King corn rules the countryside now. The rains, stuttery or not, send farmers into the mountains surrounding Guadalajara armed with talaches (a heavy-bladed, pick-handled hoe of ancient design) and machetes to cultivate their upland milpas.
But the alabado — the traditional hymn once ritually sung in the fields at the beginning and the end of each working day — is rarely heard today. Once in a very great while you may stumble across an elderly campesino singing it at dawn in some high lonesome field. Or, if you go far enough back up into the mountains, where people haven’t yet taken to pretending they’re city folks in disguise, where traditional farming customs still shape the lives of country people, you may happen onto it. But generally, it’s unusual to hear those ancient words praising God and consecrating the land, the seeds and the sweat of the day’s work.
Near the western end of Lake Chapala these early days of the temporada de lluvias, campesinos climb crooked slippery trails to weed corn fields hacked out of the steep sides of Las Graciadas Mountain. They call it simply the cerro — the hill. Capitaneja, chyotilla, garaona are among the traditional sacate (weeds) that spring up with the new green corn plants. “A good rainy season means good corn,” say the farmers, “and a lot of weeds.” There are hundreds of “superstitions” concerning cultivating corn. A good number have to do with avoiding “frightening” young plants during weeding. Others have to do with guarding the first fragile sprouts from various dangers, protecting each stage of the plants’ growth, the new ears of maiz, the fields in general. The lore of the milpa is abundant, diverse and richly imaginative.
Cordon de San Blas
Presently, in the mountain corn fields it’s both muddy and hot, though the mornings can be cold. Campesinos will be perspiring at their work and shivering at the same time. Not long ago, almost everyone wore a Cordon de San Blas, a narrow flannel strip tied round their necks, to ward off respiratory ailments, such as those picked up from golpes de aire — hits of air — while working in the high mountain fields.
Teofilo Cruz, who is about five-two, and outworks most men a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, plants a leased parcela up by a barranca called Cabeza de Toro, which cuts a falling slash down toward Lake Chapala. During the first weeks of June he planted his tilted milpa, dropping three granos of maiz, two of frijol and several of calabaza in each hole that he had chopped out of the rocky hillside with a talache. His two sons, aged nine and 11, covered the seeds by stomping dirt into the holes. Where the soil was particularly hard, Teo didn’t touch the sacate the dry season had left. “To guard the humedad,” he said. He also left his corn field littered with thousands of rocks. “They stop the rain from washing away the earth.”
Presently Teo is fretful because the rains have been especially pinto so far this year — meaning they’ve been more spotty than usual. This kind of climatic behavior makes farmers nervous, because they’re sure that the hole in the sky, where no rain falls, will occur directly over their field.
Teo is also replanting where run-off chorros from early rains have scoured out his seeds. He’s been industriously trenching the earth around the borders of his field to direct any sudden streams created by a storm away from his plants. Or he gives up a thin swath of his milpa, slanting a carefully dug ditch downhill across it to channel the run-off in the least-damaging manner.
“We farmers want humidity, but no damn rivers running through our fields,” he laughs. “Rain, but not too much of it, and no chorros washing away the seeds.” He grins at the dark clouds humping up behind the soaring peak of nearby Mount Garcia.
When I first began coming to Mexico, many farmers still called corn centli, using the Nahuatl word members of the Mexica (Aztec) Empire used for their god, Centeotl.
Though the religious veneration among country people for corn has diminished, it wasn’t until after the 1950s that this occurred. And even today, the farther away from cities you get, the more reverence for centli you find — because there is more dependence on it and other traditional plant-foods.
Though this reverence for the earth and its products is being swept away in more places than one cares to count by great swathes of asphalt and concrete — cities — it has always persisted everywhere. I’ve seen both farmers and ranchers in the United States affectionately caress handfuls of earth, smell it and taste it to test its fertility, even when they’ve known it was perfectly fine soil. In Mexico I’ve seen rancheros climb off their horses to kiss the earth, campesinos carry on long conversations with the seed being sown and with the green shoots of corn, with entire fields of tall green stalks, with fat mature ears of maiz.
The first rains of late June and early July also test the strength of every campesino’s stone — and huisache — fencing. Sudden, storm-born streams surge downhill, often toppling stone walls, sweeping away spiny windrows of laboriously cut huisache branches piled along the edges of fields to keep out hungry animals and wayward humans.
Early last Saturday morning, campesinos went up into Las Graciadas laden with talaches, machetes, their woven plastic bolsas bulging with containers of water and a comida of tortillas wrapped around pieces of tripe. All day long one heard the distant, echoey sound of talaches hitting stones, hoeing out pesky hoja ancho and chayotilla. Late in the afternoon the men and boys come down the mountainside, moving slowly, bent-kneed, shirts stained with sweat. Most carried what they call un puño (a handful) of bright green verdolargos and quilites. These are wild, high-mineral food plants that now are spouting up faster than corn in the cerro. The “handfuls” they carried were actually the size of buckets and would provide rich main meals for many families that night. They’re part of the rainy season largess of the mountains, part of nature’s amazing, generous — and fragile — provender.