Chewing away a boom


A fascinating history of chicle production sheds light on the fragility of extractive industries
in Latin America


Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley
Jennifer P. Mathews, with Gillian P. Schultz
2009, University of Arizona Press
142 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE RISE and fall of the chicle industry in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize stands as a testament to the great potential of biodiversity in Latin America but also the unsustainable nature of so many extractive booms.

While contemporary gum companies such as Verve are nobly attempting to work directly with the remaining chicleros – the much-maligned chicle extractors with a legendary wild streak – in an effort to nurture a sustainable, modern boutique industry that provides forest people with viable incomes, the chicle boom, once worth billions of dollars, is well and truly over.

Like rubber latex, this natural product filled to overflowing the coffers of visionary US entrepreneurs, now hailed as pioneers of American capitalism, while the popularity of this product – as witnessed by the chewing gum stains that scar the floors of the world’s shopping centres – eventually germinated its own downfall. Hardly surprising that Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, described the US habit of chewing gum as like a “silent prayer to God-Capital”.

Such was the demand and the scale of competition among gum producers in the heyday of chicle production in the 1930s, that in retrospect it seems inevitable that the forests of sapodilla trees whose secretion was so highly prized would be overexploited and synthetic substitutes would be developed.

Jennifer Mathews’ book provides a unique insight into the history of chicle exploitation from pre-Columbian times to the present. The author examines the use of the sapodilla tree in the Americas since the time of the Aztecs, who maintained strict social norms about chewing that obeyed gender and sexual mores. Men who chewed in public were considered effeminate, and prostitutes were identifiable by their constant clacking.

Even today, chewing retains its social connotations, considered either cool or boorish depending on the context. Emily Post, an authority on etiquette whose name became synonymous in North America with good manners, refused to mention gum chewing in her work until the 1950s – 30 years after the publication of her bestseller Etiquette.

Mathews proceeds to explore in considerable detail the botany of the sapodilla – which is native only to Mesoamerica and the Caribbean but adaptable, enabling its propagation for fruit in the tropics of the Old World – as well as the lifestyles and habits of the legendary chicleros: hard-living and hard-drinking sons of toil.

Corporate history

But it is the corporate history sourcing the fortunes of the large gum barons that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas. Mathews documents both the stratospheric growth of such gum dynasties as the Adams and Wrigley clans while giving the reader great insights into the nature of the relationship between US capital and the Mexican countryside.

It was US entrepreneurs and salesmen who took the indigenous use of chicle into an expanding consumer market in the second half of the 19th century, commercialising its extraction and processing. William Wrigley set the standard in terms of marketing a product that nobody really required by pioneering the use of advertising to link it to popular culture – giving birth to a commercial dynasty whose regnant offspring is even today still ensured a place in the Forbes 400.

As a result, large areas of the Mayan hinterland where chicle extraction was undertaken became dependent economic enclaves, ever more susceptible to fluctuations in price and volume. Mathews points out:

“This unsustainable industry set into motion another so-called collapse of Maya civilization that continues to have an effect today.” [p. 53]

Successive governments in Mexico City allocated large concessions of territory long fought over by Mayan rebels and the Mexican state to the US corporations that sought to develop chicle, turning the product into Mexico’s largest export by 1918. By the early 1920, chicle workers were extracting just under a million kilos per year.

Infrastructure developed around this burgeoning sector – administrative centres, transport systems and work camps – and workers were lured with credit in company stores and cash advances in return for signed contracts guaranteeing the delivery of set amounts of chicle latex later in the season. Although this provided often the only paid labour in these regions and some workers profited, others were exploited by paying high costs for supplies and taxes and suffered ruin.

By the mid to late 1930s extensive and often reckless tapping had begun to generate concerns about sustainability – in 1942 nearly 4 million kilos of chicle was extracted from the Yucatán Peninsula alone, and chicleros were paid by the pound and thus inclined to obtain the greatest harvest in the shortest possible time. Mexico’s government stepped in to regulate the trade, a process that would culminate in protective measures that ultimately harmed the industry. Meanwhile, US companies were already seeking regions outside Latin America in which to relocate production. The rot had set in and was compounded by new US import tariffs and the search for synthetics and new ingredients fuelled by wartime demand for low-cost gum.

As a result, by the 1950s chicle exportation from Latin America was on the decline, the railroads in Quintana Roo were being abandoned, and the workforce was beginning to dwindle. In 1980, the US stopped importing chicle from Mexico altogether, thereby closing a chapter of one of the great success stories of US capitalism.

Gum has not disappeared from our shelves, of course, but technological developments have enabled the mass production of synthetic latex, and chemical innovations such as biodegradable gum are also propelling the industry into the 21st century.

Yet the use of chicle itself as a gum base is all but over, save for the efforts of boutique producers seeking to provide discerning consumers with a more natural product, such as Verve, whose Glee Gum brand provides much needed work for a consortium of chicle co-operatives in Quintana Roo and has an ethical objective: the conviction that tapping chicle is an important part of a sustainable income strategy for forest peoples.

But despite such laudable efforts, Mathews concludes her admirable history by highlighting how dramatic change has resulted in the near extinction of a hardy group of producers, the chicleros, who played a significant role in a truly American industry for predictably limited rewards. She writes:

“An era of synthetic gums ushered in the near death of their profession, and there are only a handful of men that still make a living by passing their days in the jungle collecting chicle latex. Even fewer sons will learn about the plants and animals from their fathers while attempting to scale a sapodilla. The generational changes in this boom-and-bust lifestyle reflect a pattern that has occurred with numerous extractive economies…” [p. 92]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

READ Chopping and chewing: Q&A with Jennifer Mathews

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