What is the link between global trade policies and the food on our plates? How can scholars of globalization and migration translate their work so as to shape more just and sustainable policies? Why should scholars bring their whole selves to their work and what impact can that have on broader political, economic, and cultural processes?

In episode 81 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews cultural and medical anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez about how NAFTA has changed the food practices and health outcomes for Mexican and Mexican American populations, advice for scholars seeking to translate their research into documentary films and other formats, why we all need to be public-facing scholars these days, and why dreaming big and bringing her full self to her work is how Alyshia imagines otherwise.

Guest: Alyshia Gálvez

Alyshia Gálvez wearing a navy shirt. Text reads "Alyshia Gálvez on episode 81 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast"Alyshia Gálvez is a cultural and medical anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

She is the author of the book Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico (University of California Press, 2018) on changing food policies, systems and practices in Mexico and Mexican communities in the United States, including the ways they are impacted by trade and economic policy, and their public health implications.

Alyshia was the founding director of the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY and is the author of two previous books on Mexican migration, Patient Citizens, Immigrant Mothers: Mexican Women, Public Prenatal Care and the Birth Weight Paradox (Rutgers University Press, 2011, winner of the 2012 ALLA Book Award from the Association of Latino and Latin American Anthropologists) and Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Immigrants (NYU Press, 2009).

Episode Sponsor

This episode is sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The goal of the MA in Critical Studies is to produce creative critical thinkers prepared to address pressing contemporary issues at the intersection of cultural production and critical theory. Program graduates develop the research, writing, and communication skills necessary for rigorously investigating the forces shaping contemporary culture with imagination, creativity, and collaboration. MA program applications are open now. For more information visit pnca.edu/criticalstudies

Red and yellow gradient background. Text reads: Activism and academia depend on each other so strongly. I think academia without activism is really pointless. There's no way to remain neutral. We have to come away with a strong idea of how things need to be addressed going into the future to offset inequalities. Quote from Alyshia Gálvez on episode 81 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast

We chatted about

  • Alyshia’s new book Eating NAFTA (02:10)
  • Studying up, or studying people who are privileged in social hierarchies (06:26)
  • The process of translating academic research into a documentary film (08:23)
  • Why academics need to make their work relevant to broader publics (09:43)
  • How Alyshia’s love of food shapes her academic research (11:14)
  • Bringing our full self to our work (14:35)
  • Imagining otherwise (18:05)

Takeaways

Eating NAFTA

The book is exploring the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in terms of the food systems in the United States and Mexico, with a special focus on the public health consequences in Mexico and the way that NAFTA has led to an epidemic of diet-related illness, especially diabetes.

Why all scholars need to be public scholars

We need to make sure that we’re making the ways that we do research known to the general public and the relevance of it. That a blog post and a scientific article are not the same thing. That there are methods that we use in the social sciences and other academic disciplines that are reliable, that reveal information that can be counted on for generating policy. If we can’t make ourselves relevant to policy makers and to the general public, I really don’t know what we’re doing.

How hobbies can shape scholarly research

I love food. I can talk about food all day. Part of my impulse for doing this project was because I spend so much of my personal time when I’m off the clock thinking about food, cooking food, reading recipes and blogs about food. I wanted to bring my academic research and my own hobbies closer into consonance.

The link between trade policy and food

Food is how free trade gets onto our plate in really concrete ways that I think any of us not only can wrap our heads around, but we can be passionate about….NAFTA is really about corporate interests seizing the day and getting what they want out of the global economy, but the average person’s interests are really not being represented. I think that food is one of the best lenses for us to be able to see that, to really visualize it and see it in action.

Why we all need to be combining art, activism, and academia

If we don’t show up as our full selves to projects, we’re never going to get past the superficial. We’re never going to actually connect with people and we’re never going to convince anybody. I think that we can’t keep these separate silos, these separate spheres, where academia is not supposed to be about passion or social justice or social justice is tainted by research or academia. These are really arbitrary and false divisions. If we’re really going to push the needle on some of these issues—which are so crucial to thinking about the future, to thinking about living in a world that’s more equal, that’s more sustainable environmentally and socially—I think we have to combine all of these different things.

Imagining otherwise

There was a statement that was made by the captain of the Mexican soccer team at the World Cup this past summer where Mexico was briefly doing better than anybody expected. [Javier] Chicharito [Hernández] was asked, “What do you think is going to happen? The Mexican team is doing better than anyone expected.” And he said, “soñemos cosas chingonas,” which means “let’s dream badass things.” I keep coming back to that phrase. I think we need to dream really obstinately optimistic and utopian things because if we think incrementally, we’re not going to achieve anything like equality. We’re not going to achieve anything like healing from trauma and the aftereffects of colonization and white supremacist thinking in this country and in this world that are still rippling around. So I think if we want to dream of a world that is equal, we need to dream big and we need to settle for nothing less.

More from Alyshia

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This episode is sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The Critical Studies Program produces creative, critical thinkers with the research, writing, and communication skills necessary to address pressing issues at the intersection of cultural production and critical theory. MA program applications are open now. For more information on the program and the enrollment process, you can visit pnca.edu/criticalstudies.

Alyshia is a cultural and medical anthropologist and professor of Latin American and Latino studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

She is the author of the book Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico (published by University of California Press in 2018), which examines changing food policies, systems, and practices in Mexico and Mexican communities in the United States, including the ways they are impacted by trade and economic policy as well as their public health implications.

She was the founding director of the Jaime Lucero Mexican Studies Institute at CUNY and is the author of two previous books on Mexican migration, Patient Citizens, Immigrant Mothers: Mexican Women, Public Prenatal Care and the Birth Weight Paradox (Rutgers University Press, 2011, winner of the 2012 ALLA Book Award from the Association of Latino and Latin American Anthropologists) and Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Immigrants (NYU Press, 2009).

[01:41] In our interview, Alyshia and I chat about how NAFTA has changed the food practices and health outcomes for Mexican and Mexican American populations, her advice for scholars seeking to translate their research into documentary films, why we all need to be public-facing scholars these days, and why dreaming big and bringing her full self to her work is how Alyshia imagines otherwise.

[To Alyshia] Thanks so much for being with us today.

Alyshia Gálvez: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Cathy: So you’re the author of a new book called Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico. Can you give our listeners a little bit of a sense of what that book covers?

Alyshia: Yeah, so the book is exploring the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in terms of the food systems in the United States and Mexico, with a special focus on the public health consequences in Mexico and the way that NAFTA has led to an epidemic of diet-related illness, especially diabetes.

I’m tracing out how that came to be and what some of the arguments are for why it happened, whose responsibility it is, and what the solutions are.

Cathy [02:51]: What was some of those surprising stories or things that you’ve learned over the course of doing research for that book?

Alyshia: Well, I came to this research having done a prior research project on the so-called “Latino paradox,” which is the way that a lot of immigrants in the United States who are coming from Latin America arrive with better-than-expected health outcomes. I say better than expected because in the United States, typically, wealth is associated with health. Latino immigrants tend to have lower incomes, but actually have better health outcomes. This declines over time.

So I was interested in the ways that people from Mexico would often describe their home communities as being places that they associated with health and healthfulness—healthy food, healthy lifestyles, the ability to live in a way that supports community and heath. So when I started to learn about NAFTA, I was really saddened and surprised to hear that a lot of the communities that people come from, that migrants come from, in fact no longer have that bubble of healthful practices and healthful food and corresponding indicators of health as far as mortality. Instead, a lot of those places have become epicenters of diabetes and a lot of other diseases that have typically been associated more with cities. That was one surprising thing that I was interested in exploring.

Cathy [04:23]: As an anthropologist, someone who does ethnographic research and someone who immerses themselves in the communities that they’re studying, I’m curious about that process of studying food. You mention in the book itself stories or anecdotes about how people would be cooking around you and you’d be having conversations about food and about the politics of food. Can you maybe give us one or two stories from your fieldwork that got you in immersed in the communities that you’re writing about as an anthropologist?

Alyshia: Actually, this research was tricky in the sense that the ideas that I was interested in exploring are in some way so ubiquitous that it’s actually hard to choose a location that somehow is emblematic or illustrative of the phenomena that I’m discussing.

We talk, for example, about the supermarketization of the Mexican countryside, where Walmart has extended its reach all across the Mexican Republic through little convenience stores attached to gas stations called Oxo, which are a lot like 7-Eleven or ampm. They’re everywhere.

[05:21] And we see the Coca-Cola distribution truck everywhere. It’s almost like it’s everywhere and nowhere, this proliferation of highly processed foods and soda in every rural community. So it’s almost difficult to choose a location.

What I ended up doing was twofold. One is I connected to people who I was already connected to from past research. I was able to see in some of the same families, people that I’ve known for two decades, the toll of diabetes, for example, on their families and the incredible costs for families, with people sending remittances back from the Bronx to pay for dialysis in rural Mexico.

I was able to trace a lot of those stories very closely because I already knew people and I knew some of the stories. So it was easier for me to connect the dots and fill in the blanks between the last episode that I was familiar with when I had visited them the last time and then visiting them anew and having new conversations about how their life had had changed over time.

[06:26] Then the other thing that I did was trace the policies. I went to the upper echelons of the Mexican government and I was able to speak to people who were at the negotiating table when NAFTA was negotiated the first time and people who were thinking about the new revision of NAFTA that is kind of still in process and was just signed.

I was also able to talk to people who are in charge of the strategy that the Mexican government has initiated in the last couple of years to address diabetes. I talked to them about what they were thinking, how did they put together these policies, what was their understanding of the causes and solutions to these epidemics of diet-related disease. So that was a different kind of ethnography. It’s a little bit of what we call “studying up” where I was studying people who in social hierarchies are a lot more powerful than me. I was able to really try some of these things in different ways that I think made it interesting.

Cathy [07:23]: So in addition to working on this in written form, in the form of a book and journal articles, you also are the co-director of a documentary film that addresses very similar issues called ¡Salud!: Myths and Realities of Mexican Immigrant Health.

I’m curious about that process of translating across these very different mediums—academic scholarship that’s designed to be read by scholars versus a documentary film that I would imagine aims to have a broader audience. What was that process of translation like for you?

Alyshia: Yeah, well actually in the book too, I was concerned to make it as accessible as possible because I’m trying to bridge so many disciplines. I tried very hard not to write “an anthropology book.” I tried to write a book that would be accessible not only to scholars and professionals and experts from different academic disciplines, but I also wanted a general readership, you know, someone who might read an article in a newspaper about the food system. I wanted anybody to be able to pick up this book and be able to read it and engage with the ideas without it being heavily loaded with jargon.

[08:23] With the film documentary, it’s really the same concept. My colleague David Schwittek and I are trying to address what we see as misconceptions and stereotypes about Mexican immigration. There are so many problematic and horrifying prejudices that are circulating as though they were facts in our society and they’re driving policy—for example, the idea that the [US–Mexico] border is broken, when in fact Mexican migration reversed with the [2008] financial crisis and is still declining. There’s also the idea that Latinos and that Mexicans specifically bring disease when in fact they bring health and it’s the United States that makes them sick.

These were some of the ideas that we wanted to explore and debunk on as many platforms as possible. We consider ourselves to have a message that we want to get out by any means necessary. So some people will watch a film, some people will read a book or they’ll hear a talk or they’ll hear your podcast. We’re excited to get these messages out any way that we can because we’re very committed to them as social justice issues.

Cathy [09:37]: Do you have any advice for other scholars who want to do some of this more public facing work but perhaps don’t know where to start?

Alyshia [09:43]: Yeah, I mean I think we have to. We have to do it. I don’t think it’s an option anymore. Academia is under assault by the current presidential administration, but also it’s been forty years of a decline in funding for higher education and for research.

We need to make sure that we’re making the ways that we do research known to the general public and the relevance of it. That a blog post and a scientific article are not the same thing. That there are methods that we use in the social sciences and other academic disciplines that are reliable, that reveal information that can be counted on for generating policy. If we can’t make ourselves relevant to policy makers and to the general public, I really don’t know what we’re doing.

So as far as advice, I would just encourage people to check out the many things at our fingertips now. In terms of Twitter, there are people like Jonathan Rosa, who’s teaching linguistic anthropology via Twitter to the world.

We need to find ways to make ourselves more present and visible, more relevant and engaged, in the conversations of our day.

Cathy [10:52]: A lot of the other guests on the show also work in the area of food justice and on issues related to food, coming at it from a bunch of different angles depending on their training. What got you interested in food as a way to trace these really broad political and ethical questions of migration, of transnational economies, of global politics? Why food?

Alyshia [11:14]: I mean, we all eat [laughs].

Cathy: Good point, good point [laughs].

Alyshia: You know, I love food. I can talk about food all day. Part of my impulse for doing this project was because I spend so much of my personal time when I’m off the clock thinking about food, cooking food, reading recipes and blogs about food. I wanted to bring my academic research and my own hobbies closer into consonance.

There’s an intellectual rationale for it as well, which is that trade is very abstract in a lot of ways and it’s wonky. It’s one of these policy domains that the average person really has no reason to take an interest in. Not only is it usually negotiated behind closed doors, there’s an actual exclusion of the general public from debates about trade that get discussed by deputized trade negotiators with fast-track authority who then report back to the elected officials. Then the elected officials do or don’t engage in a way that the public can follow.

[12:27] It’s opaque purposefully, but it’s also boring. I study Mexican migration. I’ve always known that NAFTA was relevant, but even I had a hard time digging into the ways that some of the stuff plays out and the real life consequences of it.

But food is so tangible and it’s such an interest. Food is how free trade gets onto our plate in really concrete ways that I think any of us not only can wrap our heads around, but we can be passionate about.

I think that whether it’s thinking about globalization in the sense of the fruits of globalization. I live in the [US] northeast and without globalization, I wouldn’t have avocados most of the year or ever actually because they’re not grown locally.

[13:23] It’s also about food justice and it’s about all of the issues that we know of in terms of our food system labor, how these trade deals work, the inequalities between nations, the ways that development is being imagined by elected officials and by governments.

NAFTA is really about corporate interests seizing the day and getting what they want out of the global economy, but the average person’s interests are really not being represented. I think that food is one of the best lenses for us to be able to see that, to really visualize it and see it in action.

Cathy: How do you see your work across these various projects, both current and past and perhaps in the future, combining your interest in academic scholarship with your interest in art or creativity and social justice activism?

Alyshia [14:35]: Coming back to the idea of a public-facing academic or socially-engaged or publicly-engaged scholars, I think that all of us have to combine all of the spheres that are relevant to the research that we’re doing or the art-making or the activism that we’re doing.

We also have to realize that if we don’t show up as our full selves to projects, we’re never going to get past the superficial. We’re never going to actually connect with people and we’re never going to convince anybody.

I think that we can’t keep these separate silos, these separate spheres, where academia is not supposed to be about passion or social justice or social justice is tainted by research or academia. These are really arbitrary and false divisions. If we’re really going to push the needle on some of these issues—which are so crucial to thinking about the future, to thinking about living in a world that’s more equal, that’s more sustainable environmentally and socially—I think we have to combine all of these different things.

We need art in order to have a vision for the future, to be able to visualize what it is that we’re fighting for and also as a way of remembering history and communicating.

[15:31] Activism and academia depend on each other so strongly. I think academia without activism is really pointless. There’s no way to remain neutral. We have to come away with a strong idea of how things need to be addressed going into the future in order to offset some of the inequalities.

When we’re talking about the social sciences, it all really boils down to social inequalities, social hierarchies, and so if we don’t have an interest in addressing those, I don’t know what we’re doing.

Cathy: What kind of projects are you working on now or do you maybe need a break after this big book?

Alyshia: Well, it’s always nice to actually to finish a project and have a moment of thinking about what’s next. I’ve written three books and sometimes in academia there isn’t a huge pressure to keep publishing at that point. But I can’t stop thinking about things and using writing as a way to explore them.

[16:26] So right now I’m thinking a lot about what’s happening on the [US–Mexico] border and the ways that conceptualizations about immigrants in the United States are changing and the ways that immigrant activists are addressing those shifting narratives about immigrants.

When I got out of grad school, the immigrant rights movement of the early 2000s was really optimistic and idealistic that we were going to see immigration reform imminently. And now, almost two decades later, we see no immigration reform in sight and just see this incredible antipathy towards immigrants. I’m seeing a lot of my friends who are activists or undocumented and have no pathway to legalization becoming disenchanted with the idea that they can convince anyone else of their humanity. I think that that’s something really important for us as a society to think about—what that means socially, what the implications of that kind of dehumanization of a population is.

[17:27] If rights cannot be secured because of the human realities and the poignancy of people’s life experiences, then how are we going to think about equal rights? I think this is a moment where we’re starting to see articulations of new premises for rights in the United States. People are making claims that have nothing to do with their stories, but are really more about basic fundamentals of humans deserve rights, full stop. I think we’re going to see some really interesting articulations of that and so I’m interested in and tracing that and understanding that. So that’s what I’m thinking about now.

Cathy [18:05]: I think this is a really nice dovetail into my final question, which is also my favorite question that I get to ask folks and that’s the big why behind all of the various work that you do in the world. What kind of world do you want?

Alyshia [18:18]: I love that question. There was a statement that was made by the captain of the Mexican soccer team at the World Cup this past summer where Mexico was briefly doing better than anybody expected. [Javier] Chicharito [Hernández] was asked, “What do you think is going to happen? The Mexican team is doing better than anyone expected.” And he said, “Soñemos cosas chingonas,” which means “let’s dream badass things.”

I keep coming back to that phrase. I think we need to dream really obstinately optimistic and utopian things because if we think incrementally, we’re not going to achieve anything like equality. We’re not going to achieve anything like healing from trauma and the aftereffects of colonization and white supremacist thinking in this country and in this world that are still rippling around. So I think if we want to dream of a world that is equal, we need to dream big and we need to settle for nothing less.

I think big picture, we need to think about a world in which there’s equality, in which borders do not divide people and families, where everyone has access to their full life opportunities and can live fully and freely. That’s the world that I hope to see.

Cathy [19:33]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all the ways that you imagined and create otherwise.

Alyshia: Thank you so much. This is very nice to talk to you.

Cathy [19:45]: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]