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Graveyards Are Filled with Sweet-Tooths and Gluttons: Culture and Food Risk in Sonora

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 569-597 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0027

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Graveyards Are Filled with Sweet-Tooths and Gluttons:
Culture and Food Risk in Sonora


In recent years, different studies in Mexico have recognized the reciprocal influence between diet and culture—the relationship linking production, business, consumption, nutrition, and the production of health risks (Chávez et al. 1994; Nolasco 1994; Martínez and Villezca 2000; Bourges et al. 2001; López 2003;Sandoval and Meléndez 2008). Today, the simple act of eating not only constitutes a cultural phenomenon that nourishes identities but is also a polemical act that presents risks to human health. Its close relationship with various political, ecological, biogenetic, nutritional, and biotechnological aspects has required researchers to give as much attention to the restructuring of the global agro-food system as to the dietary traditions of los pueblos and to the analysis of their symbolic relationships.

In the state of Sonora, studies on cultural food phenomena are still scarce and limited in scope. This is due in part to scant attention paid to the topic and in part to the reductionist ideas about culture that permeate most work. The studies that do exist, in large measure, are prepared for presentations at conferences or are partial results of wider research projects in which references to dietary culture appear as a minor theme. Only the University of Sonora and the Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo, A.C. (Food and Development Research Center, or CIAD for its Spanish initials), have given systematic and long-range [End Page 569] attention to food topics in the region, although they are equally lacking in their treatment of food’s cultural implications.

In the interest of generating new discussions to compensate for the above-mentioned gaps, this article uses a cultural focus on “risk” as a way to identify some of the aspects that impact processes of production, assimilation, and transformation of Sonorans’ food culture and their relationship with food security. This entails identifying and describing the most representative components of habits, traditions, values, and dietary patterns and preferences, while also requiring familiarization with the primary risk factors affecting the chain of production, commercialization, and consumption. Finally, it implies identifying and describing the types of social, individual, collective, institutional, and non-institutional responses to problems of food security.

The study assumes that there exists a meaningful correlation between the market for food, food culture, and food security. Based on this, it intends to demonstrate that a continuous and ascending process exists of constitution and reconstitution of meanings regarding food for Sonoran people, meanings that are constantly appraised and reappraised. The perceptions Sonorans have of their foods are explained as resulting from the adoption of two relatively distinct consumption patterns, one with its origins in tradition and the other rooted in modern food production processes.

The following results, while representing only partial results of our research, reveal the magnitude and associated tendencies of dietary risk, as well as the response to this risk by state institutions and civil society organizations. The statistical databases and other sources of information used to support this article come from two complementary approaches: One is fieldwork, organized around three surveys containing a total of 78 questions with 524 answer choices.1 The other is a documentary and news analysis, which allowed information to be extracted from research, government institutions, and print and electronic media sources.

As part of the cultural analysis of food risk, the study returns to the idea of a semiotic focus on culture and on the so-called risk society. The first refers to “an historically transmitted scheme of meanings represented by symbols, a system of conceptions inherited and expressed in symbolic forms by means used by men to communicate, express, and develop their knowledge and activities in life” (Geertz 1990:88). In this sense, a definition of the concept of food culture refers to processes of signification: cognitive, normative, evaluative, and intersubjective means through which [End Page 570] men and women generate, carry out, transform, and structure their conceptions of production, preparation, preference, and consumption of food. The second focus refers to “a stage of modernity...