Until September 11 stunned us all, a primary concern of the Bush administration was forging a more equitable partnership with Mexico when President Vicente Fox of Mexico arrived in Washington, D. C., on Sept. 5 to visit his Texas amigo. "'The United States has no more important relationship in the world than the one with Mexico,' Mr. Bush declared."
As I watched President Fox alight from his Mexicana flight at Ronald Regan International Airport for this much-ballyhooed state visit, Coca-Cola...Vivela! immediately sprang to mind. That is because Coca-Cola...Vivela (...Live it!)! is emblazoned across the landscape of Mexico and Central America, thanks to the efforts of Signore Fox, Coca-Cola de Mexico's former president, perhaps the only man in Latin America to have made his nouveau riche fortune from Coca-Cola rather than from the coca plant.
No matter where I went on my travels through Mundo Maya, whether the dry, flat Yucatan, the sylvan highlands of Guatemala, or The Bay Islands of Honduras, Coca-Cola...Vivela! was in my face like some pre-Columbian graffiti. And always in the same vicinity was Coca-Cola's old competitor, Pepsi-Cola, the perennial # 2.
Pepsi's advertising campaign, however, dispensed with any slogan suggesting what to do with one's life, simply painting its red, white and blue PEPSI logo everywhere sufficed. In many small towns I traveled through the only structures that didn't need paint jobs were those selling one or the other Cola. And seeing a freshly painted PEPSI covering a shack in the middle of Guatemala's verdant highlands struck me like smut.
That Pepsi is without a catchy slogan these days is odd given the integral role of slogans to the Cola wars. What red-blooded American hasn't hummed "Coke, its the real thing!" -- a dig at Pepsi's lesser status -- or been a member of "The Pepsi Generation."
The Cola wars have been raging since Pepsi's concoction in 1898 (12 years after Coke's) challenged Coke's preeminence, and are global. It was Coke in the glasses of those Chinese communist leaders in Beijing when they toasted (and cautiously sipped) the first significant joint venture between American and Chinese capitalists. And one Cola's loss is the other Cola's gain, as when Pepsi filled Guatemala's Cola void left by three years of bitter labor strife between Coke and its workers that effectively pushed Coke out of Guatemala. Pepsi also pulled off a coup of sorts in Australia by having PEPSI adorn the mainsail of the lead ship reenacting the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay in 1778. When that ship rounded the headland and came into view of the Australians waiting on shore to watch the historic reenactment, there was a collective sigh of disappointment at this travesty. It's sad, but true.
My family was a dyed-in-the-wool Pepsi family, for good reason. When you have 11 kids, a grandmother, and a vicious dog named Blackie to feed, a 12 oz. bottle of Pepsi costing a dime (10 cents) precluded buying a 6 oz. Coke costing the same. And being of the last American generation that could actually buy something for a nickel (5 cents) -- a pack of baseball cards including bubble gum, a Hershey's Chocolate Bar -- dropping a dime on a Coke was, to me, prohibitive.
A continual loss of market share to Pepsi, however, forced Coke to double the quantity of cola it was bottling to level the playing field, yet for many Pepsi drinkers the battle lines were drawn -- they'd rather drink an un-Cola first. The most famous of these Pepsi diehards is Hugh Heffner, the founder of Playboy Magazine, who, dressed in signature silk pajamas, ran Playboy Inc. from a circular bed in his Playboy Mansion in Chicago -- a bottle of Pepsi always in hand. My college roommate was another Pepsi diehard, who suffered caffeine deprivation in the morning until he knocked off a bottle of the stuff.
Big Cola's bi-polar world was briefly disturbed one summer when Royal Crown Cola appeared in the soda cooler in the corner store down the street from my house. I couldn't believe it! 16 oz. for one thin dime! What kid could ask for more from life? But Crown Cola's inferior flavor kept me in The Pepsi Generation. I learned later from a young Georgia gentleman that Crown Cola was produced originally in the American South for the African-American market, which led me to quip, "They must have made Pepsi for the Irish."
Coca-Cola's secret of success is just that, a secret. Its formula has been better kept than some nuclear secrets of the United States, and no potential market promising huge profits will change that. Even when Coke, in the mid-1970s, had a chance to quench the thirst of a billion Hindoos on the proviso that it divulge its secret formula to the Indian government, Coke would not budge and was summarily banished from Hindustan. During this brouhaha, a precocious Arundhdi Roy chose "Karma-Cola" as the catchy title of her pop classic recounting her own cognitive dissonance vis-a-vis hippie Westerners meeting Mother India. Fortunately for thirsty India, the government came to its senses a few decades later, rescinding the fiat that excluded India from full membership in the 20th Century. Once again Coke was freely available throughout the subcontinent.
Despite Big Cola's stranglehold on the Central American market, Teem and Squirt, two exotic sodas that I've not sipped since my youth, and extinct in the States, have survived south of the American border. Fanta, especially Fanta Orange, the all-time best orange soda, was plentiful south of the border, too, yet there was not a drop to drink in the States. How can this be? Fanta, alas, was the victim of a corporate takeover by Coke, its spectrum of flavors having joined Teem and Squirt south of the border. I got as much of a thrill out of seeing those rare sodas as I did at sighting the Baltimore Oriole, the Amazon Kingfisher, the green-eyed owls of the Yucatan and other exotic birds of Central America.
Regionalism was still very much intact in the America of my youth, especially the Mason-Dixon Line divide. And two locutions that distinguished this Yankee from a Confederate were soda and pop. Soda was generic in my Philadelphia for every sort of soft drink -- cola, root beer, ginger ale, and fruit flavors -- ditto for pop below the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet pop, along with sucker (the locution used in the South for a piece of hard candy fixed to the end of a stick, something we called a taffy or lollipop), sounded most unsophisticated to my Philadelphia ear and therefore encouraged my sense of Yankee superiority. As for soda to the Southern ear, the host of a New Orleans party I was attending looked at me incredulously when I requested "a soda."
Although McDonald's Golden Arches have eclipsed the fancy Coca-Cola logo as the symbol of American global hegemony -- and are the target of first choice of anti-globalization iconoclasts with an axe to grind with the USA -- as Pax Americana spread its cultural and economic tentacles around the globe, especially in Japan and the Far East, after World War II, a word was needed to describe this American takeover of the planet. The French called it Coca-Colonialism.
The writer is a professor in the Dept. of English Lang. & Lit. at DU.
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