Maíz es Sagrado Sangre y Vida
Corn is inextricably tied to Mexican culture. In fact Mexico is thought to be the seedbed of maize (maíz) domestication and cultivation. Evidence shows that between nine or ten-thousand years ago people in the Balsas or Mezcala River Basin began domesticating a wild grass called teosinte. A twentieth-century hypothesis was put forward by American scientist and geneticist George Beadle that corn had evolved from and due to the domestication of teostine. The teostine grass appeared so very different from corn that the scientific community dismissed his claim. However, after rigorous anthropological and folkloric research and the experimentation with crossbreeding maíz with teostine Beadle was able to prove his hypothesis correct. From the domestication and breeding of teostine plants the ancient people of Mexico were able to produce what we know of today as corn or maize. Corn is the most important crop in Mexico and it is sacred to this country’s indigenous peoples.
It is easy to take such an abundant yet diverse and historically rich foodstuff such as corn for granted here in Mexico and especially so in Oaxaca. Mexico has about sixty varieties of corn of which about thirty-five are native to Oaxaca. There is almost no meal that isn’t accompanied by something made with corn. Tortillas replace utensils, massive corn kernels swim in and steal the show of any great pozole, tamales anytime anywhere, tacos, tlayudas, and tetalas and the like, the list goes on and on. Maíz has been embedded in the cultural practice of eating for thousands of years, and because of this the product is sacred to the people she has supported over her lifespan.
It wouldn’t be outlandish to say that the Oaxacan mentality is linked to corn. Corn is central to Oaxaqueño existence. Their is a quotidian relationship between the people and their corn. For the people of Oaxaca corn is very much alive, it has a heart and a soul. In his book Zapotec Science, Roberto González retells the tales of Zapotec campesinos who feel as if maíz is a plant-person who can help them meet certain spiritual or moral obligations in relation to their communities. In prehispanic Zapotecan communities, the ear of corn represented a deity, Pitao Cazobi. Offerings and sacrifices were made to the god after which festivities including singing and dancing commenced. Zapotec spiritual and religious practices have remained closely tied to corn and her seasonality. Like many plants harvest is an important time; however, in several Oaxacan communities corn is also planted in the ground or in assorted pots and jars about a month before Semana Santa (the holy week) so that it begins to sprout forth from the soil before Easter Sunday.1 This of course coincides with the resurrection of Christ. Corn is perhaps the Christ-body in Oaxaca and this religious and spiritual syncrenism of might maíz further complicate the diverse history of Oaxacan indigenous cultures, but it also provides some evidence of self-determination after colonization.
Being that maíz is so deeply rooted in Oaxacan culture it should be no surprise that both this sacred food and these ancient cultures are under attack. There has been a great amount of effort for rural communities to develop food-security programs to protect their diverse and flourishing corn crops. However, this has not prevented the migration of mono-cropped corns into Oaxaca whether accidentally or under the auspice of easy capital. Certain strains of genetically modified corn has cross-contaminated other “weaker” species or strains of corn in Oaxaca. The danger is that this cross-contamination will likely result in the annexation of local varieties of corn endemic to Oaxaca. This would impact the diversity of corn production and would therefore interrupt communal and cultural ties to the corn indigenous to the state and its people. As the community president of Santa Gertrudis, Sierra Juarez stated at the Union of Social Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) in 2010, “To be a campesino or campesina allows us to respect and understand the profound worth of our madre tierra (mother earth). Corn is the basis for our expression of autonomy and central to our usos y costumbres (practices and customs), which represent our Zapotec culture and indigenous way of life.“2 To change the corn, is to change a way of life.
We must respect diversity, whether it be in our food chain or within our cultures. We have to remind ourselves how closely tied we are to our food, our plants and animals. As easy as it is to take maíz for granted, we too, as the Zapotec and indigenous communities of Oaxaca, take the time to celebrate it. We should in anyway we can begin again to speak to our food and find in it the guidance we need. Like with culture, we should celebrate diversity because with diversity we have a greater chance to flourish.
- Royce, Anya Peterson. Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death. Albany: State U of New York, 2011.
- Ryan, Rmor. “Mexico: Celebrating Indigenous Culture, Zapotec Autonomy and Uncontaminated Corn.” Upside Down World. Upside Down World, 15 Feb. 2010. Web.