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Corn: The Golden Gift from Our Ancestors
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Lorena Garcia
The Aztec emperor Moctezuma might have paced slowly from side to side in his palace, carefully keeping his penacho, his feathered crown, in place. He would gaze with admiration at the bounty of his beautiful kingdom, Tenochtitlán. Marble, jade, gold, silver and colored stones decorated his palace throughout. And everywhere he looked amongst the breathtaking floating gardens, he could see the abundance of the corn which would feed his subjects.
Since corn was the Aztecs' main source of nutrition, an abundant harvest was vital. The people would worship the god of rain, Tlaloc, at the Temple of Agriculture in order to encourage adequate moisture for their corn crops. And they worshipped the god of corn, Cinteótl, and the corn goddess, Chicomencóatl, at numerous ceremonies.
Once they harvested the corn, the Aztecs prepared it in a familiar way. The Indians soaked the grains overnight in a large pot of water with ashes or pieces of lime. Then the next day, the kernels, or nixtamal, were cooked until boiling, then drained of water. Next the Aztecs ground the corn on a flat stone (metate) with a longer, rock "rolling-pin" (mano). The resulting mush would be formed and flattened and baked into tortillas on a small clay griddle called a comal.
The Aztecs taught their children to revere corn and ritualized their consumption. Adults gave their children ate half a tortilla per day. When they reached six years of age, children were allowed one and a half per day. Finally, when they reached thirteen, they could eat two tortillas per day.
In the 1500s the Aztecs' Tenochtitlán was a large city, and as its population increased, sowing and harvesting corn was more intensive. Corn, chile, beans and maguey (century plant) were the basic crops of Aztec agriculture.
When Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, landed in Veracruz in 1519, he was surprised by the greatness of Tenochtitlán. He wrote several letters to Carlos V, the King of Spain, expressing his admiration of different aspects of the Aztec culture and their daily routine. He mentioned the well-cultivated cornfields by creating a vivid image of the crops. He reported that he found corn growing everywhere. On at least two occasions, his cavalry was unable to cross through the dense cornfields.
Corn retained its importance even after the conquest of the Aztec empire by Cortes in 1521. In the 1650's corn was cultivated by the Indians for their own consumption on communal lands. Wealthy Spaniards also grew corn on their large haciendas. The crops produced on these farmlands were sold and consumed by the Spanish and the mestizos, who were the racial mixture of Spanish and Indian peoples.
In the eighteen century, Mexico extended its territory, increasing its population and wealth. These changes did not affect the agriculture of the Indian communities where corn cultivation still remained important. In addition to the new crops grown on the haciendas, such as wheat and tobacco, corn cultivation spread throughout these new territories.
Corn cultivation today in Mexico is very extensive but still not sufficient to feed its rapidly expanding population. Since 1944, due to a severe agricultural crisis, Mexico has had to import corn from the United States. Eighty percent of the corn consumed in Mexico is locally grown, with the balance imported from the U.S.
The most popular use of corn on the border is still the tortilla. Tortillas are used as bread and for tacos, tostadas, enchiladas and many other dishes. In 1988 approximately 300 million tortillas were consumed in Mexico alone. As in Moctezuma's time, corn is still the most important basic food on the border.