Ernesto Camou Healy on the history of maize in Sonora, Mexico
Interview by Kimi Eisele
Many of us associate Sonora and the Arizona-Sonora borderlands with the flour tortilla—thin, expansive, delicious. But in your essay, “El Maíz y el Trigo: Pilares de la cultura y la cocina campesina sonorense,” you write, “Sonora es, originalmente, la tierra del maíz.” Why is Sonora originally the land of corn?
The first thing we have to recognize is that wheat is a newcomer: the first seeds arrived in Sonora probably around the last decade of the 16th century, whereas maize had been grown in Sonora, and the American Southwest, for more than two thousand years, and it was cultivated over a lot of what we now know as the United States. So, it is safe to say that the United States is originally also the land of the maize.
Can you share a bit about what Spanish missionaries observed around corn production, preparation, and labor when they arrived in Sonora?
The Jesuit missionaries immediately realized that maize was the most important crop. It was grown all over the region, from the arid land of the O’odham (Pimas altos) in the north to the high sierra of the Cahita people near the Yaqui and Mayo rivers (Pimas bajos) to the Ópatas along the Sonora or upper Yaqui River. These Indigenous people grew maize along with several varieties of beans, pumpkins, cotton, and tobacco.
They also hunted deer, pronghorn, bighorn, peccaries, rabbits, squirrels, and any other animal that could give them proteins and add some diversity to their diet. In the same way, they foraged for wild roots, leaves, or fruits. They also may have had domesticated turkeys and added game and eggs to their diet. All that complemented their intake and provided some diversity.
In the south of Sonora and what is now northern Sinaloa lived a relatively large population of Cahita people who could grow maize and other crops with the water provided by the rivers Mayo and Yaqui and their tributaries. They also could plant in winter, as there were almost no frosts, so they could have two harvests a year. In the north, and now south of Arizona, the climate was cooler, so they only one agricultural cycle a year, as maize cannot stand colder temperatures.
How did wheat “take over” Sonora? What changes occurred politically, economically, or agriculturally (or all three?) to enable this shift from corn to wheat? Were there cultural shifts that occurred as a result?
The Jesuits were of European origin, and wheat and breads were their main food staple. They brought with them the seeds of wheat for their nourishment, but more importantly, for making of the Communion bread, or host, for the celebration of mass. Everywhere they established missions, they grew wheat in small plots for their subsistence and the liturgical rites. They also brought heads of cattle to provide beef, milk, and cheeses and taught Indigenous people how to raise them.
In southern Sonora wheat did not replace the cultivation of maize but was used mostly by the missionaries. But in northern Sonora, more or less from Guaymas northward, where climate constraints did not allow for an agricultural cycle in winter, wheat became an important crop to complement the often poor cycle of maize, given the frequently dry season of summer.
During the 17th century, the Jesuits traveled north along the rivers and reached the and the Pimas Altos or O’odham people in what we now call the Sonoran Desert. For these tribes, the arrival of wheat was a kind of blessing: they had now a second crop that was resistant to the freezes of winter and could complement their yearly diet. It also made the months of winter less strenuous because they did not have to invest a lot of time foraging.
But the Jesuits also had cattle. And as Father Pfferferkorn said, “Sonorans love nothing more than beef.” So the arrival of the Jesuits radically changed the yearly cycle of food: from one harvest of maize and other crops per year and long periods of hunting and foraging edible plants to a winter harvest of wheat, year-round cattle raising, and the traditional summer crop of maize. It was a bounty of possibilities, and they took advantage of it.
The missionaries also knew how to make bread and taught this to the Indigenous populations. They may also have been familiar with the flat bread the Moors cooked for centuries in Spain, and may have introduced it in the Pimería. It may be that the Indigenous residents found this flat bread reminiscent of their tortillas, and began to make wheat tortillas, perhaps finding them easier and tastier than their old staple. So, tortillas de harina, or wheat tortillas, were born, at least in the Sonoran territory. Some forms of wheat bread, very similar in form to we call “tortillas grandes” or “tortillas de agua” also have been cooked in parts of India and the Middle East for centuries. (I do not use the term “sobaqueras” which is a nickname brought from the center of Mexico, for “armpit.” The making of these tortillas has nothing to do with armpits.) (Editors’ note: Read more about this term and tortillas grandes here.)
But to say that wheat “took over Sonora” is not accurate. It took hold in the northern part of the region for climatic reasons, and subsequently changed the way of life and culture of the Indigenous population, and eventually of the peasants and mestizos as well. But in the southern part of the territory, from the city of Guaymas to the south, the climatological conditions allowed two crops of maize a year, if necessary, and offered more water for irrigation. There, maize remains the most important crop and the fundamental staple.
There was another reason the cultivation of wheat did not replace maize in the south. Father Nentwing S. J. observed that a good farmer could get 30, 40, even 50 “fanegas” (a fanega is equal to 1.58 bushels) for one fanega of wheat seeds planted; whereas with maize a good farmer could reap 200 or even 500 fanegas for one seeded.
Why do you think Sonora often “forgets” its maíz heritage? Is this a form of culinary identity politics, a way of identifying with a particular food (wheat, in this case) to establish a unique Sonorense identity?
Again, it is the northern part of Sonora that identifies more with wheat than maize. I already spoke about the big difference wheat made in the culture and way of life of Indigenous people in the desert. But in the first half of the 20th century, a lot of land was opened to irrigation in the north near Hermosillo, Caborca, and San Luis Rio Colorado. Fields were sown with a new kind of wheat, developed by Noman Bourlough, who was later awarded a Nobel Prize for its efforts. The Sonorans were delighted with the modernization this effort brought to agriculture, and what the new seeds could offer. So much that in those years wheat became part of the state coat of arms, along with a Hereford bull, and a mine—images of newcomers and a blatant denial of traditional activities in the region.
The authorities of Sonora, in those mid-century years, were proud of the state’s modernization and its economy, and as often happens chose to deny the past and the traditions in favor of a new vision and new kinds of use of the land.
How might Sonoran culture be different today if maíz had remained a dominant crop?
I do not like this kind of exercise in imagination, but if there were no wheat at all, I think the northern part of Sonora would have been raising more cattle instead. The irrigation that occurred in the 1950s would have had led to more cotton planting, and therefore the 1958 drop in the price of cotton would have significantly affected the economy of this part of Sonora. Maybe the coat of arms would have had cotton in it, and Hermosillo would be smaller than Ciudad Obregón, more a cattleman’s town, and more rural.
I asked you about culinary examples. Can you think of any other ways that maíz remains as part of Sonoran culture and folklife—idioms, dichos, customs, férias?
In most of the communities and villages in the sierra or valleys, patronal saint fiestas revolve around the cultivation of maize. In some places these fiestas, and saints’ days take place at the beginning of the rainy season, usually the 24th of June, Saint John’s, which is when the rains are expected to start. The rest of the fiestas, take place in autumn, from October to December, after the harvest. By then, people knew how prolific the yield was, and could calculate if they had enough corn stored to last until the next year and whether any surplus might allow for celebration—a small party or a huge festivity to communally commemorate the fruits of their labor.
What are some examples of maíz as it has remained in Sonoran cuisine?
Probably tamales are the most visible example of maize in all Sonora. From the simplest, tamales de queso, chile verde y elote, to tamales de carne en chile colorado or the very special, sweet tamal de frijoles, made with beans, cinnamon, clove, and brown sugar. We also have our pozole, made with pork and corn. And our Menudo, a broth made with tripe, corn, onion, garlic, chile verde, is tastier than the Spanish “callos” and even the menudo from central Mexico—both are much simpler than the menudo Sonorense; and the main difference is the use of maíz nixtamalizado. (Nixtamalization is a process of preparing maize by soaking it and cooking it limewater, then washing and hulling it.)
In Sonora you can find tacos made with fried corn tortillas, which differs from the soft corn tacos you’ll find elsewhere in Mexico. In Hermosillo and other cities, you can find street vendors that sell tacos de barbacoa or cabeza in the morning. Similarly, you can get tacos de cahuamanta in soft tortillas in many corners of the city. Cahuamanta is made of manta ray cooked “cahuama style,” referring to the original cahuama, or sea turtle, which is now protected and cannot be hunted. These tacos in soft corn tortillas are very popular as a fast breakfast, and are believed to be a great cure for the excessive consumption of alcohol.
In Sonora, we have our own chilaquiles, a dish made with old corn tortillas, torn into pieces, then fried and drizzled with a salsa and white regional cheese. In Sonora the salsa is made with the chile colorado traditionally grown in many ranches and villages. The most famous is the chile colorado from the Rio Sonora, which comes in both green and red varieties. (The green variety is now called Anaheim, perhaps for commercial reasons, which seems unfair to the people who have been growing it for centuries, calling it chile verde or chile colorado). This sauce has a peculiar and very distinct flavor, not very hot and quite different from chilaquiles made in the south or center of Mexico. The same sauce is often used for our enchiladas, which are made with soft corn tortillas rolled around cheese or chicken and baked in a thick sauce made with chile colorado.
During Lent, chicos is a very traditional dish made from corn. After the harvest, the farmer selects some elotes, then boils them in water, husks intact and whole on the cob. When done, the elotes are hung by their leaves to dry until they are hard again. The grains are then ground with a stone mortar and stored in a bag for several months, until Lent, in March or April. Then they are immersed in water to rehydrate and cooked as a soup with garlic, onion and ground chile colorado. This red broth is usually served in the Fridays of Lent, or Holy Week.
All over Sonora there is a very popular broth called gallina pinta, made with ox tail, other meats and bones, pinto beans, nixtamalized corn, garlic, onion, chile verde, and coriander. In cenadurías (local restaurants) throughout the region, you can find plenty of corn dishes, from menudo and pozole, to gorditas, a small thick corn tortilla fried in lard or oil then stuffed with beans and shredded beef, and topped with lettuce, tomato and onion, and a regional white cheese “de rancho,” similar to cotija. Adventurous eaters can add chiltepínes, a very spicy chile native to the Sonoran Desert. These corn antojitos are very popular and well-loved.
Ernesto Camou Healy was born in Hermosillo, Sonora and studied philosophy and social anthropology in Zamora, at El Colegio de Michoacán. He has conducted extensive anthropological fieldwork throughout Mexico exploring foodways, agriculture, and ranching abd has devoted his career to understanding the culture, economy, cuisine, and gastronomy of farmers. Camou Healy is the author of numerous books, among them El cultivo del Maíz en México: diversidad, limitaciones y alternativas (with Artruro Warman and others) and Cocina sonorense (with Alicia Hinojosa), a book of recipes from the region.