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Awareness Magazine
5753-G Santa Ana Canyon Rd. #582
Anaheim, CA 92807
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Stolen Corn: Reclaiming Health in

Native American and Latino Communities

By Tim Martinez


Obesity. Diabetes. Cancer. These are some of the most prominent diseases afflicting modern Native American, Mexican and Latino communities in the United States. Yet indigenous people in the past were much healthier, and did not suffer from the same epidemic of poor health pervading these communities today. They subsisted on a macrobiotic diet based around the consumption of the whole grain of the Americas — Corn.  

The solution to these epidemics of degenerative disease and of the tragic and needless suffering of the Native and Latin American communities lies in returning to our traditional ways of living and eating. In these modern times, however, our ability to reclaim our heritage and health through the consumption of Corn is profoundly threatened by modern agricultural corporations and policies of the U.S. government.

Mexican people have a very ancient and intimate relationship with Corn. For more than 10, 000 years, Mexican farmers selectively bred and domesticated Maize from its ancestor, a wild grass called Teosinte. Teosinte, from the Nahuatlteocintli,” or “Sacred Corn” is different from our modern Corn. Over centuries, ancient Mexicans selectively picked the largest of the Teosinte kernels and bred from it the first ancient forms of Maize.  

This domesticated whole grain spread throughout North and South America. It made civilization possible and was bred with incredible diversity, allowing for its adaptation to numerous climactic conditions. As whole grains elsewhere in the world, Corn took its place as the primary and biologically-correct staple food of humanity. 

Corn was considered by all who grew it to be a sacred gift.  The Aztec, or Mexican people told of how Quetzalcoatl gave a kernel of Corn to people to plant, and they celebrated Centeotl, the maize god, as a source of life. Mayan legends tell of the Creators succeeding in fashioning the first humans out of Corn dough. The Giant White Corn of the Andes was sacred to the Incas. For the Hopi, Cherokee, Iroquois and numerous other native peoples, Corn was and is at the center of their spiritual identity.

Corn was often grown with Beans and Squash, in a system known as the Three Sisters. Indigenous people who followed the traditional diet composed primarily of vegetables, corn, beans, squash, fruit, wild plants, fish and game, enjoyed abundant health and longevity, absent of the current epidemics of degenerative disease which so often plague their modern-day descendants in the U.S.

When Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they were amazed to discover that the Aztec lifespan exceeded their own by at least 10 years. The benefits of a traditional diet and lifestyle can still be seen in traditional people such as the Tarahumara, or Raramuri people of Mexico. The Raramuri are arguably the best endurance runners on Earth, and it is well documented that those following a traditional diet were almost completely free of many common degenerative diseases. High blood pressure and obesity were unknown to them, and their cancer rates were extremely low. In fact, it is only since the introduction of modern processed foods such as top ramen, chips and soda, that the Tarahumara have had to invent names for diseases like “high blood pressure.”  

Throughout time, when people would become sick, Native American healers would recommend that the patient “return to the arms of Mother Corn” in order to heal themselves. Just as Hippocrates prescribed a simple diet of Barley porridge to the sick, so the native people would consume a simple porridge, or Atoli of corn to reverse illness.  

The traditional Native American diet based on corn and corn products such as tortillas, tamales, cornbread, pupusas, and atole remains the basis for much of the modern cuisine of Mexican and Latin American people. The foundation to heal ourselves and our communities here in the United States lies in returning to our traditional ways of eating diverse, high-quality, whole-grain plant-based meals.

Our ability to “return to Mother Corn,” the sacred grain of the Americas, has been profoundly jeopardized by a modern threat which has changed the very structure of Corn on a physical and spiritual level: genetic modification.

According to carighttoknow.org:

“A genetically-engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA artificially altered in a laboratory by genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria, in order to produce foreign compounds in that food. This type of genetic alteration is not found in nature and is experimental. 

GMO’s have not been proven safe, and long-term health studies have not been conducted. A growing body of peer-reviewed studies has linked these foods to allergies, organ toxicity, and other health problems. These studies must be followed up. However, unlike the strict safety evaluations that are required for the approval of new drugs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require safety studies for genetically-engineered foods.”

As we can see from the information above, what has been for centuries a life-giving source of sustenance is fast becoming a food source with uncertain effects on health. Currently up to 85% of U.S. corn is genetically modified.

The agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto owns the patents on their genetically-modified seeds, and uses aggressive legal tactics to sue the small farmers for patent infringement any time pollen or seeds from a farm growing GM crops drift onto their land.  

While there is still controversy over whether or not GM foods pose a risk to health, the fact remains that because of genetic modification, the genetic heritage of our traditional grain is in jeopardy. The loss of natural maize entails a loss not only of genetic resources and of cultural heritage, but the loss of a spiritual connection with the land and with the food that sustains us.  But there is hope.

Although the voters of California recently rejected the Prop 37 labeling initiative, momentum is building throughout the nation demanding that Americans gain the right to know what we are eating. In the meantime, for those who wish to avoid genetically-engineered corn while returning to the healthful diet of our fore-fathers, here are some other options:

Consume only the organic or non-GMO corn and soy. Nopaltilla tortillas, all Trader Joe’s private-label products and the 365 Everyday Value brand at Whole Foods are all GMO-free. Gold Mine Natural Food Company sells a variety of organic corn masa online. One may also find already-made organic tamales sold by La Guera Tamalera in Los Angeles, CA.

If you wish to grow your own corn in your yard or in a community garden, be sure to grow from organic or heirloom seeds that were not genetically modified. The Seed Savers Exchange is a great organization dedicated to saving and sharing a wide variety of heirloom seeds.

It is my sincere hope that as more people embrace the traditional diets of all of our heritages, that we will safely navigate through this environmental and health crisis facing our world, and work together to create a better and more just environment for all. As we move forward in good health and in good spirits, let us restore balance to the world as we have done so within ourselves.

Tim Martinez lives in Pasadena and is a student at California State University, Northridge. He is a board member of a non-profit land conservancy, and is Outreach Coordinator for a local environmental organization. http://arroyosage.blogspot.com/