Maize in Times of War A ballad of love and survival

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Four indigenous families who dedicate their lives to growing milpas in remote areas of Mexico are, on appearances, the main characters of “Maize in Times of War.” The documentary, filmed throughout one year in different remote areas of Mexico, follows these families, one Huichol, another Mixe and two Tzetzal, during a harsh and loving process in which all of their members, from the youngest to the oldest, tend to the corn and the beans that grow together in a milpa.

The corn, like the land, is another member of these families. “You have to take care of it. You can talk to it as if it were your son or your mother,” says one of the patriarchs in the film. “If you don’t take care of your children, they won’t take care of you when you’re old. That’s how land is, if you don’t take care of her, she will not feed you.”

That’s how maize reveals itself as the true protagonist of Alberto Cortés’s documentary, a film that was released in Mexico a few months ago and shown at the Watsonville Film Festival in September.

Mexican journalist Hermann Bellinghausen has written extensively about indigenous Mexicans for decades and helped Cortés with the screenplay. Bellinghausen was invited to present the movie and spoke with Voices of Monterey Bay about a documentary that, just like its name says, portrays the war that corn and its indigenous producers are fighting.

“Mexico is the only country in the world that does not allow transgenics,” he said in Spanish. “It has not been approved, not because the industry doesn’t want it, or politicians or scientists or growers. It’s simply because in Mexico, it is unthinkable to have transgenic corn, which has nothing to do with Mexico’s corn.”

That’s because corn as we know it is due to the domestication of teocinte, a grass that grows in central Mexico, the product of indigenous people who selected the kernels to be planted about 10,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. Cognizant of their role as defenders of ancient knowledge, the indigenous families in the documentary refuse to allow transgenics to get into the country.

“We cannot say ‘this is my seed, you have to pay me,’” one of the farmers says in a few of the times when the protagonists speak in Spanish. “As a community, the seed is a right to us all. It’s not bought, it’s given, just like when your father gives you life.”

The filmmakers followed the families during an entire season, from the time the fields are burned to fertilize them naturally, to the time when the corn and beans are harvested and the grains are stored for future use. The families live their lives placidly and in sync with the agricultural cycle; they’re the ones who tell their own stories in their own languages and who describe the process that has taken place for thousands of years, and it’s notably similar in different areas of the country that don’t appear to be in contact with one another. It’s a process that has kept this agricultural traditonalive for centuries, even as it’s criticized for those who defend contemporary industrial methods.

Before they could begin to grow their milpas, at least one family had to recover land that was stolen from their forefathers by cattle growers. They were able to use documents that date from the Spanish Empire, showing the land had been in their family for generations. Later, they had to fight against drug lords who attempted to use the land to grow illegal crops.

“Their land is surrounded by drug cartels, they were scratched trying to protect their territory from the cattle growers but if they had not recovered it, a poppy field would have come out in ancestral huichol land,” Bellinghausen said. “We have a milpa south of Chiapas on land that was recovered by the Zapatista movement.”

These families are also demonstrating that many indigenous Mexicans have reached a level of cultural awareness that allows them to feel proud of their origins and gives them the strength they need to challenge not just drug cartels but the government itself. The awareness was born out of the 1994 Zapatista revolution, and has echoes in several indigenous movements throughout the continent.

“When the Zapatistas took up arms in 1994 and defied the Mexican government with a declaration of war … indigenous people placed themselves at the center of the conversation, even if they didn’t like to be armed,” Bellinghausen said. “Throughout the years I’ve talked to political leaders, indigenous writers, and they all talk about the impact that the Zapatistas had on them.

“To all of them it meant that they could become whoever they wanted, that they were not just going to be what was expected of indigenous people. They could attend universities, they could make a revolution, they could be writers. That was the mental revolution that went beyond the Zapatistas. They established an autonomous form of government that still exists and that works very well.”

Renowned linguist Noam Chomsky has said that, in these days of impending ecological doom, indigenous movements throughout the world offer a way forward. By defending the land and their so-called “primitive ways” — without fossil fuels, without industrialized agriculture — they are showing the rest of us alternatives that are beneficial for humanity and the planet.

Ultimately, that’s what “Maize in Time of War” is all about — an ancient process that could prove to be our future salvation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Maize in Times of War” was shown during the “Healthy Community” film series of the Watsonville Film Festival. The next movie in the series is “Evolution of Organic,” which details the organic agricultural movement from its early days in Santa Cruz and elsewhere, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. at The Appleton Grill in Watsonville.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.