*Official Coca-Cola video has been removed
By Daniel Suslak
Last week Coca-Cola released a Christmas-themed television commercial filmed in the Mixe community of Totontepec, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. This is a place where I have worked for almost 20 years, studying the local language, which is called Ayöök. Ayöök is a member of the Mixe-Zoquean language family, a cluster of related indigenous tongues that have been spoken in southern Mexico for over three thousand years. Their contribution to our shared global vocabulary is the word cacao, the name of the tree whose seeds we use to make chocolate.
The commercial, produced by the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, is a gorgeous 85 second spot that highlights the luxurious greys and greens of Totontepec’s cloud forests. Local viewers will immediately recognize the faces on the screen—this is a small community, after all, with a population of around 2,000 people. There’s Josefina, who works at the hotel! And hey, that’s the former principal of the elementary school!
The beginning of the commercial notes that 81.6% of indigenous Mexican have felt “rejected” because of the language they speak. I wonder where they got this statistic from? Surprisingly few Totontepecanos feel embarrassed about their language. Still, there is no question that indigenous Mexicans are intensely discriminated against and this discrimination often takes the form of pressure to stop speaking their languages. In the 1950s when the first public elementary school was built in Totontepec, students were beaten and punished for speaking Ayöök. Even today, Ayöök is rarely heard in Totontepecano classrooms.
What happens next in the commercial is that a group of young, attractive, fair-skinned youths travel to Totontepec to deliver a message of hope… and coolers full of ice-cold Coca-Cola (one small critical note here: Totontepecanos generally prefer to drink their soft drinks at room temperature, especially in the winter). The visitors erect a Christmas tree in the atrium of Totontepec’s church, made out of painted red boards and covered with bottle-cap style lights. As the music swells, the camera pans back to reveal the lit-up Christmas tree. White teens and brown teens hug, and laugh, and consume coke products. And there at the top of the tree is a message written in Ayöök, the language of Totontepec: Tö’kmuk n’ijtumtat.
In the corner of the screen this message is helpfully translated into Spanish as “Permanezcamos Unidos” (Let’s Stay United). A slightly more literal translation would be “May all of us exist together as one.” Make no mistake, this is a fiercely Totontepecano sentiment. Underneath it says “Mixe Language.” This is the first time that Ayöök writing has appeared in a national advertising campaign or really any mainstream venue in Mexico. If we can set all of the other issues aside for just one second, this is a moment worthy of special recognition. The commercial ends by encouraging viewers to #AbreTuCorazon (open your heart) followed by the requisite Coca-Cola branding.
Reactions outside of Totontepec, especially within the world of indigenous activism and scholarship have been swift and highly critical. Tweets called the coke commercial “racist”, “neocolonial”, “disgusting.” Essentially, the complaints are two-fold: first, that the commercial engages in the most crass, stereotypical perpetuation of the myth that indigenous people need white people to come and save them; and second, that Coca Cola sucks. It sucks because the consumption of its products is linked to various health problems such as tooth decay, obesity and diabetes, and because in Mexico Coca-Cola has been guilty of working with the Mexican government to privatize water resources and of bullying small communities into monopolistic agreements that exclude other soft drink manufacturers.
Totontepecano reactions to the commercial are all over the map. Totontepecano facebook and twitter users have felt stung by the torrent of negative commentary about the commercial. Many saw the commercial as a way to promote the beauty and friendliness of their community. They are proud of their town and eager to show it off, and perhaps even to attract tourists. They are not remotely worried about their capacity to survive and thrive in a global system; and they are angry about being portrayed by outsiders as either helpless or as dupes who got tricked by a big bad multinational corporation. The money that Totontepec earned for participating in the commercial did not line the pockets of a corrupt local official. It will finance some desperately needed repairs at the local high school.
Other Totontepecanos are against dealing with any big business for any reason, period. They see this Coke commercial as selling out, and they are expressing legitimate fears about keeping their magnificent spring water supply out of the grasping clutches of Coca-Cola. Being united is one of the most important things you can be in Totontepec, which is why it is troubling that the decision to permit the shoot was not a unanimous one. Nor was it made in the transparent fashion that Totontepecanos expect from their elected leaders. The coke commercial and its fallout will be the subject of at least one upcoming town assembly. The message of unity and holiday cheer is a fine one, but not if delivering it came at the cost of actual community unity.
I myself am ambivalent. I was thrilled to see Ayöök up there on the big screen for all to admire. But I cringed when I saw all of those smartly-attired white kids running up and down the streets of Totontepec (not “storming the town” as one critic puts it. Puh-lease, let’s not lose our heads). This was a big missed opportunity to up-end stereotypes about what members of the Mexican national family look like. How about a scene with some Totontepecano kids living in the city (there are hundreds of them) asking for drinks in Ayöök, and not being rejected for doing so?
Honestly though, my first reaction was, “Oh no, not this again.” Last year I found myself writing a sharply worded response to a Vodafone commercial that targeted another one of the languages I study, a relative of Ayöök called Ayapaneco. And now this? But I’ve been giving it some serious thought, and what I think is happening here is that the awareness raising campaigns of Mexico’s National Indigenous language Institute (INALI) and other advocates are working. Large corporations are taking notice that language loss is a real and pressing concern for more and more of their customers and wondering what sort of stance to take. For better or for worse, this might be what public awareness actually looks like.
The challenge for all of us who care about the fate of indigenous peoples and their languages is to figure out how to keep these corporations honest and to push them in positive directions. One sign of Coca-Cola’s naiveté is that the original version of the commercial referred to Ayöök as a “dialecto Mixe.” Happily, the commercial was taken down and quickly corrected to read “lengua Mixe,” presumably because someone pointed out to the producers that the term “dialect” in Latin America has long been used to disparage and dismiss indigenous languages, to imply that they are something less than full, proper languages like Spanish or English. The lesson I take from this is that someone at Ogilvy & Mather or Coca-Cola was listening and perhaps willing to learn. So if this advertising campaign is more than a cynical ploy and Coke has a genuine interest in helping to make a positive change then I have a few ideas. Scholarships for indigenous students? Resources to train teachers and develop new learning resources for indigenous Mexican schools? That would certainly spread some holiday cheer.
Daniel Suslak, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, is a linguistic anthropologist who focuses on Mixe-Zoquean languages and their speakers. He studies how language serves as a medium through which people talk about the impact of economic development and globalization on their lives and how it becomes valued as a symbolic resource that people struggle to control and pass on to future generations.