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UC Berkeley anthropologist examines Mexico City's rapidly proliferating Alcoholics Anonymous
30 April 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Berkeley - When University of California, Berkeley, anthropologist Stanley Brandes was invited by his Mexico City shoeshine man to join him at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, the longtime scholar of Spain and Latin America was a bit surprised, but he immediately agreed.

After attending that first meeting, Brandes returned for hundreds more over the course of several years as he launched a detailed ethnographic study of one AA group among the thousands flourishing in Mexico and Latin America. The stories of the men in that group are told in the just-published, "Staying Sober in Mexico City" (University of Texas Press).

Latin America is calculated to account for one-third of AA's membership worldwide, and El Salvador is said to have the highest AA membership per capita of any nation. Throughout Mexico, about 90 percent of AA's members are male.

Brandes said he was intensely curious to learn how AA, which in the United States is generally associated with Protestant faiths and a middle-class clientele striving to maintain sobriety, proliferates in a Mexican culture characterized by ardent Catholicism, poverty and often a hard-drinking machismo. What he learned, Brandes said, may add to the understanding of 12-step groups, in general, and of Latino participation in such groups.

The first Alcoholics Anonymous groups in Mexico began in the 1940s with English-speaking, "gringo" residents of the country. Some 16 years later, records show that the organization had just three Spanish-speaking AA groups in that country.

Current estimates, however, indicate that, today, Mexico City counts more than 1,500 AA groups and about 300,000 members. In a Mexican village of 3,000 people where Brandes has long done anthropological fieldwork, there are at least two regular AA meeting groups.

Although Alcoholics Anonymous is the subject of hundreds of books and extensive research, "Staying Sober" is different because it takes a single AA group as its subject and deals not only with the members' ideology, but how AA works for them through social relationships and group dynamics.

"I am less interested in therapeutic outcomes than in the fate of the group itself: in questions of leadership, social control, and the identity of individuals as members of the group," Brandes wrote.

With men comprising the majority of the AA membership in Mexico and its capital, he said, an interesting thing happens in the group meetings as participants redefine what it means to be a man in Mexico City. (Working-class women in Mexico are more likely to join Neurotics Anonymous or Al-Anon, a group for family members of alcoholics, Brandes said).

"A lot of what goes on in the bars goes on in the meeting rooms," Brandes said, recalling meetings of the AA group he called "Moral Support," where he repeatedly heard men brag about sexual exploits and misbehavior.

Brandes noted in his book that, although AA is not allied with any religion, it is often associated with Protestant faiths because of the religion of its founders, its somewhat Puritanical focus on abstinence from drinking, and a linkage of its 12-step program with a multitude of Biblical references. Yet, he said, Mexican AA members have managed to infuse much of the typical meeting and group structure with popular Catholic symbolism and form.

One way, Brandes said, is the use of the AA member's telling of personal stories in a way similar to Catholic confessionals. Another is the use of alcohol-free fiestas to celebrate sobriety anniversaries to mimic the typical merriment of Catholic celebrations for baptisms, confirmations, marriages and other events.

Also, Brandes found that the use of "sponsors" to guide newer AA members has been co-opted by the Mexicans as the equivalent of religious godparents, or "padrinos."

"The Moral Support meeting room is certainly not a church," Brandes wrote. "But, in a number of ways, it replicates the kind of sacred space that would be familiar to any Mexican Catholic. The chairs are arranged, as in any church, in congregational fashion. The podium functions as a kind of altar...Sacred texts hanging on the meeting room walls add to the overall religious imagery."

So, Brandes said, "To join AA in working-class Mexico City does not mean abandoning one's religious tradition. It means adapting it to the circumstances at hand."

He theorizes that the growth of AA membership in Mexico is due, in part, to more villagers heading to urban centers in search of work. Among these migrants, many workers with drinking problems turn to Alcoholics Anonymous groups as substitutes for the familiar, small communities they lost when they left rural villages or to replace their drinking buddies.

Surprisingly, AA in Mexico City is anything but anonymous, and no one seems to mind, Brandes found. The small storefront meetings he attended were interrupted by small children racing in to chase dogs or retrieve balls, and neighbors looking for each other. Members routinely keep the meeting entrance open, and passersby can easily overhear what is said inside, Brandes said.

This open identification of AA members is probably the most dramatic difference between the organization in Mexico and the United States, he said.

While Brandes still is uncertain about the effectiveness of AA, he said he did become "a true Triple A, or Admirer of Alcoholics Anonymous," in that he held every one of the members of his group in high esteem and developed affection for them.

Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, co-director of the Harvard (University) Immigration Project, praised "Staying Sober in Mexico City." He said it likely will become not only the standard reference on the cultural study of alcoholism in Mexico, but also "one of the best overall social science contributions to the study of Mexican culture in the last 50 years."

Brandes, a social cultural anthropologist, has spent more than 30 years in the study of Latin American and European ethnography, writing about peasant society and culture, folklore, symbolism, ritual and religion, as well as food and drink.

Brandes' future projects will include a study of Latino AA or 12-step groups in the United States, as he assesses the impact of migration on drinking patterns and treatment strategies. Brandes also is engaged in a long-term study of the Day of the Dead.