The Chewing Gum: The Odyssey of a Proud Mayan Legacy


Surely the last chewing gum you tried was American brand, it was sweetened with a sugar substitute, its taste was artificial and similar to an exotic fruit. Maybe it even contained an appetite suppressant drug, or nicotine to alleviate the urge to smoke. Perhaps you did not think or even know the origin of this custom so associated with student irreverence and the carefree western culture.

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Although history informs us that in ancient Greece, in Egypt and even in prehistory, resins of trees and plants with medicinal properties were chewed, the origin of modern chicle was born in the jungles of the Mexican southeast and the north of Central America, in a This region is known as the Gran Petén, where the Mayan culture flourished more than two thousand years ago.

It was precisely they who began collecting sap from the chicozapote, one of the most abundant trees in the area, zigzagging its bark so that it flowed into the containers placed at the base of the tree. After a drying process, they obtained a chewable gum that they used to clean their teeth and mouth or to inhibit hunger in fasting rituals.

The name with which the Mayans knew this rubber was "sicte", which means blood or vital fluid and with it they traded with other Mesoamerican peoples. Its use extended in time and space, so that it reaches the Aztecs with the name of "tzictli" (for whom the word means to strike) and from there it passes to the Spanish language as chewing gum. In Spain and the rest of Europe it continued to be used for hygienic purposes without major impact.

It seems that the release of chewing gum to the international mass markets has its origin in a curious anecdote of the tyrant former president of Mexico Antonio López de Santa Anna. They say that during his exile in New York, Santa Anna met an ingenious photographer named Adams and that one day they engaged in a conversation about how to produce a more elastic, resistant and cheaper material to produce carriage tires.

Then came this resin that the Indians had chewed for years, but the proposal was to mix it with a type of rubber. The original idea was a failure and after a year of testing Mr. Adams gave up, although there was chewing gum to spare. In order not to waste it, Mr. Adams's son offered it to some apothecaries along the east coast of the United States for sale with the original purpose of hygiene.

The first box of Adams gum was sold with the original color and without flavor. Even so the business grew with such success that in 1879 a merchant in Louisville, Kentucky, who was already selling a sweetened resin as a treat, ordered a shipment of Mexican chewing gum and sweetened it, originating the first competing brand of Adams: the Colgan.

The taste was somewhat more difficult to add since the chewing gum does not absorb flavors, but it absorbs sugar. So it occurred to a popcorn seller in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1880, to mix flavorings with corn syrup and then add the mixture to the chewing gum. As the syrup is basically sugar, the experiment succeeded in giving the first mint gum with the name of Yucatan.

Since then the sweetly refreshing taste of chewing gum began to invade America and England. The Carreño Manual cataloged the habit of chewing gum in bad taste, especially among the ladies. But the marketing to attract consumers of both genders managed to create more flavors, especially fruit.

But it was not until World War II when chewing gum reached the four corners of the world. The American soldiers took him with him because of his ability to relax nervous tension, exercise the muscles of the neck and face, stimulate the production of saliva and inhibit hunger momentarily. Its importance was such that when the enemy discovered it, its maritime transport through the Gulf of Mexico was almost always guarded by U.S. submarines.

In the fifties, a synthetic polymer of production was discovered at a much lower cost, which marked the decline of exports and the extraction of resin was once again a traditional activity. In our days the production of chewing gum has a slight rebound thanks to the increasingly popular preference for natural products.

The habit of chewing gum is widespread throughout the world although it is usually restricted in schools, as it is considered a lack of respect for the teacher and an activity that hinders concentration. In Singapore it was completely forbidden for more than 10 years, under penalty of imprisonment to whoever traded with him, because several sectors complained about the dirt caused by gum in floors, buildings and means of transport. Now it is allowed to chew it only for therapeutic purposes.

In San Luis Obispo, California, there is a wall in an alley on Higuera Street, on which young people began to stick chewing gum in the early 1960s. The neighbors complained but the chewing gum kept showing up. Today is the only monument to chewing gum that is known. In the corners there are gum vending machines in case, passing by, you want to leave your tribute. Chew and stick it!

Autor: Ernesto Vargas