Monday, January 10, 2011

Producto de Los Estados Unidos


My program took a trip to Rabuco, an agricultural area outside of Valparaiso and toured a blueberry farm with the stated intention, as set out by our director, to understand the effects of globalization in Chile’s agriculture. The real reason all of the students were there was for the promised feast we would (and did) have later. With the unfortunate scheduling of the excursion on a Saturday morning, the resulting collective sleep deprivation and the general indifference to blueberries (besides eating them), we were not at our academic best.

Last semester I took the “International Political Economy of Food and Hunger”, so despite the weight of a sleepy friend’s head on my shoulder for the majority of the tour, I made an effort to pay attention since I had spent the good part of a semester debating about how exactly globalization affects farmers in developing countries such as Chile. For the most part, it was in vain. The jolly owner showed us the unripe blueberry plants, took us into the room where they held the chemicals they sprayed, and showed us the outfits they picked berries in. I began to wonder about lunch.


Once we got into the packing plant I had broken off from both the group and relieved myself from my friend’s head and began to wander around, thinking about what lunch might consist of. I found myself staring lazily at the packets the blueberries were put in, unconsciously reading the words: “Sunnydale Blueberries! Product of the USA”.


While I hadn’t paid much attention, I had at least gathered that these blueberries were by no stretch of the imagination or FDA rules being produced in the States, much less at the Florida address stamped on them.

I had a brief inner struggle about whether I should embarrass this kindly man about whether his operation was essentially illegal but decided I owed it to my hours spent in Food and Hunger to at least ask. After all, I would not be able to tell this story if I didn’t have a suitable ending.


When I asked the owner his look of confusion made me think that my Spanish made my question unintelligible. I showed him the packet and told him what “Product of the United States” translated to in Spanish.

He smiled and said that the company just sends him the boxes to fill up with blueberries. He was responsible for the blueberries meeting their export standards but what how they labeled the blueberries was their own “engaño”.

Engaño is one of those words that has many translations but each one is illuminating. Engaño means: deceit, swindle, trick, ploy, mistake, misunderstanding and hoax. (Thank you, I think all are appropriate.

On that note, he decided to direct us to the free samples of blueberry jam. My friend started to speculate on how awesome it may be if the jam was dispensed by massive jam-shooting guns hanging from the ceiling accompanied by women covered only by mashed blueberries, rather than in jars. I think there may have been sound effects.


This experience (jam-shooting aside) made it startling real many of the things that I had talked about in class. (See, Dad, it’s not called “not study” abroad, it’s just learning in a different cultural context). It served as a confirmation of what I had learned and now is a perfect anecdote to illustrate what a strange, deceitful, tricky, hoaxy food system we live with.

Labels aren’t to be trusted—I would be very curious to see how the blueberries make it into the United States in these boxes and whether the FDA knows about their existence. If they do, I wonder if there is some loophole that allows them to be marketed as such.

The fractured supply chain—watching the farmer shrug off the responsibility for who eats his berries demonstrated how estranged the food system has made the producer and consumer. Between them is the looming middle man of a transnational corporation.

The importance of face-to-face information
—So where does this leave people who are determined to buy local or at least from their own country? If you can’t trust the labels and federal regulatory organization, who can you trust? (Douse with skepticism, light with irony).

No, but seriously. The information gap makes it almost impossible to be a conscientious consumer. Perhaps someday there will be an iPhone app for that. In the meantime, I award another point to the farmer’s market.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sounds of Valparaiso

Many a morning I have laid in bed cursing the streets of Valparaiso. To be clear, I love this city. These are the damnations made by the recently and rudely awakened. Each morning I have the distinct pleasure of enjoying, from my own bed, the symphony of obnoxious noises that make up the street life of Valparaiso.

It is mainly due to location. The next-door church clock tower, the busy street below and the fire station across the street are relatively discreet. In this case, relative is the operative word.

Across the street is the headquarters of the Santiago Wanders, which, despite it’s name, is Valparaiso’s home soccer team. The Wanders and their fans are unanimously recognized as “flaite”, a Chilean socioeconomic category characterized by poverty, low education, an aggressive demeanor, a vulgar vocabulary and a fierce love for playing reggaeton from their cell phones in public. On game days, the die-hard fans line in front of the building to drink cheap beer and yell. They chant fútbol cheers, holler at passing women, harass passing men, argue loudly about sports statistics and probably even remark on the weather at an elevated volume. On special days they remember to bring the drums. This all begins at the godforsaken hour of 9 am on a Saturday.

During the week, the noises of the street take a more academic turn. The local schools regularly fill the streets with marching bands from the military academy, drum lines from the alternative school, even German heritage pageants from the German language school. Non school-sanctioned activities include mass walkouts protesting the government’s education budget cuts.

Other sounds can be heard throughout Chile. There are the ever-present car alarms, which I can now imitate from memory. There is the man who is selling 7 kitchen towels for a dollar and announces this incredible offer by repeating it rapid-fire through a static filled megaphone. (Thankfully the Wanders fans have not yet been so inspired). There also is the lazier and more-tech savvy salesman who plays his spiel from equally static boom box. The wares change but they always are of poor quality and dubious utility.

The source of the most obnoxious and prevalent sound—a repetitive metallic clanging that goes on for minutes—remained a mystery to me for a month. Turns out, it was the propane man. Most of these door-to-door salesmen yell and some have rhythm but they all push a cart full of tanks and bang a stick against the metal to announce their presence. It feels like it is banging against your own eardrums.

Finally, there is a strange moaning call I hear some mornings whose source I have avoided discovering. The pitch and rhythm is always the same but the words are indiscernible. I have decided to imagine a mythical creature that wanders the streets of Valparaiso, undetectable besides its call. Of course, it is searching for long-lost love. It probably looks like Sasquatch.

Perhaps I entertain this fantasy because I am in between dreaming and waking. Or perhaps because surrounded by the reality of the junk salesman, gas tanks, drunk soccer fans, uniformed drum lines and protesting students, I don’t want to know the truth. Or perhaps it is that I simply I want to preserve the mystery of this city. I want to leave some of it unknown, left to be discovered. Or, I don’t want to get out of bed to find out.