SOURCE: This article was translated to English with permission and in long-term collaboration with Tzam: 13 Semillas Zapatistas, a project that seeks to feature the work of 130 collaborators during thirteen months between May 2021 to May 2022, based on 13 Zapatista demands for justice (13 is a sacred number for the Mayans). The original article in Spanish can be found here: https://tzamtrecesemillas.org/sitio/lo-que-la-tierra-nos-da-y-nos-alimenta-un-recorrido-gastronomico-por-la-sierra/
I was born more than 40 years ago in a traditional campesino family in which, additionally, the tradition was to have many children. Of seven siblings, I was the youngest. At birth, my mother became ill and could not breastfeed me, so I was fed with atole made of corn dough. When I turned one, my father had to migrate to the United States because he wanted to give us a better life; this way, my mother was left alone to raise seven children. I never asked her, but I imagine taking the reins of the house and the work in the field must not have been easy. I only remember that as children we accompanied her to leave the food or fertilize the corn, bring firewood, cut the pea, and harvest the field; then, we had to dekernel the corn at home or store the corn cob in the attic. My mother invested every last peso my father earned in the United States in the field, so there was always food to eat at home. The crops were plentiful. There was enough for our consumption and also for pack and domestic animals.
At a very young age, she instilled in us how to take care of the seeds. How we shouldn’t leave the corn kernels lying on the floor, collect them once we had finished dekerneling the cobs or cleaning the beans; when we were lazy and did not pick them up, mom would remind us that during the Revolution, our grandparents had nothing to eat, she said to us that the crops were looted and the little corn they had was stirred with the stem of the agave to make up for the loss; this way she taught us to be careful and not be wasteful. At home, I learned that farming corn, beans, and pumpkin are essential for campesino families; they know that the future can be uncertain either because of a storm or a family sickness that could prevent work in the field. My father was a migrant for 30 years and there was not a single year in which we didn’t have corn and milpa in our home, all this was possible thanks to my mother’s work and my father’s effort.
Daily eating habits in the life of the Zapotecs of the mountains
Among the many activities that are carried out in the organization I belong to, the milpa fairs are very important. These are spaces in which community life is recreated with energy that revolves around corn and the daily eating habits of the communities. For more than ten years I have been able to verify in situ all the diversity not only of crops but the ways of preparing the products derived from corn and the milpa, the plot, or the garden; the latter is a 100% female autonomous workspace. This way, through the work of women in the elaboration of traditional dishes that can be found in each fair and that are shared with their own loved ones and with strangers, we can show the great food diversity of our communities: corn tortilla with banana or corn tortilla with cassava, the yellow corn memelas [large corn tortilla] with beans (which I call little jaguars), corn memelas, yellow mole with potato, chayotes, and green beans, yellow mole with lippia alba, chileatole, the yellow-black mole (yes, it’s called “yellow-black” made with burnt corn cob), white atole, atole with panela, roasted corn atole, pinole for weddings (which there can’t be a lack of, accompanied by chocolate atole), the pozol (which gives strength to the peasants to make the tequio, patch-burning, and planting) and the chintexle (necessary to gulp down the taco of the working people who work the field in the ranch and that is sometimes mixed with roasted nuggets). Additionally, we must add a great variety of pigweed such as black nightshade, peperomia donaguiana, delicious beans stewed with chayote tips, chayotes cooked inside a pumpkin, accompanied by rich and tender corn that are offered to workers who go to harvest or dekernel corn.
Food for indigenous peoples and campesinos is not just about eating for the sake of eating, each food has its own seasonality based many times on religious syncretism where the gastronomic memory of our ancestors stands out. In September, during the festivities of San Miguel and abundant rains, we can enjoy the pumpkin tendrils, pumpkin flowers, corn, and savory chapulines. In November for the Day of the Dead festival, we prepare delicious pumpkin and tejocote [Mexican Hawthorn] sweets; we can also find delicious tamales ranging from those of chepil or beans to those prepared with meat and the very exotic fish or frog tamales. During Holy Week you can enjoy water of chilacayota squash with panela and dried ash pea with nopales. During the rainy months, seasonal fruits such as peaches, pears, figs, apples, guayabas, wonderful prickly pears, and cucumber tree abound (the latter two are wild and are brought from the warm regions), not to mention the diversity of edible mushrooms that abound in the forests and that are eaten roasted with epazote and salt or in a yellow stew, depending on the species in question.
In addition to what is produced in their communities, Zapotec food is complemented with the commercial exchange between the micro-regions of the mountains through the regional markets where there are a great variety of delicious products from different seasons. Thus, it is possible to find a great diversity of avocados (aguacatillo, avocado ball, and the famous persea schiedeana from the tropical areas of the region), different types of chayotes (white, green, with thorns, without thorns, watery, dry, or the chayote-potato), several kinds of chiles (the canary that occurs in cold areas, dried chiles such as guajillo chile from Solaga in the land of the Bene Xhon, or the piquín chile from Yagalaxi in the tropical zone), a wide range of fruits and vegetables such as bananas from the Xidza communities (square banana, ladyfinger banana, red banana or Cavendish bananas) or other products such as Pacaya Palm or cuajinicuil from the area known as Rincón. All of these products from different regions have been exchanged for many generations in markets or through informal trade; for example, the sale of bobo mullet fish that is characterized by its large size and the peculiar flavor during Holy Week comes from the community of Yae, Lachichina, or Cuajé.
The great diversity and agrobiodiversity inhabit the territories, in this case, Zapotecs from three regions, Xidza, Leaj, and Xhon, which complement the already rich and nutritious diet of the communities that grow their own food. When they buy what they don’t have in their regions, they have the privilege of knowing where it comes from and can even know the name of the person who planted them.
Zapotec food and the food of the different peoples of Mexico have a pre-Hispanic ancestry, which consists of ancestral culinary knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation until our days. There is great value in the process of corn nixtamalization, for example, in the deep understanding of each meal, each plant, and each animal. Thanks to this inherited ancestral knowledge, the Zapotec peoples know the properties of each food, of their cold, hot or temperate natures, since this is how they are classified from an indigenous cosmovision; there are foods that give health when they feed us and whose nature can be changed when condiments such as mountain cilantro, chives, pepper, cinnamon, among many others, are added to them.
In guiding you through this tour of produce from the communities, which is a fundamental part of the food from the highlands, I’ve tried to replicate in each person who reads this document memories inside of us and that we are slowly losing. Many of us have left for the cities, and our lifestyle has been permeated by the city way of life, which includes, among many other things, different eating habits. Most of what we consume are products that we don’t know where they were grown nor their origins, products that are mostly packaged, canned with a series of preservatives, including transgenic ingredients (genetically manipulated).
In cities, almost everything is bought; in the community, if you need tomato, onion, herbs, or chilies, it is only a matter of going out to the plot and harvesting it. If you need to drink tea, you take an apple, Mexican Hawthorn, chamomile, or Clinopodium and prepare it. There is a boom of organic products in the cities, which by the way, has created very elitist markets and expensive products that can only be acquired by those with a certain economic status; those who can’t do it, have no choice but to consume the junk from supermarkets because they are much cheaper.
I have also been a migrant, and every place I go, I take my plants with me, and when I settle somewhere, I try to create a small garden where I like to plant vegetables. I like to recreate a space for the family plot the same way that the Zapotecs of the mountains reenact the community and the forms of organization in each place they visit. I also like to recognize the people who produce agroecological foods that are accessible; I like to look for traditional or agroecological markets in the area, initiatives that are also increasing in the cities, where you can buy or exchange different products. In these spaces, people recognize you and when you become a regular, they even give you a bit extra.
My workspace is also very diverse, where people from different micro-regions converge, we come together with our ideas, work, and knowledge, and have also created a space for sharing rich and healthy products from our regions or our plots. That is how communal life is replicated, where space becomes a bastion to encourage healthy eating and planting our own food. Change will not come from above; it will come from every plot, from every roof or pot, from any space where it is possible to recreate life.
Food and the pandemic: Community resilience
It is almost a must to talk about food in times of the pandemic; the coronavirus reached the mountain communities without having to wait for it. The lockdown of the communities seeking to prevent contagion exposed a situation that is increasing in some communities, that is, people subjected to forced migration, the increasingly scarce cultivated fields of corn and milpa, and a high dependency on food (mainly junk food) from the city.
By isolating themselves, the communities made critical reflections at community assemblies about the external products that were allowed to enter. A priority was given to foods (milk, egg, tomato, onion, and vegetables that are not produced within the community); the products classified as non-priority and that were prevented from entering were mainly soft drinks, and products made by the Sabritas and Bimbo companies. In regards to gas, they said it was better to replace it with firewood; about bread, they said that would buy only bread made within the community; in the absence of tortillas, women began making their own tortillas again; of vegetables such as tomato, tomatillo, and onion, they sought to buy it only from producers in the region. During the first months of the pandemic, many people returned to the fields to plant corn, beans, pumpkin, peas, wheat, and of course, short-cycle vegetables. In contrast to the closure of regional markets, local “mercaditos” [little markets] were created where women sold products derived from the milpa that they already cultivated. Some of these spaces are still happening, such as the Guelatao community which brings together local producers and from neighboring communities.
Around the same time, we began to read on print media that other communities had not only closed their doors to COVID but also to junk food, such as the Yalalag Zapotec community and the Mixe Totontepec Villa de Morelos community and, undoubtedly, many others. These measures were taken more or less in parallel to the approval of the Anti-Junk Food Law by the Oaxaca Congress, which prohibits the sale of foods with high caloric content and sugary drinks to minors. This law was approved in August 2020. However, as already mentioned, community measures have their reasons to reject junk food and those decisions were taken in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge for communities now is to make these measures permanent, even after the emergency ends.
The long period of confinement taught us to look again at the countryside and the plot but also to put into practice our own shared knowledge through bartering and strategies to create food preserves from local products such as chilies, cactus, jams, dehydrated fruits, natural juices and the fermentation of beverages. All of this is and has been community resilience.
Gabriela is a Zapotec Leaj woman who works to promote the rights of indigenous peoples in the Sierra Norte region of Oaxaca with the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez (UNOSJO SC), an organization that has also worked in the defense of the native corn against GMOs since 2001.