Daughter of Corn: Traveling the Milpa to Mexico
The Mexicans have a specific word for the land where corn is grown: la milpa. The mere presence of corn plants waving in the wind merits this name. Clearly the English language is not so inventive, for we have wheat fields, bean fields, cotton fields, and….cornfields.
La milpa. Try saying it aloud: “law meel-pa.” Now find some fresh Iowa sweet corn to tantalize your tongue and you will understand why corn is everything to the Mexican people—and to me, the daughter of an Iowa corn breeder.
I was raised in a small town in southeastern Iowa where the fertile earth and its seasonal crops formed the landscape of our daily discourse. My childhood was festooned in small-town activities that sprang out of rural farm life: woven May Day baskets filled with candy mints and sprigs of violets, bumpy hayrides through moonlit woodlands and back-yard barbecues where we roasted corn on a grill and whole hogs in sizzling tin barrels. During the lingering breath of winter we built long snow tunnels that led into forts constructed out of slabs of crisply frozen snow. When the weather was fierce enough to freeze water in depth, we ice-skated on bumpy ponds. Inside the house my family played endless board games, where words like sorry and twister took on new meaning.
My father, the corn breeder, glided in and out of our lives, disappearing for weeks at a time. He traveled to inspect corn plots in exotic places like Florida and Hawaii, as well as the distant states of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Back home I imagined him bracing the heat in a light green, rounded safari hat while he meticulously scribbled his notes. Occasionally my mother accompanied him on his journey, and one of my favorite pictures is her standing in a white shell and beige shorts, emerald parrots perched up and down her out-stretched arms.
Sometimes my brother and I would travel with my parents, piling into the company station wagon, a pea-green Chevy whose back trunk extended like giant metallic wings. We knew that after a long day of helping our father thin corn in his experimental plots we would return to the cool quarters of a Holiday Inn room. Once inside we’d tear off our rumpled clothes, pull on a swimsuit, and head for the refreshing waters of an aqua-bottomed glistening pool, the signature of Holiday Inn motels in the Sixties.
By the time I was nine, I knew how to thin fledgling corn plants with a metal rod, and hoe nocuous weeds which grew too close to corn. When I edged into my teens, the smooth wooden feel of the grip of a hoe meant extra dollars in my pocket. For nine years I trudged through the summer months with clots of dirt clinging to my tennis shoes, and the sound of rustling corn leaves imprinted in my brain.
I know the precise timing when the yellow dance of pollen will burst from a ripe corn tassel. I have observed the strength of a cornstalk as it rises in ornery defiance after being flattened by a heavy rain. Part of my brain seems ancient, full of primitive chants and rhythms that are tuned into rituals I have no way of knowing. Like the Mexicans walking the milpa, I consider corn a sacred plant, and the current practices of multinational giants attempting to mutilate its history frighten me.
I am a girl who grew green, while walking the loping fields of her Iowa youth. And this is why I write so passionately about corn, and why I return to Mexico again and again, the place where centuries ago it all began.