Tracing Mexico’s Complicated Relationship With Rice

I ARRIVED IN Oaxaca on a rainy afternoon in May. We flew over pleated hills that formed a girdle around the Oaxaca valley, one of the most fertile variegated soils in the world. The earth was stamped with cloud shadows that gave an impression both of movement and fixity — a rich, dark earth with an inner seam that showed red and metallic in places. The shadow of the plane, like a fighter escort, followed us as we descended, then was subsumed by the rain-drenched tarmac. The sky was full of light. Leaving the small white airport, we passed a palisade of organ pipe cactuses. There was blue-leaved agave in the traffic islands and, lining the streets, the trees of my childhood in Delhi — flamboyant, laburnum, jacaranda — were in flower. A nondescript modern town of brightly shuttered shops, auto repair and signs that read “aluminio y vidrio” gave way to a fully intact Spanish colonial town from the 16th century. “Downtown: local people,” my driver said, observing the change, “centro histórico for foreign people.”

We came along large-stoned cobbled streets and single-story buildings painted in warm shades of ocher and that famous Oaxacan color — a carmine, drawn from the cochineal, a cactus-dwelling insect, which, with the addition of a single drop of lemon juice, turns into one of the most seductive reds known to man. There is no place, not even India, where the use of color produces as beguiling a mixture of gaiety and melancholy as Mexico. The British writer Rebecca West, who was here in the 1960s, has a description in “Survivors in Mexico” (2003) that cannot be bettered: “Here these walls are painted colors that are special to Mexico, touching variants of periwinkle blue, a faded acid pink, the terra-cotta one has seen on Greek vases, a tear-stained elegiac green.”

T’s Winter Travel Issue

A trip around the world through the lens of a vital grain.

– Tracing Mexico’s history through its ambivalent relationship to rice, a staple inextricable from colonialism.

– When scorched on the bottom of the pot by a skilled cook, rice transforms from bland supporting actor to rich, complex protagonist.

– Mansaf, a Bedouin dish of lamb and rice, is both a national symbol in Jordan and a talisman of home for suburban Detroit’s Arab American diaspora.

– Senegal, which consumes more rice per capita, most of it imported, than almost any other African nation, is attempting to resuscitate homegrown varieties.

Speaking of green, there is a green stone of otherworldly beauty known simply as cantera that is everywhere in Oaxaca. It appears as exposed quoins on the corners of painted facades. It forms the border of giant grill windows, which, Spanish-style, run the full length of the building. It is there as rustication and entablature — there, too, on one of the city’s main churches, Santo Domingo de Guzmán. On that first evening, I thought my eyes were deceiving me. The sky had turned half a dozen shades of pink and orange before grading into darkness. I walked among captivating scenes of city life — through a first-floor window, there were girls out of a Degas painting practicing ballet. Opposite was a mezcaleria with grizzled old men smoking outside. There were baroque theaters and stooped white saints in the tiny alcoves that appeared on high cornerstones. Outside Origen, which belongs to the renowned Oaxacan chef Rodolfo Castellanos — who still works in his restaurant — I pulled out my phone to inspect the exterior. It was not bewitchment, or blindness; it was that tender, mournful green.

Inside, in a grand courtyard, hung with dried maize whose twirling husks cast starry shadows over the whitewash, itself marked with the Jesuit monogram IHS, symbolizing Christ, I ate fried chapulines (grasshoppers) as a cocktail snack. A line from Hugh Thomas’s “Conquest,” his 1993 history of the subjugation of this land by the Spanish five centuries ago, returned to me. “Almost everything which moved was eaten,” he wrote of pre-Columbian Mexico. Then, as a tasting menu of several courses unfolded, each bringing with it flavors that were utterly new, I felt intimations of that pre-Columbian past.

We speak so easily of earthiness, of terroir and rusticity, but we do not know the meaning of these words until we come to Mexico. In chintextle — a paste made from pasilla chile — that had been smeared onto a tostada of blue corn, I could taste the flavors of the deep earth. It was there again, that volcanic smokiness, in the mole manchamanteles, which, smothering a duck breast, was as red as the soil I had seen from the airplane. Death, smoke, desiccation. It was there, too, in the purée of mangrove mussels upon which a piece of striped sea bass appeared. It was as if a portal had been opened to an underworld from which the savor of Mictlan itself (Hades to the Aztecs) flowed out, endowing everything with chthonic force. I half-thought I was losing my mind until a few days later, when Olga Cabrera Oropeza — the chef and founder of Tierra del Sol, a restaurant specializing in moles — confirmed the feeling I had had on that first night in Oaxaca. “For me,” she said, on a terrace with sweeping views of the emerald city, “a mole is the presence of dead ingredients that bring a dish to life.” These were pre-Hispanic ingredients — old Aztec flavors, one imagined — many new to me in texture and taste, and, as such, they felt like an emanation of the culinary history of the land.

I HAD COME to Mexico in search of what was perhaps the quintessential post-Hispanic ingredient — rice — and, almost immediately, I was confronted by the most reasonable question in the world: “¿Por qué arroz?” (“Why rice?”), asked Eduardo “Lalo” Ángeles, an artisanal mezcal maker with rugged features and sun-scorched skin. Why, in this birthplace of corn, Lalo wanted to know, was I bothering myself about rice? Speaking to me through my guide — Omar Alonso, who sat next to Lalo in a cap for Guerreros de Oaxaca, the local baseball team, under a mural of Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess of maguey (agave) — I heard, in the easy torrent of his Spanish, the word “Chino.” Omar looked slightly embarrassed, then translated: “We’re not Asian.”

Margarita Navarro Gómez sits in one of her three kitchens at home in the village of Santo Tomás Jalieza, just outside of Oaxaca, where she lives with her two sisters, Crispina and Inés. The three siblings are known for their hand-woven textiles and for their homemade version of the rice-based beverage horchata.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
Some of the raw ingredients for horchata, including (from left) walnuts, prickly pear, prickly pear pulp, sugar and melon, which are later added to a mixture of ground rice and cinnamon.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

Lalo’s surprise piqued my interest. Rice had come to Mexico shortly after the Spanish conquest of the 1520s. It was a time when Spain and Portugal were spreading their tentacles across the globe: The Portuguese viceroy Alfonso de Albuquerque’s conquest of Goa, on the west coast of India, occurred nine years before the conquistador Hernán Cortés’s 1519 march on Mexico. Some four decades later, Spanish vessels known as the Manila Galleons first brought rice to Mexico from the Philippines. What interested me was what place this Old World staple, come via Asia through Europe to the New World, held in the lives of these people who had a mythical attachment to corn. Was it an assimilated part of Mexican food, all memory of its origins forgotten, or was it in some ways still a symbol of the conquest? We assume from a certain kind of Mexican food — the rice-filled tummy of a burrito, or the red rice that comes with almost every takeout order — that rice is integral to the cuisine of this country. But the numbers tell a different story: Per capita consumption may have increased in recent years — from 13 pounds in 2011 to almost 20 in 2017 — but the average Mexican still only consumes one-fifth as much rice as his coeval in next-door Belize. Mexico does grow some of its own rice for domestic consumption, but the majority of its needs, about 70 percent, are met by imports, mostly from the United States. My interest in the role of rice in Mexico could not be reduced to anything so vulgar as bushels. What intrigued me was the relationship of this grain to the cuisine of this great culinary nation — and what, in turn, that could tell me about Mexico’s relationship to its difficult history.

To get to Lalo, Omar and I had driven an hour south from Oaxaca to the small distillery town of Santa Catarina Minas, set among serried fields of thorn-edged maguey, a squat, potbellied plant with fleshy leaves of a tantalizing aquatic green. Above Omar and Lalo, both in their 40s, the goddess Mayahuel appeared bare-chested, between two fronds of the maguey, gazing dreamily into the distance. All around me were reddish-black piles of timber and fermenting casks of agave. On their surface, amid clouds of insects attracted to the cloying sweetness of sugar turning to alcohol, Lalo had planted tiny bamboo crosses, a mark of his devout Catholicism. Reflecting further on the question — “¿Por qué arroz?” — he said that from his experience, he found that rice was consumed most in places where the church’s influence was strongest.

“What’s the connection between the church and rice?” I asked Lalo.

“It’s an influence from Europe,” he said easily, reminding me of how exotic rice could still seem in Mexico even 500 years after the Old World’s “discovery” of the Americas.

Catholicism — like rice and the knowledge of distillation, which made Lalo’s mezcal possible — had come with the Spanish conquest. That tale of Cortés, the rogue conquistador, who, having burned his boats, subdued the mighty lake-bound capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan — with its 200,000 inhabitants, bigger than any city in Europe, save perhaps Paris — is among the most painful and pitiable episodes in history. With growing horror, one reads of that terrible sequence of events: the first meeting of Cortés and the Aztec emperor Montezuma, one driven by his greed for gold, the other, it was thought (though recent scholarship has contested this), laboring under a prophecy that the conquistador was the god Quetzalcoatl, reincarnated; the 93-day siege of the lacustrine city, known as the Venice of the New World, which would leave it a burning ruin; the plague-weakened Aztecs, fatally susceptible to Old World diseases such as small pox, succumbing to the first use of horse and cannon against them. The Spanish triumph, of course, yet one is left feeling a great sense of unease at their victory. As the British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in his “Oaxaca Journal” (2002), when confronted by the sheer rapacity of the Spanish melting down of thousands of pre-Columbian gold artifacts at the ruin of Monté Albán, in the hills above Oaxaca, “the conquistadors had showed themselves to be far baser, far less civilized, than the culture they overthrew.” Within half a century of the conquest, Sacks writes, the Aztec population of 15 million had been reduced to a subjugated three million.

The vendor and cook Doña Vale sits at her stall in the Mercado de Abastos, one of the oldest and most popular street markets in Oaxaca, enjoying a bit of chocolate and bread after a morning of work.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

A spread at Oaxaca’s Levadura de Olla restaurant, featuring (clockwise from top) chile atole (a thick corn soup), tamal de rajas, jitomate y quesillo (tamale with sliced chiles, green tomatoes and Oaxacan cheese) and ejote soup.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
The organ pipe cactus is a fixture of the Oaxacan landscape.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

It was during this same period that the Spanish brought rice from Asia, via the port of Acapulco, one of the oldest in Mexico, to their new colony, where the soil and climate were suitable for its cultivation. This movement of goods and technology, by which the Old and New Worlds literally seeded one another, is known as the Columbian Exchange, which had started decades before in Spanish colonies in the Caribbean — including Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico — but which had been taken to new heights after the conquest of Mexico. To the Old World there flowed such indispensable things as maize, chocolate, chiles, tomatoes, avocados, potatoes and rubber. The Americas, in turn, received the wheel, the horse, sugar, wheat, livestock, a syllabic script and, of course, rice. The changes the Columbian Exchange wrought are so profound, so embedded now in our way of life, that it is hard to imagine the world before them. It boggles the mind to think of India, where I grew up, as not having chiles until only five centuries ago. Or Italy and Greece doing without tomatoes. As the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, who had served as ambassador to India, puts it in “Itinerary: An Intellectual Journey” (1980): “The discovery of America initiated the planet’s unification.”

But, as we already know, the conquest of Mexico was not a benign affair. Here there was no mere happy exchange of exotic fruit. It left a layered society, full of unresolved historical pain. “The nations of ancient Mexico,” Paz writes, “lived in constant war, one against the other, but it was only with the arrival of the Spaniards that they really faced the other, that is, a civilization different from their own.” That sentence, mutatis mutandis, could have been written about India, where Islamic invasions and British rule still produced an anxiety about authenticity — what was one’s own, what had come from outside. I was interested in that anxiety, which could manifest itself both in tangible and intangible ways.

“¿Por qué arroz?” indeed. I guess I hoped rice, like dye in a chemistry experiment, would serve me as a flow tracer of sorts — a way to enter the complexities of Mexico’s past through something as concrete as food.

“RICE IS NOT filling,” Lalo said. “If you eat it, then after two or three hours in the fields you’re hungry again. If you have beans, you can hang on longer.”

Omar laughed, in part, I thought, because Lalo seemed to take the intrusion of the crop in his birthplace so personally.

“Think about it,” Lalo said. “When was the last time you cooked rice in your house?

Omar nodded. “It’s a restaurant thing.”

“But horchata? All the time.”

The tomato room at Levadura de Olla stocks dozens of varieties of the fruit, including the green tomatillo, the base for many Mexican sauces.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
Doña Vale prepares her famous memelas on a comal.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

Lalo and Omar spoke to an element of novelty that rice still possesses in this part of Mexico, its tapered southern end surrounded by rice-producing states such as Tabasco, Campeche and Veracruz. The presence of the crop was remarkable enough for Lalo to associate it with the church, which was inseparable from the conquest. Omar linked it to the more artificial setting of a restaurant, as opposed to what one made at home, reminding me that this was one of those countries, like India and China, where restaurant food was a cuisine apart from what one ate in people’s houses. And later, I would meet another chef who would trace its origins in her life to a government food security scheme. All of which is to say that rice, though partially assimilated, still felt somehow alien. (To give you a sense of the disparity: In 2018, Mexico consumed a paltry 1.2 million metric tons of rice, whereas a rice-eating nation of roughly equal size, like Japan, say, consumed over 7 million.) But as the basis for horchata, it was perfectly natural. The drink — a cold, cloudy, sweet liquid exalted by the presence of fruits and nuts — has an ancient origin in North Africa. It came to the Iberian Peninsula via the Moorish conquest of Spain in the eighth century. Known then, too, for its cooling quality, it was made with tiger nuts, but when these failed to make it aboard the ships of conquistadors, horchata was reborn in the New World, with a new basis in rice, still carrying on the fight against the stultifying heat of a day like today.

Before our trip to the distillery, Omar and I had been in the tiny Oaxacan village of Santo Tomás Jalieza, a place of large-leaved verdure, corrugated steel fencing and tropical lanes of red earth, with puddles that reflected the vacant intensity of the Mexican sky. There, at the house of the Navarro sisters, three unmarried weavers in their 50s, Omar and I had witnessed a rarity even in Mexico: horchata made from scratch. In a shaded courtyard overgrown with succulents, Margarita, with her graying pigtails and brightly embroidered apron, had crushed rice, which had been soaking for an hour or so, on a metate, a hollowed, mortarlike stone. Nearby, Inés, stouter but dressed similarly — in a brown dress and apron, on which there sprawled bright blue and red flowers — prepared all that would go into the horchata: melon, walnut, red-fleshed prickly pear. Back and forth Margarita went, mashing the rice to gruel. Now and then she flicked bits of cinnamon onto the pocked ashen surface of the metate. The mashed rice turned a pale brown. When enough had collected in the clay pot at the edge of the quern, the two sisters — the third Navarro sister, Crispina, was an amused bystander — squeezed out its impurities using a wet cloth. Margarita added sugar, ice and all the condiments. In a round-bottomed gourd, beautifully painted with a bright red ground covered in leaves and flowers, the hemisphere bifurcated by a white-flecked band of superb Mexican blue, which in turn sat on a glazed clay cup, I was presented my first horchata.

On that hot afternoon, the throbbing blue tent of sky above me, it was magically refreshing, full of surprise and fragrance, the drab, ice-cold graininess of its texture transformed by the inclusion of bright fruits and the gritty richness of nuts. It was also a million miles away from any previous notion I’d had of rice. It felt like what in artistic circles is described as a response — as if the New World, desperately bored by the prospect of rice, had souped it up with every possible bell and whistle, so that almost nothing remained of the interloping grain that had tried to muscle its way over to the Americas on the boats of the conquistadors. I drank it down, then drank another.

The chef Thalia Barrios García, owner of Levadura de Olla, in her restaurant’s kitchen with yellow olotillo corn masa (left) and blue tatacuache corn masa.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
At the chef Rodolfo Castellanos’s restaurant, Origen, ingredients used in several dishes, including (clockwise from bottom left) pink oyster mushrooms, pomegranates, green cherry tomatoes, habanero chiles, ajo macho, black cherry tomatoes and chilacayota (plated and cut into halves), a spaghetti squash found in the region.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

Swimming back into myself, I saw Omar and Lalo sitting against the turmeric-colored wall where Mayahuel held sway. Thinking of India, where the old gods, despite centuries of conquest, had not been overthrown, I wondered if it was easy for Lalo to balance his regard for the Aztec pantheon with his allegiance to the church.

“For us, no,” he said, without so much as a glance back at Mayahuel, whose smoky nectar we had been consuming in voluminous quantities, “because we are the product of the conquest.”

THE NEXT DAY, under the “blue uneasy alkaline sky” of D.H. Lawrence’s “Mornings in Mexico” (1927), Omar and I, at the Mercado de Abastos — a warren of shaded lanes, no wider than corridors, with sleek, undulating walls of corrugated steel and workman tables dressed brightly in their oilcloths — walked among the ingredients I had tasted that first night in Oaxaca at Origen. As I’d learned the day before, the preconquest past, in areas such as language (Nahuatl), religion (an earth religion where the obsidian knife was routinely used in human sacrifice), dress (“the upper class,” writes Thomas in “Conquest,” wore robes of long quetzal feathers, and very elaborate cloaks of white duck feathers, embroidered skirts and necklaces with radiating pendants) and architecture (great stepped pyramids rising out of a lake encircled by volcanoes), has all but gone under in Mexico. But if there is one point of contact, one aperture through which the Mexico of today can reach out its fingers and touch the Aztec past, it is food. And that past, here at the Mercado de Abastos, through the prevalence of corn, cacao and chiles — and the absence of rice — could still feel very present.

A metate in the garden of the Navarro sisters. The pre-Hispanic stone tool is used to grind grains, including rice for horchata.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
The writer’s guide, Omar Alonso. The textile is from the collection of Remigio Mestas.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

“I don’t like to plan,” Omar said waspishly that morning over a café con piquete — a coffee with a stinging shot of mezcal — in Enrique Olvera’s restaurant Criollo. (Olvera is Mexico’s original rock star chef, with such establishments as Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York to his name.) Thanks to Omar, we were served up an impromptu feast. Conchas topped with an even layer of charred corn husk, which I was meant to dunk in my coffee. Rib-eye soup. A taco of beef, chorizo and quesillo (string cheese). Another with berros (fragrant greens) and a salsa of chicharrones (fried pork skin). All this, I should add, was merely a prelude to the morning of street food Omar had arranged. Observing me quail at the prospect of more, he plied me sadistically with an enmolada whose red mole contained the rarest, most expensive of all chiles: chilhuacle — stout, triangular and of impossible smokiness.

“Oaxappiness!” Omar proclaimed.

And then we were off — Omar playing Ariadne to my Theseus — through a street of prostitutes, preening in the clear morning air, deep into the cool labyrinth of the market. I had been in markets all my life, in places as far apart as Ouarzazate and Luang Prabang, Samarkand and Kigali, but that was the Old World. Here, in this New World market, one felt the ubiquity of the absence of Old World produce like rice, and my reaction was not unlike that of Columbus himself first setting eyes on the newness of the New World: “I saw neither sheep nor goats nor any other beast” — he writes in his journals — “but I have been here a short time, half a day; yet if there were any I couldn’t have failed to see them. … There were dogs that never barked. … All the trees were as different from ours as day from night, and so the fruits, the herbage, the rocks and all things.” It was amazing how, on that morning, a sense of New World wonder still prevailed after the passage of five centuries. Dizzying varieties of chiles rose around me in steep escarpments of roachlike red verging on black. I now knew pasilla and chilhuacle, but did I know that there were two varieties of the latter? And what of other chile varieties such as guajillo, cascabel and morita? Omar was relentless, pressing on through the tented streets scalloped with pools of sunlight. Sometimes he would stop to buy a delicacy, like huitlacoche — corn that had sprouted an efflorescence of rich blue fungus. We took the corn smut to Doña Vale, an elderly lady whose memelas — a thick pre-Hispanic tortilla — and salsa of tomatillos (green tomatoes) had made her a TV star when she was featured on the Netflix series “Street Food.” When we found her, she was in a cerise dress ornamented with black lace, two carmine stones in her ears, flanked by a couple of loutish youths in masks and hoodies, taking selfies. In a gesture of friendship, Omar gave her the smut and we plunged deeper into the market, where a 36-year-old woman named Mago, also famous for her memelas, stood ready to make us our umpteenth breakfast. Young and vivacious, in a green camouflage T-shirt, she threw a couple of hierba santa leaves on a hot comal, where they wilted instantly, and began to cook eggs over them. In between cooking for us, Mago pressed tortillas between two sheets of orange plastic on a blue metal press from which the paint flaked. The band Grupo Soñador, known for its Mexican take on the Latin American folk music cumbia, played a brassy, jaunty number in the background from a speaker. Omar crushed an avocado onto the wilted leaves, scattering guaje seeds on it — a vine grass that grows in the surrounding hills, and from which the word “Oaxaca” itself is derived. All around me, from the sight of a woman, standing in the distance, with strong Indian features and pigtails, a basket of nopales (cactuses) on her head, to men offering me pulque, a pre-Hispanic drink made from the fermented sap of the maguey, I saw the vestiges of a past that, though worn thin in places, was full of novelty. It was against this newness that rice felt almost like a memory of the Old World — a world elsewhere.

A view of the Oaxacan cityscape. The distinctive green hue of many of the city’s walls comes from the cantera stone.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
A butcher’s stall in the Mercado de Abastos.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

ON MY LAST day in Oaxaca, Omar took me to Levadura de Olla, a restaurant whose name means “the yeast of the cooking pot.” It had been started by a 26-year-old chef named Thalia Barrios García, who came from San Mateo Yucutindoo, a village in the Sierra Sur, the hills surrounding Oaxaca. She was kneading three kinds of maize when we came in. One of the joys of being in Oaxaca, unlike other food capitals, was how close the connection still was between fine cuisine and the traditions people had grown up with. Thalia’s aunts and grandmother had all been cooks. She had learned from them.

A government agency with the acronym CONASUPO — which provided food security to economically disadvantaged areas — had introduced arroz to Thalia’s village in the mid-1980s. “Rice is something you eat with tortillas before you go to work in the fields,” she said, taking us back to the idea of the staple as a raw source of energy and sustenance in agrarian communities. Lalo had said something similar, but with the opposite meaning: Rice, he felt, was poor sustenance; beans were better. But what surprised me, watching her make arroz rojo (red rice) and arroz con frijoles (rice and beans), was how recent that introduction had been. Lalo had traced a line to the church; Thalia now traced one to a government agency. It made rice seem so foreign, so new, in a way that I could never imagine a Punjabi farmer in north India, consuming a corn roti and spinach on a cold winter morning, ever feeling. Obviously, we in the Old World had assimilated the New World far more unthinkingly than was true in reverse. In a beautiful green glazed pot, which sat on a wood-fired comal, Thalia was blackening a few chiles costeños. To these, from a clay sartén, or pan, she added the softest, mashiest frijoles I had ever seen, then diluted the mixture with water. It was now a soup of sorts, into which Thalia sprinkled salt, avocado leaves and, of course, arroz.

It was the best thing I ate in Oaxaca. In its raw, terrestrial graininess, it reminded me of dishes, like dal (lentils) and rice in India, that are pared down to a simplicity so perfect that even the addition of salt can feel like a flourish. Soon, other things arrived: five kinds of tomatoes overlaying a beet purée. Mezcal. Then an offspring of the rain, which now came every afternoon like clockwork — a mole of chicatanas.

“Chicatanas?” I asked Omar.

“Flying ants,” he replied dryly.

The artisanal mezcal maker Eduardo “Lalo” Ángeles in his palenque (distillery). Behind him is an olla de barro (clay pot) containing mezcal in its final stages of distillation.Credit…Stefan Ruiz
An array of foods indigenous to the Americas, including tomatoes, peanuts, Mexicola avocados and dried chilhuacle chiles, which were introduced to the Old World after the Spanish conquest.Credit…Stefan Ruiz

“IN EXILE, FOOD becomes important,” the ex-shahbanu of Iran had once told me, in Morocco, on a previous assignment for this magazine. Mexico, in many ways, is a country exiled from its pre-Hispanic past. As with Iran and the Arab conquest of the seventh century, the pain of what had been lost was still fresh centuries after. Considering the nature of Mexico’s “inner conflict,” Paz wrote, “I found that it was the result of a historical wound buried in the depths of the past.”

On that last night in Oaxaca, the reverberations of that wound came to the surface. I sat on a terrace, overlooking dark cobblestones bathed in yellow streetlight, with a young dancer by the name of Enrique. He had a light beard, fine features and his slight, slim body vibrated with the historical anger that the conquest could still produce in Mexico. “By the end of the conquest,” Enrique said, “the people who had the power were the white people. Even the revolutions were led by white people.”

The legacy of that conquest, as Matthew Restal argues in “When Montezuma Met Cortés” (2018), was taken up by the United States once Spanish power had failed on the American mainland. In two friezes on the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., a clear parallel is drawn between Montezuma’s surrender to Cortés and the Mexican general Santa Anna’s surrender to the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. “Every country has its phantoms,” writes Paz, no doubt thinking of the war that cost Mexico half its territory. “France for the Spaniards, Germany for the French, ours have been Spain and the United States.” Paz goes on to describe Mexico’s neighbor to the north as a reality “so vast and powerful that it borders on myth,” producing a relationship on Mexico’s end that is “polemical and obsessive.” How could it not be? The United States’ gaze, even before Trump’s talk of Mexicans as rapists and criminals, was corrosive, turning this country, with its rich, layered history, into little more than a brutish source of labor. Enrique himself worked part time as farm laborer on a plantation in California that grew not rice but marijuana. And that relationship felt exploitative — as it had been for Omar, who crossed the U.S. border illegally when he was 18, and lived and worked in Los Angeles restaurants for the next decade.

On the Cover

For the cover of T’s Winter Travel issue, the photographer Anthony Cotsifas shot a satchel of short-grain white rice in its raw form, which sits among stalks of hayayuki rice.Credit…Anthony Cotsifas

Enrique, in turn, lived with his own sense of historical unease. He was neither white nor Indigenous. Like over half of Mexico, he was mestizo, of mixed blood, a child of the conquest. He privileged the authenticity of Indigenous Mexico, relaying the crimes of the colonizers but, as he spoke, I was reminded of a moment in “Survivors in Mexico,” when West is confronted with a similar situation with a taxi driver in Mexico City. “The man,” she writes, “is not identifying some monstrous invader of his people’s lands, as Poles might denounce the Nazi Germans; he is denouncing some of his ancestors for maltreating other of his ancestors, which, as he is both, must lead to schizophrenia.”

The emanations of that schizophrenia had been with me throughout my time in Mexico. I had come among people who had been remade by the Spanish conquest but who had battled within themselves on behalf of a truer, Indigenous Mexico. When I asked Enrique to pick out the people who were Indigenous, he said, “They’re not here. They’re on the street, begging for money or selling candy, but they’re not here. They’re somewhere else.”

Their absence, symbolizing the loss of old Mexico, was pain. On this epicurean journey in Oaxaca, I had seen food serve as a way for people to commune with that vanquished past. It was a rare line of continuity that ran from the pre-Columbian era into the Mexican present, allowing the society to glimpse a shattered wholeness.

But as much as people suffered on account of their histories, their relationship to food tells a different story, speaking always of our talent for assimilation and absorption. “¿Por qué arroz?” Lalo had asked. The answer was plain: The Columbian Exchange was proof like no other of how, when it comes to food, so often the venue of our greatest nativisms, we, as human beings, easily slip the ties of belonging. No man dipping his satay in peanut sauce in Bangkok, or woman eating chicken paprikash in Budapest, or any number of families consuming potatoes across the breadth of Russia, stops for one moment to consider how relatively recently these seminal ingredients have been added to their national cuisines, even if, like Enrique, those same people still bristle from the aftereffects of conflicts that are centuries old. We apply the terms “invasive” and “native” to the vegetable kingdom. They are full of resonance for us, but every day, at our dining tables, we set aside our obsession with origins — what is ours, what has come from outside — nourishing ourselves on an endlessly fertile encounter with the other.

Prop stylist: Leilin Lopez-Toledo. Guide and food stylist: Omar Alonso. Photo assistant: Diego Garcia

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