Amaranth – An Ancient Mexican Grain

19 Jul



Amaranth is one of the world’s most nutritious plants. It contains large amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. In fact, it was one of the principle sources of protein for pre-conquest Mexicans. The Spanish, when they saw how strong it made the indigenous Mexicans, forbade them to eat it. They claimed it was diabolical. Mexicans stopped eating it, except in a candy called “alegrías,” the recipe for which has been passed down by Mexican cooks for centuries. Today, because of the amaranth’s association with poor campesinos, many Mexicans consider amaranth to be a lower-class plant than vegetables introduced from Europe. Mexican nutritionists, however, are promoting increased used of amaranth and other varieties of “quelites.”  Both the foliage and seeds (popped like corn) are edible.  (Info and photo from a tour of Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca.)


Farmers Take Action to Conserve Water in San Antonino, Oaxaca

15 Jul

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Small farmers in Oaxaca’s Central Valley used to be able to count on ample water to produce their corn, livestock, and vegetables. But recently, water scarcity has threatened the ability of these farmers, mainly of indigenous Zapotec heritage, to support themselves. The valley is drying up for several reasons. The City of Oaxaca, its population now around 300,000, uses more and more water. Worse, reduced rainfall, due to deforestation and global warming, have caused frequent periods of drought since the 1990s.

Growing water scarcity is a key reason that many Oaxacan farmers have been forced to migrate to other parts of Mexico and to the U.S. in search of work. Oaxacan farmers also say that federal water laws, designed for northern Mexico’s vast expanses of commercial farms, treat Oaxacan farmers in an unnecessarily harsh manner. During recent decades, the government pressured farmers into registering the wells they had dug to irrigate their crops. The government then began metering the farmers’ use of their own wells, and fined them when they exceeded federal limits. These rules made it even harder for the farmers to feed their families.

In response, farmers in the small village of San Antonino have used their own creativity, money, and labor to develop a local water conservation system and recharge their depleted aquifer. They are cooperating with 11 other villages with assistance from Flor y Canto, a local group dedicated to protecting indigenous rights in Oaxaca.

This week, our Witness for Peace delegation traveled to San Antonino to see the project first hand.

Project leaders Delfín Hernandez Sanchez, Elias Santiago Hernández, Claudio Ortiz Reyes, and Teresa Aguílar Serna told us they had to initiate the project on their own, without government support. The work was done on Sundays with téquio (community) labor. Though they had limited formal education, they designed the project using their own ideas and knowledge of local conditions. One of them told us: “We had no engineers to help, so we were the engineers. We didn’t study. We just had a need and we were hungry.” Only after the project proved successful did the municipal government start to assist by building additional wells. Now experts come from far away to see the accomplishments of this tiny group of farmers in San Antonino.

The key element of the project consists of 120 hand-dug filtration wells. The wells collect rainwater and runoff from the fields to recharge the local aquifer and supply water to separate irrigation wells.  An average well 15 meters deep takes around a week to dig. We saw one well under construction. At the bottom, so deep we could barely see them, two men were excavating. The farmers told us that yes, the work was dangerous, and they have to be careful. When they dig deep it is hard to breathe at the bottom of the well. As a workplace safety teacher, I shuddered.


After the digging is complete, concrete tubing is installed to reinforce the walls. The well is filled with rocks and sand to filter the water. Though the government accused the farmers of collecting polluted water, studies by two Mexican universities have shown that the water is not contaminated. Farmers told us that they use no agricultural chemicals to grow their corn, squash, radishes, green beans, parsley, flowers, and other crops. They fertilize their fields with a mixture of local materials, including animal manures and egg shells.

After beginning work on their project in 2006, the farmers had to wait three years for results. Finally, the level of water in the wells began to rise. After the farmers proved that their system was successful, the municipal government installed another 60 wells.

We asked to farmers why they had stayed in San Antonino instead of emigrating. “This is our home,” they told us. “We did it for those who will come after us, for our children. We can’t leave them a desert, we need to leave them water. What will they think if we leave them no water? One day they will approve of what we are doing.”

The farmers of San Antonino are still poor, and they have to work hard to raise their crops. But things are better now. Today, the farmers say, they collect enough water during the rainy season to produce crops year round.

But the staff of Flor y Canto say that villages throughout the Valley of Oaxaca still struggle with water shortage and could be helped by using the methods developed in San Antonino. The farmers of San Antonino need allies to continue their work.

Teocintle, Mother of Corn

7 Jul


Teocintle is the ancestor of corn, which was first developed thousands of years ago in Mexico or Central America and now dominates world agriculture. I have to say I felt awe on first seeing this little plant in the Jardin Etnobotanico in Oaxaca. It is the basis of the great indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica. It is believed that migrating hunter-gatherers were first attracted not to its grain but to its cane, which is sweet to chew. But when they picked the cane, they inadvertently pollinated the plants. When they returned from their migrations, they found bigger and better plants. Hybridization continued, and eventually the early people began to value the seeds and plant them deliberately. Today, corn in many forms is still the basis of Mexican cooking. But native Mexican corn, and the millions of farmers who grow it, are threatened by subsidized corn imported from the United States under NAFTA, GMO corn varieties brought in by Monsanto, and drought due to climate change and destruction of Mexico’s rich forests.

Swords into Plowshares

6 Jul

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Soon after arriving in Oaxaca we toured the new ethnobotanical garden at the Dominican church and former monastery of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. We saw giant magueys and agaves; flor de mayo (frangipani) trees whose waxy white flowers have a lovely citrus smell; cycads – the ancient gymnosperms that look like palm trees; teocintle, ancestor grass of corn, born here in Central Mexico; ceiba, the Mayan tree at the center of the universe; copal trees; palo mulato trees with delicate papery green and reddish-brown bark; giant cactus of many shapes including a wallful of climbing pitahaya cactus and an ancient cactus variety from before the time that cactus lost its leaves. A place of beautiful plants, wondrous to walk among.

Here’s how the garden came to be, if I understood the guide’s Spanish explanation. The garden is on the site of a Dominican church and monastery built during the 1500s.  Later, the site was taken over by the Army and nearly destroyed. The grounds where the garden is now were a cavalry practice and barracks, there was a jail in the former monastery, and the interior of the church was trashed. In the 1990s, the need for the Army to move south to Chiapas provided a pretext to sell the whole complex to a powerful US chain to create an expensive hotel and conference center. But Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo got wind of the plan and convinced the government instead to restore the church, put a museum of Oaxacan cultures in the former monastery, and create the ethnobotanical garden. This is just one of the many things he has done for the city. How wonderful that artists are among Oaxaca’s greatest leaders.

I’ve been back to the garden several times, and hope to highlight some of the plants in future posts.

El Tejate – Bebida Tradicional de Oaxaca

5 Jul

El Tejate – Bebida Tradicional de Oaxaca

Estaba en el mercado de Tlacolula cuando ví por primera vez los puestos de tejate. Tal vez había leido de tejate ante en un libro de cocina de Oaxaca, pero no había puesto mucha atención. Pero el día segundo de nuestra estancia en Oaxaca, nos dirigimos a Tlacalula por ver el famoso mercado regional de domingo. Habían muchas cosas que ver, pero las mas fascinantes eran los puestos de tejate. Las que lo prepararon eran mujeres, algunas jóvenes y otras mayores. Lo mezclaban con ingredientes que tienen larga historia en el México indígena – el maíz, la almendra de mamey, y la rosita de cacao. Los mezclaban en ollas gigantescas. Hundían los brazos en las ollas hasta las codos, y removían suntuosamente la masa espesa. Parecía un ritual. En las mesas de los puestos, listas para recibir el tejate, habían puesto jícaras pintadas de color rojo y diseños fluidos de flores. Cuando querían añadir más agua, alzaban los brazos y dejaban caer el agua de una jícara.  Todo el proceso tomaba mucho tiempo, se dice que requiere de 2 a 2 ½ horas, pero cuando todo era listo, vertía el tejate en las jícaras decorados de flores y las ofrecía a los clientes. La mezcla, que parecía ser de leche cuajada, pero de color cafe claro con partes oscuras, a mí me parecía ser poción de brujas. Pero después, cuando la probé la primera vez en el marcado de Zaachila, supé, al fin, que el tejate tenía sabor sutil, fresco, y dulcecito. Me costó un poco de miedo probarlo, pero valió la pena. Sentí que había compartido en un poco de la cultura de la Oaxaca zapoteca.

The Zaachila Market

1 Jul

Today for our Spanish lesson, Arnie and I went with our teachers Gladys and Angelica to the Thursday market in the village of Zaachila, about 15 miles southwest of Oaxaca.  In the bus, an old lady told us she was going to the market to buy turkey and chicken eggs so that she could raise the birds for meat.  She also told me the name of a local plant that we saw along the roadside – huamuchil – and how to use the seeds in tamales.  We have learned that if we want to know something, one of the best ways is to ask the “abuelitas” and “abuelitos” (grandmothers and grandfathers) that we meet in the streets and markets. They are the ones that remember the traditional ways of doing things, and they have been very kind.  I like it that Mexicans use “abuelita/abuelito” as a term of affection for all old people, not just their own grandfathers and grandmothers.  It reminds us that the old people are a treasure to be respected by us all.

In Zaachila, one of the vendors let us sample from her big bottles of mezcal.  Each bottle had something different in it to flavor it – pieces of pineapple, guayaba, rosemary, etc.  Tasted great, but we decided that we didn’t real need to buy a big bottle.

We also stopped at a stand where a woman was making the famous traditional drink of Oaxaca, tejate. It’s quite a process.  First, she mixes ground corn, Mexican cinnamon, and dried flowers from chocolate trees, all in a huge pottery bowl.  She adds water, a little at a time, and makes a thick paste.  Then she gradually adds more water until the mixture is thin enough to drink.  For some reason the mixing all has to be done with bare hands and arms, up to the elbows.  She told me that it really takes a lot of work and a lot of strength to do it.  When the tejate is ready, it is served in traditional bowls made from gourds (jicaras), painted red and painted with big flowers.  It looks like curdled beige milk.  Usually we don’t eat food in the markets because it’s easy to get sick here, but I just had to try, because I’d heard it’s sweet, subtle, and refreshing.  I bought a bowlful, and Arnie and I both had a sip.  Well, I had several sips because it was delicious.  We spent the rest of the day wondering if had been stupid to drink it, but we never got sick.

Then we encountered an abuelita who was selling corn out of big burlap sacks.  There are lots of colors of corn here – white, yellow, red, black, and more.  We asked where it came from, and she said she and her husband had grown it.  Among poor people, she said, husband and wife work together in the fields.  She said it was last year’s harvest.  The rains hadn’t come this year, and if the rains don’t come, there would be no corn to harvest this year.  She told us it had become drier and drier in recent years in Oaxaca.  Before, there had been more rain and it had been easy to harvest abundant crops of corn. “But still we continue.”

Because of the droughts, she said, there had been many Oaxacans forced to travel to the United States to earn a living.  She herself had a brother-in-law in Los Angeles and a son in Seattle.  She said it was unjust the way immigrants were treated in the U.S.   They die of thirst crossing the desert and are shot at the border, she fumed. (A recent shooting of a 14-year-old Mexican by a U.S. border patrol agent who crossed the line into Mexico has caused outrage throughout the country, especially since the U.S. has not allowed the agent to be extradited to be tried in Mexican courts.) The abuelita reasoned that since people in the U.S. no longer cultivate their own fields, they need Mexican workers and ought to treat them better.  As I said, if you want to find out what’s really going on, just ask an abuelita.

We also met a man selling jicara gourds that he had decorated beautifully.  He said he painted the flowered red ones (the kind used to serve tejate) with paint from the hardware store.  But he had decorated others with beautiful combinations of rich colors that he obtained by grinding local rocks into a powder.  He had learned the art from his grandfather, and had now taught his own two sons, who help him in the workshop.  I bought a beautiful jicara of deep blue and tan, decorated with delicate lines of black paint.

The bus back from Zaachila was crowded.  An old woman holding a live chicken sat down beside our teacher Angelica and began to feed it a tomato.  Arnie thought about looking at the pictures in his camera, but he decided not to, for fear he would look like a rich tourist.  However, then the old woman with the chicken got out her I-phone and began showing pictures to Angelica.  Just goes to show … something.

It was a wonderful visit to the Zaachila market, and I am grateful and somewhat amazed that people here are so generous in telling us about their work and their lives.