Discussing a failed arctic expedition of the late 1700s, Keith Gessen reminds us that the team had wooden boats, wildly inaccurate maps, and “didn’t know what a vitamin was.”[i] Now, four Nobel Prizes later, we are in the 101st Year of the Vitamin. The word, derived from “vital” because vitamins are required for life, yields 104,000,000 Google search results, most devoted to their status as commodity chemicals.
“Our family has changed.” Santos told me. “We pay more attention to our health, to what we eat.” She explains to her customers that the product is all natural, healthy. “Nowadays when children cry their parents buy them a snack or a Pepsi and we don’t realize they are becoming addicted. And a woman said to me, ‘so this is just like our ancestors’ food! This is the way we used to eat.’ And that’s when I realized that the product is very Maya, it helps us return to a more traditional diet.”
We were deep in what I considered a pretty traditional world: Joyabaj, a small mostly Mayan town in highland Guatemala. Santos’s first language is Maya-K’iche’ and she always wears traditional hand-woven clothing. A large section of the market is devoted to “traditional” medicines, big stacks of dried leaves and stems, newspaper cones full of (to me mysterious) substances. The healthy, natural, Maya product my friend is talking about consists of nutritional supplements called Omnilife, produced in a huge state-of-the-art factory in Guadalajara, Mexico, and available in hygienic packets and plastic containers of powder or already mixed into drinks.
One of the most popular is called Biocros and contains vitamins A, C, E, B1, 2, 6 and 12, as well as minerals, amino acids, and 60 mg of caffeine. People acquire it through multi-level marketing, sometimes called pyramid selling. Santos distributes it from her home through networks of friends and acquaintances, who also form networks, and so on, with small amounts of profit and bonus points moving back up these capillary structures.[ii] Omnilife hasn’t made her rich, but she has accumulated enough points to embark on several Mediterranean cruises (“There was always food. Day and night! Buffets that never stopped!”) and to visit the factory complex in Mexico. Rather extraordinary for someone who, until recently, had rarely even traveled in a car! Living through the violence of the genocidal civil war (1960-1996), she speaks often of her satisfaction at being treated as an equal by other trip-winners, mostly non-indigenous people (“Many of them doctors!”) from across the Americas.
Santos became involved with Omnilife around 2005 when her daughter was suffering a mysterious health crisis compounded by a series of failed medical treatments (they suspected that the non-indigenous doctors did not take them seriously). A co-worker told her about Omnilife and, amazingly, it worked. I’m not sure exactly how some vitamins, aspartame, and caffeine cured this very sick little girl (I suspect the increased liquid consumption helped), but there is a central ingredient that is not listed on the packaging: The testimonial. Santos now tells the detailed story of the miraculous turn-around. Omnilife rallies and conferences (and the recordings of them that circulate) are replete with such moving tales.[iii]
For over 100 years Joyabaj has been a finca de mozos, a place where people work the land in return for harvesting sugar cane on the hot Pacific coast. Moving tales about vitamins also accompany these migratory circulations, as Liz Oglesby writes: “Town pharmacies stock a dozen brands of Vitamin B injections, and migrant cane cutters start buying them weeks before the sugar harvest starts, at half a day’s wage for one shot. Eighteen-year-old Sebastián and his 24-year-old brother Santiago (pseudonyms) described working in the cane fields:
Sebastián: We start at six in the morning. We have to get up at four if the cane field is far away. We finish at about seven at night. The only way I can take it is because of the injections. I pay for my own: Nervión, Nerotrópica, Tiamina [all forms of Vitamin B], and Sin Sueño [a stimulant]. You don’t feel the sun that way. You don’t get tired. One pill lasts about two or three hours, but an injection lasts 15 days.
Santiago: … People take other things, too, things that make them talk like crazy people, and they walk around like drunks. The ones who cut ten or twelve tons a day, many of them take drugs. Not just vitamins, but real drugs, then you can’t work without them…I know some people from here who are so burned out that they can’t work on their land anymore.[iv]
“It’s very complicated. All the numbers!” Esperanza and I were in a small hamlet of Joyabaj, sitting in the kitchen by her “improved stove,” the sunlight slatting in through the board walls catching in the smoky air. Our kitchen talks are always full of laughter and lots of hand waving since her Spanish is not very strong and my K’iche’ is pretty nonexistent. But these words were very clear. We were talking about the packet of Omnilife powder sitting on the table. She was taking it like a medicine to help recover from a recent operation but she also hoped to sell packets like it to her neighbors. “All the numbers” referred to the multiple accounting systems through which one (hopefully) made some money but also collected points to win prizes like Santos’s trips, and kept track of the networks of fellow buyers and sellers. And the dosages. And the costs. Esperanza’s husband was killed in the war and as soon as her only son was able, he started cutting cane. When we talked he was working 12 hours a day on a slaughterhouse line in Kansas. Would selling vitamins help pay off his debt? Would taking vitamins keep her strong? Severely undernourished her whole life, her head barely reaches my rib cage.
“All the numbers.” Recommended Daily Allowances. Quantities. Percentages. Helpings. Regulation. Uptake inhibition. Co-activations. Interactions. Soluble in fat or water. Overdose? Half of all Americans take vitamins. The FDA finds noncompliance with its “Good Manufacturing Practices” among producers at 70%. Consumer Reports: “10 surprising dangers of vitamins.”[v]
Now we know what a vitamin is. We can produce these “natural” chemicals in a thoroughly modern factory. Yet for every promise, miraculous or mundane, it seems there’s a danger or at least a caveat. Really, you just need a well-balanced diet. And that, in the long run, was what the Guatemalan revolution was about. Marcelo, a Bolivian Aymara friend of mine, recently traveled to Guatemala on the indigenous activist circuit. He told me what most impressed him was how small the Maya are. “It was like looking at pictures of my grandparents!” he said. Unlike the Guatemalans, Bolivia fought back and kept its land reform in the 1950s. Marcelo’s surprise is at the difference that made, and the almost Lamarckian effects of two generations of nutritionally acquired robustness.
In 2008 I attended the trial of a Mayan paramilitary accused of aiding the Guatemalan army in disappearing fellow villagers in Choatalúm, San Martín Jílotepeque, just south of Joyabaj. I listened as women testified about the murders of husbands, fathers, and sons in 1981 and 1982 and being forced to flee their homes and live in the mountains, where many children died of exposure and starvation. Upon return to the army-controlled village, they lived side by side with the men responsible for their suffering. One woman broke down: “Why did they kill him? Why? All he wanted was fair pay for his work. All he wanted was to feed his children.”
Both the unarmed and revolutionary movements for the fair pay and land needed for a well-balanced diet were suppressed with a ferociousness and brutality only equaled by the Spanish Conquest. At least 200,000 people murdered, 45,000 disappeared, and a million displaced, leading the UN to call it genocide. Leaving Santos, Esperanza, Sebastián and Santiago to pay out of pocket for vitamins instead.
Diane Nelson is a cultural anthropologist and has worked in Guatemala since 1985. Her books include War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala (co-edited with Carlota McAllister), Reckoning: The Ends of War in Guatemala, A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala and the forthcoming Who Counts? Quantity’s Qualifications and Mayan Organizing 2.0. She is thankful to the students at Duke University for paying her salary, to Santos and her family and networks, and to Harris Solomon and Tomas Matza for this opportunity.
[i] Keith Gessen. “Polar Express: A Journey through the Melting Arctic, with Sixty-Odd Thousand Tons of Iron Ore,” The New Yorker. Dec. 24 & 31, 2012: 105.
[ii] The stock of a similar product, Herbalife, is currently embroiled in a Wall Street controversy about whether it is a pyramid scheme.
[iii] Also see Peter S. Cahn. Direct Sales and Direct Faith in Latin America. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2011.
[iv] Elizabeth Oglesby. “We’re No Longer Dealing with Fools: Violence, Labor, and Governance on the South Coast.” In Carlota McAllister and Diane M. Nelson, eds. War by Other Means: Aftermath in Post-Genocide Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press, Forthcoming 2013.
[v] “Vitamins and Supplements.” Consumer Reports. Aug. 17, 2012.
Image: “Vitamin Shop.” Jung Moon, flickr.