Written By: Suzy González
“If you want to know who you are and where you come from, follow the maíz.”
– Roberto Cintli Rodriguez
I have worked with corn husks in my visual artwork for several years. Whether working with it in my art, in the kitchen, or in the garden, I feel at home. I feel a comforting sense of reconnection—with the earth, with my ancestors, with my spirit.
Corn cannot grow without humans, and humans cannot grow without corn. This was the belief of our Indigenous ancestors of the land we call North, Central and South America, and something many of us still hold true today. In fact, it is such a symbiotic relationship, that, without hands to remove the husks and seeds, the crop would likely have a difficult time reproducing. Maíz pollinates itself, meaning it contains both feminine and masculine energies that embody the dualidad of Ometeotl. The ears of corn, listening to our treatment of them, are enveloped in husks like a baby in the womb. Once matured and ready to harvest, the cobs gain independence, and can then sustain humans and animals or continue the life cycle through seed. There is a poetic nature to how similar the lives of maíz and humans are.
Countless cultures of this land associate themselves with the earth’s gift of maiz, including the Olmec, Maya, Teotihuacano, Mixtec, Zapotec, Toltec, Nahua, Inca, Chaco, Cahokia, Omaha, Ponca, Cherokee, Huichol, Muskogee, Navajo, Mohave, Pueblo and many more! The crop originates in southern Mexico about 9,000 years ago from the grass called teocintle/teosinte, that was then adjusted to produce maíz to perfection. It is said in the Nahua concept of centeotzintli that we are made from maíz, and this creation story is documented in surviving ancient codices. The sacred Maya text, the Popol Vuh, tells an account of early dieties successfully creating human kind from corn, after attempts from clay and wood did not prosper. Many Indigenous people, like the Oneida and Iroquois, consider corn a gift from Sky Woman, who plays an essential role in the creation of earth and life.
The Taíno people are Indigenous to the lands known as Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. They belong to the Arawak group ranging from Venezuela through the Caribbean and Central America to Florida. The Taíno named their plant mahis/mahiz, which European colonizers later called maíz after contact with the crop in the Dominican Republic in the 1400s. It was later dubbed corn in English, which comes from the German name for grain. Numerous Indigenous groups have successfully sustained themselves for centuries with the companion plants corn, beans, and squash. Known as the Three Sisters, each plant helps the other grow. In the Caribbean islands, Taíno people called this intercropping method of agriculture conucos, which involves cultivating cassava and bananas trees together in large mounds packed with leaves to improve drainage.
But there is a vast difference between its sacred origins and the dangerous modifications that occur today. Like much of the beauty that the earth has gifted us, colonial powers have found a way to exploit it. In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of Monsanto, the corporation that poisons food supplies for profit. Even the staple Maseca flour has tested positive for toxic herbicide residues containing probable carcinogens. How are we to connect with our sacred ancestral foods if they are being altered to make us sick? Now, as many of us work to decolonize our diets, we can grow closer to maíz by reclaiming it as it was originally gifted to us. We can avoid consuming GMO corn by eating less processed foods, looking for Non-GMO Project verified products, buying organic maíz and masa from local tortillerías or online, or growing our own! We can grow corn from seed to produce even more seed and share them with those who can help to cultivate the crop in our communities. I recommend nativeseeds.org or you can even experiment by planting organic popcorn kernels!
Once you find a masa seca (corn flour) or masa provider that you like, there are so many recipes to try! From making homemade tortillas, to huaraches, gorditas, sopes, tlacoyos, pupusas, arepas, tamales, and more, you will surely feel reconnected. And let’s not forget roasted elote or the favorite salty yet healthy snack that is popcorn (learned to be the oldest known corn)! There are a myriad of ways that maíz can be prepared and eaten. All kinds of meals can come from it, and nutritionally, it contains carbs, fiber, protein, and a variety of vitamins. Drinks like atole, a Mesoamerican plant-based milk, and chicha, an Andean-origin fermented beverage, also provide liquid sustenance. Maíz can be eaten at every stage of growth, green or mature, raw or roasted, whole or ground.
The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have always known that maíz is sacred. For de-Indigenized people, reconnecting to maíz brings us back to the sacred sustenance of our roots. It is not our traditions that are lost, but us. And we have the power within to find and reclaim ancestral memory by reconnecting with the land and the gifts that she offers.
Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas
Rodríguez Roberto Cintli. Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas. The University of Arizona Press, 2014.
Overview of the Popol Vuh
Woman Who Fell From the Sky
What is Non-GMO? What are genetically modified foods?
Maseca Flours Test Positive for Monsanto’s Toxic Pesticides
The Story of Corn
Fussell, Betty. The Story of Corn. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992.