A Lazy Afternoon in the Cornfields
I spent a week in July in Mexico. I started in Mexico City and ended up in the small town of Actopan, which is in the state of Hidalgo. My friend Gabriel's cousin and wife ran two tortillerias, which are not taquerias (for tacos) but more like tortilla bakeries. I wanted to learn as much as I could and it was intense time learning their trade. By the end of the first day my arms ached and I had dreams of tortillas coming at me down the conveyor belt. It wasn't a sweet dream! At one point I'd had enough so Gabriel, Yunuen and Gabriel's uncle Damaso took me out to see the uncle's milpa, or cornfield. To be honest, I was a little dull from the roar of the machines but if I'd thought about it, I might have said I'd had enough corn for one trip. Luckily, I was a passive guest and off we went out into the country. When we reached our destination, Damaso and Gabriel immediately set off looking for wood. I still didn't really know why we were there but it was beautiful and I was just happy not to be inside a hot, loud tortilleria. Beautiful Yunuen also seemed happy to be outside of town and explained to me in her very good English that we were building a fire. My Spanish is crude and she is my crutch in so many circumstances. I'm so grateful to have her nearby! Even when I do understand the words, she fills in the nuance. As soon as the fellows returned with wood, we opened beers and Uncle started to build a fire. It was very warm, but there was a breeze and the beer did the rest to make us feel pretty relaxed. I've started getting close to a lot of my Mexican friends and contacts and everyone is feeling bolder it seems. Intimate questions get asked and cultural differences are explored, often with the aid of beer and either tequila or mezcal. Explanations on both sides can be surreal, but in the end, I've come to the conclusion we're not that much different. We all want to earn a few extra bucks and have a few more hours to enjoy them with. Damaso was fascinated by our work with the beans. His whole life he was told that hybrids and commercial crops were they key. He couldn't believe the gringos up north would have any interest in heirloom crops, although he readily agreed their flavor was superior. My thinking is that there's room for everyone. I'm not insisting on only heirlooms but I do object when commercial crops push aside and bury heirloom varieties. I think GMOs are too new to really know what they do and they have the potential of neutering our non-GMO corn so why introduce them when we have such high-yielding hybrid varieties? As the corn roasted, Gabriel put on a CD of Cuban great Beny More in the car and we had more beers. At one point, it dawned on me that I was very happy. Damaso asked me about Mexican workers. I told him that the ones I know are incredible and do an amazing job without complaint. He laughed and said his experience was the opposite. We pondered whether the workers in the US were tireless because they'd seen a lot of trouble and were grateful or if it was a regional trait as most of the Mexicans in my area are from Jalisco or Michoacan. Maybe we both had some pre-conceived ideas. No conclusion was reached. Damaso complained about the state of music. Mexicans are always surprised that I know so much about their music and old movies. My interest in based on a real love so I get a little passionate about it. He told me his favorites were Sonora Santanera and Frank Sinatra. One by one the corn came off the fire. Damaso sprinkled it with salt and it was the best thing I'd eaten on the trip. The cobs were hot and the kernels tasted like candy jewels. Of course I'm being dramatic but I really do think the flavor of this corn will haunt me until the day I die. It was so rich and delicious and unexpected. After peeling off the husk, he'd toss them up in the air to cool them. After a time, he confessed that he read and had his opinions but had never actually talked to a gringo about all these things. I thought this was pretty odd until I thought about how few of us go to Mexico beyond the coastal resorts. And if we know Mexicans at home, how likely is it that we'll have a conversation beyond, "Lupe, don't forget to vacuum the curtains!" I'm not placing blame. We just don't tend to interact with each other much. In meeting Uncle Damaso, I felt I had met an incredibly good person. To me, he represents the best in Mexico; the warm hospitality and the almost compulsive need to share the good things. And maybe a sense of vulnerability and resigned confusion as to why his neighbors to the north didn't always seem to understand how great Mexico can be. I wanted you to see this great face again. I think I was being honest in describing my countrymen as open-minded. Our weakness is that we lack a natural curiosity. If something is presented to us properly, we tend to believe it. We can be outraged at injustice and yet sometimes I think we tend to not want to dig deeply. If we could present some of the problems with Mexican relations in a different way, I think we could make some progress. A lot of us think there are millions of Mexicans pounding at the border walls, willing to do anything to get in and take our jobs and daughters. A lot of us know better. The desperate circumstances that led to many of the border crossings were based on our own trade policies. It's not black and white. How do you compare the crime of crossing the border to the crimes that led to the poverty, on both sides of the border? We didn't solve all the problems of the world that day. Not even one, but two people took a small step in sync. And I have a new buddy.