As you reach for another stick of chewing gum, have you ever wondered about its origin? Well, you may not be aware that this universal product originated right here in the Maya World. Yes, that’s right, the white sap of the chicozapote tree (Manilkara zapote) is the natural raw material for chewing gum or chicle.
A Tree with Many Uses
Also known as zapote or sapodilla, the chicozapote tree can be up to 40 meters in height and is equally at home in the rain forests of Chiapas, Guatemala, Belize and other parts of Central America as it is in the drier jungle covering the Yucatán Peninsula where it reaches a height of about 30 meters in some areas. Apart from the thick white latex-like sap used to make chicle, the tree bears a sweet fruit with soft, juicy red or brown flesh and a slightly milky texture that attracts monkeys, peccary, toucans and humans. The resin is said to alleviate burns as a rudimentary plaster and even the seeds have a use, they are said to have healing properties in the treatment of stomach ailments.
Chicozapote tree in the wild
Chicozapote is also prized for its dense, exceptionally durable wood, which has been used as a building material by the Maya for thousands of years. Temple lintels and beams fashioned from carved zapote wood that has survived the ravages of time, the tropical climate and voracious insects, have been found during excavations at the archaeological sites of Tikal and Dzibanche in southern Quintana Roo. Indeed, chicozapotes are often found growing near archaeological sites, evidence that the Maya used them for building.
The Maya had been chewing sicteor raw gum to quench their thirst while working or on journeys since time immemorial and the gum was also one of their ancient trade goods. Merchants took it to central Mexico where it was adopted by the Aztec culture; in fact the word “chicle” is derived from the Nahuatl word tzictli, which means to stick, and the resin and wood may also have been used to produce glue and varnish.
How the gum became a global goodie is due to 19th-century entrepreneurs in the United States who were the first to add sugar and other flavorings to the gum, thus making it more palatable.
The story goes that the ill-fated Mexican President General Antonio López de Santa Ana of Alamo fame was partial to chicle. After being deposed during a revolt by a rival faction led by Juan Alvárez, he fled into exile in the United States. In 1866, he met an engineer and inventor called Thomas Adams who was curious to learn about chicle and experimented with it to see if it could be used as a substitute for rubber. After months of testing, he concluded that it was too soft and did not have the right consistency to be used in the manufacture of bicycle tires and wellington boots. However, he and his son persisted, drawing on the ancient Mexican tradition of chewing it. They obtained a patent for the gum in 1869, imported 2,300 kilos of the raw material and began to market his product in the United States two years later as Adams New York Chewing Gum.
In 1875, Adams added maple syrup and licorice as sweeteners. Sugar followed, introduced by a rival firm, and in 1880 mint was used to flavor the gum for the first time and its popularity began to grow.
More flavors followed and international markets opened up to chicle. Soldiers acquired a taste for the gum during World War I and demand continued to rise after the cessation of hostilities, right through the 1920s and 1930s, up to World War II.
During this time, innovations made the gum even more appealing. For example, Philip Wrigley combined chicle from Campeche and Quintana Roo with chilte, a similar gum from Talpa in southwest Jalisco but with a different consistency, texture and elasticity. Thanks to his new blend, Wrigleys became a major competitor in the gum trade.
Remote, virtually uninhabited and covered with a dense mantle of jungle, the territory of Quintana Roo experienced quite a boom. Bands of chicleros or chicle harvesters would venture into the forest for months in search of zapote trees that were ready for tapping. When they found one they would score the bark with machetes and collect the sap that trickled down the trunk. The resin would later be heated, rolled into balls, shipped to the coast to Puerto Morelos, Cozumel and Vigia Chico, a tiny port in what is now the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, and sold to foreign companies such as Chicle Adams.
By the 1950s, cheaper artificial substitutes had been found for chicle and Brazil had emerged as a rival. Demand for the natural raw material harvested in Quintana Roo, Campeche, Belize and northern Guatemala was in decline.
A Lonely Life
Chicle harvesting was and still is dangerous work and men faced many perils such as falls, forest fires, snakebites, jaguar attacks, disease and losing their way in the trackless jungle. They would tell tales of fearsome spirits that lurked among the trees waiting to waylay them. The most famous of these is the mythical Xtabay, a beautiful but malevolent temptress who would appear to men in the shade of a ceiba tree and bewitch them, sending them mad so that they would die of love alone in the forest far from their families.
Many Mayan discoveries have been attributed to chicle harvesters and they sometimes act as guides for archaeologists. Wise to the ways of the forest, they burn old termite nests and use oil from the mangroves to ward off the mosquitoes, and they say that tobacco sometimes repels snakes. Their camps consist of rudimentary huts or palm-thatched palapas in clearings, near cenotes for water and invariably surrounded by fruit trees such as lime, papaya and banana, in addition to chili, tomatoes, squash and herbs. They obtain everything they need from the jungle: palm leaves for shelter, gourds for storage, medicinal plants and game such as peccary and deer.
The search for chicle lasts for months and runs from July to February, starting after the first rains of summer; chicleros say that abundant rainfall is needed to get the sap flowing freely. If the rains are late, the season is in jeopardy.
Once a chicozapote tree is found, the chiclero makes “v “cuts in the bark in a zigzag pattern with his machete and starts to climb the trunk repeating the action as he goes. Some harvesters use ropes and boots to scale the tree, others scuttle up the tree barefoot, sometimes even climbing along the branches to continue slashing the bark and extract even more resin. Incisions must be made with care, if they are too deep, the tree is vulnerable to insect pests and fungi and may die. It takes each tree about eight years to recover after being tapped and to replenish its sap reserves and be ready for the next harvest, accordingly, chicleros will not touch a tree that still has visible scars.
A chiclero making the “v” cuts into a chicozapote tree
The sap begins to ooze from the gashes and trickles down the trunk during the day and overnight into canvas bags that have been soaked in chicle to waterproof them. Two pieces of wood are used to close the bags and carry them back to camp the next day. Larger sacks are used to store the chicle until enough has been collected to cook it. Chicleros cannot predict how much resin they will obtain from the trunk, but on average the harvest from one tree is between 1.5 and two kilos.
The resin is strained to eliminate leaves, twigs and other impurities and then poured into a cauldron where it is cooked over the fire for about two hours. The men take turns to watch the pan and stir the contents. As the moisture gradually evaporates, the gum begins to thicken. When bubbles form and it turns a pale coffee color, it is cooked and ready to remove from the heat. The men must stir it constantly during this stage of the process so that it doesn’t stick, lifting it up with a spade to speed cooling. After about an hour, the gum has cooled sufficiently to be just about bearable to handle. The men sprinkle water on their hands and start to spoon out the gum, pouring it onto leaves and then shaping it into wooden moulds.
Once the gum has cooled completely the tablets can be removed from the moulds, labeled and transported to market.
Chicle Revival, Think Organic
Some Mayan families still supplement their income with chicle harvesting and the cottage industry is undergoing a revival due to the growth in popularity of organic foods and sustainable forest products. Gum is now exported to Japan, Canada, United States and several European countries.
Look out for Chicozapotes
You can spot chicozapote trees throughout the Mexican Caribbean and in the jungles of southern Campeche, Tabasco, Chiapas and Central America. You can even see them in Cancún’s parks and gardens, just look for trees with distinctive crisscross scars on their trunks. If you would like to know more about chicle, there’s a replica of an old chiclero camp in the Yaaxche-Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden in Puerto Morelos. The Mexico Lindo tour offered by Thomas More Travel also takes you to a working chicle camp just off the Ruta de Cenotes highway between Puerto Morelos and Leona Vicario although you will not see the chicleros as they are deep in the forest during the day. For more information on this trip visit Thomas More Travel
You can occasionally find natural chicle on sale – usually in the company of organic coffee, chocolate, honey and vanilla – in some craft shops in Playa del Carmen, Cancún and Mérida.