Why I Wasn’t a Fat Kid in Mexico

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Originally published by Americas Quarterly on Nov. 27th, 2014.

I grew up in Manzanillo and Monterrey, two Mexican cities that are opposites in many ways. Manzanillo is on the southwest coast of Mexico; Monterrey is in the dry northeastern desert. Manzanillo is a small town; Monterrey is one of the country’s most important urban industrial centers. In Manzanillo, people are laid back and relaxed, whereas Monterrey’s citizens are famous for being laborious, high-strung and dynamic.

When I was growing up, Monterrey and Manzanillo did have one thing in common, though: the general rule was that children played outside. Without even asking for permission, we would leave the house (which was always unlocked), and the world was our playground.

We did have some rules: don’t talk to strangers, don’t go farther than two blocks from home—but that was about it. We rode bikes and skateboards, played soccer in the street, set up a lemonade stand, and played tag and hide-and-seek. We also had videogames and TV, but they were limited to a couple of hours a day, and we really didn’t complain about it (mostly because TV programming and videogames were so limited back then).

In 2013, Mexico surpassed the United States as the most obese nation in the Americas. Because I was born with asthma, I wasn’t the most active kid. Yet I still grew up extra-skinny, and so did most of my friends.

What happened to Mexico’s children in the last 30 years? Based on my personal experience and observations, here are a few of the multiple causes of child obesity in Mexico today.

The school system: It is no mystery that Mexico’s school system is in trouble. We have substandard teachers, no accountability, and funding that is often diverted to teachers’ unions—the list goes onl. If you go to a public school during recess in Mexico, you’ll find a basketball court, which will add to numbers mentioned in any government report. Yet those numbers tell a half truth: the court will have baskets with no backboards and broken rims—and, most likely, the school won’t have basketballs available for the kids to play with. Usually, you’ll just see the boys playing kickball on a dirt patio with improvised goals (usually two rocks set apart from each other), and the girls will be on the sidelines, chatting and eating chips.

According to the Federal Program for Sports and Physical Culture 2014-2018, some of our national sports system’s flaws include the lack of school and municipal sports leagues, deficient attention to school sports programs, insufficient federal funding, obsolete state legislation to promote sports, social inequality and a scarcity of female participation in sports, and the absence of physical education in the school curricula.

The food industry and NAFTA: Before 1994, if I wanted to eat a box of Lucky Charms, I had to cross the border into the United States. We did not have direct access to many of the U.S. food products that are now available in every supermarket nationwide, thanks to NAFTA.

A pre-packaged “Lunchable” is much easier to stick in a lunchbox than what I grew up with. When I went to primary school, my lunchbox was full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and my thermos bottle contained lemonade squeezed from real lemons. Today, kids are taking artificially flavored drinks and foods to school on a daily basis.  According to pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig, the U.S. food industry is in great part responsible for turning sugar into a staple food in Americans’ diets. Thanks to NAFTA, all that sugar is now easily accessible to Mexicans, and we’re devouring it.

TV on demand and the technological revolution:  I recently took my kids on vacation and we were staying at a hotel. My three-year-old son told me he wanted to watch a specific kids’ program. We have TV on demand at home, so it was a challenge to explain to him that the only programming available was what was playing in real time: live TV (none of which was interesting to him). Videogame consoles and TV programming for children have existed for much longer than the obesity problem, so the difference has to be the availability and portability of entertainment that encourages kids to be sedentary. I had my first cell phone when I was 17 years old. “Let me get my iPad” is now commonplace talk among middle- and upper-class eight to ten year olds.

According to the 2012 National Survey on Health and Nutrition, children and young adults are straying from physical and recreational activity. Instead, they play videogames, watch television and spend time on the Internet. The survey estimated that 58.6 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 14 do zero physical or sports activities.

Insecurity and loss of childhood independence: Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that insecurity—and the perception of insecurity—has turned children into hostages of playdate agendas.

When I was 12, I would get home from school, have lunch and then say goodbye to my folks, only to see them again after 7 pm. My everyday life included walking to a bus stop eight blocks away, getting on a bus in order to go to a friend’s house, then walking to a basketball court and playing for a couple of hours—and getting into trouble in multiple creative ways.

Were my parents irresponsible? Was I a neglected child? Of course not. I was free, because the era in which I grew up in allowed me to be. My parents had little to worry about.

My kids are not as fortunate as I was. Unless they live in private, gated communities, Mexican kids are no longer allowed to walk out their door unattended—because today, parents have serious reasons to fear for their kids’ safety. The rise of violence and crime in hotspots in the country has made us (reasonably) more paranoid, so kids now have play dates—specific and limited times during the week when they can get together with their friends. Hopefully, they engage in some physical activity and don’t just glue themselves to game consoles in the living room.

In this new Mexico, where child obesity is a reality, parents need to play a more active role in making sure their kids get out and play, eat healthy food, and detach themselves from their gadgets and TV. No one else is going to do it for them.

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