Quinua: The Ancient Super-Food of the Future… and 2013

My fellow gringos, it has been far too long.  Let’s break radio silence with the happy news that Evo Morales has been named the Quinoa Special Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Assuming western popular interpretations of the Mayan calendar are incorrect and the world does not end (sorry, I’m currently thinking about these questions), 2013 will be the International Year of Quinua.

I love quinua.  I can’t wait to get quispina in our local coffee shops. Yum!

What strikes me most about this conversation about quinua is the convergence of temporalities in its praise.  Don’t get me wrong, quinua is delicious.  But so are many other foods, and we don’t talk about their deliciousness in identical ways.  If one wants to sing the praises of soda or twinkies, one is not going to do that with the same language one lauds a filet mignon or an heirloom tomato.  So let us consider for a moment how people talk about quinua, somewhat independently from its wonderfulness.

Quinua is not new.  It was domesticated centuries ago and has been part of Andean diets since long before 1492.  This is emphasized in its marketing in the U.S. — it’s the grain of the Inca and of Andean tradition.  The claim that it is part of food security in the Andes — and could be in other parts of the world — is not a stretch either. In fact, this is not the first time that an Andean domesticate has had the potential to change the world’s diet.  Potatoes revolutionized the world, producing far more calories per acre than wheat, and allowing for in situ storage that protected crops from requisitioning by marauding armies in Europe.  The history of the potato is well-documented and studied, and an amazing example of how a single domesticate can change world history.

Potatoes have a couple other advantages over quinua, which may not be evident to people who haven’t tried producing them.  Having farmed potatoes in Bolivia and the U.S., and helped with quinua harvest, threshing, and cooking in Bolivia, I can say that potatoes are far less work.  Threshing quinua is among the hardest physical labor I have ever done.  In addition, quinua is susceptible to hail damage, which is common in the Andes.  So while quinua is both delicious and nutritious, it is also riskier to grow and requires far more labor, most of which is done by hand.  That non-mechanization is used as further evidence of quinua’s traditional, ancient nature in its marketing abroad.

Morales has claimed that NASA identified quinua as ideal food for astronauts.  I am fascinated by this intersection of the ancient/traditional and the futuristic/technological.  Astronaut food is generally distinguished more by its modernist scientific processing than by its ingredients.  I’m not an expert on feeding astronauts, but a wikipedia overview gives a sense that space food is culturally defined and specific to particular astronaut programs, even though it is generally dehydrated and vacuum sealed.  Commercially available space foods focus on methods of preserving, rather than ingredients themselves.  Even NASA’s webpage profile of Michele Perchonok, the Space Shuttle Food System Manager, notes that

Food is very important to today’s astronauts. It provides them with both nutrition and a comfort from home…As the shuttle food system manager, Perchonok is responsible for making space food taste good and be good for the crews.

Food tasting good and being comforting is a cultural matter, not a strictly nutritional one.  No human eats everything that is edible to humans (thus allowing me to co-edit – and shamelessly plug – a book such as this one).  I couldn’t find any evidence that quinua has actually been made part of the diet of U.S. astronauts, only that this was proposed in a 1993 NASA technical paper.  Nevertheless, the quinua-NASA connection has been much touted, and not only by President Morales.  Sites dedicated to health foods also highlight this connection (see here, here, here, here, and here, just to link to a few).

Invoking NASA lends scientific legitimacy that connects quinua to the technological future.  The ancient super-grain of the future brings superior health, melding traditional food and nutrition science.  But sending quinua directly into space (really or virutally) elides the actual existing commodity chains that link Bolivian quinua growers to U.S. quinua consumers.  Quinua becomes science fiction come true — the perfect nutrition for human progress writ large against the cosmos.

We (by which I mean U.S. consumers) have good reasons to want to ignore the realities of the quinua commodity chain.  Quinua tastes good, and it has taken off in U.S. markets.  I can now buy it in my rural PA grocery store.  It’s a great gluten-free alternative to wheat (for pastas, for example).  But what does all this mean for those who produce it?

The New York Times and Time have both reported that the foreign demand for quinua has made it too expensive for many Bolivians to buy.  In fact, the NYT cites evidence that malnutrition of children has climbed in quinua producing regions as quinua became more profitable to export.  Hardly the outcome we western quinua-lovers would wish for — to take the ancient grain of the future out of the mouths of its potential future farmers.

Some might point out that the transition in the Andes to cheaper and more processed foods (rice, wheat, sugar) is not new, but this is reinforced by price.  If people cannot afford to feed their children quinua, those children will not come to see it as an essential part of their cuisine.  There are complicated links betwee economic access and culinary desire.

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You Can’t Tune Out this Revolution

In the sunny city of Casma, a provincial capital on Peru’s northern Central coast, there is no rest before the upcoming political elections. Normally you would expect that political candidates are exhausting themselves by shaking hands, kissing babies, and making promises. But in Casma it’s the constituents who get no rest. Political campaigns in Peru are heavily mediated and constitute an unavoidable presence during election cycles.

While many people here have televisions, cable, or satellite dishes, political campaigns are waged in an open-air format. Walls are painted with huge, colorful murals depicting a candidate’s name, the office for which they are running, and a big, simple logo crossed out with a thin ‘X’ (image below). Confusing to the foreigner, the ‘X’ isn’t part of a subtle smear campaign, but rather instructs even the illiterate precisely how to vote. Crossing out a logo on the ballot is a vote for that party. The most omnipresent form of campaigning, however, is the use of loudspeakers to blast party music, promises, and a familiar repertoire of popular songs in order to make sure that no one sleeps on a promising candidate.

In the early afternoon Casma is typically a sleepy, quiet place. About 225 miles north of Lima, Peru’s capital city, Casma is a hard-working town that straddles the Panamerican Highway. Surrounded by expansive agricultural fields where asparagus, avocados, passion fruit, and mangos are grown for export, Casma serves as the financial and judicial hub of the coastal region of Peru’s Ancash department (kind of like an American or Mexican state). Casmeños (as people from Casma are called) perhaps unknowingly follow Ben Franklin’s advice for wealth and health. They get up early and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Whether they work in the fields, or own them, or run the banks, loan agencies, or notaries that service the agricultural industry, Casmeños never fail to rest for a few hours in the early afternoon before returning to work from 4 to 8pm. However, during this election cycle, things are different.

It’s not even 4 yet and a hip-hop song sampling the infectious twang from Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On” informs me to “…marca asi, por la bandera.” I should “…mark the flag, just like this.” In other words, when I go to the polls, I should cast my vote by putting an ‘X’ through the red and white flag that represents the political party Movimiento Nuevo Izquierda. This endless barrage of propaganda is clearly effective, as I can’t get it out of my head. What’s interesting about the intensity and techniques of campaigning in Peru is that voting is obligatory. Unlike the United States where candidates must not only earn people’s votes, but also convince them to vote, in Peru everyone over 18 is required to vote. So if voting is obligatory, why all the noise?

I asked a few members of the Movimiento Nueva Izquierda what all the noise was about. Laughingly, Guido Luna, a candidate for the local cabinet, turned the question around on me. Resting his hand on a three-wheeled motorized rickshaw fitted with two huge loudspeakers (image below) blaring party propaganda he asked, “Elections aren’t like this in the United States?” Guido explained that they use these off road tricycles to broadcast propaganda in places where people may not get to see television ads. Indeed, much of the area’s population lives away from city amenities, at the edges of the rocky hills that emerge from the green Casma River valley. While some of these villages have only recently received electricity, it seems that most everyone has a TV.

Lucho Muriel explains that there’s more to it than supplementing television. He is running for mayor of Casma with the political party Fuerza 2011. Fuerza 2011’s main candidate is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of imprisoned ex-president Alberto Fujimori, who will run for president in next year’s elections. While everyone agrees that the countryside’s vote is important, Lucho explains that there are other reasons for taking drastic measures in publicity. He explained that circulating loudspeakers and parades of chanting supporters are extremely important in demonstrating a candidate’s ability to motivate people. He explained, “I can say to someone ‘look, I’ll give you 10 nuevos soles (less than $4US) if you do a lap around the whole town chanting my name. I’ll get 50 people to do that and everyone will see this and think ‘man, Lucho gets people moving.’”

He asked me “when you go to the poll, are you going to vote for the guy who’s got the crowd, or the other guy?” There is a logic to this that echoes ancient political practices of populism and patronage described by scholars of Andean prehistory. I asked if it wasn’t the case that another candidate could buy the same crowd.” “Sure,” he said, “and they do. But it doesn’t matter. One way or the other, when voters see you motivating people they don’t care why, they just know you can get things done.”

It’s important to get things done before the election in Peru because elections really can be a revolution. Individual candidates don’t just take office when they’re elected. They bring in entire government structures. The old administration, from municipal workers to administrators, may be fired and replaced with members of the new party (except for some concessions to runners-up). In a highly bureaucratic country like Peru, an enduring gift from the colonial era, a change in administration really can be a revolution. So buying crowds to convince the masses is as much a political strategy as it is preemptive proof of one’s political power.

Recently a locally famous singer of the traditional huayno music style staged a performance right in the middle of Casma’s main northbound street (which is, in fact, part of the Panamerican Highway). Right next to the recently renovated San Martin Park, traffic was stopped for nearly four hours while Sonia Morales sang in support of her husband, a candidate in the upcoming elections, so loudly that the windows in nearby buildings rattled and the floor of my hotel room shook. The seismic nature of this rally struck me; perhaps volume may be just as important as the message here. The candidate who shouts loudest is most likely to be heard. But something else occurred to me as strange. During this political concert plenty of people gathered before the stage, but very few were dancing. It wasn’t like a concert at all. I wondered if, despite all the fanfare, people weren’t hungry for some clear, concrete explanations of political platforms. Maybe they wanted a debate more than a concert.

Travel is valuable for revealing to us how things might otherwise be in our own country. I wonder, for example, if political campaigns in the United States would be more like those in Casma if we had more than two viable parties. In other words, perhaps the political cacophony here is a tolerable correlate to actually having options at the ballot. In any case, Election Day in Peru is October 3rd, and from what I’m told things will only intensify. It’s hard to imagine louder concerts or more numerous political parades. Perhaps the main square will once again be transformed into a stage, this time for candidates to explain their positions. And it will be interesting to see what happens after the election. Will administrative change be the revolution everyone says it will be, or will life go on as normal? Recalling the fallout after recent elections in other parts of the world, I asked a Casmeño if election results brought chaos and rioting. “No,” he explained, “things here are pretty tranquil after elections.” Maybe all the pre-election activity is a safety-valve for potential disorder. After all the noise, maybe people just need a rest.

Voting ends today for Lake Titicaca as one of “New Seven Natural Wonders of the World.”

The campaign to have Lake Titicaca listed as one of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World is coming to a close.  I’ve written about this here before.  The Bolivian government is taking this campaign very seriously.  Various Bolivian officials (including the Prefect of the Department of La Paz and the Viceminister of Tourism) are setting up voting stations around La Paz and El Alto.  Of course, winning this campaign could be a serious boost for tourism to Bolivia — so this is not just a matter of national pride, but could have economic benefits as well.

You can vote here.  Voting ends today!

Bicentennial Symbols

The other predominant big event(s) (aside from swine flu) in La Paz right now center on bicentennial festivities.

This summer/winter is the bicentennial of cry for independence. La Paz is festooned with banners commemorating this anniversary and there are on-going cultural events to celebrate. There have been extensive building and clean up projects in the name of the bicentennial – including the installation of more playgrounds, public toilets, and other public services.

Yesterday the Prado was closed to traffic most of the day, as it is most Sundays. As we strolled up and down, we passed several performance stages. One was for guitar/traditional music, one was for young children performing in folkloric dances (the banner behind this one claimed that this was to preserve and valorize “authentic” culture), and one was for the Miss Cholita 2009/Bicentennial pageant .

Why is this notable? Well, we shouldn’t forget that independence was not fought in the name or interest of indigenous peoples (and indeed post-independence indigenous peoples often lost community rights and standing in the eyes of the state). That a prominent symbol of 200 years of independence (sort of) is someone who needs a certain command of local history, indigenous language, and dress is an important reminder of how things have changed.

However, this is also indicative of the Andean-centrism of the current constructions of “authentic” Bolivian identity (all the young folkloric dancers were performing morenadas, caporales, etc., in other words, dances viewed by many as representative of the Andes). To be fair, we *are* in La Paz, so that some relation between local (as in Altiplano/Dpto. of La Paz) expressions and current social symbology is to be expected. But for a Sunday festival proclaiming the liberation of *Bolivia* (not just La Paz) I was struck by this omission (I did not notice even a superficial reference to other regions).

Finally, in a discomfiting twist (to me), while the performances were occurring in the middle of the Prado right across from the Monje Campero was a gigantic Venezuelan flag + “information tent.” The flag itself dwarfed the Bolivian flags there – it was probably 20 feet long by 10 or more feet high. The tent was the largest of all of the activity tents and information booths on the Prado and occupied prime real estate in the center of all the activity. There were representatives of Venezuela handing out small Bolivian and Venezuelan flags, as well as pamphlets and information about Venezuelan aid programs and policies. The tent was packed with people every time we strolled by. It struck me as a rather transparent symbol of the current relationship between Venezuela and Bolivia and perhaps a (yet more asymmetrical) future relationship.

A New Spy Scandal: Bond. James Bond.

There’s been a lot of attention recently to the faux pas of the new James Bond film, which filmed Bolivian scenes in Chile with Chilean actors and even Chilean monuments (ironically, marking the victory of Chile over Bolivia in the War of the Pacific). Reporting on it are The Mirror (London), the Telegraph (London), Reuters (UK), Bloomberg (NYC), LA Times (Los Angeles), and This is London (which gives a detailed account of the protest, including Mayor Carlos Lopez of Banquedano driving his car onto the set to disrupt filming, and the most un-Bond-like fleeing of the main actor).

Chileans feel that it was filmed in their country because theirs is more “modern” (see The Mirror article). They object to being dressed up as “Bolivians”, who they see as less educated and more “Indian” (with all the racialism that might imply).

Bolivians are also angry. An open letter (printed in La Razon) by Bolivian Vice-Minister of Cultural Development Pablo Groux objects to the stigmatization of Bolivia as a place unfit for movie filming, as well as to Bolivians as drug lords and narco-trafficantes.

In response to the outcry by both countries, the film’s co-producer, Michael G. Wilson, stated the film was “set in Bolivia because the narrative for the story wouldn’t work in Chile” (quoted in the Bloomberg article). The plot has something to do with drug trafficking and an attempt at a military coup. This makes the filmmakers’ claims of ignorance ring true, since they are not only unaware of the history of the War of the Pacific, but, it seems, they also know little about Chile under Pinochet. Certainly Mayor Carlos Lopez of Banquedano had Pinochet in mind: “For a town that has just 1,000 residents, sending in special forces and water cannon, preventing people from walking in the street, reminded me of the worst of the Pinochet years,” Lopez was quoted as saying in the Reuters article.

Since some of the portrayed villages are also coastal fishing villages, one also wonders if the filmmakers’ are aware that Bolivia is currently landlocked, or whether they are going to try to fool their audiences into thinking that the Pacific Ocean is really Lake Titicaca.

But what bothers me is the underlying North Atlantic assumption that this is a strange case of nationalism gone awry, of people hung up on events of the deep past. The War of the Pacific ended in 1883; most Americans think that would be — and should be — old news, and wonder why Bolivians and Chileans alike still think these events are relevant to their lives. For example, the LA Times says this is something the two countries “haven’t gotten over” — a throwaway comments that dismisses why it might be seen as still relevant.

I can’t speak to this from a Chilean viewpoint (it would be great if someone would). But for Bolivians I spoke to, the War of Pacific is important because it is seen a turning point in their own history, a turning point that leads to their increasing impoverishment and marginalization. The loss of the sea coast has become a symbol of something much larger: Bolivia’s position in a world economy, and the constant struggle of the majority of her citizens against poverty.

The Litoral is commemorated at civic ceremonies throughout the highlands, especially by schoolchildren. Throughout their education, children are taught that the Litoral is part of Bolivia. They march in the Dia del Mar. They write letters to the President of the U.N. They receive Jimmy Carter, a supporter of the cause.

But the most eloquent expression of this is during local civic ceremonies, such as for Bolivian independence day on August 6. I watched the celebrations in the small, altiplano village where I did fieldwork. The children did quasi-military marches around the town square, pausing to allow chosen pairs of boys and girls, dressed in the tipico dress of one of the nine Bolivian provinces, perform short dances to recorded music. It was a clear message – Bolivia is the sum of the regions, cultures, and peoples who make it up.

But there was another message. When these children were done performing, the Litoral was remembered. She is always a girl, dressed in a long, black, nondescript dress, in shackles fashioned of cardboard. She walks slowly, sadly, dirge-like music crackling from the small boom box. The mood transforms from festive to contemplative. She is not the past. She is the present – Bolivia feminized as a damsel in distress, captive to foreign powers, unable to laugh, dance, or even reproduce.

“The past is not dead. It is not even past.” William Faulkner was right. And once we recognize that, so much outcry over a mere adventure flick seems very reasonable.

Used Clothes, Fake Braids

When I was starting my fieldwork, a woman asked me if I washed my clothes. I admitted I paid someone to do it. But what about in the United States? she pressed. Of course, I answered, there I wash my clothes myself. She then told me that many Bolivians believe that Americans do not wash their clothes at all — they simply wear them and then throw them out, and then they are brought to El Alto and sold in its sprawling street market. While not (usually) literally true, I take this as a serious commentary on how American consumerism looks from the outside.

I am fascinated by two stories about Bolivia that have recently captured the attention of the American press. Both have been republished in a number of newspapers. The first concerned the young lady who lost the Miss Cholita title for wearing fake braids. The other was about how Evo wants to end the Bolivian trade in used American clothing which is undercutting the Bolivian manufacture of clothing.

It seems to me that these stories are related. Both concern whether identity is produced through interactions with material culture. Can one be a “real” Cholita without braids? Young Bolivian women do dress up as cholitas for entradas and festivals. And some young women also move back and forth between fashions, sometimes spending time “de vestido” before returning to dressing “de pollera,” or switching between the two depending on social context.

Dress — and hair — are not permanent. And yet both are part of larger networks of cultural practices, material goods, and economic networks. Both these articles point to the fact that in Bolivia this is recognized to be the case. What surprises me is that seems to interest the U.S. media more than other important issues in Bolivia today.