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Maiz Culture in the Americas: Resisting Colonialism Through Indigenous Tradition

(Image: The University of Arizona Press)

Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas, by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, The University of Arizona Press, 2014, 288 pages with nine color illustrations, $35.00 paperback. Electronic edition available.

Indigenous people have resisted colonialism in many ways – holding fast to traditional foods, like maíz, performing ancestral dances and songs, and passing legends from generation to generation.

According to a legend told by elders throughout Nahuatl-speaking regions of Mexico, corn – maíz in Spanish and cintli in Nahuatl – has been a dietary staple for thousands of years. The how and why of this development has been passed from generation to generation, and, as recounted in Roberto Contli Rodriguez’s Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother, goes something like this: Shortly after the Creator couple, Quilaztli and Quetzalcoatl, formed human beings, they realized that their invention could not survive without eating. “Quetzalcoatl – bringer of civilization – was put in charge of bringing food to the people. Walking along,” Rodriguez writes, “Quetzalcoatl noticed red ants carrying kernels of corn. Quetzalcoatl asked one of them, ‘What is that on your back?’

‘Cintli,’ one replied. ‘It is our sustenance.'”

Quetzalcoatl had further questions, but the ant was leery about revealing too much. Still, Quetzalcoatl persisted, explaining that without nutrients, humans would perish. “Reluctantly,” Rodriguez reports, “the ant pointed toward Tonalcatepetl – a nearby mountain – also called The Mountain of Sustenance,” and ultimately led Quetzalcoatl to this revered place. Later, after the Lords of Tamoanchan gave their blessing to maíz, corn became indispensable to many of the earth’s people.

Throughout the text, Rodriguez tells other stories to illustrate the centrality of maíz in contemporary Mexican and Central American life, whether people are living in the United States or further south. “Maíz is who you are, who we are,” he was told time and again as he did his research. “We not only eat maíz; we are maíz.”

Indeed, some of the creation stories Rodriguez tells involve attempts to fashion sentient beings from amber, mud and wood. It was only during the final attempt, we’re told – when the Creators used corn – that the effort succeeded. Not only that, as people evolved and began to cultivate maíz, they discovered its connection to “various phenomena caused by the sun, moon and universe,” among them the concept of time. This, Rodriguez writes, led to the development of a calendar and an understanding of seasons and weather.

It’s a fascinating history, and while sections of the book are dryly academic, its look at how maíz has served as a tool of cultural continuity is a revelation. What’s more, the book’s focus on the ways Spanish conquerors – in particular the Catholic Church – worked to suppress, and then appropriate, maíz offers important insights into how people covertly and overtly resist domination and oppression.

It’s both inspiring and awful.

For example, during the 300 years of Spanish rule, 1521 to 1821, Rodriguez writes that indigenous people were subjected to “an unprecedented project of mass conversion.” Eager to create a “tame” labor force, he continues, the Spanish systematically worked “to demean and destroy all vestiges of indigenous thought, religion, spirituality, and culture.” For their part, the Spanish determined indigenous beliefs to be “demonic or witchcraft.” The solution? “Imposing a God-inspired worldview and world order upon indigenous people.” Their tools were fear – the waiting fires of hell – and outright physical brutality.

At the same time, Rodriguez adds, conquest required a belief system steeped in notions of indigenous inferiority, so depictions of native peoples typically rendered them as childlike, depraved and stupid. “The church saw devils everywhere,” he reports, “and continually imprisoned, tortured, hung and executed suspected idolaters throughout the colonial era.” Nonetheless, he continues, “This repression precipitated constant rebellions throughout the continent.”

Interestingly, this resistance led to an understanding: The priests determined that their success depended upon a fusion between ancient spirituality and Christianity. In short order, they began promoting the brown-skinned Virgen de Guadalupe and began to include maíz in the Holy Eucharist. It worked. In fact, Rodriguez notes that after La Virgen “appeared” in the spot where Tonantzin – the Earth Mother – had always been venerated, an increasing number of people became willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. “The linking of Guadalupe and Tonantzin became the most important aspect of syncretism,” he concludes. This “syncretism,” he adds, kept some aspects of indigenous life alive – through shared stories, dances and songs passed orally from parents to children. Still, as Rodriguez makes clear, “The Spanish friars were always ready to subject indigenous people to the whip to regulate which forms of syncretism were permissible.”

That remnants of indigenous cultures remain in the form of a traditional diet of beans, chile, maíz and squash – and through traditional art forms – is testament to people’s refusal to forget the past, no matter what. At its core, Rodriguez writes, is maíz:

While the Spanish destroyed much of the Mesoamerican way of life, the culture itself, which was based on maíz, survived because the dependence on maíz only increased. It increased because food was needed to fuel the masses toiling for Spain against their will.

That said, assimilationist movements and attempts to de-indigenize native peoples obviously did not end with the Spanish conquistadors. For Rodriguez, the 1994 imposition of the North American Free Trade Agreement – NAFTA – was little more than a modern-day attempt to annihilate maíz-based communities. “The abuse of maíz, driven by the corporate profit motive, has been implicated in the obesity crisis that has exploded in the last generation in the United States. High-fructose corn syrup, made from maíz, as a replacement for cane sugar, is present in a great many food products and beverages. It is also suspected in the nation’s diabetes and heart disease crisis, especially among indigenous people, including the US Mexican/Chicano population,” he writes. Furthermore, he sees genetically modified corn as incredibly risky to human health and well-being. And then there’s the issue of immigration. “Today, several million indigenous people from the corn-growing regions of southern Mexico – unable to compete or subsist on their traditional lands – have migrated north,” he explains.

The backlash against this influx, including the 2012 dismantling of the Mexican-American studies program in Arizona schools, mass deportations and the labeling of undocumented arrivals as aliens or worse, has been relentless. Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother highlights the folly of these efforts and serves as a plea for tolerance, respect and decency. After all, if the Choctaw people are right, and “corn is a woman, a life-giver,” don’t we owe her both our gratitude and admiration?

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