On a wall in my mother’s kitchen there was a postcard with a Burmese proverb: ‘Three things on the earth are accounted precious: knowledge, grain and friendship’. It became the first page of the Diary of Maize I began in 2004.
When I first heard of genetically modified corn the year before, my reaction bordered on indifference because I thought it was merely a fad, a new scam. But my wife, who works with Indigenous communities in Chihuahua, Mexico, was so alarmed that I knew I needed to become educated. What I learned drove me to begin a 13-year photographic journey into México Profundo, that hidden part of our country that continues to exist despite the persistent efforts to eradicate or assimilate it. These are some excerpts from my diary, recent reflections and photographs made on a life-changing quest in defence of native maize.
‘The Names of Maize’ could be a good title for this project, because maize has so many names… and what´s in a name? As I searched for them in Mexican Indigenous languages, I learned that the Spanish word maíz has no Mexican roots, which struck me as odd because Mexico is its centre of origin. Maíz comes from Taino (majisi or maisi), the language of the Arawak people, and entered the Spanish language one November day in 1492 when Columbus became the first European to lay eyes on the grain of life. The 300,000 Tainos living in what is today the Dominican Republic and Haiti quickly became the Europeans´ first American slaves and also the first Americans to be disappeared. Maíz, ghost syllables that evoke holocaust and resistance.
Ixim, Sunú, Ikú, Centli, Tlaholi, Hapxöl, Bachi, Xhuba: names of life. One can only wonder how Ixim came to Española, how it settled in the land of the Seneca, meandering through the Hopi territories, to the Zuni, on to Diné, carried perhaps in the wandering sacks of nomads. Just as Ixim was shared, exchanged and adapted, stories were told, gods worshipped, and dancers reeled through the night, purifying themselves as they gave thanks for the gifts of life.
By contrast, names that reflect classification, greed and death like: Bt176, Starlink, P0075, seek to commodify this spiritual heritage of humankind in order to monopolise gifts of creation in the name of power and profit. To subjugate the remaining heirs of our continent´s greatest cultures and force them into wage slavery is a tragedy. The buffalo are about to be massacred once again. This time, the slaughter is a silent one, a genetic whispering.
Pueblos de Maíz, the initial photographic project made in collaboration with Mexican Indigenous communities and sympathetic social organisations fighting against the imposition of GM corn, took me to communities in ten states of the Republic. We designed the exhibition with materials that would allow it to be shown in urban cultural centres or in the middle of the jungle hanging from a taut rope with paperclips. At the end of 2004 we gave copies of the exhibition to different organisations all over Mexico so that people in Chiapas could see how people in Chihuahua cultivated maize, so that they could understand the threat of genetic contamination and nourish a sense of unity in defence of food sovereignty, territorial integrity and cultural identity.
I am still moved by the beauty of maize and love the remarkable variety of foods it becomes: tamales, cornudas, pinole, atole, tesgüino, esquiate, chacales, tortillas, sopes, huaraches, huitlacoche, empanadas
I am still moved by the beauty of maize and love the remarkable variety of foods it becomes: tamales, cornudas, pinole, atole, tesgüino, esquiate, chacales, tortillas, sopes, huaraches, huitlacoche, empanadas, and the list continues tastily from one region to the next. None of them would exist were it not for the subtle transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next, from the rituals to the milpa, the Mesoamerican gardens where plants interact, protect and help each other to thrive. The best-known example is ‘The Three Sisters’, the association of maize, squash and beans. Beans fix the nitrogen in the soil that maize needs to flourish, maize allows the bean tendrils to climb its stalk in search of sunlight, and the broad leaves of the squash family block out the sun and reduce weeding work in the milpa.
Indigenous rituals share many common traits. Reciprocity is foremost among them: to express gratitude to the cosmos for the gifts of life and to give something in return so that the cycle can continue. The cosmic energies must be replenished symbolically, energetically and physically to maintain the cycle of life. Rituals also strengthen and heal the community. These beautiful and deeply significant human expressions of being in the world are often lost on modern, secular society and may even be the object of scorn, fetishising or profound misunderstanding arising from fear and ignorance.
My Tarahumara friend, Pedro Turuséachi, often spoke of different ways of knowing. Some rituals are performed to bring the rains, to ensure a continued dialogue between life forces, to honour mountains who move the winds and mist, or to thank the spring for the pure water it provides. I have seen the rains come on the heels of these ceremonies and felt the water pelting my body, filling me with wonder and profound respect. After feeding Cuanixtepec mountain in Puebla, the clouds gathered and turned the downward path into an unrelenting stream. f
In Hidalgo, Protestant sects have tried to eradicate celebrations like those to Chicomexochitl, an ancient Nahuatl celebration in which maize is dressed and addressed as a human being and placed on an altar made specifically for it. Here, the person presiding over the celebration had been or continued to be a Jehovah’s Witness and, while he spoke and quoted the Bible, he also acknowledged that the rains returned and the terrible drought ended only after they started to dance to Chicomexochitl again. Sister Josephine told me the same thing. New to the parish, she organised fruitless processions and rosaries to bring rain. One day some older men walked tipsily into the church, gathered the statues of the saints and pulled the spirits from their hiding places. Alarmed, Sister Josephine told them to stop. They simply said, ‘Madre, you are clueless’, and continued organising the celebration. Once they began to dance, it started to rain.
The clash between Western visions and México Profundo echoed in my mind and memory: the uneven rhythm of rows made by oxen-drawn ploughs or human feet across the poor, irregular turf of the Sierra collided with childhood recollections of the straight, measured rows left by tractors over seemingly endless Indiana cornfields that chicker, chicker, chickered by as we sped along the highway.
With the signing of NAFTA in 1994, cheap, subsidised U.S. corn flooded southwards into Mexico – carried for the most part in the holds of ships sailing from New Orleans, from the mouth of the Mississippi to Veracruz – where it entered Mexican bellies via Maseca, the cornmeal brand commonly used to make tortillas. With no credit and no price guarantees, it was no longer economically viable for most farmers to plant native maize. Governmental support for Mexican farmers in the form of cheap credit, diesel subsidies and technical assistance continued to evaporate because, according to the trade agreement, subsidies are prohibited, at least for some signatories.
NAFTA fuelled one of the largest migrations in Mexican history. It is estimated that between 8 and 10 million people have abandoned rural areas and have gone either to cities or to the United States. The productive chains linking rural communities to the cities have mostly crumbled or become monopolised by much larger franchises determined to build economies of scale primarily for export. Now, Mexico´s ability to feed itself is in question, as is the fate of the accumulated bio-cultural knowledge of generations of Indigenous farmers and of the native seeds they have adapted to specific soils and climates.
Modified land tenure laws, terminated governmental support programs and new globalised manufacture in mid-level cities spurred rural exodus and the concentration of land holdings. In a desperate bid to salvage the situation, farmers’ organisations united and launched a national campaign in 2008 under the rhyming motto, Sin maíz, no hay país (No maize, no country), taken from the title of an important 2004 exhibition in the Museum of Popular Culture.
From all corners of the Republic, caravans converged on Mexico City. I came from the north, documenting the tractors as they stopped in cities following Pancho Villa´s southbound route during the Mexican Revolution. They would stop nearby, unload the tractors from the trucks and drive in a slow formation to the central plaza where speakers denounced the destructive, free-trade policies to sympathisers and sceptical onlookers. Then the caravan would wind its way southward to some place along the way where camp could be set up for a night’s rest, in order to continue the following day. Mexican farmers were fighting for fuel and electric subsidies and fair price guarantees, things that they usually had to negotiate from one year to the next with a system that perpetuated their status as political hostages.
The farmers´ movement was never able to merge with the Indigenous movement. They spoke different languages, had different objectives and maintained a respectful distance from each other. México Profundo toiled on in the milpa, danced to cosmic rhythms, turned its back on the word labyrinths that sought to classify, legalise and protect their ancestral seeds and fought for community. Imaginary Mexico demonstrated in the streets, cut deals in the legislatures, fought for subsidies and price supports, followed fiscal calendars and was divided on the question of GMO. I remembered the angered expressions of a Oaxacan farmer referring to agrobusiness: ‘They´re not here to help, they´re here to make money, to fuck us over. Leave us alone, leave our maize in peace’.
México Profundo toiled on in the milpa, danced to cosmic rhythms, turned its back on the word labyrinths that sought to classify, legalise and protect their ancestral seeds and fought for community.
Use value versus market value, individual interest versus communal interest, different languages, different visions of life.
Some accompanying NGOs took to organising maize festivals, using their paltry budgets to bring community representatives together to share their knowledge in their own languages and in their own ways. Always courteous, they shared some things in Spanish, reserving other things for their mother tongue. One day, speaking in his characteristic soft voice, Luis showed the crowd some beans and explained that his mother had entrusted them to him so that they would never disappear. Each member of his family had inherited different seeds with the same charge. The inseparable, sacred bond between humans and seeds had never been made clearer to me, nor had the threat of contamination from GMOs.
For scientists to embrace the validity of Chicomexochitl was perhaps just as hard as it was to explain the silent conquest, the genetic whispering, to farmers who could mostly not read and write. But when they saw strange, genetic mutations happening in the milpa, they became alarmed and even depressed. They destroyed the mutants and became more vigilant to keep seeds of dubious origin far away from their families. Meanwhile, the more urban social movements were strong enough in Mexico to make GM corn illegal on paper, but it continues to be planted on the sly and transported throughout the Republic, which means that seeds can drop at random, sprout, spread their pollen and possibly contaminate native maize.
Indigenous people now inhabit the most biodiverse places in Mexico and on the planet, be it by choice or because they were once banished to wilderness and wastelands. Often rife with lithium and other mineral deposits, pure water, medicinal plants, timber and untold scenic beauty, corporations now want access to them, and free trade agreements, militarization and organised crime have cleared the way for them to do so. Here, organised crime has control over much of rural Mexico. In some places the marauders take over the limited arable land and water to plant opium poppies, in other places they log the forest with no regard for the environmental consequences. They are known to forcibly recruit young people into their ranks, and may “offer their security services” to mining companies that remove entire mountains and spirit their bounty away to distant shareholders. México Profundo, the country’s greatest bastion of food sovereignty, is still under siege.
Maize, the grain that civilised Mesoamerica, is a metaphor for life, life that spread to the cardinal points and beyond. In the Popol Vuh, the creators made humans from maize because they could speak the names of creation
Maize, the grain that civilised Mesoamerica, is a metaphor for life, life that spread to the cardinal points and beyond. In the Popol Vuh, the creators made humans from maize because they could speak the names of creation. If no one can say their names, the deities will cease to exist. Maize cultivation ensures bio-cultural survival, the continued existence of everything associated with it: the foods, the human bonds, the bonds between humans and nature, the rituals, the languages, the technologies. So, the implication is that when maize can no longer grow, human life will come to an end.
Planting food connects us to life in the most direct, intimate ways. It is an act of faith, love and resistance. At this very moment, millions of Indigenous farmers are preparing to plant their crops for the next season. Whatever happens, they will never give up, and neither should we.
Chacales or Chicos
Dehydrated native maize that can serve as a good staple until the next crop comes in, often associated with Holy Week. Very traditional in Chihuahua, Mexico and in New Mexico, USA.
Do not husk the maize. Roast ears of native maize in an oven at 300 degrees for about three hours. A wood-burning oven will give your chacales a more interesting taste. After three hours, let them cool and tie the ears together in pairs and hang them to dry.
When they are well dried, take the kernels off the cob and store them until you want to cook them.
Soak them overnight stir and remove the floating organic matter them boil them for about an hour. Add salt to taste, diced tomatoes, onion and cilantro. Chacales combine well with beans or nopales (cactus pads), and can also be seasoned with oregano.
1 México Profundo is a book written in 1987 by the Mexican Anthropologist, Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, in which he demonstrates the coexistence of two different symbolic Mexicos. A visible one resulting from hegemonic imposition he calls México imaginario or Imaginary Mexico and other hidden Indigenous civilizations that struggle to survive and comprise México Profundo
2 Chicomexochitl, Seven flowers, refers to the plants growing together in the milpa, which I was told were actually 14, twice the number seven. It is also a reference to both the Mexica deity of flowers, poetry and song, Xochipilli, and the female deity of agriculture, Chicomecóatl, (Seven Serpent) also a name for Xilonen, the goddess of maize. During the celebration maize is dressed and addressed as a human being and placed on an altar made specifically for the celebration. Even though the Mexica and Mayans were two different civilizations, they share the deep significance of maize as an existential crop. The Mayan sacred text, Popol Vuh, tells how humans were finally made of maize after two previous failures involving clay and wood. I highly recommend the Dennis Tedlock translation into English, it is a masterpiece.
3 See note number 1
Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen
The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling