather than send them out for the recycling. A future science project? A hanging planter in the works? I’ve never asked. But they’re there, vestiges of lunches past.

In Mexico, the tap water is too concentrated with minerals like calcium to drink. My host family stocks 20-liter bottles, and water delivery is a profession in of itself. But at lunch and dinner, water doesn’t fill our plastic cups. Party-sized bottles of refrescos stand on the table like centerpieces and candle sticks, blocking the view of the person seated across. And while the cleverly named Limon & Nada brand is often showcased, more often than not, it’s coca. Brown fizzy cola with the iconic red label.

Mexico has a coke problem, and I don’t mean cocaine. According to The Guardian, “excessive consumption of soda kills twice as many Mexicans as trade in the other kind of coke.” Type 2 diabetes is the nation’s leading cause of death. A 10% soda tax eludes effort toward a solution. But as my students will tell you, a slight up-charge doesn’t deter consumers from buying soda; they’re not about to replace coke with water just because it costs a few cents more.

In the U.S., we’re willing to pay extra for “Mexican coke.” Mexican coke means a glass bottle filled with real cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. It also makes you look hip. To soda lovers, the difference in taste is enviable, and the imported curvy glass bottle warrants an up-charge. After all, a cold beverage always tastes better when served in glass. That, you can’t argue with.

On a recent trip to New York City, I ate in a trendy café where bagel breakfast sandwiches cost upwards of twelve dollars, and coffee, more than six. Mexican cokes lined the fridge beside coconut waters and cold-pressed green juices. The same crowd that supports the “locavore” movement– snap chatting their trips to the farmers’ markets– seemed to patronize this trendy bagel shop, buying Mexican coke. The logic feels fuzzy — contradictory, even. How do the global and local movements clash? Is choosing Mexican coke over the domestic product a rebellion against big-corporation corn syrup producers? Or do people simply think it tastes better?

As Anne Glusker points out over at the Smithsonian, choosing a coke bottle’s country of origin is arbitrary; Coca Cola is a global brand. If it’s carbonated, sweet, and comes in a bottle, more likely than not, it’s owned by the same corporation. It’s country of origin– the U.S., Mexico, or another home of one of more than 900 Coca Cola plants in the world — doesn’t seem to matter as long as you want to drink it.

I grew up thinking of soda as a thing of restaurants. Sprite mixed into Shirley Temples for special occasions. But as an everyday commodity? As something the grocery shopper picks up out of habit, cocoa cola quickly becomes like a carton of milk or a pack of cigarettes—a habitual purchase; an unquestionable necessity. More than just a household brand.

I may’ve only taken two marketing courses in college before succumbing to complete boredom, but I stuck around long enough to get the 101 level concepts tied to brand relationships and consumer-brand identification. I wondered, how can a community identify so strongly with a product that offers absolutely no benefit for its people? No nutritional benefits. No financial benefits. In a country without drinkable tap water, why guzzle a beverage that literally dehydrates the body? Was Coca Cola bringing employment and cash to the Mexican market? Is it benefiting families? I asked my host family these questions, and they shrugged and pulled another bottle from the fridge.

After the first few weeks of staying with my host family, getting into the routine of the TV blaring as we sat down to eat at 3 p.m., I asked the table if they were going to stop buying coke. There was talk of a Mexico-wide boycott of the product in the Trump Era. With the drama of shifting NAFTA policies and Trump’s unending insults to our southern neighbors, Mexicans (rightly so) began to talk about avoiding U.S. companies. Why should they pour money into something that is not theirs? Why not make a statement with the “power of the purse” and stop contributing to another nation’s financial gain?

The teenager at the table laughed, surprised that a pura gringa would suggest any attempt hurt the U.S. economy. But I wasn’t even thinking that big. It made sense — make a statement by putting your money elsewhere, and buying Mexican products instead.

But buying local, I came to learn, was messier than I’d thought. I’d been shopping at Bodega Aurrera, the grocery chain only a 10-minute walk from the house. I refused to shop at Walmart, which, yes, exists in Tehuacán, along with Sam’s Club, Home Depot, and Office Depot. (U.S. corporations are never out of reach.) But a month later, a local would clue me in to my misguided shopping. Bodega Aurrera, which originated as a local Mexican company, was bought by Walmart in 1997. I was a bit behind on the news.

And as it turns out, those cleverly named Limón & Nada bottles are produced and filled by Coca Cola Corporation, anyway. Even Peñafiel, a mineral water and soda factory based in Tehuacán, is owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. U.S. ownership is ubiquitous. I hadn’t ever taken interest in the who’s who of the carbonated beverage business. Before Mexico, it seemed irrelevant to me; I don’t drink soda, and especially not coke. But this is Refresco Nation, where sugary drinks are as much a part of the meal as the handmade tortillas from the señora at the corner. Can an iconic “global product” play an important role in a single country’s culture? Who’s to claim coke as their own? In Mexico, the ties are tight.

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