A Story of Corn

Southern Mexico’s indigenous peoples, to this day, refer to themselves as “people of the corn,” So central to their sustenance and spirituality is this plant that Mayan people whisper to their babies when they are born that they are made of corn.

At the turn of the 20th century, there were 5000 varieties of corn throughout the Americas. Indigenous peoples cultivated corn by selecting mutations from the wild, ones with large ears. They further selected those ears that tasted sweeter, grew larger, could be stored longer, as farmers have done throughout the age of agriculture. They also deliberately plant their corn near a plant they believed to be the wild ancestor of their corn, because they know through experience that this proximity lends qualities such as pest resistance to the cultivated corn. Over time, each cultivated seed stock produces seed that is better and better suited to its own particular microcosm. Thus, native corn from the valleys does not flourish in the mountains. Nor does corn from the south side of the mountain grow as well on the east face.

On 4th of July, US Independence Day, of 2006 I stand to eat corn that the wives and daughters of the village of San Caralumpio have steamed for us, eight norteamericanos. The corn is tough, tasteless, what we in New England call “field corn.” But we eat it with smiles on our faces and mmms on our lips, because we have seen over the days how little these gracious people have, what a sacrifice this feeding is.

As we gather in the church of San Caralumpia village, I ask the three old mestizzo farmers, village leaders, if they have different kinds of corn: one for eating, one for tortillas, one for cattle… Holding up a gnarled finger, Dom says, “We have only one corn.” Then, there is silence. Then Dom says, “Remember the “seven leaves” corn, that was such a tiny plant, but gave such sweet corn?” They smiles. And another says, “And “trehar,” that gave up its grains so easily.” They nod. And “And the “maiz americano”. Remember how the ears were so large and easy to strip?” “Faster now, “And “timbo,” that was so yellow and delicious!” And “tiwap,” that was as tall as a man standing on another man’s shoulders. And how it bore yellow and white corn in late October, and grew so well in the mountains.” And, “crema,” such a tender cream-colored corn” and “mapalu,” that had such huge ears!” The old men are quiet, then, looking down. Slowly, Dom Flavio looks up at us and says, “We are old men….. we remember.” When I can speak again, I ask, “Do any of these corns grown anywhere that you know of?” and they shake their heads and say, “No….not for many, many years now.”

During World War II, some US chemical companies made their fortunes supplying nerve gas for the allied forces. In the late 40s and the 50s these companies were experimenting, trying to find a peacetime use for their chemical concoctions. They discovered that, with minor alterations, they could have agricultural application. Thus, they set about the business of selling a new product: chemical pesticides. Mexico provided a ready market. According to the mestizzo farmers, foreign insects, introduced during early attempts to eradicate the cattle screwworm, infested the corn. The early pesticides were so strong that, if the rain didn’t wash them away, they killed the bean vines growing up the corn stalks, and the squash growing in their shade. Weeds grew up in the now-bare soil, and choked the corn. So they bought herbicides from the agricultural agents.

These herbicides did their job, killing the weeds. But now the bare topsoils blew away with the wind and washed away in the rain, and the land lost its fertility. Again, the agricultural agents came, and said, “Ah, now you need fertilizer!” Thus the wheel of environmental degradation was set spinning. And, because environmental degradation is human health degradation, the people began to have sicknesses they had never seen before: sicknesses of the liver, of the eyes, of the kidneys. Recognizing that the chemicals poison their bodies, the farmers come in from spraying in the fields, and drink crushed charcoal from the morning fire, in milk, if they can get it. Milk is scarce, as grazing land has been turned into pasture.

When I tell this story to government officials, they smile sadly, and talk of “unintended consequences.”

[Susan Letendre wrote this story after taking part in a Witness for Peace delegation to Chiapas, Mexico, in 2006.]