Along the Pan American Highway from Oaxaca City to Mitla and Hierve El Agua, two popular tourist destinations, lies the seldom visited Yagul archeological site. We know that as the taxis, cars, and vans pass, a guide might point to a faint cave painting on the cliff wall as testimony to an ancient Zapotec group that lived here. Don’t blink. You might miss it.
You can see the restoration of this site from the highway. Tucked into the hillside is the outline of a once proud city-state fortress guarding the trade route between Central America and what is now the southwest USA. The ochre colors of the plastered stone walls stand out against the desert landscape and hills beyond. This is not a large site, and it does not have the attraction of neighboring Mitla that boasts extraordinary carvings in ancient stone. It is not as impressive at Monte Alban, the vast city atop the hill outside Oaxaca city, center of Zapotec power noted by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, as the most important city-state in Mesoamerica.
We take the Esprit Travel + Tours group there with special guide Eric Ramirez from Zapotrek. We drive on a dirt road to detour the main entrance and arrive at the foot of the cliffs to get a closer view of the glyphs painted on the face of a stone wall. A few years ago, during an earthquake, the wall face sheered off, exposing a painting in what was once inside a cave.
Eric, who grew up in nearby Tlacolula, and whose ancestors have been farming the land for centuries, tells us that the agricultural crop of agave to make mezcal is changing the landscape and the environment. So many growers are now using herbicides, pesticides, and commercial fertilizers. This is changing the quality of the soil and prohibits anything else from growing. It is even having an impact on locally grown non-GMO corn. The explosion of the mezcal culture in Oaxaca is having a negative impact on traditional crops — the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash. It used to be that the bean and squash plants would wrap their tendrils around the agave leaves and replenishes the soil with nitrogen.
This is a key reason why so many of us take issue with mezcal tourism, which promotes drinking and overall does not educate visitors about the related environmental impact. I am now meeting the party generation in Oaxaca who fly in for four or five days with little interest in cultural history, archeology or artisan craft. How can we influence this for the better?
An important fact to note: Yagul is the mother source for the hybridization of corn, beans and squash. A World Heritage Site, geneticists have tested seeds found in the caves and determined they are at least 10,000 years old. This site is key to the development and distribution of this essential protein-carbohydrate source of food energy around the world.
This is a photo essay of our experience at Yagul. I hope you will consider making a stop there. I know you will not be disappointed.
How was I going to replicate the organic cornbread I’ve been making (and eating) in North Carolina here in Teotitlan del Valle?, I wondered. As I cruised the village market yesterday, I saw a local woman selling small bags of ground cornmeal. I asked her to verify what it was, since I wanted plain ground corn. For atole, she replied, in Spanish. Nothing more than corn. Maize molido. I thought, oh, good, local from her milpa.
I know how they grind corn here. Almost every family has a small plot of corn, squash and beans out in the campo. This is to sustain them and their animals throughout the year. Everyone eats the same corn — animals and humans alike. There are three corn plantings and harvests a year. The last harvest is coming in now, just before Muertos.
Once the corn is harvested, most of it is dried. The women peel the kernels off the husks, then take the dried corn kernels to the local molino (mill). There is a mill in every neighborhood here. They choose how they want it ground, coarse to fine. What I bought was a fine ground cornmeal. Native, organic corn. Original corn. Healthy. Just perfect.
I followed a highly rated gluten-free recipe online, but added my own flavors to the dry meal: 1/4 t. turmeric, one tablespoon of minced, candied ginger, about a teaspoon of dried oregano I had bought fresh at the local market some months ago.
We are at 6,000 feet altitude here in the Oaxaca valley. It takes longer to bake and we need to crank up the oven temperature a bit to compensate. Baking here is as much an art as it is a science, so I watch the cornbread to make sure it is rising and not browning too fast.
My friend Kalisa is a baker extraordinaire. She often stays in the casita when I’m gone, caring for the dogs. Of course, this is a Mexican stove! She did a translation of oven temps from Fahrenheit to Centigrade last year. We keep this on a faithful sticky note on the side of the cupboard near the oven. It helps immensely.
Footnote: It took over an hour to bake. The recipe called for 25 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit. The texture is fine, more like a cake than a bread. Next time, I’ll see if I can find a coarse grind meal in the village. Meanwhile, I taste the turmeric and the oregano and ginger. I like the mingling of the flavors.
What can you experiment with?
P.S. A long time ago, in a land far, far away, I used to own and operate a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school. I still love to experiment.
Union Zapata is a small pueblo that is at off the Pan-American Highway Mexico 190, near San Pablo Villa de Mitla, about five miles from where I live. They grow organic corn, squash and beans just like many villages throughout the state of Oaxaca.
Native corn, indigenous to Oaxaca state, at the Feria Biodiversidad
Blue corn tortillas, one of my favorites
But, the native crops indigenous to Mexico are at risk as more farmers plant seeds that they can afford to buy, to sell produce in a competitive economy where retail price drives most decisions. Cheap corn introduced by commercialization is taking over Mexico.
Farming family from the Mixe region of Oaxaca
Farmers from all parts of Oaxaca state gathered in Union Zapata on Saturday, December 2 to promote their ancient crops. They came in vans, cars, trucks and buses from the mountains, coast and valleys, from remote communities that adhere to tradition. They are proud to show the produce that results from their labor. The native species have provided for the complete nutritional needs of native people for 10,000 years.
Carbon dating sets Mexican squash at 10,000 years old
I went to the fair with Carina Santiago, noted Teotitlan del Valle chef and owner of Restaurante Tierra Antigua, and Kalisa Wells, professional cook and caterer from San Diego. I am fortunate to call them friends. I had no idea what to expect and what I saw was amazing.
Rafael Mier holds Jaguar Beans, a rare, ancient strain
Carina and Kali introduced me to Rafael Mier from Mexico City and his aunt Caterina. Rafa’s grandparents came to Mexico City from Northern Spain. They were farmers. In the middle of the city they raised animals and crops. They grew up with their hands in the soil.
Are Mexicans more concerned about conserving chile varieties?
Today, Rafa leads a conservation NGO called Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana to educate farmers and consumers about the importance of growing, buying and eating native corn. He tells me that throughout Mexico, it is now difficult to find the real food that provides the complex carbohydrates-protein exchange needed for a healthy diet.
Some of Mexico’s corn diversity. There are 59 landraces.
Even if we believe we are eating native, organic corn in Mexico, we are being deceived. Tortilla and tlayuda makers are using processed corn they buy in bulk, pre-soaked so that it can be prepared faster. And, that’s what’s being sold in most village markets and at the tortillerias where machines spit out white corn tortillas, hundreds to the minute.
In the United States, there is a similar story. We want bright yellow corn, big juicy kernels, uniform in size and texture, easy to peel and consume with butter — melt in your mouth. This is genetically modified to suit American taste.
I could not believe the color of these squashes. Eye popping.
This corn has little nutritional value and converts immediately to sugar. Monsanto can export it to Mexico and sell it cheaper than the corn small scale farmers produce themselves.
Farmer-weaver from San Juan Colorado, Costa Chica
Corn is a staple in Mexico. When GMO corn converts to sugar as it metabolizes, indigenous people suffer from diabetes. This is a HUGE health issue here. I can tell you this from personal experience, since many of my local friends struggle with the disease, have amputations and die.
Organic coyuchi cotton from the coastal highlands of Oaxaca
San Juan Colorado and San Pedro Amuzgos handwoven huipiles at the fair
Some of us adhere to the Slow Food Movement. We want to know who makes our food and where it comes from. This is a way to eat what we believe, to ask questions about food sourcing from restaurants and cooks.
My late morning snack: organic blue corn stuffed with chicken and chilis
These are native hibiscus flowers used for drinks and stuffing enchiladas
I liken this to the #whomademyclothes movement started by the Fashion Revolution. I want to know where the cotton, silk and wool comes from. I want to know if plants and cochineal are the dye materials. I want to know if my clothes are mixed with polyester or rayon. I want to know who sewed them and were they paid fairly.
Order pumpkin pie from Jorge Daniel Bautista, Union Zapata, tel: 951-421-4697
Education requires commitment and social activism. Yes, it is difficult in our world to be a purist with so many hidden ingredients. But we can try! Isn’t that what counts most?
Teotzintle, the grain that corn was hybridized from in the Oaxaca valley
Teotzintle, a Nahuatl word, is the world’s original corn. It was discovered in the nearby Yagul caves and dated at 8,000 years old.
Pre-hispanic Amaranth is a great source of protein
The biodiversity of Mexican corn gives us 59 different varieties
After the fair, Rafael and Caterina joined us at Tierra Antigua Restaurant where Carina brought out her specialties of Mole Coloradito and Mole Negro for tastings. But first, we had her yellow organic corn tlayudas, followed by red corn mamelas.
Carina’s red corn mamelas, a delicious appetizer.
Carina’s husband, Pedro Montaño, has a milpa (field) where they grow only native corn and they use this exclusively for the tortillas and tlayudas they prepare in the restaurant.
Restaurante Tierra Antigua specialty of Mole Coloradito and Mole Negro
New and vintage masks from San Juan Colorado
The program receives limited funding from the government of Mexico, and this year, its 7th, the organizers sought donations from private individuals in order to hold the fair. It was only for ONE day. Transportation was provided for the participants who came long distances, but did not include overnight lodging.
Yira Vallejo from Pierde Almas mezcals was a lead organizer.
If I had known about this in advance, I would have alerted you in the days before to come out to the Tlacolula valley to enjoy the day. I hope to do this next year.
How you can get involved? Contact
Yira Vallejo at email@example.com, www.pierdealmas.com
If you are a U.S. university professor who wants to learn more about Mexico’s native plants and food, please contact Norma Schafer. Oaxaca Cultural Navigator organizes study abroad short courses and educational programs for faculty and students for cultural exchange.
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.
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 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?
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.
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. 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.
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, 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.
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, 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
People in the Oaxaca valley have eaten locally grown corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, poultry and fruit for centuries, long before the term locavore came into existence. The farm-to-table movement in the United States is one example of eating fresh food produced within 100 miles.
Weighing beans, Teotitlan del Valle Market
During the years I lived on an organic farm in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and shopped at farmer’s markets (a habit I formed early in my adulthood), we learned to eat around the seasons. I read somewhere that this is one of the healthiest things we can do for our bodies.
One by-product of the CNTE Section 22 Teacher’s Union strike in Oaxaca is the intended or unintended consequences of returning to locally grown food. The blockades are preventing the big box, semi-trailers filled with imported goods from entering Oaxaca to deliver their loads to Walmart, Soriana and other giant retailers like Coca-Cola.
Magdalena with corn husks to prepare tamales
I’m reminded of the signs in Pittsboro, NC when I visit: Shop Local. I’m sure you see this where you live, too.
In conversations around town, I’m hearing a mixed bag of blessings and complaints. Everyone loves Walmart, yes?, because of low prices. Others say local Oaxaca city markets like Benito Juarez, Abastos, Sanchez Pascuas, Merced stock everything they need and it’s important to support local merchants so they stay in business.
Organic corn, dried on the cob, ready for planting
Yet others are inconvenienced because they can’t get a particular variety of yam, brand of toilet paper, or giant coca-cola bottles for less.
There has been a strong movement here against genetically modified corn promoted by Monsanto. I have wondered whether the blockades of the big retail semi-trailers aren’t just an extension of that.
Quesadillas with fresh corn tortillas hot off the comal
I hear that by privatizing education, doors will open to international conglomerates to sell, at a profit, sugary drinks and snacks to school children, whose families are already at risk for diabetes and diet-influenced diseases.
Here in Teotitlan del Valle, I do all my food shopping locally at the daily market. Then, fill in what I need at the Sunday Tlacolula market. Yes, they sell toilet paper and paper towels there, along with all the cleaning supplies one needs.
I wonder if this blockade isn’t a good thing to help us raise our awareness for how much and what we need in comparison to who provides it for us. What we eat is important. We have asked the question: Who makes our clothes?
Now, it’s time to ask again here in Oaxaca: Who makes our food?
Yesterday, the fields next to me were plowed and planted with corn. Native indigenous corn, not genetically modified. I know that’s good.
Norma Writes for Selvedge Magazine Issues #89 + #109
Creating Connectionand Meaning between travelers and with indigenous artisans. Meet makers where they live and work. Join small groups of like-minded explorers. Go deep into remote villages. Gain insights. Support cultural heritage and sustainable traditions ie. hand weaving and natural dyeing. Create value and memories. Enjoy hands-on experiences. Make a difference.
What is a Study Tour: Our programs are designed as learning experiences, and as such we talk with makers about how and why they create, what is meaningful to them in their designs, the ancient history of patterning and design, use of color, tradition and innovation, values and cultural continuity, and the social context within which they work. First and foremost, we are educators. Norma worked in top US universities for over 35 years and Eric founded the education department at Oaxaca’s textile museum. We create connection and help artisans reach people who value them and their work.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle