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.
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 Nahuatl “teocintli,”
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
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:
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
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.
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
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/