PROGRAM: Rewriting Heredity
AUTHOR: Julie Caine
Report from Mexico
In the deserts of Arizona and the mountains of Mexico live two communities whose genetic heritage connects them across an international border. The Pima Indians share an ancient history but while the Pima living in Arizona have one of the highest prevalence of obesity and diabetes in the world, their cousins living in the Sierra Madre mountains of Northern Mexico do not suffer from the same staggering rates of these diseases. Researchers have studied the Arizona Pima for decades trying to divine a genetic reason for their problems with obesity. For many years, they've sought evidence for the existence of a "thrifty gene" — a gene researchers postulated might have been an ancient survival mechanism in times of starvation.
In early June 2007, The DNA Files producer Vicki Monks and I traveled to the tiny village of Maycoba, Mexico, to explore these differences between the Pima firsthand.
When we landed in Hermosillo, Mexico, the temperature was hovering around 115 degrees. This is the searing heat that takes the lives of so many immigrants who cross the border between Mexico and Arizona every year in the hope of a better life in the US.
Huge fans inside the airport did little more than blow our customs declarations out of our hands. In Mexico, officially entering the country involves hitting a button and waiting for an actual stoplight (like you'd see at any intersection) to "randomly" signal you either to go, or to stop and be searched. Luckily both Vicki and I got the literal green light and we emerged into the lobby of Hermosillo's small airport where we met up with Leslie Schulz, the researcher who had established the genetic link between the Pima people in Arizona and Mexico a decade earlier. Leslie, a cheerful Midwesterner with blond hair and a round North Dakota accent, had arrived earlier in the day on a flight from Texas, where she's a professor in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Texas El Paso.
We hit it off almost immediately — three women with many episodes of travel under our belts, and great stories to tell. Dinner conversation was lively.
Our fourth traveling companion was Julián Esparza, a Mexican researcher based in Hermosillo who had worked in Maycoba with Leslie in the early 90s. Apart from his skills as a scientist and researcher, it was the easy rapport he had with the Pima people in Maycoba that made him such a vital part both of the research team and our reporting trip. Having grown up in a small, rural community himself, Julián was an insider to the codes of courtesy and conduct in rural Mexico, and his respect and genuine affection for the Pima in Maycoba was obvious to everyone. Doors which would have remained tightly shut to our trio of grinning gringas opened wide with hospitality for Julián. "Ah, Julián," an older Pima woman teased when she saw us in tow. "I see you're still surrounding yourself with women, eh?"
For Leslie and Julián the reporting trip marked not only a reunion between the two of them, but also the first time they'd been back to Maycoba since doing their research there. It might be hard to imagine in this age of constant connectivity, but the only way to communicate with most of the people in Maycoba was still by traveling there in person. There are no telephones, nor electricity in the town, and many of the older people Leslie and Julián worked with there don't read or write well enough to correspond by mail.
We piled into our Jeep the next morning and headed through cactus-studded desert plains toward the Sierra Madres. The trip from Hermosillo to Maycoba takes about six hours by car, and Julián advised against making the trip at night — Maycoba is reached by a curving mountain road prone to accidents and landslides; it's also a road that's used by smugglers of various stripes — simply not a safe route after dark.
The air cooled and the cactus morphed into pine forest as we climbed into the mountains. When nature eventually called, we stopped at a modest house hugging the cliffside of the road to ask about using the bathroom. My technology-saturated American eyes didn't comprehend the oddity of the satellite dish balanced on the rooftop of the little house. And I thought nothing of the utility poles and gleaming electric wires that I saw at the edge of the road.
Julián gallantly led us inside the house to an unadorned, darkened room. A woman sat at a desk with nothing but a telephone and a large, humming console blinking beside her in the dim light.
We were guided through a bedroom to a bathroom where the toilet had to be flushed by dumping water into the commode from a nearby bucket. The incongruity between the lack of running water and the satellite dish and high-tech telephone setup in the front room of the house suddenly came into focus for me. I realized we had stopped at a long-distance telephone outpost — probably the only telephone service for many miles around.
I waited outside while everyone took their turn. Chickens clucked by and an old woman with long, silvery braids greeted me, smiling, and took both of my hands in hers. I explained to her who we were, and that we were on our way to Maycoba to talk with the people there for a radio program in the United States. She blessed our journey and our work, and then she told me the news that was to be repeated to us at every stop we made for the rest of the trip. "Viene la luz," she said: "Electricity is coming." The shining electric lines along the road were not yet active, she explained, but had been recently strung throughout the countryside by the last vestiges of President Vicente Fox's administration. The people were just waiting for someone, somewhere, to flip a switch. Most people in the area seemed to await this event with a cynical, "we'll believe when we see it" attitude, born of many years of unmet promises. But even so, the possibility of electricity held the potential for dramatic change for a region and a way of life that, in many ways, had not changed in generations.
We traveled on towards Maycoba, the dormant electric wires running parallel with us the whole way. Julián and Leslie talked excitedly about what electrification might bring to the people — refrigeration, television, Internet — and how these amenities might affect the nutrition and health of the Pima living there.
As we rolled into town, we started seeing people walking along the side of the mountain highway in groups of two and three, carrying bags and bundles. Julián started looking for familiar faces and we slowed our pace, eventually pulling over so that Leslie could take photographs of the now ubiquitous electric lines and utility poles dotting the landscape. She was thinking ahead to future funding proposals, and wanted to document the changes happening in the town since the last time she worked there when there were no obstructions to the sweeping mountain views.
Julián drove us farther down the winding road and we pulled over at a rickety gate. We could see a little house off in the distance. Julián asked us to wait in the car for a while, and he trudged off to speak with the family there to see if they would be interested in talking with us.
Ambling back with a grin on his face, Julián gave us the thumbs up, lifted the looped piece of wire that held the gate shut, and ushered us in to the farm of Martín Jimenez and Egriselda Galavíz.
We met Egriselda and her adult daughter, Eva, drawing water from the stream down the hill from their house — a task they do twice each day because they have no running water in their home. Patient with our microphones and cameras and strange questions, they affectionately scolded Julián for not sending word that he was coming to visit.
Buckets filled with water, they turned to head back up the dusty hill to the house. The sun beat down on us while we walked, and Egriselda, still working hard at age 74, lowered her full pails of water for a moment. "Let's have a rest," she said, smiling from under her battered straw hat. "This is heavy."
In the shade of a broad leafy tree by the side of her house, Egriselda's grandchildren congregated, giggling at us while we talked with their abuelita about what she thought about the possibility of having electricity. She said she'd like having light at night, since her eyes weren't what they used to be. But she seemed uninterested in television or radio, and refrigeration didn't enter the conversation. She told us that her husband, Martín, still rode a burro into town every Sunday to get the few supplies they actually buy — staples like sugar and coffee. But, she said, more and more people have cars, and those who don't can usually get a ride from someone who does. This helped mostly with getting access to medical care, she told us. It used to be that if someone got sick and the local healer couldn't help them, they had no alternatives. Now they can travel to Maycoba or on to bigger towns to see specialists.
One of the grandchildren brought out jars full of preserved peaches — a time-honored method of food storage that requires no refrigeration — which Egriselda gave to us as a gift.
We then followed Martín out to plant corn. In front of his house, we could see his son-in-law plowing a field with a tractor. Farther off in the distance his neighbor worked with a horse and mule team, struggling on a steep piece of land with an old, wooden plow. Martín carried nothing more than a worn hoe and a bag of seed corn. It was the past, present, and future all in one glance.
Martín walked briskly, despite his years, and we trotted to keep up with his pace. When we reached a barbed wire fence at the edge of his land, he started digging small holes with the hoe, chopping at the hard ground and dropping in five or six kernels of seed corn in each before covering them with earth, moving forward a few inches, and doing it again. And again. And again.
The sun was burning high overhead when Martín finished, and he wiped his forehead and told us that it was time to take a rest and have a meal. He'd work again in a few hours, he said, after the midday heat dissipated. Then, looking up at the cloudless, blue sky, Martín told us it was going to rain that afternoon.
We said our farewells, and moved on to visit another friend of Julián's, Maria Luisa Lao, who lived on the land adjacent to Martín and Egriselda's farm. First we approached her husband Francisco, still wrestling with the horse and mule team. The mule wanted no part of the work at hand, and Francisco said our cameras and microphones would only make the animals more nervous, and declined our request to talk. He directed us instead down the hill to the stream where Maria Luisa was doing laundry.
We moved on past the animals as quietly as possible and descended to the cool shade along the streambed. Maria Luisa was there, her hair tied in a kerchief. She greeted Julián with a teasing grin. Like her husband, she was busy — slapping soaking wet clothes on a stone, lathering them with soap, and vigorously wringing them out before flipping them over to start again. Very physical work.
Maria Luisa has diabetes, and when Julián asked after her health, she told him she was still having trouble — mostly with her eyesight. She pointed to a small white bottle on a rock nearby: the diabetes medication that she takes twice every day.
We followed her up to the house for a taste of tesguino — a traditional fermented corn drink. As we talked with her about electricity and corrupt politicians, her young grandson circled around us on a shiny bicycle. Unlike his grandmother and grandfather's more traditional dress, he wore jeans and a t-shirt with a picture of El Hombre Araña — Spiderman — on the front. He said he'd seen Spiderman on the TV at his maternal grandmother's house in town. Maria Luisa just shook her head and laughed.
Later that day, after a home-cooked lunch in town at the home of yet another friend of Julián's, we went to pay a visit to the nurse at the Maycoba clinic. Eremita Pérez Ruiz sat at a desk in a starched white nurse's uniform and cap, thumbing through files. She told us of the changes to the town in the decade since Julián and Leslie did their research there. We had noticed small satellite dishes on even the most humble of homes, and Eremita told us that most people in town had TVs now-powered by the intermittent electricity that came from the town's generator. (On the day that we spoke with her, the generator had been down for ten days.)
Nevertheless, Eremita said, television was changing everyone's lifestyles — especially those of children and young adults. People spent more and more time indoors. The town had no soccer field or playground anyway, she said. And, she told us, there were more and more grocery stores and small neighborhood shops selling all kinds of junk food. She worked with children in the primary school and said she'd noticed an increase in obesity among them. She attributed this to poor diets and newly sedentary lifestyles.
As we traveled back to the motel where we were to spend the night, Leslie and Julián talked over the rapid pace of change in Maycoba. The conversation neatly summed up the differences between the lifestyles, and the concomitant differences in gene expression, of the Pima people in Arizona and Mexico. In Arizona, many of the Pima suffered from the ill-effects of obesity based on a sedentary lifestyle influenced by exactly such things as television, processed foods made possible by refrigeration, and a dependence on cars, rather than walking, for transportation.
What we were seeing in rural Mexico was a march toward so-called first world "progress": paved roads, more cars, electric lines, encroaching telephone service. Most of us would be hard-pressed to survive without these amenities, and yet it was obvious to all of us (in the comfort of our air-conditioned SUV) that they could do a great deal of damage as well.
With the example of the Pima in Arizona as a guide, the question remains as to whether the ability to foresee the negative consequences of abandoning traditional lifeways can somehow influence the Pima in Mexico so that thirty years from now they don't become another example of obesity and diabetes. Maybe the cousins living on either side of the border have something to teach each other.