Tag Archives: milpa

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

Book Preview–Milpa: From Seed to Salsa, Oaxaca Food, Recipes, Sustainability

When I visited photographer Judith Cooper Haden in her Santa Fe home recently, she showed me the final proofs for Milpa: From Seed to Salsa, Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future. The book explores the Mesoamerican way of growing, cooking and eating food.

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The photography is stunning! Four years in the making, the book is a collaborative visual narrative filled with pictures that touch your heart, delicious recipes you’ll want to cook, and cultural commentary to understand more about how Oaxaca’s original people grow their food and the risks associated with environmental devastation.

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The book will be ready for printing, distribution and purchase shortly. It is a combined effort by community development organizer Phil Dahl-Bredine, Jesus Leon Santos, Goldman Environmental Prize winner and director, Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM), cultural photographer Judith Cooper Haden and chef/teacher/author Susana Trilling.

You can pre-order this book today!

haden.judith@gmail.com, 505-984-9849 USA

With 289 pages and 267 photographs and bilingual presentation, it explores food issues, presents mouth-watering recipes, and offers stunning documentary photography about how the ancient agricultural knowledge and the wealth of 1,000 year-old seeds and planting practices are being revived in the environmentally devastated Mixtec region of Oaxaca. Through example, the narrative can help us meet the ecological, health and food crises of today.

This is a taste of what is to come.

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Judy Haden says, “I had no idea I was initiating a 4-year long odyssey when I asked Phil Dahl-Bredine, a 14-year resident in the Mixteca Alta, if I could somehow help him and the non-profit CEDICAM.  This first discussion over hot chocolate on the Zócalo quickly became the seed of a ‘political cookbook’ that incorporates Phil’s thought-provoking essays on local food and international sustainability issues, heritage seeds and the ill effects of GMO’s, Susana Trilling’s tasty and carefully tested traditional recipes from our Mixtecan cooks/contributors, and my own images.

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“The sepia portraits and the color food shots are, I think, so helpful in really understanding the conditions and the situation in the Mixteca Alta (a short hour north of Oaxaca City). Susana and I traveled to many small towns and villages over two years to interview the members of CEDICAM (http://www.cedicam-ac.org/) and spend hours with them learning and documenting their delicious recipes, and the planting of the crops. We visited feast days, religions holidays and private homes. Our plates were always full! 

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“The book is divided into different sections based on each milpa crop. As Charles C. Mann explained in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, “A milpa is a field…in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilies, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth,and mucana….Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary.”

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The book has received heart-warming advance endorsements from many people, including Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Lila Downs, vegetarian chef and author Deborah Madison, agro-economist Miguel Altieri, photographer Phil Borges, Chef Iliana de la Vega, seedsman Steven Scott/Terroir Seeds and food author Peter Rosset. This is very gratifying to the authors after working so long and hard on this project.

Milpa: From Seed to Salsa is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is a hopeful book that shows in careful detail how extremely well the old ways of farming and living in community can not only feed rural populations but also provide them with medicine and fodder for animals.  This is a viable alternative to big agriculture and so-called improvements from elsewhere; this is a fine example.

Milpa is also a remarkable book because, like the community of families that tends the milpa fields, this book is product of cooperation among some very extraordinary people—two activists, a chef, and a photographer, who all found a way to bring to light a story of hope with great wisdom and beauty, with the cooperation of the Mixtec community who live the life this book allows us to witness. I am so grateful for this book. It is a treasure.

~Deborah Madison, Chef, Writer, Teacher, James Beard Award winner.

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Judith Cooper Haden with Mixteca women

The book is bilingual (Spanish and English), with 290 pages and 276 images. It is beautifully printed in full color. Regular retail is $40.  Pre-orders through August 31st receive a 10% discount and a signed copy….and the first 25 pre-orders will receive a free 5”x7” brown-toned image from the book.  Shipping is additional. We use USPS Media Rates. Ship date is late September 2015. For orders and additional info, please write to:  

Judith Cooper Haden, haden.judith@gmail.com

The Season for Blue Corn in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

This morning I awaken to the smell of the wood fire.  The smoke drifts through the air like a voice into my sleeping room, calling me. Magdalena is at the outdoor comal preparing tortillas.  This is the season for blue corn.

This is ancient corn — maize — organic, grown from kernels cultivated here in the Tlacolula Valley for 8,000 years.  In 2010, UNESCO named the archeological site and caves at Yagul as a World Heritage Site.  Here, they found evidence of corn cobs in the caves as the indigenous population shifted from hunter-gatherers to farmers, laying the foundation for cultivated agriculture in all of Mesoamerica.

This particular blue corn that Magda uses is grown on a rancho in the foothills outside of Teotitlan del Valle on the road to Benito Juarez in the Sierra Madre del Sur, an hour up the mountain.  She buys it already ground and then mixes the masa to the consistency of her liking, adding water to the dry corn powder.

  

Then, she will take a fist-full from the larger balls of dough, put it on the metate, knead it by hand, then knead it with the mano de metate (the granite stone that looks like a rolling-pin).  She will then form a small ball and put it between two pieces of yellow plastic and form it into the tortilla shape on the tortilla press.  Lots of upper body work!

Corn is sacred.  It is the sustenance of life. Indigenous corn is pure, not hybridized by Monsanto, and is full of nutritional value.  When eaten with beans and squash, it forms a complex protein.  Chef Susana Trilling and photographer Judith Cooper Haden are vocal advocates in Oaxaca for the anti-Monsanto movement. working in the Mixteca to preserve indigenous corn and the milpa crop-growing traditions.

Coming Up, April 2-9: Portrait Photography Workshop

Last night for dinner I ate this blue corn with organic lettuce and tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and lime juice, a hunk of Oaxaqueño cheese, and black beans.  I could taste the earthy deliciousness.  The coarse bits of corn told me this was real food.

Of course, it takes Magda’s wise and skilled hands to create this wonder.  She is now close to 70 years old.  Women live here until well into their 80’s and 90’s.  She is carrying on a tradition that not many of the younger generation will adopt.  It is hard work.  The outdoor fire is stoked with wood gathered from the campo (countryside).  The labor of tradition is in the souls of the grandmothers.

Soon it will be time for breakfast and we will eat this wonderful flat corn bread.  I can hardly wait!

Coming Up, April 2-9:  Portrait Photography Workshop.  There’s a space for you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Maize: First Cultivated in Oaxaca 6,000+ Years Ago

It’s amazing to know that in a farming area southeast of Oaxaca City, likely somewhere in the highlands past Mitla or Matatlan, is where maize originated. Maize is different from the huge kernel, yellow corn we know in the U.S. Its variegated, multi-colored kernels are smaller and full of healthy richness. The Oaxaca region is home to at least 59 species of maize, from the protein-rich variety used to make tortilla chips to a softer grain mashed for use in tamales. Maize comes in a rainbow of colors: blue, red, black, purple, orange, yellow, creamy white, and a mix of all, each used for a distinctive purpose with distinctive textures and flavors. The cobs vary in size, too, depending on what it is cultivated for.

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Photo: Grinding maize in Teotitlan

Farmers in Oaxaca first bred maize some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, and from there it spread and was adopted by Africa, Asia and Europe. Worldwide, we eat it roasted on the cob, popped, stripped and cooked into cereal or polenta, ground and baked to become bread or cakes. It is a staple that traces its origins to a possible DNA mix of teosinte and gammagrass (there is still some controversy about origins, since teosinte has very tiny cobs and kernals). Plant geneticists believe that edible maize was developed by Mesoamericans within a 100 year time span — an incredible, accelerated feat! When combined with beans, maize offers a complex protein that is very nutritious.

Though the exact date and circumstances of the first cultivation of maize is a mystery, by 1500 A.D. the Aztec and Mayan civilizations had long called the descendants of that original plant “maize,” literally “that which sustains life,” and claimed that the crop was flesh and blood itself. Maize cob and stalks were incorporated into the stone carved images of Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec leaders connoting royalty derived from the gods and assumed a central place in their headdress. It was a symbol of power, source of life.

In the modern economies of the U.S., East Asia, and Europe, however, it is the ultimate legible” industrial raw material: agribusiness uses its starches and cellulose for fuel, fodder, paint, plastic, and penicillin. The risk is that genetically modified corn will eradicate the local small farmers of southern Mexico who have been practicing sustainable agriculture, farming on 10-acre plots for millenia, using the same milpa techniques as their forebearers to replenish the earth without having to use chemical feritilizers, a stake in the ground for cultural preservation and a healthier food source. Local farmers cannot compete with the lower priced genetically modified corn produced by agribusiness, and we have seen smaller farmers in Teotitlan give up their plots. The debate is fueled around NAFTA and corn imports, providing more corn for more people that may or may not have as much nutritional value as the original source, and the risk of the genetically modified corn wiping out the DNA of the heirloom varieties.

The practice of milpa is the farming technique of growing corn, beans, avocado, and squash all together on one plot of ground, the beans and squash twining around and hanging on to the corn stalks, adding their nutrients to the soil, year after year, with no depletion of minerals. Oaxaca soils have sustained food growth in this manner for thousands of years with no loss of productivity.

You can read more about this in Charles Mann’s book, “1491,” and when you visit Oaxaca and eat tamales and tortillas, think of this food as a 6,000 year old contribution to gastronomy and world health. Ask, if you like, where the corn comes from in order to support the local farmer and local economies. You’ll be doing your part for sustainable development.