How corn connects us to land, history, culture, and community: an informal primer on the occasion of the inaugural Pueblos del Maíz festival in Tucson, AZ May 2022
by Kimi Eisele
Perhaps it went like this: The running of hands over tall reedy grass. The reaching for a pod not bigger than the palm. The plucking and opening to find inside handful of small seeds. Too hard to split with the teeth, so crushed with a stone or soaked and softened or set over fire to pop. Then tasted. A flavor for the future.
That first touch—an accident or an instinct—led eventually to the domestication of maize, a crop that traveled quickly from its origin in the Balsas River Valley of Central Mexico, south and north where it met more and more hands, upon which it depended for propagation, for survival. Hands that hybridized it, shared it, prepared its sweet kernels in ever-innovative ways. Picking, husking, de-cobbing, roasting, grinding, flattening, baking, frying, soaking, stewing, popping, salting, fermenting, buttering, folding, enjoying.
Corn, maíz, huñ, vachi, maize. In the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, the story of corn starts—as far as we know—4,000 years ago. Since then, in pueblos del maíz throughout the region, people continue to plant, harvest, prepare, share, and learn from a crop born of ingenuity and experimentation. Along the way, they find themselves.
The Knowledge of Seeds
On a Friday morning in late April, Duran Andrews drives a “four seater,” or John Deere gator, around the perimeter of San Xavier Cooperative Farm (SXCF), an 823-acre farm just south of Tucson, Arizona. In a few days Andrews and his team will put in the season’s first 60-day corn, a traditional crop the Tohono O’odham people have long planted in dry soils of the Sonoran Desert.
“It grows in 60 days regardless of weather or other stress events, which shows you the resilience it has,” Andrews says.
This is the same resilience the O’odham people themselves have, says Patricia Cerna, a member of both the Tohono O’odham Nation and the SXCF board of directors, along for the ride.
“Our ancestors always planted corn. We always used corn. We almost lost it because we almost lost our water rights. But we’ve brought it back and now we’re committed to keeping that going here for us for the farm. That’s what the elders wanted,” she says.
Traditionally 60-day corn is planted in the summer to harness monsoon rains, but SXCF plants an early harvest as well, capturing in sunken beds flood irrigation from the tribe’s water allotment from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) water.
Farming 60-day corn requires using traditional methods, Andrews says. “Our seeds are so unique they don’t take well to some of the equipment. Modern seeds are consistent, they look the same all the way across, but our seeds vary in size and shape.”
Recently, for example, farmers at SXCF abandoned a vacuum planter, which wouldn’t catch every seed, and opted for hand-operated push planters, instead. “It was more labor intensive, but that’s what builds ‘s-wagi:ma,’” Andrews says, using the O’odham word for “hard-work ethic.”
The seeds of 60-day corn, like other traditional crops, have a strong “environmental identity,” Andrews says. “They’ve been here so long that they know the environment and can adapt. If it gets hotter, or if it gets colder sooner, those seeds will produce faster. It knows it needs to do that in order to survive.”
In this way, the seeds themselves hold knowledge.
Andrews turns the four-seater north and drives along the western edge of the farm. Behind him, the two white bell towers of San Xavier del Bac, the current church of the Catholic mission founded by Father Eusebio Kino in 1692, reach high into blue sky.
The First “Farmagers”
When Father Kino first traveled up the Santa Cruz River Valley, he found a well-established agricultural system in the Tucson basin.
“We passed through San Cosme del Tucson, through another large ranchería, through many cornfields, abundant fields of corn and beans, and watermelon and squash that grow in these environs,” wrote Don Diego Carrasco, after accompanying Kino on a trip along the Santa Cruz in 1698.
Those abundant fields may have been a welcome sight for the Spaniards but corn itself was not new to this landscape. In fact, recent archaeological excavations along the Santa Cruz date the cultivation of maize to 2100 BC, over 4,000 years ago.
Some of the earliest radiocarbon dates of corn in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands were found on charred fragments from a site called Las Capas, north of downtown Tucson and west of the I-10 freeway at Ina Road, where in 2008 archeologists began excavating an expansive irrigation canal system of more than 100 acres. Corn remains found at other buried sites along the river, as well as in northern Sonora, show radiocarbon dates almost as old, says James Vint, Senior Project Director at Desert Archaeology, Inc. and one of the archaeologists on the dig.
Vint and his colleagues found early evidence of fields along the Santa Cruz by learning to recognize the palette of sediments—a dark brown within canals and field cells from build-up of organic material from decomposed crops and from silts and clays to a lighter brown in non-farmed layers.
Once they knew what to look for, Vint says, archaeologists working at other sites along the Santa Cruz floodplain have continued to identify additional fields. For example, near the confluence of the Rillito River with the Santa Cruz, backhoe archaeologist Dan Arnit found a series of footprints left by adults, kids, and dogs. “A just-irrigated field that people walked across and left their footprints,” Vint says. “That really gives you the human element.”
These “farmagers,” as these early agriculturalists could be called, combined foraging of wild edible plants and the cultivation of corn.
The first maize originated in central Mexico, domesticated by Indigenous people there over 9,000 years ago. It traveled easily and quickly north and south and was adopted by foragers in the Southwest in a process that may have been facilitated by common language and culture, says Jonathan Mabry, a practicing archeologist in the Sonoran Desert and executive director of the Tucson City of Gastronomy.
“One theory suggests that as people speaking early Uto-Aztecan languages already extended from central Mexico to the southwestern United States, this crop introduced from Mesoamerica spread quickly from group to group through trade since there were few cultural and linguistic boundaries,” Mabry says.
Regional climate shifts also helped this tropical cultigen take hold once it arrived here, Mabry says. Five thousand years ago, the climate here shifted away from longtime warm and dry conditions to something wetter. Rivers and springs of the desert lowlands began to flow, creating alluvial fans and depositing sediments along the banks of rivers like the Santa Cruz. This created the right conditions for farming, and the archaeological record shows that hunting and gathering groups easily incorporated corn into their existing subsistence strategy, which focused on manipulating wild edible plants that grew well in damp alluvial settings.
The complex system of canals built in settlements along the Santa Cruz River are the oldest canals found north of Mexico and in some ways were more sophisticated than those to the south, Mabry says. “They didn’t solely divert runoff from hillsides but diverted surface flow from the river itself.”
Much of the maize discovered in these settlements was a small-cobbed corn that was found charred. “They were cooking it by popping it in the fires,” Mabry says. Some of it was probably also eaten fresh as green corn—a sweet addition to their diet.
Does that make the Tucson basin home of the first popcorn in the United States? Maybe. But archaeologists believe this early corn—despite its reliability and higher yield than wild, foraged foods—didn’t play a significant role in the food supply. “For those first several millennia, it was just a dietary supplement,” Mabry says.
But the way these early desert dwellers disturbed the floodplain to plant maize also created conditions for edible weeds and other wild foods to flourish. “I always think these gardens and fields looked like my backyard after a good monsoon. It’s as much amaranth and other edible weeds as it is maize. It’s not like Iowa cornfields where it’s monocrops. It’s a very diverse garden,” Vint says.
Though early corn didn’t have a significant dietary impact, its cultivation changed human communities in other ways. Irrigation required family groups to cooperate and tethered them to those places where they labored to build systems of canals and fields over several generations. Even when floods would destroy homes, they would only move a short distance away, never far from their canal systems, Mabry says.
Canals and irrigation also shifted notions of property and created food surpluses. In most traditional communities practicing irrigation today, canals are community-operated, common property, while individual fields and crop yields are privately owned. “Private property was a new concept, and it had a big ripple effect,” Mabry says.
Agriculture increased food supplies, and people began to store food to get them through lean seasons. Along the Santa Cruz River, people first stored surpluses in pits outside the home as food was shared among families, but then moved to storing surpluses inside for exclusive use by each family, an archaeological pattern that can be traced globally, Mabry says.
This then led to the principle of inheritance, as owned property needed to be passed on to the next generation. “People then began to bury the dead close to home or in nearby cemeteries as the deceased become symbols of continuity of household lineages and their properties,” Mabry says.
The discoveries of early irrigation technology developed in early settlements along the Santa Cruz River changed previous beliefs about desert dwellers as solely hunter-gatherers. What they revealed instead is a story of subsistence foraging, agriculture, and folk traditions, many of which have carried into the present.
“I like to think about how Tucson’s identity over thousands of years was an irrigated agricultural oasis in the Sonoran Desert. That’s what it was for millennia,” Mabry says.
Gente de Maíz
Between AD 500-700, maize varieties that could be ground more easily into flour or cornmeal were developed. Because they were four times as productive as earlier popcorn varieties, their arrival led to the flourishing of a fully agricultural society.
Simultaneously, migratory routes connected people in the Southwest with those living farther south in Mexico and Central America, helping to forge identities and a sense of belonging, says Roberto “Dr. Cintli” Rodriguez, author of Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother: Indigeneity and Belonging in the Americas, which traces the resilience of maíz culture and how it informs the lives of Mexican and Central Americans in the United States.
Years ago, after a friend showed him a map placing the ancient homeland of the Aztecs in what is now the state of Utah, Dr. Cintli embarked on a 12-year search across libraries and archives to find out if it was true. One day an elder asked him, “Are you looking for where the Aztecs came from or where you came from?”
The question gave Dr. Cintli pause, but then he said, “Where I came from.”
“You’re not going to find your origins on a map,” the elder told him. “If you want to know where you came from, follow the corn.”
Dr. Cintli, now associate professor emeritus from the University of Arizona’s Department Mexican American Studies, took the advice to heart. His research, he says, “offered a radical, but simple idea … of maíz as our origin.”
In the 1960s and ‘70s, scholars traced the “birth” of Chicano identity—a term given in those decades people of Mexican descent living in the United States—to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Later, feminist scholars argued it began with the “mestizaje,” or mixing of Spanish and Indigenous blood, that occurred when “La Malinche” or Doña Marina, a noble Maya woman bore Hernán Cortez’s son, Martin.
“I don’t think any of those ideas gave people a sense of belonging,” Dr. Cintli says. “Because 1848 is a war and 1519 is an invasion.” Instead, Dr. Cintli traces Chicano identity back to the creation of corn.
“People are fascinated with the idea of coming from some great place, a great city, like Mount Olympus. But maíz is not a place. It’s simple,” Dr. Cintli says. “It’s humbling to relate this way to a crop as opposed to a great city or land.”
And because corn can’t exist without humans, ties between the plant and the person are tight, he says.
Teosinte, a wild grass, was corn’s early ancestor. Known as the “grain of the gods,” it grew small ears, not much bigger than a human pinky. Its kernels—between five and twelve per ear—were encased in a hard coating difficult for humans to crack with their teeth. Domestication yielded bigger ears with more abundant and softer kernels. In Teotihuacan, Mexico, where Dr. Cintli lives, “They described people carrying corn with both hands. That’s how big it was.”
But corn isn’t mythical, Dr. Cintli argues. It’s part of daily ritual, the culinary folklife of people in Mexico and Central America, the borderlands, and beyond. “Maíz, beans, squash, chile—these are foods that people here eat to this day,” he says.
Regardless of nationality, “People are simply gente de maíz,” or people of corn, he says.
Claudio Rodriguez, a former student of Dr. Cintli’s and now an artist and community organizer, agrees that corn is the foundation for his own sense of belonging as a Mexicano and Indigenous person in the Southwest.
“Oftentimes as people of color, as migrants, as Indigenous folks or Mexican people, we’re made to feel like we don’t belong. But we know we belong, because our people cannot exist without corn and corn cannot exist without our people. We’re one in the same,” Rodriguez says.
When Rodriguez started planting corn in Tucson with his brothers, he felt something awaken in him. “We realized this is what our people fought for. This is what our people survived for.”
Connecting with the land and with that particular crop allowed him to connect to his ancestors from Oaxaca and from Sonora. “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,” he says.
Twelve years ago, Jacob Robles also started growing corn in his Tucson backyard as a way to remember his heritage. “It was a puzzle piece in reclaiming my indigeneity and my relationship to the seasons and cycles and ancestral foods,” he says.
Robles traces his family lineage to the Opata of eastern Sonora, the Yoeme of southern Sonora, and the Nahuatl-speaking people of central and southern Mexico. “For us there’s a lot of teachings around growing it, and our cosmology comes from having a relationship with the corn.”
A founding member of Tucson’s Flowers & Bullets collective, which uses sustainability, art, and rebellion to reclaim cultural roots, Robles helped start its Midtown Farm, where he helps to plant corn twice a year. For the past three years, the collective has been growing a blue corn, which offers a significant alternative to the more mainstream—and ubiquitous—yellow sweetcorn.
“When kids rip open a husk and it’s a bunch of blue kernels, it’s really special,” Robles says. “It opens up a curiosity and creates space for more stories to be true.”
Robles has also created murals on the farm, including one of Tlaloc, a Nahuatl personification of the rain cycle. “Without those teachings and traditions of understanding the water, we wouldn’t have corn. We’re farmers in the desert, so honoring the rain is pretty appropriate.”
Like Robles, Rodriguez is also an artist and often uses agricultural themes in his work. On his arm, he has a tattoo of corn and Cocijo, a Zapotec lightning deity associated with rainfall. Many artists in Mexican, Chicano, and border communities use corn as a symbol of identity and resistance, Rodriguez says.
“You’ll see ski-masks in the shape of corn. Or grenades depicted with corn kernels. That represents growth and community. We can see it everywhere we go, because that’s the foundation, that’s our base,” he says.
Dr. Cintli sees these artistic and agricultural expressions in the Southwest ways of keeping “maíz culture” alive. He also says recognizing corn as an integral crop in the borderlands is a “decolonial project.”
“If you look at a map of North America, you see that the Gulf of Mexico appears to be a lake. At one edge is the Caribbean — Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic. All those islands had maíz. The word itself, maíz, comes from the Caribbean [from the Taino]. There’s no doubt that there was communication taking place along the Gulf. There was travel,” Cintli says.
Indeed, archeological findings reveal extensive trade of obsidian, ornaments made of shell—including black abalone and spiny oyster—from the Sea of Cortez and California coast, and corn connecting early people of what is now the Southwest to communities in all directions. “These were small numbers of people but there were wide connections,” Vint says.
For Dr. Cintli this history suggests that the Sonoran Desert was never an obstacle for migration.
“There’s this mythology of disconnection. But it was just a narrative that created the borderlands. There never was a separation,” he says. “To this day, people see the desert as somehow impenetrable. But maíz shows us something different.”
Tortillas, Tamales, Ga’wisa, Saktusi
In his more than ten years as a community organizer and sustainability educator, Claudio Rodriquez has seen the ways urban agriculture and cultural culinary practices connect people to their heritage and to one another. He recalls recent gathering of neighbors along Tucson’s South 12th Avenue, or “La Doce,” where the conversation turned to memories of festivals in Mexico.
“There are festivals for everything there—radishes, squash, mezcal—and they help mark the seasons and celebrate foodways,” Rodriguez says.
But in Tucson’s urban neighborhoods, Rodriguez says, “Real culture is within homes and gardens. Gastronomy happens every day by common folks preparing tortillas de harina, tortillas de maíz.”
Robles finds a similar story in neighborhoods in central Tucson. At Flowers & Bullets’ Midtown Farm, when the spring blue corn crop is ready by late June or July, the collective invites the community to harvest and prepare it into masa and then make tortillas.
“But honestly, it’s nothing we’re re-teaching,” Robles says. “People come and remember. They say, ‘My grandparents grew corn, and we made these recipes.’ It opens up doorways we’ve forgotten about.”
Opening doorways through food is also the aim of the in-house catering program at the San Xavier Farm Coop, where Phyllis Valenzuela works to prepare traditional O’odham dishes with food grown on the farm.
Valenzuela learned how to prepare roasted corn from her grandmother the traditional way. “Back then everything was planted by hand in holes. She would take the husks off the corn and plant them. We’d put them up to dry and she would take the kernels off. And then it was time to use the grinding stone, which was my job.”
Valenzuela now teaches these methods to the young women in her family. “I still have my grandmother’s grinding stone and I save some corn and that’s what they do,” she says. “I tell them this is what I grew up with.”
One traditional O’odham dish made with 60-day corn is bo:sol, a soup of tepary beans, wheat berries, and roasted corn. But the most popular dish made with 60-day corn is ga’iwsa, a porridge of roasted corn.
Ga’iwsa is both a “delicacy” and a “comfort food,” says Anthony Francisco, Jr., a Tohono O’odham community member who serves as a board member for Native Seeds/SEARCH, which preserves heirloom seeds of arid-adapted crops in the Southwest.
“When people get to eat ga’iwsa, it often brings up this food memory and connects them to their childhood or to their grandmother, their grandfather, or a moment when they were growing up,” he says.
Patricia Cerna remembers her great grandmother cooking ga’iwsa “outside on the woodstove in a clay pot with mesquite wood. Oh my god, that was the best flavor ever,” she says.
Cerna’s godmother also made the porridge and sold it in Sells, Arizona at “The Parking Lot” where food vendors gathered. “From the back of her truck she’d sell a cup of ga’iwsa with just frybread. She’d have a long line of people—that’s how good it was,” she says.
Preparing and sharing traditional foods grown on the farm is part of re-connecting O’odham people to who they are, says Cerna. “It’s about teaching and educating our people that these foods are delicious and what our bodies need. We’re giving people the option to come and to come and eat healthier by eating traditional food grown here instead of going to McDonald’s. We’re providing an option for people.”
Similar to the O’odham ga’iwsa is “chicos,” a dish made of roasted corn from northern Sonora says Dena Cowen, curator at Tucson’s Mission Garden, an agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted heritage fruit trees, traditional local heirloom crops, and edible native plants. (Chicos is also a dish of roasted corn in New Mexico.)
Cowen and her colleagues have been collaborating with farmers from Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture to present a series of educational workshops about O’odham agriculture. The workshops cover basic farming practices to preparing the soil to planting corn, as well as the harvest, roasting, drying, and cooking 60-day corn into both ga’iwsa and chicos, Cowen says.
Mission Garden recognizes corn as a significant local crop that provides not just sustenance but also cultural identity, nourishment, and symbolism. “It’s one of the most important crops we have. A lot of people from here, their ancestors identify with corn in a really spiritual way—as a brother, sister, mother or father,” Cowen says.
Carlos Figueroa, owner of Maíz Tucson, a small-batch, heirloom corn tortilla company, has also done demonstrations with Mission Garden’s O’odham 60-day corn. He nixtamalizes and grinds the corn—a process of rehydrating dried corn, adding an alkaline substance (usually slake lime or “cal”) to initiate a chemical process necessary to create masa—then makes tortillas for the public to sample.
“It’s the corn that’s been here for thousands of years, so you’re eating basically Tucson history. You’re tasting something that someone in that very spot could have been eating over 1,000 years ago, created with a process that is not that much different,” Figueroa says.
Figueroa was inspired to start making his own tortillas in 2016 after a conversation with the owner of Maico’s Mexican restaurant, 835 E. 22nd St., who told him a taco was only as good as the corn tortilla that held it. That made Figueroa think of Chris Bianco, a well-known Arizona pizza maker, whom he’d heard say in an interview that the key to good pizza was good dough.
The words of these two culinary “mentors” made sense. So, Figueroa started paying more attention to the corn tortillas he ate in Tucson, which paled in comparison those he’d had growing up in Nayarit, Mexico, where he spent summers with his grandmother.
Every day his grandmother would send him off for tortillas. “Every kid on the block would go to the tortilleria with their cloth napkin and buy tortillas to take back home. You’d eat them immediately—like, people were just waiting on you to get home with tortillas,” Figueroa says.
While tasty, Figueroa says, these tortillas were made with Maseca, a commercial corn flour subsidized by the Mexican government for people to use to make “a super cheap tortilla.” With the widespread marketing of Maseca, many Mexican farmers stopped growing and selling local, regional varieties of corn—except in small quantities—as they could no longer compete with the commercial flour.
Figueroa now orders corn from companies in Los Angeles and Mexico City that sell corn varieties from small farms in Mexico. He now makes about 100 dozen tortillas a week—of both blue and yellow corn—and sells them in several markets and to subscribers of local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Unfortunately, selling tortillas made with O’odham 60-day corn isn’t feasible—at $14 a pound, it’s too expensive. He says he hopes to find a way to use local corn to make tortillas at a price point accessible to customers in Tucson, “because this is corn country, too,” he says.
“Corn has always been part of me—family-wise, tradition-wise, culturally,” Figueroa says. “So, maybe it was just a bit of stubbornness on my part that I was like, no, there will be good corn tortillas here, and I guess I have to make them myself.”
For Felipe Molina, an oral historian and educator from the Yoeme (Yaqui) tribe, the best tortillas in the region are traditional Yoeme tortillas, made of dried green corn or “vachi.” “The kernels are soaked overnight in mesquite ash and lime and the next day they’re rinsed and ground to make tortillas,” he says. “Those are the best tortillas!”
Yoeme people have long grown corn in what is now Arizona and Sonora. “In Sonora, you can plant it twice a year, but here only in the summertime,” Molina says.
In addition to tortillas, the Yoeme also make tamales from ground green corn, Molina says. His relatives in Potam, Sonora also used to make “napa nohim,” or big round corn cakes, and “saktusi,” a traditional Yoeme pinole, or nutrient rich corn drink made of ground, roasted corn and spices. “They’d put embers of coal in a big pot and put in the kernels and roast them. Some popped, but the rest they took out to grind into pinole,” he says.
For the Yoeme, corn is significant not just for the food it provides but for the relationship it offers. Molina remembers his grandmother planting corn. “When my brother and I were small we’d help her plant, and she’d talk to the seeds. It’s the same thing in Sonora. Traditional people bless the ground before planting,” he says.
Communicating with the natural world is part of Yeome tradition and forges relationships between people and plants and animals. Molina recalls when a Yoeme elder from Vicam, Sonora came to Marana and sang a song about corn:
One day a man wakes up and finds no water in the olla, or pot. He tells his daughter the pot is empty, so she takes the pot, puts the moso’okia or coil on her head and carries the pot that way. She walks to the river and on the way sees a cornfield and people picking corn. After retrieving the water, she again sees people picking the corn, so she sets the pot down, enters the cornfield, picks an ear of corn, and places it in the pot of water. As she walks, she hears. ‘Where are you going in that beautiful enchanted flower-water? Where are you going in that beautiful enchanted flower water? And the answer is: I’m going east to the flower-covered area in the wilderness world.
“So, it’s the corn in the field that’s asking,” Molina says. “Corn and all the plants and animals communicate.”
Letting the Seeds Teach Us
In O’odham creation stories, corn was a person—Huñ.
“He was kind of mischievous, but he was a being, so he was held in high regard,” says Anthony Francisco, Jr. “His stories held important lessons about how to prepare for the next season, and how to give blessings for the food that came to our community.”
Over time, he says, the O’odham have adapted from learning from these creation stories to learning from the seeds. “Letting the seeds teach us and allow us to live a life where we can be be productive and continue our livelihood even in the desert that we grew up in.”
As Duran Andrews parks the four-seater in the parking lot near administration building, a cool spring wind carries dust across the fields. Cerna steps off the four-seater and shields her eyes from the sun. She’s wearing a traditional skirt her daughter made for her, appliquéd with shapes of wind, clouds, rain drops, water and corn. “Just being here today and representing all those that have gone before us who fought so hard for us makes me proud,” she says.
Part of honoring the ancestors, Cerna says, is offering traditional blessings and songs for plentiful crops. “We still believe in that, and we still practice that.”
In just three days, Andrews says, before the 60-day corn goes in the ground, a medicine man will come to the farm to give a blessing. “We have all the seeds laid out, and all the equipment ready to go. He does the blessing and as soon as we’re done, we start planting.”
“A seed is a life, a growing being,” Cerna says. “It’s a person and it’s providing for us. It gave life to us. That’s what our ancestors relied on. And that’s why we’re here—because they survived on that.”