Pozole and Anti-Indigenous Sentiment

I’m familiar with pozole as a celebratory dish, and while it is a comforting meal that conjures memories of home, it’s not my favorite Mexican dish. But after looking into what’s been written of its history, I can’t help but see it as something more.

After a cursory Google search about pozole, many blog posts start to come up about its history. According to an article by Lauren Cocking for The Culture Trip, the history of pozole hints at cannibalism:

Originally, pozole was considered a sacred dish due to the use of the trademark large hominy kernels combined with meat. A slightly gruesome claim from pozole’s history is that it was supposedly once made with the human flesh of sacrificed prisoners. Pork was supposedly used as a replacement because of its striking similarity in taste to human meat, but try not to think about that the next time you’re enjoying a delicious bowl of pozole. However, other sources suggest the meat was that of the famous Mexican dogs, xoloitzcuintles. Is that better? We’ll let you decide!

Honest Cooking Magazine has also run an article about pozole by Nancy Lopez-McHugh in which she details more of its history:

Corn was a sacred plant to Aztecs and the other indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. One of the main components of pozole is the hominy, which is basically processed maize or corn. Aztecs, and the other indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, cooked pozole only on special occasions. Now this is where things start getting weird and a bit gross. In a book called “General History of the Things of New Spain” written by Fray Bernandino de Sahagun, he describes pots of stew with corn and pieces of human flesh being eaten on special occasions. The human meat came from the sacrificed people, who’s hearts were ripped out and offered to the gods, their bodies were chopped up and cooked in the pozole. After the Spanish arrived they banned cannibalism and pork became the meat used in pozole. Wait it gets even weirder, you’re probably wondering how but it does. Apparently pork was the meat of choice because “it tasted very similar” to human flesh. This bit of history is probably something most of us Mexicans want to forget or ignore, so let’s move on.

While this was something I didn’t know about pozole, it’s also not something that necessarily surprised me. Whenever indigenous peoples of Mexico were ever mentioned in Texas public school curriculum, it was always centered on their cannibalism and human sacrifice.

In a listicle/info-slideshow by The Latin Kitchen, they too mention this origin story of pozole. They then cite a Spanish ethnographer and Aztec mythology:

Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, one of the New World’s most famous Spanish ethnographers and anthropologists, recounted a meeting with Aztec king Moctezuma during the festival of the god Tonatiuh where his royal highness was served a steaming bowl of pozole with a the leg of an imprisoned and sacrificed slave. It was all for the gods. Tonatiuh was the Aztec sun god, believed to be the fifth sun, in whose era the Aztecs were currently living.

According to Aztec mythology, Tonatiuh required human sacrifice in order to continue his daily journey across the sky. Thousands of people would be killed each year in his honor during the Aztec reign of the Valley of Mexico. This may be why not that long ago pozole was considered a funeral dish instead of being eaten on Mexico’s biggest holiday of the year. These days, pozole takes on a new form, with a foundation in corn.

The history of pozole is really interesting to me, not just because of the heavy probability that it is rooted in human sacrifice, but also because of the potential political meanings here, both historic and modern. It’s definitely not unheard of for members of the colonizing class to sensationalize (and in the case of the Spanish colonizers and Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, even make up horror stories) about the Indigenous peoples they seek to conquer in order to justify their brutality.

In this review of Cannibalism and the Colonial World for Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, Ian McIntosh writes about the book’s investigative approach toward these claims of cannibalism, using what happened in the Caribbean as a case study:

There is a fascinating introduction by editor Peter Hulme in which he debunks the classic hoax of Caribbean cannibalism. During Columbus’s second voyage to the New World in 1493, a contact party ransacked a recently deserted village in Guadeloupe, acquiring 4 or 5 human leg and arm bones, several parrots and other curiosities. The shipboard doctor surmised that they must indeed be in the lands of the fabled Caribe, the flesh eaters of Arawak legend. As Hulme says, this initial account was elaborated and embroidered and a myth was born. After passage through various hands and interpretive processes (in all cases by people who never landed at Guadeloupe or visited the Caribbean), the Guadeloupian village scene was reworked into a `virtual human butcher shop’ with a blood-soaked child’s head hanging on a post, cooking pots with limbs strewn about, and feverish cannibal feasts. Here lies the origin of the international usage of the Carib word barbecue, which in the European imagination became human flesh broached on a spit.

Such fantasizing and invention lends support to William Arens’ belief that the empirical evidence for cannibalism is embarrassingly slim.


I’ll definitely be doing more extensive research into this as it applies to Mexico; my copy of Cannibalism and the Colonial World is already on its way.

1 Comment

  1. Pork, the other white meat. Yes, this history is quite interesting, and one that really caught my attention too. The Spaniards justified their conquest of the indigenous folks of the Americas because of human sacrifice. That practice, then, legitimated their notions of superiority, civilization, and spiritual conquest.

    The history is much more complex, but important to think through. But, once again, we can see how through food we can learn about the complexities of culture, especially when contextualized.

    Now, last thing, did you tell your mom about this history? I wonder what she thinks about that.


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