Educator, artist, and community organizer Claudio Rodriguez on how corn helped him reconnect to himself and his community
by Claudio Rodriguez, as told to Kimi Eisele
Corn is beautiful. It’s a foundation. Our roots. It’s this majestic crop, but it’s also a very humble crop, just as the people who created it and grow it.
I think of all the lessons within it. Desgranando, for example. Taking kernels off the cob to get it ready to process to make tamales or tortillas. This brings up memories of elders, like Clayton Brascoupe, who I met when I was 19 and who told me corn was the first treaty between humans and nature. Corn cannot grow without people, and people cannot grow without corn. It’s this relationship that we grow together. This idea manifests in my work as a community organizer. We can’t build a community if we don’t grow together.
From Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, one of my teachers at the University of Arizona, I learned about corn as part of our migration story. Cintli talks about how corn was created in the valleys of central Mexico, in Oaxaca, in the jungle areas. And how corn is also found all the way in South America and all the way to North America and across Turtle Island. It has created its own forms according to its people. There are so many stories of how people received corn. And because our relatives all across Turtle Island grow corn, you can be growing one variety, but then all of a sudden, you’ll get a little kernel that’s a different color or a different shape. We get to ask, I wonder who gifted us that piece? Who did we trade with? Who did we have an exchange with to have that little piece of magic appear in our corn?
Industrialization removed my family from corn and agriculture, but my siblings and I found our way back to our roots. My mom is from Santa Maria del Tule, a little pueblo in Oaxaca. The word “tule” means “reed,” because in that area used to be a swamp; there used to be a lot of water. That little pueblo is known for a huge tree called “el árbol del Tule,” which is said to be over 2000 years old. Ceremonies used to be held there, and now there’s a church there. The pueblo is surrounded by ejidos, communal lands where people grow corn. My mom’s family used to grow corn, too. Then my grandpa came north to help build the railroad in the United States. He later went back and worked on the railroad in Mexico. My mom left the village when she was a teen and went to Nogales because her brother was there. That’s where she met my pops.
My pops is from Trincheras, Sonora, a little pueblo between Santa Ana and Altar, an old O’odham stronghold. There, people would grow a big field of corn for everyone in the village and every house would have its own individual garden into grow their own tomatoes, their own chiles, their beans. So both sides of my family — from the south of Mexico and from the north — had their traditions of corn and were rooted in agriculture. But we were separated from that because of industrialization. People needed to migrate to urban areas to work, where they became masons, laying brick, doing concrete work. When I was two years old, my mom and pops moved to Tucson. Family members got jobs as meatpackers and construction workers.
Growing up we always heard, “Somos la gente del maiz.” We are the people of the corn. But I never really understood why. We’d go to the carniceria and we’d see these pictures and posters of Aztec dancers, Yaqui dancers, Aztec warriors revolutionaries, all right next to corn tortillas. The corn, the elote, is right there. It’s so ingrained within our culture. It’s the foundation of our resistance. It’s the food of our survival, a part of our bloodline. A gift from Mexican people and Indigenous people of Turtle Island to the world. It took me a while to really see that though.
I joined a gang at 14, so throughout high school, I was gangbanging, just causing trouble for my mom and dad. Around that time, mom joined a family literacy program at Los Niños Elementary, which was supported by the Community Food Bank. They came around and offered to put a garden in the backyard. I didn’t want anything to do with it. But they put in a little garden, and they planted watermelons, beans, and corn.
When I turned 18, my homeboy, Tomas Luna, was killed due to gang violence. It was a big reality check for me and my brothers. It was like, Oh, shit, this is real, you know? I started going to college and I joined Mecha, and then this homegirl invited me out to a garden, and we started planting tomatoes. I didn’t know I had trauma at that age. I don’t like crowded places, but I didn’t know why back then. I started getting involved in the community by sticking my hands in the soil. That’s what healed me. It’s so easy to destroy. It’s so easy to take a life. It’s much harder to create, to create community, to create relationships, to create life and watch it sprout.
I remember the first time we planted corn in the backyard. Me and my brothers got really dedicated. We’re gonna make a field! we said. And we planted a good 15-by-15 plot. We dug it out, amended it, and we got corn from these farmers. A family named the Breckenfelds gave us a couple of kernels and a friend, Clayton Brascoupe. And then we waited. We’d go out and check, and then we saw them pop up. We saw them starting to sprout! That was the happiest moment I’d ever had. Oh shit, we did it. It’s happening. Being responsible for this being—a crop—was like growing this little universe inside a kernel.
Something was awakened within us then. We realized this is what our people fought for. This is what our people survived for. This is why our people saved all these seeds. Corn carries all these stories. So now we’re carrying the stories of our elders and our ancestors in Oaxaca. All those histories merged for us here, a place so far from our historical land, from our Motherland where we’re supposed to feel safe. But we created a sense of safety here, by growing corn.
Eventually I got a job at the Community Food Bank, with a program that grew out of that early backyard garden project. That thing I wanted nothing to do with! Now I’m offering to youth lessons about different crops, like the three sisters—corn, beans, and squash. I’ve been doing this kind of work for over a decade now. Working with youth, helping them step away from the gang lifestyle, showing them there are better choices and opportunities. I’m sharing the lessons that that crops like corn can offer. Oftentimes as people of color, as migrants, as Indigenous folks, as Mexican people, we’re always made to feel like we don’t belong. But yet, we belong. In the beginning, our people could not exist without corn and corn could exist without our people. We’re one in the same.
Corn is the people. And corn comes in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, just like people. So when people talk about identity, and say, Oh, you’re not Indian enough, because you don’t look this way. Or you’re not Mexican enough, because you don’t look this way. It’s like, well, there are many different types of corn, many different colors from many different lands. That’s something we can recognize. There’s more it than just being yellow corn or blue corn. There are so many other varieties.
Of course, most of the corn fed to us is sweetcorn. Because that’s the one we can make the most money off, the one that we can grow more of and give out quickly, versus the varies that grow smaller or take more time or less time to grow. The different care we give the corn is the same as the care we can give to community, to people. These are the lessons within corn.
But just as corn is a gift, it’s also been abused, like so many of our medicines and crops. Corn, for example, is now being used to create fuel, oil, sugar—things that now harm us, that cause diabetes and other diet related diseases.
The reason why is this region has been dominated by wheat has to do with the process of colonization. Wheat is what the Spaniards were used to eating. But among the Hopi and the O’odham and the Yaqui, corn was the dominant crop for thousands and thousands of years. Now when you look at the state of Sonora, we pride ourselves with our beef and our flour of tortillas. There’s nothing wrong with that, but through a process of the past 500 years in the border region, we have to ask, are we causing an erasure of people through the violence of food? Replacing traditional crops with foreign crops that our bodies didn’t evolve with is partly why we get sick with food-related illnesses. We have been disconnected from our traditional foods. When we talk about corn being our mother and corn taking care of us, we can also see the other side of it. What happens when corn is absent? We get disconnected. It’s our responsibility and our job —which is hard—to find our way back.
For us there’s a word in Nahuatl, “macehual,” which means the commoner, the common folk. The people who work with their hands. That’s what corn is, right? We have to plant it with our hands. Planting corn is one of my favorite things to do. To each seed I say, thank you, because it’s carrying my ancestors, and it’s carrying the ancestors of my relatives, and it’s carrying the hope for the future.
Claudio Rodriguez is a migrant from Sonora/Oaxaca who set roots in the south side of Tucson. He has been organizing around the intersection of migrant, environmental and food justice issues for the last 15 years. His work has specialized in creating opportunities for green infrastructure implementation in marginalized communities. He has created the philosophy and practice around “Armando Barrio” and developed school garden programs throughout the southwest that cultivate outdoor learning spaces that foster respect and advocacy for a just food system. Also an artist, Claudio sells his work on his web site.