Purple Magazine
— The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

all about corn


artwork by SOFIA ELIAS

The term “domestication” has always troubled me. Inevitably, it presupposes human superiority over nature, plants, and animals. As if natural forces were neutral: entities that Men — in capital letters and in the masculine — have controlled and shaped. Instead of domestication, I prefer to talk about reciprocal relationships: two-way bonds marked by a sense of interchange. The word “reciprocal” comes from the Latin reciprocus, and it means “back and forth.”

To speak of domestication suggests, in one way or another, that Man — in the upper-case masculine singular — is the major actor or agent of History. I prefer to think about histories — lowercase, plural, taking the feminine in the Spanish historias — in which the central agent isn’t always Man. I like finding narratives in which plants, animals, and stones are also significant actors, narratives in which human beings aren’t at the center of the entire universe. I like finding reciprocal histories.

The history of Mesoamerica, and of what we know today as Mexico, is based on one of the greatest examples of reciprocal histories. We don’t know the exact date, but experts estimate that it happened sometime between 9,000 and 6,200 years ago. The inhabitants of Mesoamerica made it possible for teocintle [teosinte], a wild grass species, to transform into what we now call corn. Teocintles have stalks that branch out, and little cobs that emerge from these branches: each has just a couple of rows of grains, which are protected by a stiff skin.

The anonymous collective labor of Mesoamerican women and men, who carefully selected the teocintle kernels, brought corn into existence. It was a communal process that took place over a long period of time.

What are the major differences between the two? Unlike teocintles, which have multiple stalks, corn has just one robust stalk. Corn also has just a few cobs, which appear at the center of the plant, and they’re much larger than teocintle cobs; they’re also soft and easier to eat. The exposed kernels occupy several rows — that is, they are polystichous in structure.

These mutations came with incredible advantages. The size, texture, and quantity of kernels all increased. Without their rigid covering, the kernels could germinate more quickly. What’s more, they became easier to collect. While teocintle kernels would fall off and scatter, corn kernels stayed stuck to the cob. This made them simpler to harvest since the harvester didn’t have to gather them one kernel at a time. Afterward, whole cobs could be stored.

As a result of these mutations, corn, unlike teocintles, could no longer propagate itself. Its natural means of dispersal stopped working. Corn must be shucked by humans before its kernels can germinate. In the words of the Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla: “Corn is a human plant, cultural in the deepest sense of the word because it can’t exist without timely and intelligent human intervention; it can’t reproduce by itself.”

Unquestionably, corn required human labor in order to exist, and it still needs us to survive. In this sense, it is a human plant. But it’s also true that Mesoamericans needed corn for their subsistence; in present-day Mexico, we still do. For thousands of years, corn has been the base of the diet consumed by this territory’s inhabitants. For the same reason, it became essential not only to the economy, but also to our entire sociocultural environment, our way of seeing the world. Mesoamerican culture can’t be understood without corn. And so, just as corn is a human plant, we, too, are plant-humans.

Without corn, Mesoamerica and present-day Mexico wouldn’t exist. The emergence of human life depended on this grain: as a fundamental foodstuff, it enabled the great Mesoamerican civilizations to appear. As a result, it’s not surprising that corn is inextricably intertwined with the worldview of indigenous peoples.

Mesoamerican creation myths are often agricultural in nature. For example, this is how the Popol Vuh, the “Book of the Community” or the sacred book of K’iche’-Maya culture, narrates the creation of humankind:

Here, then, is the beginning of when man was created, and when it was decided what the flesh of man must contain…

And so they found food, and this was what shaped the flesh of the created man, the formed man; this was his blood, and of this, man’s blood was made. So, corn shaped [the formation of] man in the hands of the Ancestors.

And in this way, they were filled with joy because they had discovered a beautiful land, full of delights, abundant in yellow cobs and white cobs and abundant, too, in pataxte and cacao, and in countless zapotes, sugar-apples, jocotes, nances, matasanos, and honey…

Then they began discussing the creation and formation of our first mother and father. Their flesh was made of white and yellow corn; the man’s arms and legs were made of cornmeal. Cornmeal alone shaped the flesh of our fathers, the four men who were created.

And so, in K’iche’-Maya mythology, we humans were created out of cornmeal. In Mexican culture, though, it was Quetzalcóatl — the god of divine wisdom — who granted corn to humankind:

And so, the gods said once again:

“What shall men eat, oh gods?”

“Let corn descend, our sustenance!”


And so the tlaloques [rain gods] descended,

the blue tlaloques,

the white tlaloques,

the yellow tlaloques,

the red tlaloques.

Nanáhuatl loosed a lightning bolt at once,

and so occurred the theft

of corn, our sustenance,

by the tlaloques.

The white, dark, yellow,

and red corn, the beans,

the chia, the amaranth,

the fish amaranth,

our sustenance,

were stolen for us.

Corn and rain rituals were profoundly connected in Mexican culture. They divided the year into two seasons: the dry season (corresponding to the heat of the sun, or tonalco) and the rainy season (corresponding to “green weather,” or xopan). There were three kinds of celebrations held throughout the year. First, the festivities of the dry season, when participants asked for rain. These events typically involved the sacrifice of children to honor Tláloc, the god of rain. Second, the festivities of planting and the rainy season, when corn ripens. Then third, the festivities of harvest and honoring the mountains, which is where they believed water was stored.

When the rainy season ended, ancient Mexicans believed, the rainwater retreated into the mountains. Tláloc could release the water if presented with sacrificed children. These sacrifices occurred on different mountains between February and April. It was believed that the sacrificed children journeyed into the mountains to what was called Tlálócán [paradise], where the water germinated the corn. The children’s death made it possible for the corncobs to ripen. In the end, the children would return to Earth as corncobs during the harvest.

Corn was one of the great temporal organizers across Mesoamerica. Different cultures configured their respective calendars around it. Not only was everyday life affected by the cycles of corn, but so, too, were the temporalities of ceremonies, festivities, and rituals.

The violent Spanish conquest unleashed incalculable destruction onto this region. Even so, many indigenous ceremonial cycles and ritual calendars endure, in some form or other, in present-day Mexico.

Corn, seen as a sacred plant, opened out into many other deities. There was Centéotl or Cintéotl, son of the Earth goddess and the sun god. Centéotl was the god of ripe corn, responsible both for protecting corn and for providing and blessing alcoholic beverages. There was Xilonen, the god of tender, still-milky corn, which in Mexico we call jilote. There was Tlaltecuhtli or the old woman: the goddess of dry corn. There was Chicomecóatl, a young goddess affiliated with the growth of corn kernels, who was venerated along with Toci, the Earth Mother goddess, when the first ears of corn emerged. Chicomecóatl was also associated with two other important gods: Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of earthly waters and lagoons, and Huixtocíhuatl, the goddess of salt and maritime fertility. During the ceremonies, priests, draped in the skins of people who had been sacrificed and flayed, planted different varieties of corn. In his book, Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán [An Account of the Things of Yucatán], Fray Diego de Landa describes how, during the festivities and sacrifices to mark the new year, the pre-Hispanic priests drank a beverage made of 380 different varieties of corn, expressing the vast dominion of the corn in their lands and each of the days of their calendar. This sacred beverage — a compression of time and space — was used in the rituals to renew time and bring fertility to the land.

Both the worldview and the material life of Mesoamerican peoples revolved around corn. Corn became the pillar of the agricultural system that allowed the region’s civilizations to flourish. This system is called a milpa, which comes from the Nahuatl words milli (crop) and pan (a locative that means “place of”); thus, the milpa is the place of crops.

The milpa is an agricultural system based on polyculture. Corn is planted alongside other species: beans, squash, chili peppers, tomatoes, quelites (herbaceous species like purslane, seepweed, huauzontle, and hoja santa, to name but a few). Fruit trees and bushes are often planted as well.

In this way, the milpa is an authentic ecosystem that involves the participation of diverse species: plants, insects, and animals. It’s a virtuosic agroecological configuration in which multiple cultivated and participating species contribute their particular characteristics so that the system can function. For example, beans fix the nitrogen in the atmosphere and provide it to corn, which demands large quantities of it; corn, meanwhile, allows beans to grow and climb its stalks. Simultaneously, squash plants spread out and keep pests from accessing the corn. Every species has a purpose, and they all coexist in harmony; they engage in mutually beneficial and sustainable interactions.

You can find milpas all over Mexico, but their features vary according to the climate, soil, topography, and local wisdom. Still, they all share a common feature: each milpa is a system of collaboration, of interactions, in which the participating species (human and nonhuman) all benefit from engaging with the others. In this way, they uphold an exceptional level of biodiversity, essential to the present and future of humankind.

This milpa, once it reaches the table, offers a balanced diet that reproduces these mutually beneficial relationships. A corn tlacoyo with beans and tomato-and-chili-pepper salsa — accompanied by a quelite and squash soup — provides a highly nutritious and sustainable diet, healthy both for humans and for the planet.

Corn can be used in its entirety. After harvest, the stover, stalks, and leaves can be used as fertilizer or animal fodder. The leaves that cover the corncob, called totomoxtle, can be used as paper to wrap tamales, roll cigarettes, or make handicrafts. Corn silk has stomach-soothing medicinal properties. And the corncobs themselves, once shucked, can be used to make de-kernelling tools.

It would be erroneous to believe that corn’s transformation took place in one particular period of time. In fact, the transformation is ongoing. This is because corn pollinates freely — and, most of all, because farmers continue to select, exchange, mix, and experiment with different seeds. As a result, each agricultural cycle produces an adaptation of corn related to the changing climate conditions. Some say there are as many varieties of corn as there are farming families. Scientists, who tend to avail themselves of more problematic and less poetic terms, reference “races” of corn to describe the incredible variety in existence. There are nearly 220 races of corn across Latin America. Some 64 have been described in Mexico. Races are defined in order to group together types of corn with certain shared characteristics, which may involve their phenotype, the kind of kernel, the region where they proliferate, or the indigenous group that grows them.

Cookbooks have collected over 605 ways of cooking corn. To list just a few corn-based dishes, beverages, and foods: tortillas, tacos, tostadas, tlacoyos, quesadillas, sopes, huaraches, chilaquiles, enchiladas, enfrijoladas, tamales, tejate, atole, pozol, tejuino, flautas, pozole, tlayuda, chileatole, pinole, tlaxcales, corundas, taxcalate, nicuatole, popcorn.

Crucially, corn can be consumed in many different ways: right off the cob, transformed into dough (producing tortillas and tamales), or dried (for beverages like atoles and pozoles soup).

Mesoamerican peoples developed a technique called nixtamalización to process corn into food. Nixtamalization occurs by soaking and cooking dry kernels of corn in an alkaline solution, usually limewater. The kernels are drained, rinsed, hulled, and ground into dough, which is then used to make different products like tortillas and tamales.

This process not only changes the taste and smell of the corn, but also yields important nutritional benefits. The limewater cooking process increases calcium and reduces the risk of diseases such as pellagra, caused by a lack of vitamin B3. It makes for more starch and iron. It increases the shelf life of food products.

The violent European conquest of Mesoamerican cultures catastrophically slashed the indigenous population of the region. It also meant the imposition of a single culture, language, worldview, and set of foodstuffs. However, corn and milpas not only survived; they also traveled the
world over.

Corn was brought to Europe and then to the rest of the globe — without transporting the knowledge of how to use it for human consumption. Once planted elsewhere, corn began to cause pellagra in people who ingested it without nixtamalizing it first. It turned to poison. The lifeblood of Mesoamerica caused death beyond its place of origin. “As a result, corn was deemed a suitable grain for animal but not human consumption,” says agronomist Adelita San Vicente. “Outside of the Americas and far from its companion-creators, from the civilization that brought it into being, corn was seen merely as a generous plant, a grain-producer, but not as a crucial pillar of human life.” The reciprocal history between corn and human beings had been broken.

Mexico, a center of origin for so many plants, has now spent several decades importing most of the corn we consume here. In the late 1980s, the sale of corn that had been genetically modified with genes from other organisms was approved. From that point onward, scientists and society alike began to protest the dangers of inserting this technology into corn’s center of origin. Over the years, opposition to genetically modified corn has grown and intensified in Mexico.

Promoters of genetically modified corn maintain that its introduction could considerably increase the harvest yield and offer greater resistance against drought and pests. But critics, farmers, scientists, and environmental associations argue that genetically modified corn endangers the diversity of native varieties. This would make the country even more vulnerable, as most of the technology belongs to the Monsanto corporation and would only benefit those companies that own the genetically modified seeds. They argue, too, that the use of this corn would impose a privatizing logic on our mother plant, which our ancestors generously gifted to the world. In this sense, genetically modified corn threatens the communal ancestral knowledge that has given rise to corn and enabled its process of constant adaptation.

We now find ourselves at a historic juncture in which the reciprocal relationship between corn and human beings — carefully constructed and protected over the centuries by Mesoamerican and Mexican farmers — has been thrown into crisis. The harmonious, respectful, collaborative alliance is gone. We have replaced it with a relationship in which human beings, driven by the zeal for financial profit, only exploit corn, treating it as mere merchandise. We have established a relationship with corn that is based on exploitation and extraction alone. A relationship of plunder.

We must recover our prior relationship, rooted in reciprocity, mutual benefit, and generous support. We must learn from the indigenous Mesoamerican peoples, who forged reciprocal relationships among different species: relationships that proved advantageous not only to human beings, but also to plants, animals, insects, and Mother Earth.

The act of eating, if undertaken consciously and respectfully, may help us rebuild the relationship between human beings and nature. It confronts us with our essential vulnerability: it teaches us that we need other species to survive.

I like to think that food can trigger profound reflections about who we are — and, perhaps even more importantly, about how we relate to other people and species. In short, I believe that food can help us put an end to isolation and individualism; it can help us foster coexistence, cooperation, and sharing.




[Table of contents]

The Mexico Issue #36 F/W 2021

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