Oaxaca celebrates indigenous food and handmade at the annual Agro-biodiversity Fair in Ejido Union Zapata. This once a year event is building traction. The main street of several blocks, cordoned off for booths and foot traffic, was packed by noon. The natural food color was beyond belief.
Day of Plenty: native corn varieties with tortillas
Criollo, organic-natural tomatoes + More
Billed as a seed exchange, farmers came from as far away as Chiapas, the Coast of Oaxaca and the Mixteca Alta, the high mountain range that borders the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Weavers working in natural dyes and mask makers joined in. For sale were seeds, fruit, vegetables, flowers, tortillas and tamales.
Coconut from Oaxaca’s coast. Have you tasted coconut crackers?
Fitting for Thanksgiving Weekend, it was a day of plenty.
Amaranth seeds, protein-rich, makes sweet treat
There is a big and growing movement in politically active Oaxaca to conserve native food: chiles, tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash, coffee, chocolate, amaranth, jicama and more. There are so many different varieties of each.
Sierra Mixe handmade ceramics, utilitarian beauty
One of the leaders, Rafael Meir, was present along with government representatives of Oaxaca and Mexico. Leaders are becoming more conscious about the importance of keeping GMO contained to what has already infiltrated the commercial tortilla business. Yet, there is still much more to do.
Public education has so much to do with the success of programs like this one.
House made sesame crackers — yummy, or buy seeds and make your own.
Backstrap loomed textiles rom San Juan Colorado
I was so happy to see Yuridia Lorenzo and her mom, Alegoria Lorenzo Quiroz from the Colectivo Jini Nuu in San Juan Colorado. They were selling their beautiful blouses and dresses made with native coyuchi, white and green cotton and natural dyes. Participants in my Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour will visit them in mid-January.
Another benefit of attending is to taste and buy mezcal, Oaxaca’s organic, artisanal alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented agave. I bought a bottle of sylvestre (wild) jabali mezcal grown and distilled in Teozacoalco in the Mixteca Alta by Mezcalero Javier Cruz. Que Rico!
San Juan Colorado Katyi Yaa coop, native coyuchi cotton, natural dyes
I’m noticing that Oaxaca is becoming inundated with foodies and followers of What’s Hot on the food and beverage scene. We’ve got free walking tours led by guides holding colorful umbrellas and flags downtown who get paid with tips. We have USA restauranteurs coming for cooking classes to bring the cuisine home. Rent prices are escalating in the historic center. If one lives on the peso, everything is at a premium now. Those of us who live here always ask if the influx of tourist dollars trickles down to the pueblos, the makers, the field and kitchen workers. What is your experience?
Corn, snake, cacao symbols on wool, back-strap loom
Back-strap loomed wool, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, corn, snake, cacao symbols. That’s why fairs like this one are so important — to buy direct from those who produce. Slow food. Slow fashion. Slow mezcal. Saludos.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
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