If Americans know anything about General Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (aka Sana Anna) is that he was the Mexican dude at the Alamo. Indeed, it was General Santa Anna who led the Mexican army to victory at the Alamo and then to a resounding defeat at San Jacinto. Texas was lost forever and Santa Anna was forced from power. He went into exile, went back to Mexico, declared himself president, and was once again forced from power after Mexico’s defeat in the Mexican-American War. By 1874, Santa Anna was broke, in exile, and looking to make a buck.
But Santa Anna was nothing if not resourceful. The old general wanted to go back to Mexico. Not just as a layperson. He wanted to go back as her leader. One needs an army to do that, however. Santa Anna thought he could raise some money by peddling Mexican sourced chicle. What is chicle you ask? It is a resin extracted from the sapodilla tree in southern Mexico. Long ago, the Aztecs and Mayans discovered that by slicing the bark a certain way, one could collect this resin and create a chewable substance.
Mayan archaeologist Jennifer P. Mathews, author of Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley, says the Mayans thought chicle, "quenched thirst and staved off hunger," and the Aztecs thought of it as a breath-freshener. Anyway, in 1871 Santa Anna went to an inventor, Thomas Adams, and tried to convince him that chicle was a good substitute for then-expensive rubber. Although Adams was only slightly convinced, he bought some chicle from the Mexican general. He tried to use the chicle as a rubber substitute, but it didn’t really work. Adams and his son stumbled upon another idea, however. They could boil and hand roll the chicle into pieces of chewing gum. They added some flavoring and the idea took off. The first batch sold out in a matter of hours. Pretty incredible, considering the flavor didn’t really stick. It wasn’t until 1880, when William White combined sugar and corn syrup with chicle, that chewing gum could hold its flavor for longer than a few seconds.
Sapodilla tree via britannica.com
What is fascinating is that chewing gum was considered tacky and déclassé almost from the beginning. Bernardino de Sahugin notes of the Aztecs:
"All the women who unmarried chew chicle in public. One's wife also chews chicle, but not in public...with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested."
The “Chicle Chewer” from the contact-period Florentine Codex that documents Aztec society
Much later, Emily Post thought chewing gum was so beneath her she wouldn’t even utter the words. Using chicle was so popular that the sapodilla tree from which they came were almost depleted. Although it forever hurt the economies of the Latin American countries where they could be found, new technological advances meant that chewing gum manufacturers no longer use chicle in their products (they use synthetic bases made from wax, petroleum, etc.).
And what of Santa Anna? The businessmen who bought into his chicle idea made millions. Santa Ana, meanwhile, died penniless and alone. He did manage to get back to Mexico, however, so I guess there is that.