How the Humble Avocado Went from the Unwanted “Crocodile Pear” to America’s Favorite Superfood
Andy Robinson Investigates the Human Cost of a Most Coveted Fruit
Avocado orchards had carpeted the gently undulating hills around the sacred lake of Pátzcuaro with stodgy green bushes. Here, before the cataclysmic arrival of the first envoys dispatched by Hernando Cortes from the Aztec capital over the mountains to the East, the great civilization of the Purépecha had sown maize, amaranth, zucchini, cacao, cotton, tomato, beans, a dozen types of chili, and much more.
Now the monotonous “green gold” of the avocado boom had colonized the entire Mexican state of Michoacán. As the uniform landscape unfolded before us, it was shocking to think that the cause of the disaster was America’s great patriotic party: the National Football League’s Super Bowl.
A flurry of advertising creativity on behalf of the Mexican avocado was unleashed every year during the multi-million-dollar sports broadcast. Usually starring a Hollywood actor, the ad would habitually outdo BMW, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Dove, Mercedes-Benz, Snickers, or Victoria’s Secret. “Is your life just terrible?” asks the comic actor Chris Elliott, star of Scary Movie 2 and Scary Movie 4, in the 2019 spot. “You deserve more! Spread an avocado on top of everything!” All this against a background of pizzas, hamburgers, chicken, and bacon sandwiches, topped with a thick layer of creamy guacamole.
Guacamole was now an obligatory snack for the 100 million or so Americans who watched the Super Bowl. In February of 2017, 278 million avocados—most of them from Michoacán—had been sold during the days before the game in a country whose relationship with its five million undocumented Mexicans was frankly schizophrenic.
Perhaps America’s fragile identity, ever more Hispanic yet, at the same time, more xenophobic, needed the Mexican avocado mash to gel its parts together. A few days before the Super Bowl, the domestic diva Martha Stewart, fresh out of jail after serving five months for insider trading, had released on social networks her latest recipe for guacamole and nachos adapted to the palate of the New England Patriots. Gwyneth Paltrow would soon throw her recipe into the mix.
The avocado had become the star product of Mexican food production in the age of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), soon to be rebranded the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA). It had led the explosive growth of vegetable and fruit exports from Mexico to the United States, from $3 billion to $20 billion since NAFTA was signed in 1994 by Bill Clinton, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Jean Chrétien. 60 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States now came from Mexico, whose farmers produced 16 times more than the formerly dominant Californian growers. The fruit (or was it a vegetable?) could even be considered a symbol of cross-border cultural integration. Those who drove through the American interior, where the Mexican diaspora now stretched as far as the Rocky Mountains of Montana to the Mississippi swamps, soon learned that the roadside taqueria and its aperitivo of guacamole with cilantro, lime, and onion was the only stop-off that did not involve eating in a global fast-food chain. The only real soul in the desert.
Moreover, the avocado was now classified as a “superfood”—bursting with nutritive fats that miraculously did not produce heart disease but rather improved coronary health. It contained vitamins B, C, E, and K, the last a crucial preventative treatment for osteoporosis. Fiber, natural statins, and beta-sitosterol in the avocado flesh lowered cholesterol levels in the blood. The presence of zeaxanthin in the avocado would combat ocular problems. Guacamole could help prevent colon, stomach, and pancreatic cancer. To drive home its claim to be the most super of foods, several studies had shown that consuming avocados also mitigate depression. Sales were not only soaring in the United States but in Europe and Asia too.
It had not always been like this. In the 1950s, the avocado was known unsentimentally as the crocodile pear because of its hard, wrinkled skin. Imports from Mexico were banned until 1997 due to the alleged danger of parasites from the dreaded tropical south. Nobody would have imagined in those days buying two pounds of avocados to celebrate such a truly American event as the finals of the NFL. But after those million-dollar ads and an inspired marketing campaign in which leading NFL stars sponsored different recipes for guacamole, the United States learned to love the crocodile pear.Nobody would have imagined in those days buying two pounds of avocados to celebrate such a truly American event as the finals of the NFL.
Seizing the opportunity, more and more Michoacán producers managed to pass the sanitary tests necessary to gain access to the US market. When complete liberalization was announced in 2007, Michoacán had become an unbeatable competitor for the Californian avocado growers.
The Mexican producers specialized, like their Californian rivals, in the Hass variety of avocado, more meaty than those that the Purépecha had quietly consumed over the millennia, and with a tough skin that protected the pears during long hauls in chilled container trucks to El Paso or Tijuana and then beyond to the big US consumer markets. With its resilient natural packaging, the Hass avocado was perfectly suited to the global market for overhyped superfoods. Demand and production were ramped upward to ever-higher levels. Michoacán, whose crystalline lakes had earned it the name of the “land of fish” in the indigenous language of Tarasco, would never be the same.
By 2020, 80 percent of the avocados consumed in the United States came from Michoacán, and the unmistakable signs of yet another extractive fever were visible in the lost kingdom of the Purépecha. Similar perhaps to the lust for wealth that had brought the Spanish to Michoacán soon after the sacking of Tenochtitlán, the magnificent Aztec capital, laid waste in the name of Christ and gold. Now in the 21st century, on the outskirts of Uruapan, the frenetic capital del aguacate, the new economy of agribusiness took shape in an undulating expanse of densely foliated avocado bushes, glowing fluorescent green in the late afternoon sun.
Further west on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, the monoculture had not yet colonized the entire landscape, but the advance of the avocado seemed unstoppable. “Practically everybody here wants an avocado orchard. One person switches and it goes well for him. Others say: ‘I’m switching too!’ Others see them and do the same,” explained Francisco Flores Bautista, a resident of the Purépecha indigenous community of Jarácuaro on the shores of the lake.
When Bautista returned to Lake Pátzcuaro after 40 years working in construction in the Mexican capital, he was horrified by the extent of environmental destruction. “They pump water from the lake to water the avocado orchards and, bit by bit, the lake is shrinking. It’s pillage. Just look! Once it reached the road. Now it never rises, just falls,” he lamented as we walked through dried-out reeds.
The falling water level, together with the introduction of the rapacious predator tilapia, had wiped out almost all the indigenous fish species. Of the cornucopia of marine life that had fed the Purépecha cities, only the diminutive silvery charal remained. The same occurred at other great freshwater deposits in Michoaczán. Only Lake Zirahuén, 15 miles to the south, had been saved from pollution and falling water levels. The Purépecha communities on the shores of the lake, a landscape of stunning beauty where dense pine and ilex oak forests met white nymphaea lilies floating on turquoise water, were girding themselves for the arrival of the aguacateros, avocado producers, just as their ancestors had waited anxiously for Cortés. Then, many chose to drown themselves in the Michoacán lakes. Now, Bautista had chosen an alternative strategy. He had set up a microbusiness in Jarácuaro, specialized in purifying well water with sand and gravel filters that he then sold to lake dwellers increasingly concerned about water quality.
As the avocado became the perfect side dish for a billion American hot dogs and buffalo wings, and as a tasteless alternative to butter spread on trillions of slices of students’ toast, the avocado boom in Michoacán had turned into the target of a new generation of organized (or rather, disorganized) crime that now competed with the old Mexican drug cartels. Criminal groups with names like Los Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar) or Los Viagras tried their luck in the avocado business, in league with a series of corrupt governors of the state of Michoacán. It was an excellent complement to the cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and oxycodone in which they trafficked. They would soon apply their own methods of extortion, torture, and murder to the global guacamole trade.“They pay a dollar per kilo of avocado here and sell it for eight at a Minnesota Walmart.”
The traditional avocado farmers of Michoacán, victims of blackmail and kidnapping, were forced to sell their orchards to the narcos at bargain prices. “They put a gun to your head and tell you to sign the deed before the notary. That’s how the transfer of land is agreed upon,” explained Guillermo Vargas, a sociologist at the University of San Nicolas de Hidalgo in Morelia, as we strolled around the spectacularly baroque cathedral in the Michoacán capital, formerly a tourist destination and now a no-go area as the murder rate soared. Likewise, the Knights Templar and the Viagras demanded a commission for every hectare farmed or ton of exported avocado. Those who refused to pay might end up like one of the seven workers found in an avocado orchard with bullet holes in the nape of their necks.
The avocado was such a coveted prize that gangs hijacked an average of four trucks loaded with the fruit per day. Some avocado farmers, following the example of the doctor-vigilante José Manuel Mireles, tried to create self-defense groups to expel the criminals from their lands. But the draw of guacamole was now irresistible, and just as one gang was driven out of town another appeared with more powerful weapons and more sadistic sicario gun men.
Meanwhile, large exporters and avocado brokers—some of them international brands like Del Monte—were profiting by purchasing from producers at dirt-cheap prices and reselling to the US supermarket chains at very attractive ones. “They pay a dollar per kilo of avocado here and sell it for eight at a Minnesota Walmart,” said Vargas.
In order not to squander such a reliable source of profits, “transnational corporations, just like the Canadian mining companies in Zacatecas, pay the extortion money demanded by the narcos,” he continued. Michoacán, the state of the legendary Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, with its spectacular colonial buildings and revolutionary-era murals, had become a narco state plagued by endemic violence.
It was no coincidence that the first mass grave discovered by bereaved family members while searching for the remains of more than 37,000 disappeared Mexicans was found in Uruapan, the avocado capital of the world. Nor was it a coincidence that nine corpses were found hanging from a bridge in Uruapan in the summer of 2019 alongside a sign advising: “dear people, continue with your daily routines.” Another ten dismembered bodies were found the same day stuffed into plastic bags. Police concluded it was a show of strength by the new cartel in town, the New Jalisco Generation, that had crossed the border from the neighboring state and its capital Guadalajara to claim its share of the guacamole.
Excerpted from Gold, Oil, and Avocados: A Recent History of Latin America in Sixteen Commodities. Used with the permission of the publisher, Melville House. Copyright © 2021 by Andy Robinson.
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