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LAS AMERICAS The Best of Times, the Worst of Times If the recession is ending, where are the tortillas? BY JOHN ROSS ft ri l l hambre””I’ m engo hungry.” The six-year-old who said her name was Gabriela extended a small dirty hand to a U.S. reporter outside a subway station just a block from the Palacio Nacional, where Mexico’s Congress meets. A few feet away, Gabriela’ s uncle pumped away on a battered accordion. “Tengo hambre,” the child repeated, cadging a coin from her next customer. ” i Hambre! i Hambre! ” seven hundred Mixtec Indian farm workers chanted in San Quentin, Baja California, where on July 4 they sat down on a highway to protest the failure of a tomato packer to pay them two weeks’ wages. “There is no money for beans or even tortillas,” one worker complained to an Ensenada-based reporter. Beans and tortillas are the staple food for the 40,000 Mixtec field workers who migrate 650 miles from Oaxaca each year to plant and harvest tomatoes for U.S. transnationals like McDonald’s. When local police moved in to break up the protest, workers fought back and looted San Quentin supermarkets, and twenty-six Indians were arrested. The military now patrols the region’s tomato farms. On May 31, four hundred residents across-the-tracks colonia in San Nicolas de stopped a freight train, unhooked three cars of imported corn, and carried off fifty tons of the grain in buckets, sacks and apron pockets. Police who tried to halt the looting were stoned and eight residents arrested in a clash that resembled a scene out of the Mexican Revolution, when such railside chaos was commonplace. “At least, we will have corn for tortillas,” one woman told the national daily La ,1 ornada. Tortilla prices have soared 86 percent in the last twenty months. With food prices rising and employment scarce, such incidents are increasing in Mexico. In mid-May, farmers in northern Chihuahua raided a government warehouse and carted off 271 tons of beans. In June, a freight car of wheat was reportedly “liberated” by farmers in Durango. In July, another freight car was expropriatedthis time the booty was bottled water. nd it is obvious that many of these incidents are driven by hunger. According to a recent study by the economics department of Banamex, the nation’s leading private bank, one half of Mexico’s estimated 92 million people consume less than the minimum daily requirement of 1,300 caloriesa direct result of the worst economic downturn here since 1932. In the past twenty months since the recession set in, the cost of the basic food basket has surged 64 percent while salaries have risen only 18 percent. Consumption of basic grains has declined by 29 percent in that same period, and food theft, like the boxcar expropriations, is on the rise. A recent Reforma newspaper series included the story of a man sentenced to seven years in priSon for stealing a kilo of barbecued meat “because he was hungry.” In the summer of 1996, hunger, it seems, stretches from border to border. Through out the north, the worst drought of the sec ond half of the 20th century has withered fields and killed off tens of thousands of cattle. In the chronically hungry Tarahu mara mountain region in the state of Chihuahua \(a half-day drive from muri Indian children died of malnutrition between January and June at 100,000 “MEN AND WOMEN OF CORN” \(AS THE MAYANS ONLY SOLIDARITY CARAVANS FROM THE BIG CITIES ARE KEEPING THE VILLAGERS FED.