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The culture of maize and survival of landraces

In addition to being a major staple food, maize is important in many indigenous Mexican cultures. Staff at CIMMYT-El Bátan had the opportunity to learn about the relationship between maize and native culture during a fascinating on-campus presentation on 02 July 2010. Anthropologists Carmen Morales of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and Catalina Rodíguez-Lazcano of the National Museum of Anthropology and History jointly presented “Knowledge and festivals around native corn,” which was translated from Spanish into English so everyone could attend.

The seminar drew on the presenters’ studies of three very distinct indigenous groups—the Chen, Mayan descendents who live in the state of Campeche; the Purépecha, who live in Michoacán State; and the inhabitants of Milpa Alta, an entity within the borders of Mexico City. The two experts outlined traditions and festivals based around maize, complemented by color photographs from each location illustrating local settings and customs, grain storage methods, variety types, end-use products, and indigenous nomenclature for the maize plant and its parts. As is common in south-central and southeastern Mexico, farm settings are diverse and challenging, and most producers are subsistence smallholders who grow maize more for tradition and home use than for income.

Among the points highlighted were the close connections between native maize races and local foods and traditions, and the importance of culture in the preservation of those races. In Purépecha villages, the crop cycle coincides closely with the calendar of Catholic religious ceremonies: seed is brought to the church to be blessed before sowing, and on one religious feast day after harvest, seed is thrown to the sky beseeching God to rain bounty back down upon the community. The value of kernel color for the Purépecha was depicted through beautiful and informative photographs of brightly-colored maize cobs from the region.

There were several surprises as well. In northern Campeche, the influence of Menonite immigrants has led many maize farmers to grow commercial hybrids with agrochemicals, bringing them yields as high as seven tons per hectare. It was interesting to learn that part-time farmers in Milpa Alta, a semi-rural, high-altitude zone of the swelling metropolis (18 million inhabitants!) of Mexico City, still conserve the Aztec language Nahuatl and grow native maize races.

The seminar concluded with a question and answer session, and Director General Tom Lumpkin expressed hope of further collaboration between CIMMYT and Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum.