Chewing gum. That little pack of tasty stuff we carry around in our pockets. But did you know that chewing gum actually originated in Mexico? Chicle as it is commonly known in Mexico, began its life as a natural gum that comes from the Sapodilla tree. The latex these trees produce is a natural protective seal the tree create when they are cut or bitten into by insects or herbivores.
The gum can be extracted from the tree by a process called tapping. This is where the tree’s trunk is hacked into with a machete to create zigzag gashes. The gum then begins to seep out and is collected into small bags. It is then boiled until it reaches its desired thickness to become chicle.
The Sapodilla tree is a slow-growing evergreen tree native to the forests of Mesoamerica, and is most commonly found in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, and Campeche.
The first recorded uses of chicle were by the Aztecs and Mayans who prized the gum for its subtle flavor and high sugar content. The word chicle comes from the Nahuatl word for gum, which can be translated as “sticky stuff”. They chewed the gum to stave off hunger, freshen their breath and keep their teeth clean, and they even used it as an early form of dentistry for fillings in teeth.
In the late 1800’s the gum was introduced by an ex-Mexican president to the United States. It eventually took off and soon created high demand for the gum extraction. Local people in Mexico known as the Chicleros were the individuals who did just that. These native men would spend long periods of time in the forests tapping for the gum. They faced high-risk daily challenges: poisonous snake bites, falls from high trees, irreparable skin diseases and malaria.
Unsurprisingly, this took its toll on some of the men and they quickly gained a reputation for being fearless men who drank hard and played by tough rules. But whilst some of them needed to come into local towns to ‘blow off steam’, generally the Chicleros were family men who often took their wives and children to live with them in the isolation of the forest.
The popularity for chicle grew and grew, with the inclusion of it in American soldiers rations. And by the time of the Second World War it had became a common habit for people all over the world. It didn’t take long for the demand of the chicle from the Sapodilla tree had outstripped supply, and the trees were becoming over tapped and dying off. Soon the natural Chicle was replaced by a synthetic rubber variety, which proved cheaper to produce and is still the same gum that we all chew today.
This not only has had an environmental impact, creating much non-biodegradable waste, but it was tough on many Chicleros and their livelihoods too. However, their excellent knowledge of the forests has allowed many of them to survive today as naturalists, advisors, and guides to archaeologists. They are the key to pinpointing plants, animals, water sources and some of the most important archaeological sites in the Mayan world, which they continue to comb the jungles with archaeologists looking for more.
The Chicleros may still be hanging in there and so too is the natural gum itself. Small boutique companies are now opening up in Mexico making ethical chewy stuff in tandem with an ethical working scheme for local workers.
It’s surprising to think that the little packet of chicle in your pocket has got such a big story to tell.