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El Maíz Nuestra Raíz
Our Roots in Corn
While I was training popular educators in photo-story production in the early 1980s, the U.S. instituted a wheat embargo, blocking the exporting of wheat to Nicaragua in an effort to destabilize the Sandinista revolution. By that point, bread had become central to the Nicaraguan diet, and the U.S. government thought this act threatening their daily livelihood could get the revolutionary government to capitulate to the pressure, and change their policies. Instead, they mounted a nation-wide campaign to return the population to corn-based diets, promoting cultural festivals called Xilonen (the goddess of young maize/corn) to encourage the growing, cooking and eating of corn or maize in all forms.
As the popular educators brought back the photos and testimonies they had gathered from their field research, I helped to lay out the photo essays as a mock-up for printing. But I had little understanding of the deeper stories within these lines, so I invite you to join me in unearthing those meanings.
This defiant and creative response raises other questions I wanted to probe, such as:
If corn was the original staple food in Nicaragua, how did they lose that practice and shift to wheat-based diets?
In subsequent decades, as I began to study the global food system, I remembered a photograph I had taken in a barrio of Lima, Peru in the mid-1970s, when I was doing doctoral research on the educational methods of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. (insert photo)
It showed a young girl reaching into a big bag of wheat provided to poor urban migrants by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Only then did I realize that this so-called “food aid” was, in fact, a kind of dumping of surplus wheat production from a subsidized U.S. agricultural system. And this ‘free food’ ultimately created a new dependency in Latin American countries on wheat imported from the U.S., displacing local farmers and shifting centuries-old corn-based diets to wheat.
The essay entitled “El Maiz Nuestra Raiz” or “Our Roots in Maize/Corn” offers several interrelated themes that can be explored in classes, ranging from sociology and political science to food & agriculture studies as well as Indigenous and cultural studies. It can open us up to deeper histories and diverse cultural practices. Three major questions it raised for me:
What is the history of maize/corn and its role in the emergence of agriculture and culture?
How was maize/corn reshaped by the emergence of industrial agriculture and the corporate food regime?
What cultural meanings did it (and does it) have for Indigenous peoples in the Americas?
Let’s probe each of these one at a time.