Chicano Culture and Chocolate

Chocolate’s presence has been traced throughout ancient Mesoamerica since the time of the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. It has sustained impact on Mesoamerican culture to this day, seen through its integral presence in authentic Mexican cuisine by way of dishes like molé, chilaquiles, and champurrado. However, there has been no research whatsoever about chocolate’s impact on Chicano culture, in order to gather some insight on the matter I decided to interview my grandfather, Bulmaro Farias, for the final term paper. Chicano culture is best described as a sub-culture of Mexican-American identifying people whom reside predominately in California and Texas. My grandfather is a first generation immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico. He was a part of the first ever wave of Chicanos to come to the United States. At the age of 11, to escape poverty, he worked in the Northern California grape fields thanks to the Bracero Program of 1942. The program aimed to bolster the agricultural workforce during World War II by granting temporary United States citizenship for cheap Mexican labor. The conversation I had with my grandfather started as a nostalgic trip through my grandfather’s life with chocolate acting as a guide and turned into a potential course of action for the Chicano community to correct some of its ailments. All in all, I believe there were some very compelling contentions derived in our conversation that offer some much needed unveiling of what chocolate means to contemporary Chicano culture.

Group of laborers working in the fields. Bracero Program of 1942 brought cheap Mexican labor to the states, during wartime.

Compared to the days of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec the functionality of chocolate in Chicano culture has been intensely diluted. Around a thousand years ago, chocolate was a revered commodity in Mesoamerican culture. In Sampeck’s piece, Substance and Seduction, she discusses the integral role chocolate plays in religious, marriage, death, offering, travel, and health rituals (Sampeck 74). The cosmological impact of chocolate has not persisted into the fibers of Chicano culture. I would argue that the lack of chocolate’s presence in Chicano culture is primarily due to their fervent alignment with Catholicism. When I asked my grandfather about what chocolate meant to him, he responded that he viewed it solely as a treat. Never did he have any intimate connection with chocolate, primarily due to his mother’s intense catholic hand ruling the household at a young age. In Mexican and Chicano culture, the family construct is as such, the patriarch of the house operates primarily as the provider whereas the matriarch of the house rears the children, feeds the family, and maintains the household. As a result, Mexican and Chicano adolescents are mostly raised by their mothers and it is an old adage that the mother is the most religious person in every house, my grandfather would wholeheartedly back up that assertion. Catholicism makes no room for chocolate in any sort of prayer or ritual. There is no wonder why we see chocolate less and less in Mesoamerican rituals after the Spaniards introduce Western religious beliefs to the region. Being that Catholicism is such a central immovable pillar of Chicano culture today, I would assert that the Catholic church plays a major part in explaining why we do not see chocolate impacting Chicano rituals today.

Chicano Churches like these are a central and steadfast pillar of the culture.

My grandfather’s relationship with chocolate dates back to his earliest memories, he used to work on a ranch in Mexico with his father. The owner of the ranch had a few cacao trees that my grandfather helped tend to. During the winter he would remember nights where the men of the ranch would come back to the house when the Moon was up and there would be warm champurrado waiting for him when they got back. My favorite part of the entire interview came when he explained his mother’s secret recipe for champurrado. The ranch where my grandfather grew up was meant for horses, cattle, and corn. The cacao trees they had, were more of a passion project than anything. Being that it was just for fun, they did not have all the materials to make the same kind of chocolate that we buy in a store today. My grandmother would break the pods open and grind the cacao beans down with a metate. Then she would boil milk, add the grounded chocolate, add a few sticks of cinnamon, some spices, and pressed sugar cane. My grandfather’s neighbors would gift the family sugar cane every few weeks, so the sugar that was added was not processed or made in a lab somewhere. The mix would sit over the fire until the ingredients properly fused and coagulated. My grandfather says that to this day, he has never consumed champurrado that comes close to what his grandmother would make. He lauded the freshness and lack of preservatives that you find in a typical champurrado recipe today, which leads to the next portion of our interview which dove into chocolate and health in the Chicano culture.

Champurrado served in a glossy yet traditional gourd.

My grandfather is an athlete and has been one his whole life. He wakes up every morning at 5:30 am to either play tennis with his friends or workout at the local gym. It is safe to say that he is a bit of a health nut. He tries to stay away from sugars altogether with his new diet so chocolate has not been on his menu for the past few years, however, he remembers a time when he loved chocolate. When he first got to the United States, he was not even a teenager. He came with his older brother and the both of them worked in the fields side-by-side until they could afford their own places. The only chocolate that he had in the United States in his early years came in the form of a candy bar. He wants me to be very clear that he loves chocolate, just cannot eat it anymore. As my grandfather got older and learned the negative externalities of a poor diet he saw a way for him to feel better and cut out the sugar altogether. Our family has a history of diabetes so that also played a role in pushing him to a healthier diet. It makes him sad to see that so many Chicano families have very little nutritional education. Childhood obesity among Mexican-American children is higher than the average rate of childhood obesity for the rest of the United States. Hispanic adolescents ages 12-19 living in United States have a 17.4% obesity rate compared to their non-hispanic counterparts who have an obesity rate of 14.5% (Taylor). My grandfather asserts that one of the largest ailments in Chicano culture is their lack of nutritional education. There was a study that interviewed 20 self-identified morbidly obese Chicano females and found four themes that helped explain the status quo, the two most pertinent being multiple sources of excess calories and the family’s personal struggle especially financial pressures (Taylor). To tackle the diet part first, I asked my grandfather if he ever received any formal education about nutrition or diet, he said yes but when he was 50. A large part of the reason why he said that he did not look too much into diet was because money was such a persistent strain on his food selection. He chose food primarily on the basis of affordability. “How long can I stretch my dollar?” is basically how he explained it to me. He would eat chocolate bars, chips, and sugary drinks and not think twice because it was quick, filling, and all that he could afford. Within this, he believes he could have been a little better finding the healthiest option, but diet seemed trivial in comparison to his other obstacles. I believe extrapolating this sentiment to the greater Chicano community would not be far-fetched whatsoever, but rather resonate close to home for most Mexican-American households. To my grandfather, Chocolate’s role in the Chicano community today is rather pessimistic. He believes that the high caloric, low nutritional value of chocolate bars and other junk foods alike are hurting the Chicano community in ways that will hinder life spans and quality of life. Understanding the impact, food has on your body, would do some great service to the Chicano community at large. 

Ubaldo Alexis Garcia Lopez, a eleven year old Mexican boy, attends a monthly consultation with doctors while being treated for symptoms related to obesity. Chicano children have higher rates of obesity than national average.

As for the money issue in the Chicano diet, that is a little more difficult to tackle. Robert Albritton touches on the history of this problem in his piece, Between Obesity and Hunger. He asserts on the very first line that we live in a world with a capacity to have a healthy diet for all (Albritton 342). We definitely do have the capacity for everyone to be taken care of, but not everybody has the means. Cheap food has become important because it allows wages to be lower and it leaves workers with more disposable income for other things. Our laws have even benefitted cheaply produced food, subsidies are handed out to people with the highest yields (Albritton 342). This has pushed out the mom and pop farms in the United States, much like the one my grandfather grew up on in Mexico. The uptick in production has come at the expense of nutritional value. We are seeing hormones and preservatives added to the crops that deteriorate the nutritional benefit to the body. As a result, the food we find packaged in the store, more often then not, end up being pretty inflammatory and not very healthy. These cheap, unhealthy foods are being purchased for very little because they cost close to nothing to produce. The chocolate of ancient Mesoamerica was high in Theobromine and virtually no preservatives involved whatsoever, making it a potent stimulant (Sampeck 73). Whereas today, the chocolate that the Chicanos are exposed to, very unhealthy. For instance, Abuelita, is a Mexican instant-make champurrado company  is jam packed with high sugar and corn fructose. The champurrado the Chicanos are drinking is actually hurting them health wise compared to traditional champurrado which had some great health benefits. It is a different world now, which makes all the more argument for better nutritional education. 

The last question I asked my grandfather, “Do you see chocolate as a luxury?” This was a question that took him a while to respond to, his answer was finally, “No.” But he did qualify to say that chocolate was a treat and operated as a reward in his eyes. Every occasion where he could consume chocolate he was happy and there was a lot of hard work on his end to reap that reward, or at least that is how he viewed it. If anything, he thought it was a deserved break from the regular diet.  The McNiel and Riello piece about Luxury, if anything, offered an explanation of luxury that my grandfather never had the privilege of experiencing. He was too deep in the happenings of his struggle. I did appreciate the piece’s contention that the line was strict between the haves and have-nots (McNiel 6). Unfortunately, my grandfather was only on the side of have-nots and said he never had the opportunity to feel any “luxury.” Because any sort of privilege or break he got in life, in his mind, was rightfully worked for and earned.

This opportunity to interview my grandfather for a final term paper has been the highlight of my time spent in this class. This allowed me the opportunity to give a perspective to this course that I would have not otherwise received. The issues brought up that are plaguing the Chicano culture today are some I plan to focus on changing in my community after graduation. Having my grandfathers perspective on the matter was motivating and maybe would have never happened without this assignment bringing me to do so. For that, I am very thankful.

Work Cited

1. Taylor, Sharonda Alston, et al. “A Qualitative Study of the Day-to-Day Lives of Obese Mexican-American Adolescent Females.” Pediatrics, vol. 131, no. 6, 2013, pp. 1132–8.

2. Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. Food and Culture: a Reader. Routledge 2019.

3. McNeil, Peter, and Giorgio Riello. Luxury a Rich History. Oxford University Press, 2016.

4. Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.


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