“Quieres Chicle?” You want some gum? Anytime I walk across a bridge into Mexico and I am met by a swarm of kids saying, “Oye, Gringo, Quieres Chicle?” The chiclet kids I call them. The chiclet mafia.
It is appropriate, one might say, to be met at the border with gum, since the American gum industry was launched by Mexico. And you won’t believe who launched it?
In 1869 there was a famous exiled Mexican National staying with a his friend Thomas Adams in New York City. Adams was a bit of tinkerer. His famous Mexican house guest told him about Chicle, the natural gum from the Sapodilla tree that the Mayans had chewed for probably hundreds of years. He told Adams that this natural gum could probably be used to make bicycle tires. Adams bit and bought one ton of Chicle which his guest exported from Mexico to New York City. Well, Adam’s tried every way he could to use chicle as a substitute for rubber, but it wouldn’t make a tire. In frustration he popped a chunk in his mouth and discovered that the Mayans were right, it was fun to chew.
So he went to work flavoring the substance with peppermint and he launched Chiclets, a hard candy gum in the familiar box we all know and love.
His famous house guest was quite wrong in thinking that chicle would make a good tire. But that wasn’t the first thing he was wrong about. He was also wrong in thinking he could easily defeat 187 Texans at the Alamo. That cost him a third of his army. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was was also wrong to take a siesta when Sam Houston was wide awake across the prairie at San Jacinto. That cost him Texas.
Only one thing went right for Santa Anna that day. Sam Houston saved his life. When angry Texas soldiers wanted to hang Santa Anna from a handy cottonwood tree, Houston stopped them. . He didn’t want the new Republic of Texas to be seen as barbaric in in the community of nations, so he allowed him to return to Mexico to ratify the documents that were to give Texas it’s freedom.
Santa Anna survived his political catastrophe and political exile. He fought against the Americans in the Mexican American war, and lost. He fought against the French and lost his leg, but he compensated for the loss by burying his leg with full military honors. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. And almost as strange is the fact that he eventually took refuge in New York, in the country that he had once led armies against, and he inadvertently launched the U.S. gum industry.
So next time someone offers you a Chiclet, think of Sam Houston. He was the one who really made it possible.
W.F Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And at Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell Ice Cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.