So today we took an off-road tour of the Guatemalan rainforest. Our guide, Mr. Rico, was an older gentleman and he was a former chiclero, which is Spanish for a chicle gatherer. Mr. Rico took us to see the Manikara zapota trees, also known as sapodilla, and inside those trees is the chicle. I always knew that the word chicle was Spanish for “gum,” but it’s also the name for the latex-textured sap that comes from the sapodilla tree.

It was easy to listen to Mr. Rico’s stories about when he was a chiclero. He was a great storyteller, and I found myself looking out the window and seeing exactly what he was talking about as we traveled through the rainforest. He said that dozens of young men would go out in bunches to gather chicle. They would use machetes to cut into the trees and drain out the chicle.

Rico also told us about the history of gum. The Aztec and Mayan civilizations had been tapping into these trees for centuries. The sapodilla trees also produced delicious, tropical fruit, so these cultures would use the fruit to flavor the chicle. The rest of the world didn’t know much about chicle until American inventor Thomas Adams tried to figure out what to do with the material. Mr. Adams added sugar and flavorings to the chicle and he created his own version of chewing gum. Soon after, William Wrigley started purchasing chicle from Guatemala and Mexico, and he began one of the most successful chewing gum companies in the world. Wrigley provided gum to the troops in World War II, and the troops introduced gum to different countries around the world. Who knew that something as simple as chewing gum had such an interesting history?!?!

Sapodilla Tree

We toured around the rainforest a little longer and went back to Rico’s tour office. He said he had a surprise for us, and I was hoping he would show us how to make gum. I was so very excited when my wish came true. There he had a sample of the chicle in raw form, and he told us he was going to show us how to make gum from scratch. He put the chicle in a pot and boiled it for a little while. Then he added sugar and some kind of fruit juice. After it boiled for a little while longer, he poured the mixture into little gumball molds where it had to cool.

While the mixture was cooling, I asked Rico why he stopped being a chiclero. It seemed like a cool job, and I was curious why he would change from being a chicle gatherer to a tour guide. He told me that in the 1940s people switched to a synthetic version of chicle because in some places people were not harvesting the chicle properly and ended up killing the sapodilla trees. Rico said that after you get the sap out of the tree, you have to wait about five years before trying to get more out. Also, you have to know when to stop before you take too much out of the tree. Unfortunately, chicle was very popular and people were not waiting long enough and they were not respecting the tree. So the big companies switched the base of the gum from chicle to something more synthetic to save the trees and the tree population.

It all made sense. We should protect our environment and respect the things that come out of it. I think they did the right thing by slowing down the demand for chicle. Some companies still use chicle as the base for chewing gum, but there are guidelines they must use to harvest the chicle. After I bit into my first piece of gum, I knew that the chicle made it taste so much better and the feeling in my mouth was much smoother. I was taken back to my days as a kid, walking nicely in the supermarket or using my inside voice in the library, all so I could have a piece of gum from my mom.

Activities:

  1. Explain where chicle comes from.
  2. How did Thomas Adams invent the first chewing gum?