Food & Balance in Rural Yucatan


A review of Practices of Care: Food and the Pursuit of Balance in Rural Yucatán, by Lauren Wynne.

Care is a local category of practice for the Yucatec Maya of Southern Mexico. As Lauren Wynne explains, care (kalan or kanan) refers to practices that promote well-being, or balance, in one’s self and in relationships with the community and the cosmos. In this dissertation, Wynne focuses on the ways this idea of care is manifested in everyday life in the town of Juubche’ and how it is changing in relation to several factors: the acceleration of male labour migration as part of the tourist economy of Cancun; more noticeable economic disparities in the town with the influx of cash; the decline in subsistence agriculture; the exposure to new recipes and ingredients via mass media, particularly television; and government-run public health clinics and programs. This highly readable dissertation interestingly considers changing food practices through the lens of care and the body. It investigates how biomedical and nutritional ideas — learned from health clinics, government organized-lectures or television — do not necessarily compete with or displace local ideas about food, such as the hot and cold syndrome, but are negotiated, adapted and understood within such local understandings. In some cases, this interaction generates change, and in other cases, local practices and beliefs are reinforced.

In her Introduction, Wynne explores the meaning of care practice, engaging the work of John Law, Daniel López et al. and Annemarie Mol, among others. She argues that the local category of care is expansive for the Yucatec Maya in that it includes non-human entities and animals, for example the protection offered by deities or the comfort provided by a photograph or a cat. (See:  John Law, “Care and Killing: Tensions in Veterinary Practice” in Annemarie Mol, Ingunn Moser and Jeanette Pols (eds.) Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2010, pp. 57-71; Daniel López, Blanca Callén, Francisco Tirado and Miguel Domenech, “How to Become A Guardian Angel: Providing Safety in a Home Telecare Service” in the same volume, pp. 73-91; Annemarie Mol, The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

Much of dissertation explores the role of food as central to practices of care. As the author explains, “On social and cosmological level[s], food fuels much of the interaction between individual humans, and between humans and spiritual entities. Food is at the root of many larger social and spiritual tensions, but its incorporation into the body is one of the most intimate ways in which my informants exercise care and achieve balance” (p. 27). The dissertation demonstrates how food is a “force for care” (p. 44). The production, preparation and consumption of their own food and cuisine continue to symbolize much older concerns with Mayan survival and autonomy. And despite the hardships that contemporary Yucatec Maya face as they are increasingly inserted into regional labour markets and global food markets, Lauren Wynne argues they adapt their practices of care in a myriad of ways in order to “create, as best they can, the most tranquil and pleasurable lives possible” (p. 44).

In Chapter 2, Wynne explores how food production, preparation and consumption — as forms of caring for one’s self, family, community, and the greater cosmos — are gendered in particular ways. For instance, although men are increasingly part of the tourist economy, they continue to be responsible for providing maize for household consumption either as subsistence farmers or wage earners. Women are responsible for the preparation of corn tortillas, a key dietary staple as in much of Mexico, as well as household meals, where standardization in preparation is sought.

Food is a key part of caring for the body. In Chapter 3, Wynne draws on research and theory on the body and embodiment in discussing her findings on how the Yucatec Maya desire balance in relation to the body, the social world and the cosmos. “The three types of balance are interrelated; yet it is the human body that is the site at which imbalances are most intimately experienced. Human illness, pain, and suffering are thought to originate in forces external to the material body” (p. 119). The hot-cold syndrome is a key aspect of caring for the self and others in food preparation and consumption; taking care to eat foods classified as hot or cold in accordance with one’s bodily and emotional states, stage in life, and conditions external to but affecting the body. Predictable tastes and foods reduce anxiety about the unknown effects of strange foods on the body and for this reason among the Yucatec Maya standardization is desired in the execution of established dishes.

One of the most fascinating parts of the dissertation is its analysis of novel foods. Wynne examines the significance of several key novel foods — the sandwich, potato salad and pasta salad — now served at local secular events such as birthday parties and prepared by a younger generation of women who may have learned recipes from television or from working outside the town as domestic workers in urban middle-class homes. Because these dishes require purchased ingredients like mayonnaise and they are dishes from middle-class urban homes, they are associated with the social and economic mobility; their preparation grants the women who prepare them a sense of upwardly mobility and generates respect within the community. These are foods that are not incorporated into the hot and cold system either, because residents are unsure of where such foods fit or because the women who prepare them see the hot and cold system as a backward local tradition. Serving new foods that have no adverse effect also helps loosening ideas about the biological or racial link to food preferences and local associations between poverty and traditional food practices.

The foods eaten by Catholics are virtually the same as those eaten by non-Catholics (Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists), and very similar to rural Yucatán more generally. One notable exception is the consumption of alcohol. Consuming alcohol may be considered an appropriate and a pleasurable way of caring for one’s self, in dulling the stress of the day or work, for male Catholics. Wynne demonstrates how, beyond the question of food, Catholics and non-Catholics engage with the supernatural and the traditional cosmology in different ways.   “Joining evangelical and Pentecostal churches allow these individuals to more easily abandon corporate activities like annual fiesta or agricultural ceremonies. The rejection of milpa agriculture [for men] helps converts avoid physical and conceptual spaces that might provoke dispositions and anxieties contrary to the doctrines to which they now adhere […] Free from assumptions about the agentive potential of a pantheon of deities and forces in the world, they see little sense in the logic behind those very care practices and they do not have to participate in the reciprocal exchanges they entail” (p. 181).

In Chapter 4, Wynne examines how ideas about and practices of gender and sexuality are shifting in some cases, and reproduced in others. In doing so, she situates her research findings in relation to the historical and anthropological literature on the Maya. While young women experience more restrictive norms about appropriate sexuality when compared to male migrants, Wynne argues this is a contradictory process: “rural Yucatec Maya women’s projects of partial re-invention retain local significance — namely in food work as an integral way to care — and resist alienation, unlike the wage labor of men for whom the fruits of labor seem more abstract and fleeting” (p. 279). As male migrants are introduced to new cultural worlds through their work in the tourist industry of regional cities, they not only bring home new experiences but cash income and purchased commodities. In Chapter 5, Wynne argues that one of the effects of this income and introduction of commodities on the local norms of reciprocity and exchange is that the line between who is considered successful and who is considered to be taking advantage of a neighbor is increasingly blurred.

The dissertation ends with a reflection on how local practices of care still serve as a way to manage the uncertainties of life and the enormous social change underfoot. As older practices of care, such as those linked with farming, are increasingly discontinued, some men “find new purpose […] in religion or consumption” (p. 300). However, these newer practices of care, namely earning a wage or individual spiritual salvation, do not always reproduce balance for the body, community or cosmos. Wynne convincingly argues that “care continues to be a force for managing […] anxieties and achieving desired states, yet it does so on a widening set of terms, some of which draw in to question human relationships with externalities, especially in matters of food” (p. 230).

This is a well-argued case study of how the Yucatec Maya relationship to food, as part of local practices of care, is shifting. The dissertation engages, and makes a contribution to, the history and anthropology of the Yucatán Maya (such as Nancy Farriss’ Maya Society Under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984; Nancy Farriss, “Remembering the Future, Anticipating the Past: History, Time and Cosmolohy Among the Maya of the Yucatan” in Comparative Studies in Society and History 29, 1987, pp. 566-593) and to the anthropology of food (or food studies more broadly), especially with regard to the folk hot/cold syndrome (for example, Carole Counihan, The Anthropology of Food and the Body: Gender, Meaning and Power. London: Routledge, 1999; Judith Farquhar, Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). Lauren Wynne’s dissertation is also of use to researchers interested in Maya cosmology and religious conversion. What I found to be particularly interesting and creative in Wynne’s approach is how she explores questions of changing food and livelihood practices among the Yucatec Maya through the lens of the anthropology of the body, embodiment and care practices as theorized by Annemarie Mol, Judith Farquhar and others.

Elizabeth Fitting
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology
Dalhousie University

Primary Sources

Ethnographic research in rural northeastern Yucatán, Mexico.

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 329 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith B. Farquhar.


Image: Photograph by Justin Nevin.

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