It was my first time in Mexico, and something felt off. I was sitting outside the faded colonial church in Teotitlan del Valle, a village in the beautiful, proudly indigenous state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I surveyed the scene, trying to decipher the source of my uneasiness. In the town square facing the church, people were going about their day: haggling over the price of beans, weaving rugs, enjoying a taste of the region's famous black mole sauce.
And then it hit me: They were all women. OK, a few girls and abuelitas were running around, but the only man besides me was the guy inside the church hanging on a cross.
"Where are all the men?" I asked Carla Moreno, my tour guide and the unofficial town historian of Teotitlan. I had met Carla a week earlier at a writers' conference in Oaxaca city, and over a drink of mescal she had offered to show me around her hometown.
"Fueron al Norte" Carla said with a sad smile. "They went north. To the U.S."
I couldn't believe it. Migration seemed to have hit Teotitlan like a plague, wiping out the town's sons and fathers in one generational swoop. How was this possible?
"This is how," Carla said. She pulled out two ears of corn, already shucked.
One corn was yellow, the kind I've devoured at many a Labor Day barbecue. The other corn, however, was a color my gringo eyes had never
seen before: It was blue. A royal, purplish blue, with the occasional red or yellow kernel thrown in like abstract art.
"This," Carla said, holding up the blue species, "is one of our native corns we grow here in Oaxaca."
"And this one," she continued, now holding the yellow corn, "is from Iowa. American corn, subsidized by the American government, that has made it impossible for Mexican farmers to make a living. Farmers like my brother Luis."
Carla glanced around the village, like she was searching for a ghost.
"You want to know why Mexicans are taking over America?" she said. "Because American corn is taking over Mexico."
Corn is everywhere in Oaxaca, in every shape and size imaginable. Oaxaca is home to 85,000 unique varieties of corn, possibly the greatest diversity of any crop in the world. 85,000 types of corn! Think of all the different colors and flavors that could produce. Purple popcorn! Spicy red cornflakes!
My mind raced with the culinary possibilities, but for Carla, corn is more than a meal. Indeed, for the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, corn is central to their culture. The Zapotec people...