US-Mexico Relations & the Avocado

The Politics Behind Your Favourite Green Fruit

If you’re a millennial, chances are you love avocado and will never be able to afford a house. I can’t take credit for this idea — it came from Tim Gurner, an Australian millionaire who, earlier this year, claimed that millennials will be unable to ever buy a house because they buy “smashed avocado for nineteen bucks.” But I digress. The moral of the story is that avocado everything (from the world’s first "avocado bar" in New York City, to the all-avocado restaurant "The Avocado Show" in Amsterdam) has become a phenomenon, and at a price. If you’re an avocado lover like me, you were probably disappointed to see avocado prices skyrocket this summer. Thankfully this has calmed down somewhat, but at the very root of this issue — and many other avocado-related incidents over the past century — there is a deep-seated linkage to the historic relationship between the United States and Mexico. This relationship has returned to the forefront of public consciousness under the leadership of Donald Trump, but is by no means new. How is it that everyone’s favourite green fruit (yes, it’s actually classified as a berry) is so highly politicized, and so closely linked to US-Mexico relations? Allow me to explain. 

All avocado everything at the Avocado Show in Amsterdam.

Though still in its early stages, the Trump presidency, along with the presidential election campaign, has seen its fair share of verbal shots at Mexico. Trump has referred to Mexicans as “drug dealers,” “criminals,” and “rapists,” and set out on a mission to build a wall separating the two countries. His speeches and policies have regularly alluded to American superiority over Mexico, and created an increasingly precarious relationship between the US and Mexico. By saying such things, Trump has inflamed many, but the notions he puts forth aren’t exactly new. The US has a long history of anti-Mexican sentiment aimed at enhancing American stature and interests.

Interestingly, there was a time where American settlers were entering into Mexico illegally in the 1830s, but for much of the US and Mexico’s shared history, the flow of people has gone the other direction. Joseph Nevins, in his book Operation Gatekeeper detailing the intricacies of the US-Mexico border, says: “The 1920s were a time of rising nativist sentiment against all immigrants,” which coincided with an all-time high in Mexican immigration to the US. Despite the National Origins Act (1924), which limited immigration from outside the Western hemisphere and exempted Mexicans, there was immense pressure on the government to keep Mexican immigrants out, resulting in an $8 head tax and $10 visa fee. This opened the floodgates for decades of questionable immigration policy. In 1954, Operation Wetback, given the derogatory name for the wet backs of immigrants that attempted to swim across the Rio Grande River, deported more than one million Mexicans (among them some US citizens) to locations deep in Mexico far from the US border. This followed the deportation of 415,000 citizens and non-citizens during the Great Depression era. The 1990s also saw a wave of policy implementations targeted the Mexican border and crossing immigrants: between 1994 and 1997, Operations Blockade, Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and Rio Grande aimed to keep unauthorized Mexicans out of the US using so-called "advanced technology" with debatable effectiveness and little regard for Mexican lives. There are commonalities among all these American government initiatives that transcends to the avocado scenario I’m about to discuss: US interests leveraged over Mexican ones, notions of American exceptionalism, attempted Americanization, and even to a certain degree, appropriation of Mexican traditions.

Avocados have a long and deep-rooted role in Mexico’s history; some historians suggest they have been a part of the Mexican diet for as long as 10,000 years. The entry of the avocado into the US is much more recent, coming only a little over a century ago. It was grown in the American southwest in the late nineteenth century, but a "marketing" problem with the new and unfamiliar fruit soon emerged. In Spanish, it was known as the "ahuacate," which, to English-speakers, was extremely difficult to pronounce and, to add to the PR dilemma, derived from the Aztec word for "testicle." By the early 1900s, a group of California farmers got together in an attempt to resolve this issue. They decided to swap a few letters out of the Spanish name, and arrived at the anglicized "avocado." The rest is history. As soon as the US got ahold of this unique and marketable fruit, they attempted to make it their own, in more ways than just the name.

Over the following decades, the popularity and prevalence of the avocado continued to grow from the unfamiliar and exotic fruit that first graced the US fields and markets in the early twentieth century. By the 1950s, avocados made their way into the diets of American families. The avocado faced a slight blip in the 1980s with the rise of the anti-fat movement, but with the later discovery that avocados were "the good kind of fat," their continued rise has been steady ever since. According to the Hass Avocado Board, cited in a 2015 Washington Post article, American avocado consumption quadrupled between 2000 and 2014. Perhaps more staggering, an estimated 80 million tons of avocado are eaten on Super Bowl weekend, with the majority consumed as the key ingredient of guacamole. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan calls it an American “staple” food. And it seems that way, as a mainstay of the biggest American sporting event of the year, and on the plates of seemingly every millennial food enthusiast. Yet it’s not; rather, the Mexicans had avocados first — for about 9,000 years before the Americans to be exact. But it wouldn’t be quite right for the US to have a craze over Mexico’s fruit; there’s a stigma that surrounds and undermines Mexico, stemming from American policy over the years. Instead, the US had to claim it as their own.

After the anti-fat movement of the 1980s, it was determined that avocados were, in fact, the 'good find of fat.' Source: Shape Scale.

The US banned the import of Mexican avocados in 1914, a ban it upheld until the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. NAFTA posed an interesting predicament, as it coincided with the 1990s attempts to keep people out, while allowing the flow of goods into the US. NAFTA meant that Mexican avocados entered the American market, alongside Californian avocados that had sustained the country throughout the existence of the ban. The true importance and value of these Mexican avocados, especially in the wake of increased demand, has been realized this past year, as the avocado industry became dependent on Californian growers in the wake of volatility in the Mexican market that led to a severely decreased crop. The result: California could simply not meet American demand and avocado prices skyrocketed; turns out the US really needs Mexico’s avocados.

But now Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA, if not do away with it altogether, and the accessibility and affordability of avocados in the US could once again be jeopardized. This was first seen in January, in the very early days of the Trump presidency, when a 20 percent tax on Mexican products entering the US was proposed, specifically as a means to fund Trump’s proposed border wall between the two countries. A short time later, Trump followed up on this, tweeting: “The U.S. has a 60 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico” and also calling NAFTA “a one-sided deal” that needed to be renegotiated. Trump’s tweets sparked panic amongst avocado enthusiasts. The Washington Post, playing on a Tweet from Senator Lindsay Graham, called it “Mucho Sad,” the BBC cited “Avocado Anxiety,” and countless Twitter users lamented that Trump’s proposals were only going to aggravate the fact that their beloved "guac" is already extra. But kidding aside, Mexico sends a lot of avocados to the US (approximately 78 percent of its exports), which would mean a lot of taxes. Analyst Philip Bump estimated that Americans would need to buy somewhere between 20 and 25 billion avocados to fund the wall. That’s a lot of avocados, but if there’s one thing we know, it’s that Americans love their avocados.

So far, none of these proposals have come to fruition, although talks surrounding the renegotiation of NAFTA, involving the three involved parties — Canada, the US, and Mexico — remain ongoing. What we do know is that American avocado lovers could be in for a rough ride. However, it is not only the current state of US-Mexico relations that will shape the direction of the avocado industry, it is the nature of this relationship that has existed for countless decades. Trump has campaigned on a platform of "making America great again," something that implies a return to a time when America was greater than it is today — possibly times like Operations Wetback, Gatekeeper, and other border patrol initiatives, or the anti-immigrant sentiments and policies of the 1920s. It is a seemingly cyclical process to which avocados are intrinsically tied. Avocados cannot escape the grips of US-Mexico relations. From the Anglicization of the avocado’s original Spanish name, to the decades long ban, to a 1990s upheaval that aimed at filtering people out while letting goods in, to a renewed commitment from the current US administration to protect the country from Mexican threats, the linkage between avocados and American exceptionalism, along with US-Mexico ties, is evident. And with the direction that Trump’s government appears to be headed, this connection is likely to continue.

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US-Mexico Relations & the Avocado