THE STUPIDEST QUESTION IN THE WORLD

A few days after I met Ramírez Leyva, the tortilla entrepreneur, we went to Soledad Aguablanca, a clump of small farms two hours southeast of Oaxaca City. Waiting for us at the side of the road was Héctor Díaz Castellano, one of the farmers who supplied Ramírez Leyva’s store. Díaz Castellano had a pencil moustache and a rakish straw hat. His Spanish was so heavily salted with Zapotec, the language of Oaxaca’s biggest Indian group, that I could not make out a word of it; Ramírez Leyva had to translate. The maize field was at the end of a long, rutted dirt road that led up a rise. Although we had left just after dawn, the sun was hot enough by our arrival to make me wish for a hat. Díaz Castellano walked along the rows, his gaze taking in every stalk as he passed. For an hour he spoke, almost without stopping, about his maize and the market for his maize. He was not, I suspected, a naturally loquacious man, but that morning he had a subject that interested him.

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Héctor Díaz Castellano

Díaz Castellano’s maize field was one of the 340,000 farms in Oaxaca. His farm, like about two-thirds of the farms in the state, occupied less than ten acres—unviably small by the standards of developed nations. Most landrace maize is grown on these farms, partly because of tradition and partly because they are usually in areas that are too high, dry, steep, or exhausted to support high-yield varieties (or owned by farmers too poor to afford the necessary fertilizer). As if being grown on tiny farms in bad conditions weren’t enough, landrace maize is usually less productive than modern hybrids; a typical yield is .4 to .8 tons per acre, whereas Green Revolution varieties in Oaxaca reap between 1.2 and 2.5 tons per acre when properly fertilized, a crippling advantage. The meager harvests may be enough for subsistence but can rarely be brought to market because farm villages are often hours away on dirt roads from the nearest large town. But even when farmers try, it is often little use: modern hybrids are so productive that despite the distances involved U.S. corporations can sell maize for less in Oaxaca than can Díaz Castellano. Landrace maize, he said, tastes better, but it is hard to find a way to make the quality pay off. He was lucky, he said, that Ramírez Leyva was trying to market his crop.

We went to Díaz Castellano’s house for breakfast. His wife, Angelina, round and short-haired in a tight plaid dress, was cooking tortillas in an outdoor shed with corrugated aluminum walls. A wood fire burned beneath a concave clay griddle called a comal. The comal was propped above the flames on three rocks—a cooking method as old as Mesoamerican culture. By the fire, in a three-legged stone bowl, was a lump of fresh masa twice the size of a toaster. The stereotype is that rural Mexicans are generous to strangers. Piling my plate high, Angelina did nothing to dispel this impression.

I asked her husband what he was. I had wanted to find out which Indian group he was born into, but he took the question another way.

Somos hombres de maíz,” he said, enunciating clearly for my benefit. We are men of maize.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this gnomic utterance. Was he pulling my leg?

“Everybody says that,” Ramírez Leyva said, observing my confusion. “It’s an idiom.” A little while later I visited a Danish anthropologist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), outside Mexico City. Watching films of her interviews with Oaxacans, I saw two old women explain to the young anthropologist that they, too, were hombres de maíz. So Ramírez Leyva was right, I thought. A day later a CIMMYT biologist gave me a paperback book, describing it as “the best novel ever written about Mesoamerica.” It was Hombres de maíz, by Miguel Angel Asturias. All right already, I thought. I get it.

Meanwhile Angelina had come out from behind the comal and joined her husband. In the Oaxacan countryside, they explained to me, a house without maize growing in the backyard is like a house without a roof or walls. You would never not have maize, they said. They were speaking matter-of-factly, as if telling me how to take the bus. Even in the city, they said, where people cannot grow maize, nobody would even think of passing a day without eating it.

Curious, I asked what they thought would happen if they didn’t have maize every day. Díaz Castellano looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question in the world.

“Why should I want to be somebody else?” he said.

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