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24 april 2012

A passage in the middle of Jennifer Mathews's book Chicle reads almost like corporate literature for Glee Gum.

The [chicle] latex that is collected today is of an extremely high quality. Because of the limited market, the chicleros have realized that it is in their interests to provide a superior product to ensure that buyers will continue their contracts. . . . . . By purchasing chicle-based gum such as Glee Gum . . . . consumers are able to vote with their dollars to support these kinds of smaller companies and healthier products. (69,71)
Well, I'm nothing if not impressionable: I trundled myself right over to the nearest alternative grocery and bought a few packs of Glee Peppermint, with their admonition "Don't Be Glum . . . . Chew Glee Gum!" And I even chewed some Glee Gum, despite chewing-gum's tendency to lift the caps off my teeth.

I can't say that I can tell the quality of Glee's chicle-based gum from the synthetics that dominate the American gum market today, despite Mathews's insistence. The gum seems a bit stiffer than your average checkout-aisle offering, and its flavor subtler, less chemical. Basically, it's gum, the stuff that decayed my teeth when I was a child to the point where I can't chew it anymore as an adult. But in chawing for a while on a piece of natural chicle, I can imagine myself into the world of chiclero romance that Mathews evokes in her chapter on chicle-gatherers.

I mean, who wouldn't want to do that for a living? And quite aside from being able to stir big pots of molten gum, there's the swinging-around-in-trees and slashing-bark-with-a-machete aspects of the job description.

No, seriously, it looks like back-breaking work. And in the heyday of the North American natural-chewing-gum industry, before the Second World War, being a chiclero was akin to being a banana picker: a lowly and oppressive neocolonial occupation, practiced in some of the same banana republics that other American companies had carved up for their use. Still, chicleros had a lawless, macho image that compensated for their lack of control over the means of production.

Unlike bananas, a cash crop transplanted from Asia, chicle comes from a native American source, the sapodilla tree. Mathews's history of chicle goes right back to the earliest accounts. Such accounts tend to come from Spanish commentary on indigenous customs; not much Native American writing survived the conquest, and not much of that was about chewing gum. But the conquistadores were interested in Native gum-chewers, who tended to be children and young women, and women of loose morals: or rather, perhaps that was the stereotype of a gum-chewer, in the eyes of the Aztec patriarchy or of Spanish observers. At any rate, men didn't chew gum, despite the popularity of the substance. One supposes that men chewed on the sly, rather like office-workers at "tobacco-free" institutional campuses.

I wonder how much chicle the gum of my 1960s youth still contained. Probably not much. Mathews traces the decline of natural chicle to the unsustainable practices of the chicleros. But that's only partially true, if at all, and tends to blame the worker for the decisions of the capitalist. Cavalier environmental practices haven't crashed the market for coffee or bananas, after all. It's just that there is no good synthetic substitute for coffee or bananas. If American companies can make something in a lab in New Jersey, they would always rather do that than pay someone to grow it for them.

Mathews, Jennifer P. Chicle: The chewing gum of the Americas, from the ancient Maya to William Wrigley. With Gillian P. Schultz. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009.