Mexico Confronts Obesity Issue with New Soda Tax, Junk Food Tax

Mexico, recently famed in headlines for an obesity epidemic, made history this past month by imposing a tax in the upcoming year on soda and junk foods. 

The new tax in Mexico, scheduled for 2014, will bring a national tax of one peso per liter—roughly 10 percent—on sugar-sweetened beverages and 8 percent on junk food, according to a New York Times op-ed piece.

Countries such as Finland, Hungary and France have already passed similar legislation aimed at public health. Even Britain’s Conservative-led coalition has considered such a tax.

The Mexican soda tax, which is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, will apply to all foods with added sugar, not including dairy products such as milk or yogurt. The junk food tax will be on high-calorie foods that have 275 calories or more into 100 grams of food like chips, candies, pudding, peanut and hazelnut butters, milk, sugary cereals and ice cream.

Federal regulators in the country have also announced their intention to issue rules to regulate television advertising of junk food products, fried foods and other unhealthy options from appearing at certain times of the day when a larger number of children might be watching.

Earlier this past month, there was talk about Mexican Coke losing its much-appreciated key ingredient, cane sugar, and it being replaced with old-fashioned corn syrup.

Social media sites experienced a stir of people who were angry and saddened by the rumors. Some people even claimed that they would soon begin hoarding cases of Mexican Coke before their beloved soda was no longer the same.

But Arca Continential, the Mexican Coke bottler, clarified and said changes to how the soda would be sweetened would only occur to soda sold in Mexico because of the soda tax that will soon be active.

It’s been my experience that Mexicans are big soda drinkers. Just about every Mexican restaurant/café/bakery/establishment that serves food I’ve been in sells soda.

Mexicans drink an average of about 707 8-ounce servings—roughly 44 gallons—of soda per year, according to Beverage Digest. Trailing not too far behind are Americans who consume about 701 servings of soda.

Like some people, I think this is a good step for Mexico and perhaps more countries—like the United States—should follow.

I live in Pilsen, where a majority of residents are Mexican or of Mexican descent, and I’ve lost count of all the bakeries, ice cream shops, candy stores and taco shops I see on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, I love having these options and sense of Mexican culture so close to me, as do many of the surrounding residents I’m sure, but it does concern me how few healthy options there are in the neighborhood.

There’s an all-natural juice bar at the Pink Link Damen stop, and I’ve been told there’s a woman who sells organic food at her shop on 18th Street. There are also two health clubs on Cermak Road—that I know of—where people can meet twice a day to consume Herbalife teas and shakes in place of a meal if they desire. But compared to all the other not-so-healthy options, these places can easily be camouflaged in the neighborhood.

As Mexico begins to address the importance of health and fighting obesity, I wonder if Mexican immigrant communities in Chicago—such as Pilsen, Little Village, Albany Park, the Back of the Yards—will take steps in the same direction? 


[BOOK REVIEW] Enrique’s Journey: The story of a boy’s dangerous odyssey to reunite with his mother

For my International Reporting in Public Affairs class we each had to read a book written by a journalist. I chose to read Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario because 1. A great deal of the book takes place in Mexico and Central America, and 2. I’ve always heard it’s an amazing story beautifully told by a great female journalist.

Here is my review:

Few people truly understand the treacherous journey undocumented immigrants face when migrating to the United States—much less that each year thousands of children, too, have endured the deadly excursion in search of the mothers who left them behind.

The Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario takes readers on a chilling expedition that details the many difficulties and challenges hopeful migrant children, mostly from Mexico and Central America, face along the way in Enrique’s Journey.

The story begins in the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras where Lourdes tells her son, 5-year-old Enrique, that she is leaving him and his sister, 7-year-old Belky, with family for while. Lourdes is going to the United States to find work in order to provide her children with a better life. Her children don’t understand why their mother is leaving but Lourdes, terrified of the risky journey ahead, thinks it is the only way to keep her family from poverty. Once Lourdes makes it to the United States, she begins working and is soon able to send her family money, clothes, toys and letters, but for Enrique no gift she sends can take the place of his mother being physically present in his life. Time passes and Enrique, who after being sent from family to family member begins to rebel, grows resentment toward his mother. “Why did she leave me? Why hasn’t she come back? Does she not love me?” he asks himself. Enrique turns to substance abuse to forget his problems and numb his pain. After about a decade without his mother Enrique decides he will go find her; he needs to, he tells himself and his family. The trek through Mexico to the United States will not be easy, he knows, but other migrant children in search of their mothers have done it before and Enrique feels he must at least try.

While some journalists might sit a desk and make phone calls for a story, Nazario completely immersed herself in Enrique’s journey. In the course of five years she spent a total of six months in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and North Carolina retracing Enrique’s steps and conducting extensive interviews with the other people featured in the story.  She rode on top of the freight trains, walked around immigration checkpoints, hitchhiked with truckers—just like Enrique and the other migrants had.

Nazario did not abandon the journalistic style of storytelling. Much of the book reads like a well-researched newspaper article with examples, numbers, detail, people and quotes, but the story is told in long-form journalism.

Nazario especially does an exceptional job in her use of sensory images while depicting scenes in the story:

“By early afternoon, it is 105 degrees. Enrique’s palms burn when he holds on to the hopper. He risks riding no-hands. Finally, he strips off his shirt and sits on it. The locomotive blows warm diesel smoke. People burn trash by the rails, sending up more heat and a searing stench. Many migrants have had their caps stolen, so they wrap their heads in T-shirts. They gaze enviously at villagers cooling themselves in streams and washing off after a day of fieldwork and at others who doze in hammocks slung in shady spots near adobe and cinder-block homes. The train cars sway from side to side, up and down, like bobbing ice cubes.”

From being robbed, raped and beaten by Mexican authorities, gangsters and fellow migrants to the kindness and generosity offered by some of the village people on the road to el Norte (The North), Nazario carefully documents the epic journey, telling the story as though she’d accompanied any of the migrant children more than once.

By sharing Enrique’s story and the stories of many other migrant children, Nazario gave immigration, a complex and much debated issue, a human face.


You say you want a revolution

Last Wednesday was el Día de la Revolución (the Day of the Revolution) in Mexico. Each year on Nov. 20, people in Mexico celebrate the anniversary of the 1910 start of the movement that lead to the overthrow of dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori—Porfirio Díaz for short.


Diaz had been in power for more than 30 years and while Mexico had political stability and was growing in many areas under his rule, it wasn’t long before the political unrest began.


The unhappiest sectors in Mexico were the peasants and labor workers.


The Mexican Revolution ran from 1910 to 1920 and was called for by politician and reformist writer Francisco Ignacio Madero.


While Madero was in exile in Texas, he wrote a political document that was later published in the Mexican city of San Luis Potosí, which was later known as “The Plan of San Luis Potosí.” In the article, Madero called on the people of Mexico to rise up and begin a revolution on Nov. 20.


Emiliano Zapata, Pascual Orozco and Francisco “Pancho” Villa finally answered Madero’s calls for a revolution.


Zapata, a peasant leader from the southern state of Morelos, hoped a revolution would lead to land reform. In northern Mexico, Orozco, a muleteer, and bandit chieftain Pancho Villa—known by some as a “modern-day Robin Hood”—also took up arms against Díaz. The three rallied thousands of men to take down the dictator and thus the revolution began in 1910.


But that was just the beginning; the fighting among revolutionary groups didn’t end until 1920 when the revolution had at last triumphed.


I’ve always known Nov. 20 to be my mom’s birthday. When I was younger, she would tell me of the parades she witnessed as a child—in honor of the revolution anniversary, of course. Still, I thought it was cool that her birthday fell on such a day.


Outdoor events, festivals, parades and block parties are part of the Revolution Day celebrations. Shouts of “Viva la Revolución!” (Long live the Revoltion) and “Viva México!” (Long live Mexico) are heard.


But this year, the government in the Mexican state of Michoacán chose not to participate in common celebrations.


The Michoacán Government announced Tuesday, Nov. 19, that it would cancel the 103rd annual commemorative parade celebrating the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, read a statement released in Spanish by the Federal District Government.


A state official said much of Michoacán’s police forces needed during the parade perform work fighting crime and surveillance within the State.


“The government of Michoacán has decided that the priority right now is to maintain the presence of these elements in the municipalities that need it and not distract them from their task in Morelia [capital of Michoacán],” said the official, who was not named.


This makes me wonder about the future of celebrations in Mexico.


Should Mexican residents feel safer because police forces are focusing on fighting crime or robbed of a 100-year-old celebration? Should other measures be taken into consideration for next year’s [pending] celebration?

To blend in. To stand out.

I was a little concerned about having to do some reporting and filming with my equipment this week. Not because I don’t love it, because I do, but because I didn’t want to scare anyone off. Maybe it seems strange that equipment might scare people off, but it’s actually happened to me before.

Sure, sometimes people see a camera and they immediately want to jump in front of it. But other times, especially for immigrants, people just want to blend in, off camera.

This week’s assignment led me to several interesting characters in the Heart of Chicago. Each of them took the time to share what was on their mind through a curious conversation that started with a look at my tripod and the question, “what’s that?”

* * *

First, there was Diego, who I met in a nutrition club on Cermak Road. Diego let me know right away how strongly he felt about the gang violence in the neighborhood. He asked why I thought it existed in the first place.

“Why do you think it exists?” I asked him as my reply.

Diego explained that the fault fell on the parents and the police department. He gave me several scenarios where parents might attempt to discipline their children by giving them curfews or punish them for misbehaving, but the child’s response would include a threat to call the police to report child abuse. Diego said many immigrant parents wouldn’t stop their kids from causing trouble out of fear for the police.

He added that it’s in the police department’s best interest to partner with the parents and let them know they stand by them when they want to punish their children.

Sometimes there’s a fine line between how U.S. born-and-raised parents discipline their children versus how immigrant parents discipline their children—both having their reasons to justify such.

Then there was Doña Mari (“Doña” is how you refer to an older person with respect in Mexico and other Latin American countries. It’s like “Mrs.”). She wanted to talk to me about health care. She’s been keeping up with the news because she wanted to know how it would affect her since she has diabetes.

Doña Mari works as a cook at a rehabilitation facility. She makes around $12,000 a year working six hour shifts a few times a week. She doesn’t have kids—never could—and has been separated from her husband for 10 years. She lives with her sister and her kids. She tries to take really good care of herself because she doesn’t have health insurance, she said.

But she knows she’s better off getting sick in the U.S. than getting sick in Mexico.

And finally, there was Francisco. He’s originally from Ixtlapan de Juarez, Oaxaca in Mexico. He came to the U.S. 10 years ago to look for work. Francisco works three jobs right now; he’s a handyman, he cleans windows and he sells fruit out of his truck.

Francisco loves his culture and native country, but he wishes “his own”—as he put it—would be more concerned with how their surroundings look and feel. He talked about trash on the streets and people littering in parks, and how he doesn’t want that to be the way people think of all immigrants.

“We might be from the same place, but that doesn’t mean we’re all the same way,” Francisco said.

Francisco also talked about panhandlers in Chicago. It didn’t make sense that people with more privileges in this country than him could ask him to spare some money, he said.

Sometimes he wishes he had stayed in Mexico, closer to his brother and five sisters. But Francisco really does like it here. He doesn’t plan to work three jobs forever, he said with a hopeful smile.

* * *

Maybe it was the equipment that sparked the conversation in these characters; maybe it was the need to express their thoughts and opinions to someone. But maybe, people start to open up when they realize they’re really being listened to.