Curator’s Corner: Learning Curation & Early 20th Century Anthropology Collecting in Mexico

For the past two semesters, I have been a student in a History of Art Department Mellon Graduate Seminar that culminates in “The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Excavation, Exploration, Collection, and Stewardship at Berkeley,” an exhibition at the Bancroft Library.

Typical course responsibilities largely revolved around curation. Early stages of meeting with curators and exploring collections were followed by the crafting of object groupings that indexed layered narratives of collector personalities, departmental origins, and current-day scholarship.

Museum Registration in Practice (Photo by Elaine Yau)

Museum Registration in Progress, Photo by Elaine Yau

In addition to my duties of handling the exhibition loan paperwork, what I came to most appreciate during the course of this curatorial training was the tremendous range of object and archival collections: geographically, culturally, and of course, materially speaking.

With our exhibition location in California, I understand the selected Mexican objects on display as representative of a broad historical nexus of the United States’ interactions with its southern neighbor at a time when Mexico and, more specifically, its diasporic communities are often framed in terms of a political discussion of their relationship to the U.S., whether in presidential debates or across news headlines. A century ago, however, the relationship between Mexico and the United States was exemplified by the personal background of the main collector of the exhibition’s Mexican objects: Zelia Maria Magdalena Nuttall (1857-1933).


Portrait of Zelia Nuttall, Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, BANC PIC Nuttall, Zelia — POR 1

  She was an archaeologist…A lonely daughter of culture, with a strong mind and a dense will, she had browsed all her life on the hard stones of archaeological remains, and at the same time she had retained a strong sense of humanity, and a slightly fantastic humorous vision of her fellow men.

D.H. Lawrence describing the Nuttall-inspired character of Mrs. Norris in The Plumed Serpent (1926)

Ethnohistorian and archaeologist Zelia Nuttall stands as one of the most important, yet underappreciated, catalysts to the founding of a department and museum of anthropology at Berkeley. Born into San Francisco high society, with a family ancestry in Mexico that inspired her research, Nuttall excelled as a mediator between geographic areas as well as between “the world of patronage and the world of scientific projects in need of patronage.”


Pillar dollar design, Mission-era presentation basket donated by Nuttall in memory of her close friend and Berkeley anthropology museum founder, Pheobe A. Hearst (1842-1919), Courtesy of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, 1-22478

A life-long Mesoamerican scholar in topics ranging from pre-Columbian codices and figurines to historical manuscripts and headdresses, Nuttall was a pioneer in Mexican anthropology. Her regional interest began as a child when her mother gave her Lord Kingsborough’s Antiquities of Mexico.

 Her first publication — on a collection of terracotta heads from the famous archaeological site of Teotihuacán — led to her 1886 appointment as an honorary assistant in Mexican Archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, a position she would hold for 47 years.


Mexico object case with diverse materials ranging from a 16th century indigenous codex to a Mission-era presentation basket in the Papyrus in the Crocodile exhibit. Photo by Amanda Guzman

Arguably, Nuttall’s greatest contribution to the field of Mexican anthropology was her commitment to and promotion of the recovery and study of codices (manuscript paintings) through their purchase and/or replication in both museum and private collections. She garnered such distinction that a codex published by Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was named after her and is still known today as the “Codex Nuttall.”

Today, the legacy of Nuttall’s Mexico lives on in the ever-growing geographic and temporal diversity of Mexican objects housed at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Speaking on behalf of all the graduate student curators who contributed to this undertaking, it is our hope that the exhibition will serve as a departure point for future hands-on engagement with and critical thinking about UC Berkeley’s 150-year material legacy of diverse object and archival collections housed in numerous repositories across campus.

HearstMuseum_3-584,  Facsimile Painting of a Codex-p1ai3tnalmgjplfb60r10mnjgt

Facsimile Cloth Painting of the Geneology of Quauhquechollan-Macuilxochitepec by Mexican artist Genaro Blacio, Courtesy of the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, 3-383

I suspect my fellow anthropologist Zelia Nuttall would have agreed:

As far as ancient Mexico is concerned, it is my experience, for instance, that even after twenty years of study I have barely penetrated its vast field of investigation, and that the more I explore its untrodden paths and discern its multifarious contradictory and perplexing features the less I am inclined to formulate definite conclusions concerning the points at issue.

Zelia Nuttall, American Anthropologist, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1906), pp. 134


Exhibition Details

The Papyrus in the Crocodile: 150 Years of Excavation, Exploration, Collection, and Stewardship at Berkeley

May 6 – July 29, 2016

Bancroft Library Gallery, University of California, Berkeley

(The Gallery is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed weekends and administrative holidays)


Amanda Guzman_photograph

Amanda Guzmán is a third-year graduate student in Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Employing different museum institutions as field sites for a broad comparative perspective, she analyzes the history of American museum collecting in, and representation of, Puerto Rico.

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From Plant Ecology to Nonlinear Optics, and a Few Places in Between

I had the opportunity to visit the nonlinear physics group at the University of Chile in Santiago this past December. During my stay, I met with researchers working on a broad range of theory and experiments that really highlight the universality of nonlinear phenomena across many fields.

I am broadly interested in the emergence of patterns throughout the natural world. Similar patterns can be found in very different systems: think about all the places you find stripes similar to ripples that appear on sand dunes in the desert. Another example, labyrinth patterns, have been observed in magnetic nano-particle suspensions called ferro-fluids and on pufferfish.

More striking in my mind is the fact that spatially localized structures that consist of a patch of pattern embedded in a homogeneous background can emerge even though there is no preferred location in the system. This is, however, a universal phenomenon that has been observed in a wide variety of nonlinear systems throughout biology, chemistry and physics.

A motivation for my thesis work comes from understanding the formation and dynamics of vevegetationgetation patterns in semi-arid regions. The patterns arise in these ecosystems to optimize the use of water or other limited resources. I am particularly interested in how spatially localized patches of vegetation respond to periodic fluctuations in growth conditions, say variations in precipitation.

The original purpose for my visit to Chile was to take my theoretical predictions that were motivated by plant ecology and apply them to a nonlinear optics experiment. This experiment uses a liquid crystal cell similar to what is in your TV screen to generate localized structures whose dynamics can be studied in great detail. Moreover, the researchers can introduce fluctuations in time that play the same role as variations in precipitation for vegetation patches. Unfortunately, an earthquake misaligned the optical components of the experiment a few weeks before I arrived and they weren’t able to get it running again before I left. Maybe this will give me an excuse to go back?

I was, however, able to make a connection between vegetation models and another experiment being done there to study Faraday waves on the surface of a vertically vibrated container of fluid. Michael Faraday first studies the basic setup in the 1800’s when he noticed that a wealth of different patterns could appear depending on the frequency and faradayamplitude of the vibrations. Amazingly, this simple experiment is still producing new and surprising results today. For example, the researchers at U. Chile found that they could generate spatially localized patterns by using a container that is very thin in one direction. Moreover, the localized patterns didn’t appear for the amplitudes of vibration that they expected. It turns out that the reason may have an analogy to the large-scale redistribution of water in plant ecology of semi-arid regions. This is work in progress.

While in Chile, I was also fortunate enough to attend an international workshop on instabilities and nonequilibrium structures in Valparaiso. Having spent the previous week in Santiago getting to know some of the researchers in attendance at the workshop made the experience much more enriching for me. I was able to have more in-depth academic discussions because I already knew many people and had background knowledge of their current research focus. I found some time for sightseeing with a few other students during on an off day at the conference. One of the highlights was a visit to the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso. We happened to run into my advisor there.

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My time in Chile has exposed me to a diverse range of applications of nonlinear physics. I learned about dynamics in systems ranging from fluid systems, nonlinear optical media, and magnetic materials to ecology, traffic, and the Chilean school system.   Thanks to my gracious hosts in Santiago and an engaging workshop in Valparaiso, I have returned to Berkeley with new ideas and connections to researchers in Chile and across the world.

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Punit Gandhi is a Ph.D. candidate in the physics department at UC Berkeley. He studies pattern formation and was funded by a CONYCIT grant to develop models of experimentally observed localized structures in collaboration with the nonlinear physics group at Universidad de Chile.


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Reckoning the Hill within Nahua Cosmovision

By Jessica J. Stair

During the fall of 2015 I had the pleasure of conducting dissertation research in Mexico. In addition to the rich archival materials I examined and the supportive colleagues with whom I consulted, one of the most striking and perhaps unexpected realizations I made was related to the significance of the landscape in relation to my subject of research.

I study a corpus of late 17th- to early 18th-century manuscripts created by indigenous communities in Central Mexico known as the Techialoyan Codices. These manuscripts were produced in response to the viceregal policy of composición, which required landowners to produce papers concerning the legitimacy of their land claims. If communities did not have the original grants of sale, they took whatever means necessary to prove their claims, including producing manuscripts that asserted to be from an earlier time. Roughly thirty-five of the Techialoyans are known, and their pages are filled with vibrant depictions of hills, valleys, plants, and bodies of water, which describe the boundaries of the communities’ landholdings.

Within Pre-Columbian and early colonial manuscript traditions, places are often represented with a uniform pictograph of a hill. These glyphs tend to have a similar visual appearance and serve as a base to which an affix is added to indicate the particularity of the place. In the Codex Boturini, Chapultepec is represented with the generalized hill glyph as the base and the addition of a grasshopper. The Nahuatl word for grasshopper is “chapolin,” “tepetl” means hill or mountain, and “-c” is a locative suffix, therefore Chapultepec literally means “Grasshopper Hill.” Its visual correspondence is represented with a hill mounted by the insect.

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Facsimile of Codex Borturini, Museo Nacional de Antropología. (Photo by Jessica J. Stair.)

The Techialoyans do not strictly adhere to this glyphic tradition, as they were produced roughly one hundred years later when visual conventions had significantly evolved. However, the image of the hill is a prominent and repeated feature throughout the corpus. For instance, Chapultepec is depicted as a rounded hill covered with one large grasshopper and six smaller ones.

In indigenous manuscripts a hill glyph represented an altepetl, an ethnically based, socio-political entity. The Nahuatl word, altepetl, derives from the word “atl,” meaning water and “tepetl,” meaning hill or mountain. Successive hills create coves in which water can be held. A mountain and watery cove would have been considered an ideal place for indigenous groups to settle. This idea connects to the mythical migration narrative, which describes the Mexica, also known as the “Aztecs,” as coming from an aquatic underworld in Aztlán. They emerged from the caves of Chicomoztoc and set out on a long journey before ultimately settling in Tenochtitlan.

Considered as living entities, hills and mountains held immense significance in Nahua cosmovision. Not only did they connect to the foundational acts of their ancestors, they also provided sustenance to support growing communities. The representation of hills in both the glyphic forms of early manuscripts and the evolved modes of the Techialoyans do not merely represent a place, they connect to the profound, primordial idea of giving and supporting life.

As I traveled across the magnificent landscape of the Valley of Mexico, I was struck by the multitude of mountains and hills. It is no wonder that the hill featured as a significant aspect of Nahua cosmovision; it is an ever-present feature of the landscape and shows up repeatedly in manuscripts to communicate the idea of place, which ultimately links to ancestral times.

This idea struck me most, though, when I was traveling on the bus from Mexico City to Puebla and I looked out the window to see a distinctive two-peaked mountain range. I thought to myself how familiar it looked because I had just seen a depiction like this one the previous day in the Techialoyan of Ixtapalapa at the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia. I came to find out that, indeed, the distinctive mountains at which I was gazing were those of Ixtapalapa.

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View of Ixtapalapa. (Photo by Jessica J. Stair.)

At that moment, I realized just how closely linked the past and present can be. The places depicted in manuscripts that were created three hundred years ago still exist. The names and the landscape features remain the same. At the time the manuscripts were painted, the artists may have recalled a time when their ancestors founded the altepetl at the base of the same hill. Despite the myriad changes that have taken place in this region over time, the hill is a crucial aspect that remains to remind us of the interconnectedness of time and space in the Nahua world.

 Jessica Stair is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art Department at UC Berkeley.  Stair_Picture
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Differing Perspectives

By Sara Green

Early in the morning, I rode my bike to Li Ka Shing auditorium to attend The Southern Border course that I am taking as part of the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship Program (FLAS). That day Professor Beatriz Manz was invited to lecture about her anthropological work in Guatemala during the civil war. The lecture shed light on the lives of Guatemalans who were forced to flee during the conflict and the U.S.’s role in supporting a government with a long list of human rights violations.

The Southern Border course has been invaluable to my understanding of Latin America because the professor builds a historical foundation through which we can analyze current issues. With this information I feel much more prepared to enter the field of migration and U.S. international policy relations.

After the lecture I found myself thinking about the unaccompanied minors from Central America who have migrated to the U.S. to escape to the structural violence that is still present in their home countries. What is our role in supporting Central Americans who are fleeing violence?

Especially taking into account the U.S. government’s devastating political actions in some of these countries.

This question lingered in my head as I trudged up the steep hill to the Goldman School of Public Policy. As a dual degree student (my other degree is in Social Welfare), I am used to the constant mobility and change of perspectives as I moved from building to building on Berkeley’s campus. That day in Economics for Public Policy, we were modeling government food stamps programs and learning about how people interact with these government benefits.

Although both my classes that morning were about two completely different topics, the themes merged that very afternoon. As part of my Spanish class, we are volunteering at local organizations where we practice Spanish through service learning. I biked down to Oakland International High School (OIHS) that afternoon to help students who recently won their asylum cases sign up for government benefits. That day I met Oscar, an 18 year old from Guatemala, and we were working on signing him up for Medi-Cal and CalFresh medical and food assistance programs.

Oscar told me that when he reached the United States a little over a year ago he did not speak English or Spanish. He was born in a rural area in Guatemala and had worked on a farm his whole life. Oscar is currently working on learning numbers both in Spanish and English, which is completely new for him since he did not have formal schooling in Guatemala.

I was struck by his determination and resiliency in navigating a new language, education and government system. I thought about the Guatemalan Civil War and had a better understanding of what brought Oscar to America. I also reflected on the structure of government programs and how hard it is to navigate the system of benefits as a newly arrived immigrant. The understanding I gained from my courses that day could not have been more aligned with the interactions I had with Oscar that afternoon. Having an understanding of issues from both a micro and macro level is exactly why I pursued a dual degree in the first place.

I am incredibly appreciative to be coupling a dual degree with the FLAS fellowship this year. Exploring the issues from many angles has deepened my knowledge of migration and international policy. I am eager for another semester of wrestling with these profound social issues and also getting to work alongside those like Oscar who have had to be brave enough to tackle them daily.

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Sara Green is a dual Masters Degree student in UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and the School of Social Welfare. 




Oakland International High School (OIHS) serves newly arrived immigrant students to the U.S. all of whom are English language learners.  Nearly 1/3 of OIHS’s current students are from Central America.

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Oakland International High School, Oakland, California. (Photo by Jacqueline Sullivan.)

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Oakland International High School students from Central America in a Basic Math Skills class.                                                                                             Photo: Jacqueline Sullivan

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A teacher at Oakland International High School waits for students in his Basic Math Skills class.                                                                   Photo: Jacqueline Sullivan

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A tenet of the Oakland International High School’s approach to English language acquisition is group work. Photo: Jacqueline Sullivan

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100% of Oakland International High School’s students are English language learners, nearly all of whom immigrated to the US during the last 4 years. Photo: Jacqueline Sullivan


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Student artwork in a literature classroom at Oakland International High School. Photo: Jacqueline Sullivan

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More than 1/3 of the current students at Oakland International High School are undocumented, unaccompanied minors from Central America. Photo: Jacqueline Sullivan

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A new opportunity for Argentina

By Roberto Guareschi


Mauricio Macri casts his vote in the ballot box during the November 22, 2015 Argentine presidential election. (Photo: Mónica Martínez)

Mauricio Macri is taking office after defeating the Peronist candidate in Argentina’s presidential elections earlier this month. This marks one more step towards the end of populism. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is leaving office after twelve years, counting the four during which her husband Néstor was president. The couple had devised a plan that outsmarted democratic alternation in power: they wanted to each take turns ruling the country every four years. In fact, they ruled together; but Néstor died and she continued on her own, being elected to serve an additional term. They wanted to perpetuate themselves, like Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

Macri comes to power because of his ability to personify a change, and because half of the population got tired of the confrontational and angry style Cristina had imposed and her unfulfilled promise of a redistribution of wealth. It is true that there was some redistribution but no structural changes were made. That is why poverty has increased again, despite the fact that the country has enjoyed several years of economic growth at Chinese [growth] rates, thanks to soy exports.

A list of the challenges Macri will now have to face can be read in the article, “Fin del populismo en Argentina… (por ahora)” that I wrote for this blog in May, 2015.

What does Macri’s victory mean for Latin America? First, it speeds up the end of populism because of Argentina’s political and economic influence in the region despite its recurring problems.

The populist administrations in Ecuador and Venezuela are also in decline, and Brazil’s (a much more moderate version) is starting to turn towards orthodoxy.

The end of populism in Argentina is not the main cause of this downfall; but rather, the global drop in the price of raw materials. Populism cannot survive during economic crises unless there is great administrative efficiency. That is why Evo Morales seems strong: his country’s economy is in order thanks to his vice president, while he focuses on what he most likes and knows: maintaining, with his charisma, his political base.

Inefficiency (and second, the tension the administration has generated) is the main factor leading to the demise of “Kirchnerism”, not corruption or the administration’s encroachment on other State Powers. Its greatest achievements are a thriving cultural and scientific policy, and having reinstated the idea of a strong State capable of intervening in a lifeless and denationalized economy. And I say the idea because it was not able to accomplish this. For example, the renationalized state airline loses more than one million dollars a day (!) because of corruption and inefficiency.


Aerolíneas Argentinas planes parked in Aeroparque, Buenos Aires.     (Photo: Jorge Gobbi)

Macri has a tough job ahead: to come to terms with a struggling economy with almost no monetary reserves after years of reckless spending. How will he manage to carry out an inevitable economic adjustment while up against traditionally Peronist unions in a society that has a strong political awareness?

He will need great skill and influence to avoid violent social conflicts. For now, he is lacking charisma. As for efficiency, Macri is a businessman (son of a millionaire businessman) who has shown efficiency as the governor of the city of Buenos Aires. We will have to wait and see how he does in the “big leagues.”

With Macri a new political generation, possibly capable of understanding the complexities of current times, comes to power. Cristina is just six years older than Macri but her world is that of the 70s, when the concept of “imperialism” explained everything; and her vision of present times is a messy update of this.

Cristina comes from the middle class and from Peronism, which is by definition an alliance of classes. Macri was born into the upper class but knows how to handle himself in any context: he was a successful president of the Boca Juniors soccer club. Nonetheless, most of his collaborators and ministers are upper class businessmen. He will have to look beyond his own class if he wants to lead a politicized society that knows its rights.




Roberto Guareschi es a columnist and consults for digital media. He was the managing editor for the newspaper Clarín and a Visiting Lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.




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Nueva oportunidad para Argentina


Mauricio Macri emite su voto en el balotaje de las elecciones presidenciales, 22 de noviembre de 2015. (Foto por Mónica Martínez.)

Por Roberto Guareschi

Mauricio Macri asume la presidencia de Argentina luego de derrotar al peronismo. Un paso más hacia el fin del populismo. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner se irá de la presidencia de Argentina, al cabo de doce años, contando los cuatro en que su marido Néstor ocupó ese cargo. La pareja había ideado un esquema que burlaba la alternancia democrática: querían turnarse cuatro años cada uno. De hecho compartían el poder. Pero Néstor se murió. Y ella siguió sola, votada un período más. Querían eternizarse, como Evo Morales en Bolivia y Rafael Correa en Ecuador.

Macri llega al poder por su capacidad para personificar un cambio y por el hartazgo de la mitad de la población por el estilo de confrontación y rabia impuesto por Cristina y su promesa incumplida de una redistribución de la riqueza. Es cierto que ésta se concretó en alguna medida pero sin modificar ninguna estructura.  Por eso ha vuelto a crecer la pobreza, pese a que el país tuvo muchos años de crecimiento económico a tasas chinas, gracias a las exportaciones de soja.

Una lista de los desafíos que tiene ahora Macri puede verse en un artículo que escribí para este blog en mayo.

¿Qué significa el triunfo de Macri para América Latina? Primero, acelera el fin del populismo por la influencia política y económica que Argentina tiene en la región pese a todos sus recurrentes problemas.

Los populismos de Ecuador y Venezuela también vienen en declive y el de Brasil (una versión muy morigerada) empieza a virar hacia la ortodoxia.

Pero la salida del populismo en Argentina no es el principal factor de ese ocaso, sino la caída mundial del precio de las materias primas. El populismo no puede sobrevivir en crisis económicas a menos que tenga gran eficiencia administrativa.  Por eso mismo Evo Morales parece fuerte: tiene la economía ordenada gracias a su vicepresidente, mientras él se encarga de lo que más le gusta y sabe: mantener, con su carisma, su base política.

La ineficacia (y en segundo lugar la crispación) es el principal factor en la caída del kirchnerismo, no la corrupción ni su avance sobre los otros poderes del Estado. Sus mayores méritos son una política cultural y científica pujantes y el haber reinstalado la idea de un Estado fuerte, capaz de arbitrar en una economía exánime y desnacionalizada. Y digo la idea porque no se pudo concretar. Un ejemplo: la aerolínea estatal renacionalizada pierde más de un millón de dólares por día (!) por la corrupción y la ineficiencia.


Aviones de Aerolíneas Argentinas estacionados en Aeroparque, Buenos Aires. (Foto por Jorge Gobbi.)

Macri tiene un trabajo dificilísimo: sincerar una economía que agoniza casi sin reservas monetarias después de años de despilfarro. ¿Cómo hará para realizar un ajuste económico inevitable contra gremios tradicionalmente peronistas, en una sociedad con alta conciencia política?

Necesitará gran pericia e influencia para evitar conflictos sociales que pueden ser violentos. Carisma, por ahora no tiene. ¿Y eficiencia? Es un empresario (hijo de un empresario millonario) que ha mostrado eficiencia como jefe de gobierno de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires. Hay que ver cómo le va en las “grandes ligas.”

Con Macri llega al poder una nueva generación, posiblemente capaz de comprender la complejidad de esta época. Cristina tiene apenas seis años más que él, pero su mundo es el de los años 70, cuando el concepto de “imperialismo“ explicaba todo; y su visión de esta época es una actualización desprolija.

Cristina viene de la clase media y del peronismo, que por definición es una alianza de clases. Macri nació en la clase alta pero sabe manejarse en cualquier escenario: fue un exitoso presidente del club de fútbol Boca Juniors. Aun así, entre sus colaboradores y ministros predomina el empresario de clase alta. Tendrá que mirar por encima de su propia clase si quiere gobernar a una sociedad politizada que conoce sus derechos.



Roberto Guareschi es columnista y consultor en medios digitales. Fue director periodístico del diario Clarín y Visiting Lecturer en la Graduate School of Journalism de UC Berkeley.



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A Tale of Two Crops

By Rishi Khalsa


Pineapple plantation in Buenos Aires, Costa Rica

It was the best of crops, it was the worst of crops, it was a system of equality, and it was a system of inequality. There was a crop heavily exported from the mountains of Costa Rica, there was a crop heavily exported from the valleys of Costa Rica. In both places this was and continues to be the expected order of things. It is accepted that for agriculturalists, coffee would be a crop of opportunity and pineapple a crop of last resort.

The production of pineapples and coffee alone makes up nearly 10% of Costa Rica’s total exports in an industry that employs almost 15% of the labor force. There are towns in Costa Rica that survive solely on the production of these crops and are surrounded by a vast sea of either coffee or pineapple plantations. Yet, the production systems in place around these two crops vary greatly to the benefit and detriment of their respective laborers.

Del Monte with its Gold Extra Sweet pineapple is one of the largest pineapple producers in Costa Rica. The pineapples are grown on third party farms that limit workers’ ability to unionize. Despite earning above the minimum wage in an average week, in part due to being pressured into long hours both on the fields and in the packaging plants, workers report needing a substantially higher wage to provide a decent standard of living for their families. The majority of profits in pineapple production go directly to the retailers and Del Monte. For example, Buenos Aires in the province of Puntarenas, one of the largest production centers for Del Monte, is in the third poorest county in all of Costa Rica.


Pineapple plantation in Buenos Aires, Costa Rica

On the other hand, coffee production tends to create greater benefits for a larger number of local producers thanks, in part, to the existence of coffee cooperatives. The labor is still grueling, but the profits reach more Costa Ricans.

So, why does coffee production benefit more Costa Ricans and allow for cooperatives to dominate the sector in comparison to pineapple production? The reasons are both historical and market-driven.

Costa Rica, diverging from many other Latin American countries, developed into a relatively egalitarian agricultural society because of its lack of mineral resources and mountainous terrain. Spanish settlers were left on their own with the remnants of displaced indigenous communities. This created an atmosphere ripe for the development of small Spanish family farms that were able to embrace the sudden growth in demand for coffee worldwide beginning in the late 1700s in Costa Rica and leading eventually to the formation of cooperatives. Many of these families chose to produce coffee in order to take advantage of a government policy that gave land being cultivated by coffee growers to those same people creating a market of small producers.


Sun setting on the coffee town of San Carlos, Costa Rica

Coffee plays an important role in Costa Rica’s cultural identity and was traditionally harvested by the families themselves or neighbors, especially around Christmas. Now coffee is more commonly harvested by migrant laborers but the benefits of production still stay with local producers.

In contrast, pineapple was introduced into the country much later and on land that was not cultivated by these small coffee producers, leaving control of pineapples mainly in the hands of large multinational traders. This has contributed to pineapple not holding the same status as coffee in the national psyche and potentially obscures issues around the crop.

Similarly, market conditions favor small coffee producers in comparison to small pineapple producers. It is possible to find coffee of many varieties (fair-trade, elephant digested, shade grown, organic, etc.) sold by supermarkets and coffee shops catering to consumer preferences, whereas pineapples for the most part suffer from the distinction of being known simply as pineapples. This contrast stems from coffee’s movement into a segment of the market in which producers more effectively capture the value added, whereas pineapples are treated like regular agricultural commodities and the value added in the supply chain is captured outside of Costa Rica.

From an outside perspective coffee and pineapple production may seem similarly labor intensive, but on closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the distribution of economic benefits varies greatly. In one industry profits are largely extracted from country and earth, in the other they remain closer to home. While coffee production may be a bitter struggle in the face of fluctuating market demands and crop diseases, it is often a far, far better sacrifice for Costa Rican producers.




Rishi Khalsa is a student in the Master of Development Practice program at UC Berkeley. He served in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica from 2013-15.

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