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.
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.
Au-then-tic: Real, Genuine, Original, Credible, Trustworthy
What defines authentic? Who is the arbiter of authenticity? Is there a higher standard that we hold some to and not others? What is an authentic Zapotec rug? Is it made only in Teotitlan del Valle? Can it be crafted in Santa Ana, Oaxaca, or can it be made in Santa Ana, California, by a Teotiteco who gets his wool from Teotitlan and weaves on a “traditional” loom? What about the weaving community of Diaz Ordaz – is it equally as authentic as Teotitlan? Must a textile be made with wool that has been prepared using traditional pre-Hispanic natural dyes or can it be made using chemical aniline dyes and still be considered authentic? If it is Zapotec hand-made, is that authentic enough? The Spanish introduced the fixed frame pedal loom along with sheep (and wool) with which to weave blankets and sarapes. Are post-Spanish conquest textiles made on these looms authentic? Why should we care?
What about attribution? If a cousin makes a rug but it is sold under the master’s label with the famous man’s name on it, is it authentic? What if the maker only earns 10% of what the product is sold for? If a master Zapotec weaver is commissioned to make a Navajo-style rug by an art dealer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and accepts the commission in order to earn enough money to feed his family, is this authentic? After all, an accomplished weaver would have made this Navajo-like piece by hand using “traditional” weaving methods. What is the difference between a Zapotec weaver making a Navajo-style rug and a Chinese weaver making a Zapotec-style rug?
What if a rug merchant conducts and/or supervises the natural dyeing process and certifies that all the yarn used in the rug is naturally-dyed, but hires others to weave the rugs — is this authentic?
What is the difference between a commercial enterprise and authenticity?
Who will monitor and define what is authentic? Can we be authentic and earn a reasonable livelihood, being fairly compensated for time and talent? What is the range of acceptability for what is authentic and what is not?
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and opinions.
In large part, I think, the consumer has responsibility for knowing what s/he is buying and supporting. “Do your homework,” a wise woman once told me. And that’s what I am asking you to do.
Did you know?
1. Tour guides receive 30-40% commission for bringing people to a weaver’s workshop. (There are some exceptions.) They likely won’t bring people to a house that does not pay commission unless you insist.
2. It is posited that only 8-10 families in Teotitlan actually dye their wool with natural materials. The rest will show a cochineal or indigo dyeing demonstration but do not employ this dyeing method for their tapestry-making.
3. Many of the textile patterns you see on Teotitlan rugs are Navajo derivatives or some combination of Zapotec and Navajo designs. Navajo designs were commissioned by importers in the 1980’s to fulfill the Southwest U.S. art market.
4. Chemically-dyed aniline rugs can be 40% cheaper than naturally dyed wool rugs. That’s because there are many more time-consuming steps to the wool preparation process and higher cost for the raw dye materials.
5. Chemically-dyed wool is environmentally toxic to the weaver and the local community. Breathing vapors causes lung disease and cancer. Discarded chemical dye water seeps into the ground water table.
6. Most people can’t tell the difference between a naturally-dyed and chemically-dyed textile. Can you?
Cautionary Note: WordPress will publish automatically generated related posts, which will show up below. I have no control over which they select or their legitimacy. Explore and determine by your own standards what is authentic or not! Cheers. Norma
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Oaxaca rug weaving and natural dyes, Teotitlan del Valle, Travel & Tourism
Tagged aniline dyed wool, authentic natural dyes, Cochineal, environmental quality, globalization, how to buy rugs, indigo, natural dyes, rug quality and design, sustainable agriculture, Teotitlan economy, toxic dye chemicals, weaving and dyeing