This land was Mexican once
Was Indian always,
And will be again.
— Gloria Anzaldúa
Throughout my Taco Literacy journey, I’ve approached Mexican food as something more than just comfort and home cooking. For this course, I’ve delved past its surface level into its history and current political ramifications, most notably highlighting the political, symbolic, and economic role that corn plays in Mexico. I’ve found that food is anything but—it does not exist in a vacuum, isolated from everyday realities. Food is a reflection of its environment, its past and present.
In my first assignment, I started contextualizing Mexican food through corn tortillas. I tied together my family’s own connections to Mexican culture through food, and my own experiences, along with emphasizing the corn tortilla’s pre-Hispanic origins.
Throughout the Spanish colonization of Mexico, corn was meant for the lower-caste Indigenous peoples, while wheat was for the Europeans. Spanish colonizers wanted to emphasize and perpetuate the idea that Indigenous peoples were savage, and they superior and civilized, and they did this partly through food.
To the Indigenous peoples of Mexico, corn is a source of nourishment, an ancient gift. In the prologue of Roberto Cintli Rodriguez’s “Our Sacred Maíz is Our Mother“, he recounts the story of the ants of Quetzalcoatl, told to him by Don Felipe Alvarado of Amatlán, Mexico.
At the dawn of the Fifth Sun, after Creator couple, Quilaztli and Quetzalcoatl, created humans, many thousands of years ago, they soon realized that the humans needed to eat. So, Quetzalcoatl—bringer of civilization—is put in charge of bringing food to the people. Walking along, Quetzalcoatl notices red ants carrying kernels of corn. Quetzalcoatl asks one of them: “What is that on your back?” “Cintli,” one replies. “Maíz. It is our sustenance.”
“Where did you get it?” The ant hesitates. At that, Quetzalcoatl tells the ant that the newly created humans need food. The ant still refuses. “The people will die without food,” Quetzalcoatl pleads. Reluctantly, the ant points toward Tonalcatepetl—a nearby mountain—also called the Mountain of Sustenance. “Follow me.” When they arrive, the ant informs Quetzalcoatl that the only way into the mountain is through a small opening. At that, Quetzalcoatl transforms into a small black ant. Once inside the mountain, Quetzalcoatl sees the maíz and takes it,8 proceeding to bring it to the “Lords” in Tamoanchan. There, they approve of it as food for the people.
I also touched on the implications of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened Mexico’s market to cheaper American corn imports. NAFTA turned out to be a recurring theme in my research, as its effects on the people of Mexico, as well as the land, have not been nearly as beneficial to the American economy (to put it very lightly).
In Alejandro Nadal’s “The environmental and social impacts of economic liberalization on corn production in Mexico“, he provides context for NAFTA, and details how Mexico’s most important commodity gets pushed out by the cheap American corn flooding the market.
It is clear from Nadal’s analysis that NAFTA has had a large part in jeopardizing the future of corn in Mexico, on a social, economic, and even environmental scale. As a result of poor agricultural practices, as well as many subsistence corn farmers abandoning the crop for the more lucrative business of raising cattle, soil erosion has become a huge problem in Mexico.
In my interview with my mom, I discovered the details about her own connection to Mexican food. While she learned the basics of cooking from her mother, she says she truly reconnected to it thanks to my dad’s mom, Celia.
To my mom, her learning how to make more complex Mexican dishes (in her words, “authentic”, as Diana Kennedy would also probably say) went hand-in-hand with becoming fluent in Spanish. Her marriage into what she perceives a less Americanized Mexican family prompted her to take initiative in going back to her cultural roots.
My mom’s cooking of Mexican food is a reflection of her reconnection. Despite having grown up protesting with the UFW in a first-generation Mexican-American household, food is what tethers her to her cultural identity.
This is a major lesson I’ve taken away from taking Taco Literacy: Food is never just food. And things are far more complex than they seem, as evidenced by Diana Kennedy’s role in helping my mom rediscover her own culture.
Calvo, Luz, and Rueda Esquibel, Catriona. “Tortilleras, Testimonios, y Recetas: Decolonial Foodways from the México-US Borderlands.” Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements: Decolonial Perspectives, edited by LUZ CALVO et al., University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2017, pp. 125–150. JSTOR.
Cintli Rodriguez, Roberto. “Prologue.” Our Sacred MaiÌz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas. The University of Arizona Press, 2014.
Nadal, Alejandro. “The environmental and social impacts of economic liberalization on corn production in Mexico.” WWF International, 2001, pp. 12-81.