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Preparing to draw an ELEMENT participant’s blood, Mexico City
Retablos (devotional paintings) asking for favors and healing from the Black Christ in Chalma, Malinaco, Mexico
ELEMENT Freezer Storage, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Cake, soda, and piñata at a child’s birthday party in Mexico City
Household water storage in Mexico City
Pan dulce (sweet bread) in a Mexico City bakery
Dam maintenance in Mexico City
Tomatillos and peppers on the stove in Mexico City
ELEMENT Biological samples, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Selling candy in front of a family home in Mexico City
Petri dishes with bacteria cultured from waters samples in Mexico City neighborhoods. LANCIS Laboratory, UNAM, Mexico City
Students analyzing fieldnotes in the Roberts Ethnographic Coding lab


Current Bioethnographic Projects

Mexican Exposures (MEXPOS) is the umbrella title for several ongoing bioethnographic projects combining ELEMENT biological data and ethnographic data in Mexico City.  Currently we are focused on three projects with several more in the planning stages.  Two smaller projects are described below.  See the NESTSMX page for a description of our larger project: Neighborhood Environments as Socio-Techno-Bio Systems: Water Quality, Public Trust, and Health in Mexico City (NESTSMX).

Eating in Mexico City.

Salsa verde heating in lead glazed ceramic pot, August 2017

Although the central focus of the ELEMENT study has been toxicant exposure, understanding participants’ diets has been core to ELEMENT’s investigation since its inception. Diet can not only be a direct source of toxicants but can also affect the body’s uptake of toxicants (e.g., calcium affects the uptake of lead). Furthermore, diet is connected to cardiometabolic  outcomes such as obesity, which is especially relevant in the context of Mexico’s designation by the WHO in 2013 as the world’s fattest industrial nation. ELEMENT has historically gathered, and continues to gather, diet-related data through food frequency questionnaires and anthropometric measures like body fat indices. The addition of Mexican Exposures ethnography now allows for ethnographic observation of eating patterns within ELEMENT households.

Roberts spent much of her time in the field engaged with ELEMENT participants in food-related activities such as shopping, meal preparation, and eating. She observed that, in a precarious world, sharing cheap sugary and fatty foods (increasingly available through globalization) is central to creating and maintaining the social density necessary for survival. Meanwhile, the Mexican public health apparatus exhorts working-class people to make “better food decisions” by halting their consumption of these so-called “discretionary” foods. In its documentation of everyday life in working-class Mexico City, Roberts’s qualitative data provides insight into how the globalized transformation in food landscapes transforms eating and toxicant exposure.

Recently, ELEMENT postdoc Erica Jansen began working with Hannah Marcovitch, an anthropology undergraduate in the Mexican Exposures data analysis lab, to bring together Mexican Exposures ethnographic data and ELEMENT epidemiological data in order to better understand eating among ELEMENT participants in Mexico City. In particular, Jansen and Marcovitch plan to evaluate sociodemographic determinants of eating patterns within the ELEMENT population using conventional nutritional epidemiological methods to analyze food frequency questionnaires (FFQs). They will then interpret and compare the findings to the bioethnographic data pertaining to diet. They hope to illustrate the value of using qualitative dietary data to understand and complement questionnaire-based dietary findings.

Early Menarche and Adolescent Pregnancy in Mexico City.

Preparing ELEMENT biological samples for analysis in Ann Arbor, May 2013

In Mexico, a recent rise in teen pregnancy rates has been largely attributed to bad parenting and an idealization of motherhood within Mexican culture. This perpetuates a narrative that places responsibility solely on individual families and girls while overlooking large-scale geopolitical phenomena and their effect on smaller-scale domestic organization, which might be key to understanding this increase.

By applying a bioethnographic framework to the phenomenon of teen pregnancy, Jansen and Clara Cullen, an undergraduate from the Mexican Exposures lab, have drawn together data from Roberts’s fieldwork in order to offer more complex hypotheses to account for the recent rise in Mexico’s rates of teen pregnancy. The implementation of NAFTA in 1994 dramatically transformed Mexico’s food environment, making imported cheap, calorie-dense foods more widely available. Jansen’s work with the ELEMENT project has suggested that this altered food environment has lowered the age of menarche (the age at which a girl has her first period), widening the temporal window for pregnancy. Additionally, NAFTA’s abolishment of trade protections has dramatically increased income inequality and unemployment in Mexico. Roberts’s ethnographic fieldwork in working-class households suggests that teen girls are keenly aware that, under current economic conditions, schooling will not lead to employment, whereas having a child provides girls both status and greater access to resources within the extended family household. Our bioethnographic approach to adolescent pregnancy allows us to explore how structural phenomena like NAFTA can dramatically alter both the biological processes and life trajectories of adolescent girls.

Neighborhood Environments as Socio-Techno-bio Systems: Water Quality, Public Trust, and Health in Mexico City (NESTSMX).

NESTSMX is our latest bioethnographic collaborative project. We will combine environmental engineering expertise with environmental health and medical anthropology in a project investigating how water moves through ELEMENT neighborhoods, households, and bodies (see NESTSMX page for details).