“It was from within the places called Paxil and Cayala that the yellow ears of ripe maize and the white ears of ripe maize came. These were the names of the animals that obtained their food –fox and coyote, parakeet and raven. Four, then, were the animals that revealed to them the yellow ears of maize and the white ears of maize. They came from Paxil and pointed out the path to get there.” – The Popol-Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya
In the beginning, it is proclaimed that my ancestors were actually formed from maize by Quetzalcoatl, the great fire serpent deity who created humans and taught them how to cultivate corn. Much like Jesus Christ, he advocated for humility and took on a human form to understand his creations more fully. One day, his brother Tezcatlipoca tricked him into drinking pulque, a fermented corn drink that left him drunk, aimless and immoral. He woke up the next day and left His people out of shame. A calendric prophecy proclaimed he would come back from a seafaring journey mounted on a white beast. This prophecy coincided with the arrival of the first Spaniards, and the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, was confused for Quetzalcoatl in 1519 when his ships landed in Mexico’s Caribbean coast and he and his men descended from them mounted on white horses. Legend has it that this was the reason why the Spaniards were welcomed and briefly revered as gods when they first arrived, successfully colonizing Mesoamerica and establishing New Spain.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Maya people of Mesoamerica were a highly advanced civilization thriving for over a thousand years. In Book IV of the Popol Vuh, an ancient K’iche’- Maya text containing our creation story, it is said that after several attempts to create human beings utilizing different materials, it wasn’t until maize was used that the most perfect creatures emerged. “At first, the gods make four men who:
...were good people, handsome, with looks of the male kind. Thoughts came into existence and they gazed; their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, around in the sky, on the earth, everything was seen without any obstruction...As they looked, their knowledge became intense. Their sight passed through trees, through rocks, through lakes, through seas, through mountains, through plains.” And the gods were pleased.
It was the cultivation of maize that allowed the first Maya people to go from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural, highly innovative civilization. This led to a further development of maize deity veneration and Chac, the rain god, was worshipped through elaborate ceremonies to ensure the maize corn would grow abundantly and prosper. Corn had many uses including medicine, both sacred and quotidian food, the fermented pulque - which was referred to as “the drink of the gods,” and even the husks were used to weave baskets. The cosmology of pre-Colombian cultures (including the Maya and the Aztecs) was intricately tied to maize cultivation and these ancient peoples believed that just like a kernel falls from the ear of the corn unto the ground to become a seed, so too do we continuously die into the earth to be reborn. And through this cyclical re-emergence, we bring forth the knowledge of our ancestors into our current reality. The human experience reflects the agricultural cycles of corn. But today, this basic blueprint that guided our ancestors into the deepest forms of worship and connection to the earth and all of its creatures has been interrupted by biotechnology and the colonization of the very essence of our foodways. This form of culinary colonialism takes multiple forms.
Just one hundred years ago, there were 307 varieties of yellow corn available. Today there are only 12. Heirloom corn comes in many colors and although minimally cultivated, more varieties remain. Currently, Mexican environmental activism groups are fighting Monsanto, who successfully convinced a Mexican judge to overturn a ban on GMOs in August 2015 in favor of “progress” and “more opportunities for the farmers to prosper.” These Orwellian terms are the cornerstone of gentrification. In this case, the gentrification of corn and where it typically grows. If this appeal is upheld, Mexico stands to risk 59 indigenous varieties that will be crowded out and potentially forced into extinction by a monolithic maze of genetically modified maize. GMOs are artificial organisms created by essentially injecting the incompatible genes of one species into an entirely unrelated species to create a commercially appealing effect - leaving the new specimen with no true DNA. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is a molecule that is essentially the blueprint for every single living thing. DNA contains the genetic information necessary for all living things to function, grow, reproduce, and transmit that information forward to new generations coming into being in the right place at the right time. This is why monarch butterflies migrate in the fall and bears hibernate in the winter. No outer stimulus is needed to instruct them. Their highly complex and evolved DNA drives their expression. This is the unequivocal brilliance of Nature.
Before the unwelcome introduction of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), many of us who come from diverse heritages enjoyed and partook in the traditional foods of our ancestors without any need to question their authenticity. There was a profound sense of connection to our past through this inherited cuisine. So many cultures, including my own, honor their dead with these sacred foods and even honor gods with special, native delicacies that are now largely made with genetically modified corn since Mexico imports yellow corn from the United States. So now, the U.S. actually - ironically or not - dominates the yellow corn market in Mexico. If my ancestors believed that we of Mesoamerican origin are made of corn and our creation stories speak of humankind being molded from maize, then Monsanto, and other biotech companies such as Syngenta, have robbed our new generation living in this country of this vital ancestral information meant to be absorbed through our nourishment. This means that the hereditary information intended for the youth of my particular culture being transmitted via corn is virtually lost. Thousands of years of genetic wisdom lost and destroyed. Misinformation comes in the form of Coca-Cola, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, and the milieu of other food-like substances containing high fructose corn syrup. And even in the form of Maseca™, the industrialized corn flour used for tortilla making that has essentially replaced traditional tortilla making processes that utilize native, local corn by monopolizing the Mexican market and selling the concept of convenience and “progress” to the Mexican people. And the genetically modified corn that makes up over 90% of the corn on the market today actually contains a whole new allergen not found in natural varieties. Meaning that the people who were meant to be nourished mind, body and soul through corn as a staple, are now allergic to it.
Globalization and the glorification of Western ideals of progress has significantly chipped away at the fragile framework of traditional foodways. Convenience is marketed as social advancement and the maintenance and propagation of traditional recipes and time intensive food preparation is typically relegated to rural communities. Urbanites who wish to make “homemade” tortillas will likely use Maseca™ over corn flour made from heirloom strains of maize.
Gentrification is insidious in its proliferation and is not limited to housing and jobs, but it extends in more surreptitious ways into culture and food. Gentrification in an agricultural setting moves a particular homogenous species into a richly biodiverse terrain filled with native life forms who have been thriving there for a very long time under the guise of “development” or “renewal.” This particular homogenous species touted as somehow superior – in the context of this paper it is genetically modified corn – replaces endemic biodiversity with a monocultural form of agronomy that does not try to maintain or even harmoniously coexist with what is already existing there, but instead appropriates the space and uproots what is there while forcing its way in with chemical inputs, depleting the soil over time. So what was native is displaced and eventually so far removed from its original context that it literally changes its composition. This happens in neighborhoods and it happens in arable land.
“It is critical to reiterate that ethnic foodways are not merely ornamental; rather, the reproduction of ethnic identity is, in part, dependent upon their maintenance. Here, as in other contexts, one creates one’s own identity and those of one’s children, through foodways.” Cathryn Bailey states this poignant explanation of the relevance of preserving traditional foodways in relation to preserving culture itself in her article “We Are What We Eat Vegetarianism and the Reproduction of Racial Identity.” Surgically extracting the DNA of a food staple as ancestral as is maize, reducing it to a commodifiable product, stripping it of its primary information, and essentially replacing the original food with an imposter marketed as the “real thing” is a microcosm of what colonialist appropriation has always been and will continue to be. Couple this with dominant culture taking traditional, “exotic” dishes and putting a twist on them, claiming them as their own invention and charging exorbitant prices for them, and we can safely assume that the entire scope of culinary gentrification has been covered.
Indeed traditional foodways are not ornamental. These culinary gentrifiers who hoard land and hoard culture, are a product of the dominant race and the colonial mentality they are acculturated into. They are described best by Diana Negra in Bailey’s aforementioned article. Negra labels them “‘new ethnics,’ those who come to redefine themselves as having an identity beyond whiteness.” They will take a poor man’s traditionally lowly dish like carne asada tacos and add kimchi and sriracha sauce, thereby decontextualizing their significance and history. They then transform these customary and humble foods into something exotically appealing, typically marketed to the White liberal. This Mexican “fusion cuisine” furthers Bell Hooks’ argument in “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” where she explores how culture becomes fetishized and appropriation becomes a form of cultural capital. In this way, maize corn is reduced to a genetically perverted imitation of what once was the very foundation of our cells and thus, our identity. It was the staple of life itself.
Corn – in its genetically modified form - is so far removed from its primordial role of serving as our most basic form of nourishment, that it actually has been transformed into the antagonist in the unfolding narrative of what it means to be Mexican within a context of agricultural rape, ecological gentrification and cultural captivity. These most sacrilegious of acts are performed by the white-gloved hands of neoliberalism and the liberal White hipster culture it produces.
To plant the seeds of our true maize is to plant the perpetuation of our culture. And when we do, we must utter the ancient prayer of our ancestors: “Now I place you in the ground. You will grow tall. Then they shall eat, my children and my friends who come from afar.” For Mexican nationals and those of Mexican descent to reclaim heirloom varieties and shun the products and practices of industrialized corn is not only an act of environmental sustainability, but one of cultural sustainability as well. To reclaim our corn is to reclaim our very identity.
Bailey, Cathryn. “We Are What We Eat Vegetarianism and the Reproduction of Racial Identity.” Indiana University Press. 2007.
Christenson, Allen. Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press. Translated 2003.
Fussell, Betty Harper. The Story of Corn. University of New Mexico Press. 1992.
Hooks, Bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Pilcher, Jeffrey M. “Taco Bell, Maseca, and Slow Food: A Postmodern Apocalypse for Mexico’s Peasant Cuisine?” Food and Culture: Third Edition. Originally published in 2006.
Inside Mexico. September 30, 2013.
Plant and Soil Sciences E-Library.
EcoWatch. January 15, 2016.