From grandmothers to daughters… (intergenerational dietary changes in migrant families in the state of Morelos)

Martha Beatriz Cahuich Campos1

An analysis of different surveys on eating habits in Mexico has demonstrated that these habits are changing. There has been a progressive abandonment of traditional foods normally present in indigenous and lower-class diets. This phenomenon has had important consequences, since malnutrition has changed just as eating habits have.

Some doctors and nutritionists have related these changes to economic policies and governmental programs. They maintain that undernourishment in Mexico is very sensitive to socio-political change, to the access that people have to dietary items, to educational programs and, in general, to programs for bettering the social situation. However, we might ask whether this process is even more complex and whether other factors also have an influence.

Little is known about how this process of epidemiological transition in diet and nutrition takes place in different geographical regions around the country. We have not looked deeply enough into what the motivators of change have been in communities, families, individuals or between generations. Neither do we know what people think about this.

At the moment, research is going on at the National School of Anthropology and History (Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia ENAH) on survival strategies and nutrition in two communities in the State of Morelos. In this article, I will report on some of the qualitative changes in dietary practices in some of the families studied. We consider this information to be a first approximation to understanding the dietary transformation occurring in some places.

This article begins with general information about epidemiological transition and its relationship to dietary changes in Mexico. Later, results from two research projects on intergenerational dietary change will be presented.

Epidemiological transition in nutrition in Mexico

Recent epidemiological studies have found that the patterns of health and illness in human societies are changing. One of the proposals which have emerged to explain this process is the theory of epidemiological transition. According to this theory, humanity goes from a pre-transitional to a post-transitional stage.

The pre-transitional profile is accompanied by a high level of mortality, elevated fertility and low life expectancy. Inverse rates of mortality, fertility and life expectancy correspond to the post-transitional profile. Infectious pathologies (predominant in the pre-transitional stage) are substituted by chronic-degenerative diseases. Thus, epidemiological transition says that the weight of illness has been displaced from the younger groups to adults and, especially, the elderly.2

This transition depends on the demographic, economic and social dynamics of each country or region, and is related to scientific advances, prevention programs and better access to health services. However, the processes of demographic and epidemiological transition in different countries do not have a unique chronological sequence. There is no linearity or unidirectionality. The pathologies which exist in a society do not have an irreversible beginning and end, so that there is no certainty regarding the appearance or disappearance of a given disease. In any given country there may be coexisting epidemiological profiles, both among different populational sub-groups and in different geographical regions.3

A phase of rapid change is taking place in Latin American health profiles. This process may be generally characterized as a slow decrease in the diseases of underdevelopment and an increase in illnesses that prevail in industrialized countries. Thus, general mortality, infant mortality, birth and fertility rates have all descended. There is also an increase in life expectancy at birth.4

This is due to sanitary measures which have contributed to the change in the health profile, such as oral rehydration (which has had an impact on diarrheic illneses)and universal vaccination programs (which have allowed for the control of immuno-preventable diseases). On the other hand, chronic diseases such as malignant tumors, diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular diseases, are on the rise.5

The foregoing symptoms suggest that Latin American health services must rise to a two-fold challenge in the coming years: on the one hand, the consolidation of strategies to control or eliminate problems of infection and contagion and, on the other, the intensification of preventive action with regard to chronic-degenerative diseases. This gets complicated, if we take into account the fact that attention to infectious pathologies is inexpensive, and may be carried out at the primary level of attention, while the treatment of chronic-degenerative diseases must be carried out at second and third levels of attention, with specialized medical personnel, which is more costly.6

Mexico, like other countries, is also in the middle of this transition. According to different indicators, this process apparently began before 1963 with an accelerated change in morbidity and mortality. However, beginning between 1982 and 1986, there was a regression or at least stability. This means that the epidemiological transition is not yet complete: the diseases of the pre-transitional stage have not been controlled or eradicated and they coexist with new post-transitional illnesses. Doctors at the Salvador Zubirán National Institute for Medical Science and Nutrition (INCMNSZ) have called this phenomenon the epidemiological trap.7

How can this epidemiological trap be defined with respect to diet? The national diet is changing: the consumption of new food products is increasing while other foods are leaving the diet. But the new foods are not better that the older ones. In fact, the analysis of dietary surveys shows that the new products are apparently easier to consume and they contain more energy, but they are of equal or less nutritional value.

This epidemiological trap implies that an undernourished child can become an obese adult, and that in the same family children may suffer from malnutrition while parents eat incorrectly and in excess. It also means that people with good incomes who follow “modern” dietary patterns can nourish themselves so badly that they suffer from a lack of nutrients in one area, an excess in another and permanent alterations in several areas at a time. In other words, we eat incorrectly both because we eat too much and we nourish ourselves poorly. This situation leads to complex public health problems.8

What has this dietary transition consisted of in more concrete terms? Different surveys9 have shown the abandonment of the traditional diet and the growing presence of a transition diet.10 Thus the consumption of corn has decreased progressively both in urban and rural areas, while the consumption of beans has wavered. The consumption of regional beverages, fruits, vegetables and insects has tended to disappear.11

The abandonment of these products has been explained by doctors and nutritionists in different ways. It is partly due to important changes in the way these products are prepared, distributed and consumed. It also has to do with the fact that the market for some of them has become restricted (as in the case of certain regional vegetables and insects). Another factor is the time required for their preparation, which might be incompatible with the other obligations of women who work.12

Foods which have become more popular include wheat products, such as bread, cookies, crackers and pasta. Pasta is now considered a basic staple in poor rural areas. The same thing has happened to rice and eggs, which have been added to the rural and poor urban diet.13

The consumption of manufactured products of low nutritional value has increased explosively in the last few years. The products which have grown most in popularity are soft drinks, beers, bread, cakes, pastas, candy, and fried products made from corn, wheat and potatoes, as well as such products as infant formulas, mayonnaise, sugar and vegetable shortening.

The growth in popularity of these products has received several explanations. Among these are the sweet, salty or fatty taste of these products, their ease of conservation and their relatively low cost. The improvement of rural communities and subsidies to sugar, fats, grain and gasoline, which have bolstered the widespread distribution of these and other products, are all part of the reason consumption of these foods is growing.14

An anthropological study

In the 90s, two anthropologists studied dietary changes during the adolesence of women in three generations. These were related to the transformation in regional agricultural production in the sierra of Sonora.15

The first generation (the grandmothers) were teen-agers when land was for producing food and the main destination of the harvest was the family table (the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century). The next generation (the mothers) were in their teens at the beginning of the change in cultivation patterns, marked by the introduction of the first crops used to feed livestock. The daughter’s adolescence took place when ranching on ejidos came into its own and pressure on crop lands grew until all cultivated land became areas for feed crops or for grazing land (70s and part of the 80s).

In the grandmother’s generation, the capacity for food production varied from one community to the other, according the quality and quantity of the land. Not everyone had the same access to food, and access varied not only from one place to the next but even within the same town. There was also a close relationship among livestock, land and work in each unit of production. With the introduction of feed crops, the agriculture and dietary habits of the region began to change, resulting in less cultivation of the region’s four main crops: wheat, corn, beans and sugar cane.16

The impact of giving crop land over to livestock and the consequent decrease in food crops was not the same for all campesino families. Several foods disappeared from the diet or their consumption was reduced: meat, cheese, butter and certain varieties of legumes. However, the consumption of beans, eggs and chicken remained at traditional levels. Traditional production, once oriented to local supply, was substituted by the production of calves for export.

During the mother’s generation (who were teenagers between 1950 and 1970), diet was even less varied. The most striking change took place from 1970 on, with the introduction of industrialized foods which substituted for others or were added o the family diet, making it more varied at first. The dramatic decrease in the cultivation of corn had a permanent impact, and corn-based dishes became exceptional.17

It was difficult for the authors of this study to reach any conclusions about whether these women’s quality of life had improved or not, especially with respect to nutrition. Most families increased the variety in their diets and they had access to foods all year long which were formerly available only in season or were not found in the region at all. However, these changes did not always signal an improvement in diet, given the increase in the indiscriminate purchase of industrial products of doubtful quality. In a study of body measurements, increases in height were observed from one generation to the next, which might indicate better quality of life and better nutrition. However, this indicator does not reveal problems brought on by excess consumption, like overweight and obesity. The use of other indicators, such as weight, measurements and body folds, might have given these authors clearer information about the effect of dietary changes on growth and body mass.

This study also found that the mothers and daughters began menstruating sooner than the grandmothers, which might indicate the accumulation of fat at a younger age in each succeeding generation. However, there are not enough elements to affirm that diet really improved in each generation.

Characteristics of the present study

The present study took place in collaboration with the Program for the Support of Nutrition (Programa de Apoyo a la Nutrición, PIAN) of the INCMNSZ. It was applied for the first time in the State of Morelos. Initially the PIAN-Morelos did a study to find out which communities in the state were at risk for nutritional damage, by means of a body measurement survey of children under five years of age. The Epidemiological Watch over Nutrition System (Sistema de Vigilancia Epidemiológica de la Nutrición) was applied to those who were found to be at risk. This system consists of the periodic administration of food supplements, medicine to control intestinal parasites and vitamin A. In order to make sure this program was having a positive effect and that children in the program remained healthy, each child was weighed once a month.18

From the beginning of the application of this program, it was evident that not all the children who lived under similar conditions, whether in the same or different communities, were in the same state of nutritional well-being. In fact, some children apparently had no problems of malnutrition, while in others the problems ran from light to moderate to severe. The ENAH study was designed to explain which family and community circumstances were the most decisive in determining the differing nutritional states among the children studied by the PIAN-Morelos. So-called survival strategies 19 were chosen as the theoretica-analytical tool to be used.

One line of investigation (the one of interest for this article) was to find out about life-style and diet changes from the grandparents to the parents to these children themselves. This was accomplished through life histories, in which the mothers served as informants.20 Through these interviews, such information as where each generation was from, whether they had moved from one place to another and where they had lived was gathered.

Information was also gathered about the occupations of the older generations during their lifetimes, especially the mothers. An important piece of information was how these women had organized themselves in order to work, fulfill their household obligations and prepare food at the same time. They were also asked for their opinions about the quality of diet in each generation.

Two communities in the intermountain valley of the State of Morelos were studied. This region contains the two most important cities in the state (Cuernavaca and Cuautla), has the greatest influx of immigrants from the surrounding area and is the most densely populated. (figure 1).21


The Patria Libre settlement is found at the southern end of Cuautla, in a suburban area. Most parents are salaried workers. When the study was carried out, the area already had electricity and running water.

The other community, the General Emiliano Zapata settlement, is in the municipio of Ayala, to one side of the Cuautla-Chilpancingo highway. A large part of its population are day-laborers who work for the large agroindustrial concerns which cultivate the surrounding lands. At the beginning of this study, there was no electricity, running water or drainage in the area. During the course of the study, electricity was introduced.

Both locales are new, having been created about thirteen years ago. Their history is similar: after having arrived from different states, the Federal District or different municipios in Morelos, they became paracaidistas (squatters) after having found out that they might be able to purchase lots for building their houses.


The information to be reported here comes from the study of seven families: four of them from the Emiliano Zapata settlement and three from the Patria Libre settlement. We will use the abbreviations EZ1, EZ2, EZ3, EZ4, PL1, PL2 and PL3 for each one of them. In figures 2 to 6, we present data that have to do with the structure of domestic units, migration, ages and occupations of the different generations, as well as how the mothers organized themselves so as to work and take care of the home (especially with respect to food preparation and childcare).

As it may be observed, these are basically nuclear families with from 4 to 6 members, although in one of them we find the occasional presence of another relative (PL3). The age of the fathers varies between 28 and 54, and that of the mothers between 23 and 40. The age of the children is between one and sixteen. (figure 2).


A few less than half of the parents come from Morelos, and the rest were born in the States of Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Oaxaca and Puebla. Almost all of the children were born in Morelos.

In general, most mothers and fathers went to elementary school, but did not finish. A few finished sixth grade and went on to middle school. Two are illiterate and one person went to a trade school [an alternative to middle school in Mexico]. The children go to elementary school and are in the grade which corresponds to their age, with the exception of two brothers.22

The fathers of the Emiliano Zapata settlement are basically day-laborers, although two of them change jobs seasonally or work at several jobs at once, depending on demand and on whether a particular job “pays”.23 In Patria Libre, fathers are basically salaried employees (a taxi driver, an employee of a soft-drink company, a small business owner and a porter at the Cuautla market.

Most of the mothers in the two communities have no other job than taking care of their homes and their children. Two of them had other activities as well: taking in washing, making handcrafts and selling in the streets.

Children over four help out with simple activities and one child of eleven worked as a day-laborer in Emiliano Zapata.

Life histories

The grandmothers

The grandmothers are from Guerrero, Puebla, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí and Morelos (figure 5). Almost all of them have lived in indigenous or campesino areas and, with one exception, never left their places of origin. (figure 3).


The grandmother’s age went from 46 to 62 (in 1995, when this study started, as may be seen in figure 5). The grandmother of family EZ1 would be 60 if she were still alive. In family EZ2, it was impossible to find out what age the grandmother would have been.

In two of the families, the grandmothers did not raise their daughters. Thus, in family EZ1 the informant generally knows her mother’s history, but her mother died when she was 10. In family PL1, the grandmother divorced and left the informant to be raised by the great-grandparents.

The remaining grandmothers were, or had been, campesinas or day-laborers. One exception is the grandmother of family EZ2, who had a fruit and vegetable stand at the local market in Ocotepec and the grandmother of family EZ4, who did not work outside the home (figure 4).

Since they both worked and took care of their homes, these women were forced to come up with a personal and family organizational plan. Since our study was trying to go more deeply into questions of nutrition, figure 6 emphasizes this point.24 The grandmother delegated food preparation to another person (an elder daughter) in only one case (PL1). The others took care of household chores and cooking themselves. They usually prepared the noon meal early and left it ready for the family. In three cases, the eldest daughter was the one who took care of the smaller children and fed them.

We did not find any cases in which the children were cared for by other relatives or neighbors. The grandmother in family PL2 did not have anyone look after her children but, after having prepared the noon meal, she locked them in the house while she went to work in the fields. In family PL1, the great-grandmother did not have to worry about who looked after her granddaughter, because the granddaughter worked as a maid from the time she was eight years old.

The mothers

Most of the mothers are housewives, although several have other jobs as well (figure 2). In contrast to the grandmothers, the mothers have moved around more in their lives. Several lived in different municipios in the State of Morelos, but others emigrated from the States of Puebla, Guerrero, Sinaloa, Nayarit, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo and the Federal District. Only in one case (PL1) did the mother state that she had never resided outside the city of Cuautla, while in family EZ2 the informant stated that she had moved six times (figure 3).



The reasons for moving were diverse. One related to work had two variants: a) They had moved to find work for themselves, or b) they had moved because of their husbands’ jobs.25 Another reason for moving was to flee from family conflict or social violence.26 A third reason for moving was that they had gotten their own place to live. This was the reason that all of these families had decided to live in Patria Libre or Emiliano Zapata, even though being there was in many senses a sacrifice.

At different times in their lives, the mothers had worked for pay as well as tending their homes. The most common form of employment was as domestic workers, especially washing and ironing clothes. According to their statements, this activity was the one which allowed them to earn the most money for their abilities. And if they finished early, they were not away from their homes for too long each day.

At certain times, some had other kinds of employment (at a publishing house, in a factory or as waitresses in restaurants or bars). Three women were day-laborers and one was a street vendor (of medicinal plants) as well as a day-laborer (figure 4).

Figure 6 shows how these mothers were able to work and, at the same time, take care of their homes and children. The women found diverse strategies which they have used to this end. This is the case of families EZ1, PL2 and PL3, who have organized themselves in different ways, depending on the kind of employment they have and the social networks they have created. In general, the strategies used may be described in the following way:

• Preparing the noon meal or a (late) breakfast early in the day, then taking their children to work with them and having the noon meal with them there. This was the solution used by the mother of family EZ1 when she worked as a day-laborer.

• Preparing the noon meal or a (late) breakfast early, taking the children to work with them and returning home to eat together.

• Taking their children to work and buying food there. This was the solution used by peole in business, who ate at the markets (like family EZ2).

• Taking their children to work with them and eating with their bosses or receiving lunch from them. This is how the mother of family EZ1 when she washed and ironed clothes for others.

• Sending their children to live with other relatives or leaving them with other relatives for the day. This was the strategy used by family PL3: the mother sent two of her elder daughters to one of her sisters from the time they were small. The sister could not have children and has raised them as their own. At another time in her life, she left her eldest daughter with the child’s grandmother in Tepalcingo, Morelos. The woman worked in the Federal District and visited her daughter every week or two. Nowadays, the eldest daughter cares for and feeds her two younger brothers. The mother leaves the noon meal ready early in the morning and comes home in the afternoon to finish her household chores. At that time, the eldest daughter leaves for school.

• Leaving the children with neighbors who take care of them and give them their noontime meal. This was the strategy used by the mother of the EZ1 family, while she and her husband each ate at work.


The children

Most of the children were born in the State of Morelos (fourteen in Cuautla and one in Cuernavaca), while the rest come from Puebla, Nayarit or the Federal District. As I mentioned before, the children of kindergarten and elementary school age generally attend school, and only one works as a day-laborer, while the youngest stay home.

The children in five families (figure 3) have moved before, along with their parents. Several of the family moves have taken place within the State of Morelos. We only found two families in which the children have practically never moved.

Some of the older daughters help their mothers with housework, and none of them have had to leave their studies to work at anything else, although studies have been curtailed for other reasons, as in the case of one child who has learning difficulties and psychological problems (family EZ2).

The support of the older daughters has been pointed out, and has been central to family organization. However, it is important to note that they have not been able to oversee their younger siblings’ diet adequately. This is probably due to the daughters’ youth and inexperience.

Intergenerational dietary changes

The information we have on dietary change from one generation to the next has mainly been gathered from the mother’s memories of what their diet —prepared by the grandmothers— was like when they were children (from approximately six to twelve years of age). They then compared this diet with their children’s present diet. Several also mentioned that their diet was different before they moved to Patria Libre or Emiliano Zapata. In the next section we present the results of these diet histories.27

Diet furnished by the grandmothers

In general, the diet which the grandmothers gave to the mothers was based on tortillas, beans, chile peppers, different hot sauces, home-grown vegetables —tomato, nopal (prickly-pear cactus), squash, verdolaga (purslane) and pápalo (a leafy plant used rather like cilantro and parsley)— and fruits such as oranges and bananas. However, they also consumed foods from the transition diet, like eggs and noodle soup. There were also other things like potatoes, fava beans and carrots. Meat was also occasionally consumed: chicken (every two weeks) and red meat (once a month).

The impression the mothers gave us was that their childhood diet was much closer to the traditional way of eating, although there were already a few items from the transition diet. However, it was obvious that some of them ate in a way that was more restricted with respect to both quantity and quality. Some of them mentioned periods of scarcity, in which they ate only a few different foods (for example, days in which there was only tortillas and hot sauce). There were other times when there was a lack of food, as in the case of the mother of family PL2, who said she sometimes went a whole day without eating.

The way in which the grandmothers obtained food varied, as well. They got them essentially cultivating, buying or gathering them. Several of these families planted corn, beans, squash and other vegetables. They raised chickens and gathered green, leafy vegetables. Family EZ2 represents another case, in which everything was bought, because the grandmother had a stand in the marketplace and all family members ate there.

When asked how they had learned to cook, our informants answered either that their mothers and older sisters had taught them or that they had learned by observing and helping to prepare food. In some cases, as the mother of family EZ3 mentioned, they learned new dishes in the cities by helping the cooks in the houses where they worked. In this family, the husband also taught the wife how to make new dishes which he had eaten while he worked in larger cities.

A brusque change took place in family diet when people moved to Patria Libre or Emiliano Zapata. Some women said that it worsened. In spite of the fact that their former places of residence were humble and rented, at least there were public services and businesses (especially markets) nearby. When they moved away from these neighborhoods, they lost services, transportation and commerce. Patria Libre obtained water and electricity before Emiliano Zapata did. After a while, there was public transportation to close-by places. |In contrast, the inhabitants of Emiliano Zapata have to get to the larger market centers of Cuautla, Ozumba and other surrounding towns to buy their food and supplies, because local businesses are expensive. Some mothers have concluded that this is the price they must pay for owning their own homes.

Diet furnished by the mothers

The present-day diet of these families is one of transition. In spite of the fact that the tortilla remains a staple of the diet, noodle soup and bread are also consumed daily. Other cereals now enter into the diet, such as rice and, in some families, oats. Legumes in the diet include beans and, sporadically, lentils and fava beans. As far as vegetables are concerned, these include the same ones that the mothers ate as children, as well as radishes, tomatoes and chayotes. Among the fruits consumed were bananas, apples and oranges as well as others in season. In the dairy and meat category, eggs were consumed two or three times a week and once a week there was chicken or beef. Fish was rarely consumed (once a month or less). Only one family drank milk every day, although most families had it once every week or two, as was also the case with cheese and yoghurt.

The dietary surveys showed that there was a greater variety of food on the day that the weekly shopping was done. However, we also saw that food was bought in small quantities, considering the number of people who consumed it.

In Patria Libre, families obtained their food from two sources: through purchase and through the food baskets given out by the DIF and the INCMNSZ. Although a few families had chickens, there was almost no raising of animals for food. The possibility of a family vegetable plot was severely restricted, except for the cultivation of tomatoes and chile peppers. Most food was bought at the large markets in Cuautla or at its Central de Abastos (central wholesale market). Only a few products, like tortillas, were acquired at small neighborhood establishments or from street vendors (also the case for bread).

In Emiliano Zapata there was more diversity in how food was acquired. The main ones were purchase and food baskets. There was some gathering of leafy green vegetables from nearby fields. Those who worked as day-laborers were “given” those products which were damaged in the process of harvesting. Some people exchanged these products for other foods with their neighbors. Others used it to pay for services they had contracted.

They also raised different animals: hens, turkeys and pigs. The family garden, although small, allowed some of them to have extra foods like papayas. In the case of family EZ3, the father occasionally worked as a street vendor (selling chicken and vegetables), and he used his excess merchandize to feed his family.

The mothers were the ones who generally taught their older daughters to cook, although this was not the case in all families, either because the daughters are still very young (families EZ3 and PL1), or for some other reason, as in the case of the daughter with mental problems (family EZ2). Although none of the informants mentioned the fact, it was obvious that television had had an impact on nutritional education.28

Finally, it is quite interesting to see how these women rate the diet they had as children vis-a-vis the diet their children have nowadays. Four women think that their children’s diet is worse because food used to be more healthful, having been cultivated by their own families with no chemicals or pollutants. For others, the cause of degradation in the diet has been the continuous rise in the cost of food, which has forced them to buy lower-quality food in lesser quantities. In contrast, three of the mothers think that their children’s diet is more varied and plentiful. This is because their children eat three times a day, instead of two, as they did when they were young. And even in harder times, they do not go hungry.


As has already been mentioned, some doctors and nutritionists have explained the changes in the Mexican diet as being a product of economic policy and the government programs that have been applied in different areas. They also say that the near disappearance of certain foods in the diet has been the result of certain changes in the way food is prepared, distributed, consumed and marketed, added to the fact that many women now work outside the home.

If we re-examine the results of the two research projects we have mentioned, we see that dietary habits are quite varied from one household to the next. They might vary throughout the lifetime of a single individual, among the members of a single community, among different communities or throughout a whole geographic region. There are also intergenerational changes.

In the mountains of Sonora, the modification of the traditional diet was thought to be a consequence of the changes in agricultural production and the introduction of livestock, which is related to regional and national production policies (as the doctors pointed out). Our research adds other factors. It is possible that not only self-supply but also migration, influences the type of diet one has. Research needs to be done on how diet changes in individual or family migration, but moving around apparently increases knowledge of new foods and dishes, which could possibly have an impact on dietary habits. However, the quality of a diet depends on the nutritional quality of new foods added to the diet, and whether they take the place of other nutritious products which were once staples.

Campesino families have become less and less self-sufficient in producing elements for consumption. Thus, the main way to acquire foodstuffs for consumption now is to buy them. This path is less critical in cities, because, even though people live in poorer and less central areas, there is more access to large markets which offer food at lower prices and in larger quantities. Even families without a refrigerator do not suffer as much, because they can buy food more frequently and transport it much more easily. Their diet is more varied, even though there is still some malnutrition. Even so, families do not go in search of other sources of supply, except perhaps for a small garden that would produce vegetables to complement the diet.

In rural areas, buying food still seems to be the main means of supply, but it is difficult to have access to markets that sell at lower prices. The distance to cities from the community in question influences this, as does limited transportation. It is possible to find other sources for obtaining food (exchange, gathering or planting), but these possibilities are restricted if a person lives in ecologically-difficult environments.

The lack of public services is an important factor in the worsening of the diet. The lack of water and drainage directly influence the existence of infectious diseases and intestinal parasites. The lack of electricity keeps families from using electric appliances, especially refrigerators. It also increased the number of scorpion stings among children in these communities. If there are not enough roads and highways, then the food supply and local commerce are also adversely affected.

Learning to cook is not something that takes place only in the home, under the supervision of mothers or older sisters. In the case of these families in Morelos, it was obvious that learning to cook was much more complex: a woman might learn to cook in an orphanage or from a neighbor or another relative. One important aspect of learning to cook, which was not gone into sufficiently in this study, is the effect of mass media on the subject. We might ask ourselves, as well, about the role of schools and doctors in this process.

Buying and preparing food can be a real challenge for women who work. From campesinas to salaried employees, many different solutions were found, but they generally depend on the kind of work the mother is engaged in, how long the mother is absent from the home, whether she may take the children to work with her (and whether they may all eat at the mother’s workplace) and, finally, what social networks have been established with relatives and neighbors. On the other hand, it is also sometimes the case that, when elder daughters are responsible for feeding smaller siblings, they are not careful enough about ensuring a proper diet.

Both of these anthropological studies confirm that the diet in these communities has been changing by generation. Comparing results, we find that mothers in the Emiliano Zapata and Patria Libre communities actually belong to the generation of the daughters in the Sonora study. These are women who went through childhood and adolescence in the late 60s and the 70s, when, according to the surveys taken, the country in general was in the throes of the transition diet. In Sonora, dietary habits changed more radically in the 70s, when the consumption of highly-industrialized foods was at its peak. In the families we studied, the traditional diet was still in effect for this generation, although there were certain transitional foods present. This pattern was related to residence in rural and indigenous areas with little or no movement from one place to another. Nowadays, the diet that our informants provide their children with is a fully transitional one.

Doctors and nutritionists believe that malnutrition in Mexico has been sensitive to the implementation of government social programs. This aspect of things was not taken into account in the Sonora study and it has only been regarded superficially in our study in Morelos. We expect that the anthropometric analysis of the children involved in this last study, as well as a more detailed analysis of the PIAN–Morelos program, will, in the future, allow us to find out more about the impact of this kind of program at the family level.

We would like to add that the food baskets which were given out did not fulfill their function as complements to the family diet, but rather became another way in which to have access to different kinds of food.

In this study, the reconstruction of life histories was a tool that provided a large quantity of information on the dynamics of dietary habits on the part of those studied but, due to the character of the technique, it could not be extended to a large number of informants. We feel that the use of this technique in anthropological studies of diet is desirable, although we must be cognizant of the fact that only qualitative and not quantitative data (amounts of consumption, for example) will be obtained. Of course, quantitative data may be obtained by using other tools in present-day studies of diet.

We would like to point out that, in spite of having lived in different places, the women who made up our sample did not give up on preparing food themselves and the home was the most important space for eating, something which is being lost in urban families.


National diet and nutrition surveys have shown that the Mexican population is undergoing a transition in dietary habits, in which traditional habits are disappearing. This might have several undesirable repercussions for the state of nutrition in the population, unless a frank improvement is seen. The loss of the traditional diet brings along with it the coexistence of diseases linked to malnutrition as well as dietary excess. Thus, Mexicans tend to be malnourished.

Only a few anthropological studies have observed this phenomenon. A study undertaken in the mountains of Sonora attested to several of these intergenerational dietary changes, as related to changes in the patterns of production.

The present article has tried to get closer to the factors which have influenced eating habits and how this change in diet is taking place. Among the influences on this process, migration, rural or urban residence, lack of public services, nutritional education, the incorporation of women into the work force and the possibility of establishing social networks have all been brought forth.

It is difficult to characterize past dietary habits of an informant through life-history material, because several foods have disappeared or have been forgotten. Besides, it is practically impossible to reconstruct the quantity of food consumed. Nevertheless, this technique allowed us to detect certain changes in diet from one generation to the next.

The diet furnished by the grandmothers in the Morelos families was more traditional, although in several instances there were certain elements which corresponded to the transition diet. We think that the diet of the youngest generation improved in variety, but was insufficient in quality and quantity, which might partially explain the malnutrition observed in some children.

In the more rural community (Emiliano Zapata), diet was poorer in quality and quantity than in the other one. There was limited access to store-bought foods, which forced people to look for other means of supply. In contrast, in Patria Libre, there were fewer sources of supply, but more variety and quantity of food.

None of the families observed opted (except momentarily) to give up food preparation and obtain pre-prepared food from others, a growing phenomenon in large cities. However, the fact that the mothers or the older daughters were in charge of these activities implies good organization, sacrifice and moments of stress and exhaustion.

Opinions on the improvement or worsening in diet from one generation to the next is varied: some women think that dietary habits changed for the better (both in quality and quantity), while others feel that it got worse (especially in quality, but in some cases also in quantity).

The activity of learning to prepare food basically took place in the home, although migrant women had often been helped by other women and through observation of different eating patterns in homes where they had worked. On the other hand, mass media (especially television) had a fundamental impact on food education in these families.

Finally, we must point out that it will be necessary to go more deeply into the causes of, and the changes in behavior which have arisen due to, the dietary transformation in Mexico. We anthropologists can make important contributions to this study, reconstructing dietary life histories by generations. Understanding the causes of dietary change, and the way these changes affect the state of nutrition in the Mexican population is one of the great challenges for Mexican anthropology.


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  1. Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia INAH. English translation by Marianna Pool Westgaard, Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México. I wish to thank the team that carried out the PIAN-Morelos program, especially Dr. Abelardo Ávila and professor Teresa Shamah, for their collaboration. I am also grateful to the students of the B.A. program in physical anthropology at the ENAH who have participated in this project, especially Ana Lucía Saldívar Benítez and Karla Arista Guerra. The comments of professors Luis Reygadas, Kim Sánchez and Anabella Barragán have been very valuable to this study. []
  2. Jaime Sepúlveda and Héctor Gómez Dantés, “Origen, rumbo y destino de la transición en salud en México y América Latina”, 1998. []
  3. Idem, and Ernesto Calderón-Jaimes, “Perspectivas de la investigación y la acción en el campo de las enfermedades infecciosas en México”, in Salud Pública de México, vol. 34, no. 3, May-June, 1992. []
  4. Jaime Sepúlveda and Héctor Gómez Dantés, op. cit. []
  5. Idem. []
  6. Idem. []
  7. Adolfo Chávez, et al., “La transición epidemiológica nacional en alimentación y nutrición”, in Sociedad, economía y cultura alimentaria, 1994. []
  8. Idem. []
  9. Starting in 1958 and 1962, the Instituto Nacional de la Nutrición Salvador Zubirán [INNSZ, later renamed the Instituto Nacional de la Ciencia Médica y Nutrición Salvador Zubirán or INCMNSZ] began carrying out a first series of surveys in rural, semi-rural, suburban and lower-income neighborhoods (this last in Mexico City). These surveys had the purpose of detecting populations at nutritional risk. From 1963 to 1974, the systematic application of a second series of questionnaires continued, that would complete the nutritional panorama in the country. A third series of surveys was added to these in 1977. In 1974, the INNSZ undertook the first National Survey of Nutrition in Mexican Rural Areas (Encuesta Nacional de Alimentación en el Medio Rural Mexicano, ENAL 74). Only a small part of this survey was processed and even this remained unpublished until 1990. In 1979, the ENAL 79 survey took place. In 1988, the Dirección General de Epidemiología of the Secretaría de Sa-lud undertook the National Nutrition Survey (Encuesta Nacional de Nutrición, ENN 88). Then, in 1989 the ENAL 1989 survey was made, which gave us a dynamic vision of the evolution of nutritional conditions in rural populations. In 1995, the INNSZ undertook the Urban Dietary Survey for Metropolitan Mexico City (Encuesta Urbana de Alimentación en la Zona Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México ENURBAL 95), which clearly showed the predominance of nutritional problems caused by an excess of consumption and a lack of balance in the urban diet. ENAL 96 ensured the comparability of the series of National Dietary Surveys (Abelardo Ávila Curiel, et al., Encuesta Nacional de Alimentación y Nutrición en el Medio Rural 1996, 1996). In 2000, the results of the 1999 ENN were presented by the National Institute of Public Health (Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública, Encuesta Nacional de Nutrición 1999, 2000). []
  10. In this article, we consider the traditional diet to be the one which predominated in rural indigenous areas in the first half of the XXth century. It was generally based on corn, beans, certain vegetables, fruit, insects and regional beverages. There were also certain characteristic prepared dishes. By transition diet, we mean that diet which incorporates certain new foods and abandons certain traditional ones. This diet began to be seen in the second half of the XXth century./Although many physicians, nutritionists and anthropologists have used such terms as “native”, “traditional” or “transition” diet or the dietary patterns of “marginal populations”, “the proletarian population”, “the urban upper and middle classes”, etc., few authors have tried to define these concepts, or even to propose general dietary patterns for Mexico. []
  11. Adolfo Chávez, et al., “Un diagnóstico sobre la situación nutricional de México”, in Estudios de Antropología Biológica, vol. VII, 1997. []
  12. Idem. []
  13. For example, the egg has been and still is the most inexpensive source of protein, and has been an important element in chidren’s diets. []
  14. Adolfo Chávez et al., op. cit., 1997. []
  15. Ema P. Pérez López and Ma. Isabel Ortega Vélez, “De mujeres a mujeres: hacia una historia de la alimentación en la sierra norte de Sonora (1930-1985)”, in Sociedad, economía y cultura, 1994. []
  16. Idem. []
  17. Idem. []
  18. Boletín Informativo PIAN-Morelos, 1993. The PIAN-Morelos program was administered by Dr. Abelardo Ávila and professor Teresa Shamah. []
  19. We undertook three periods of fieldwork between 1995 and 1997 in each of the two communities. During each visit, an anthropometric evaluation of the children was carried out, so that we would have enough information to judge their nutritional state. Most of the families were asked to complete socio-economic and dietary questionnaires. Some women -those who became our chief informants- were asked to participate in directed interviews. All of this allowed us to gather socio-economic and dietary information, as well as to study possible survival strategies which were applied in each domestic unit. Anthropometric measurements were made on most of the children in the PIAN program: 68 in Patria Libre (37 boys and 31 girls) and 110 in Emiliano Zapata (48 boys and 62 girls). These children came from 45 families in Patria Libre and 58 families in Emiliano Zapata. []
  20. Attempts were made to gather intergenerational information on migration, diet and family organization through the use of life histories in the different families under study; however, the application of this technique turned out to be too complicated, and there were other practical difficulties as well, so that we were able to obtain reliable information from only seven families, with whom we were on familiar enough terms to be able to record our conversations. []
  21. Rafael Monroy et al., “Características del medio físico biótico”, in Mitos y realidades del Morelos actual, 1992. []
  22. The young girl mentioned here who has learning disabilities was not admitted to the local elementary school. Her brother was not admitted, either, but because the mother did not have the documentation necessary for his admission. []
  23. One of them works occasionally as a street vendor and at other times travels to Mexico City as a construction worker. The other father combines work in the fields with work as a street vendor at the Ozumba market on a daily basis. []
  24. It should be pointed out that the way the grandmothers solved the problem of engaging in different activities at the same time probably varied throughout their lives, but the information presented here is what the mothers remember about their childhood, that is, only a small period of the grandmothers’ lives. []
  25. Several of them lived for a few months in other states as day-laborers, hired by specialized companies which took them out of the town or city where they lived. Most of them made these trips with their families (husbands and children). This is the case of family EZ2, where the mother worked the land in the states of Sinaloa, Nayarit, Quintana Roo and Coahuila. []
  26. For example, the mother in family EZ1 had problems with her sister when they lived together in Puebla, and thus decided to move. In family PL3, the mother fled from a husband who beat her. The mother of family EZ2 decided to move after she was injured in a mugging after finishing her day selling food as a street vendor in Cuernavaca. []
  27. Not all the mothers could tell us how the grandmothers took care of their nutritional needs. A case in point is the mother of family EZ1, who was left an orphan at the age of ten. []
  28. This was particularly clear in Emiliano Zapata because, electricity was introduced during the time of this study. We were thus able to observe how children became acquainted with a larger quantity of industrialized products by watching commercials broadcast during children’s programs on television, or as spots on programs designed to give dietary and nutritional information to mothers. []

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