I’ve written or edited several books in my life and each of them have been special, especially since most were banned by Tucson’s school district during the state’s infamous battle in Arizona to eliminate Raza Studies. However, this one, Our Sacred Maíz Is Our Mother, released early by the University of Arizona Press, seems to be a little more special. Perhaps it is so because it speaks to a topic that recognizes no borders and connects peoples from across this continent, and it is a story that arguably goes back some 7,000 years.
The actual title of this book is Nin Tonantzin Non Centeotl. Translated, it means – Nuestro Maíz sagrado es Nuestra Madre – Our Sacred Maíz is our Mother. Only the English appears on the front cover. However, Nin Tonantzin Non Centeotl does appear on the title page, along with the names of 9 Indigenous elders or teachers who contributed maíz origin/creation/migration stories from throughout Abya Yala, Cemanahuac or Pacha Mama – from throughout the continent: Veronica Castillo Hernandez, Maestra Angelbertha Cobb, Luz Maria de la Torre, Paula Domingo Olivares, Tata Cuaxtle Felix Evodio, Maria Molina Vai Sevoi, Francisco Pos, Irma Tzirin Scoop and Alicia Seyler.
Each of the ancestral stories they wrote, or relate, is a treasure unto itself, each from a different people or pueblo from throughout the continent. The same thing applies to the artwork; each one is also a priceless treasure, depicting maíz in a most special way. The artists include: Laura V. Rodriguez, Tanya Alvarez, Grecia Ramirez, Paz Zamora, Pola Lopez, Mario Torero and Veronica Castillo Hernandez.
Already, I have been asked what the primary message of the book is. Each person will take away something different, but for me, my simple answer is that the title and front cover say it all: Nin Tonantzin Non Centeotl – Our Sacred Maíz is our Mother. For some, no further explanation is required.
The message resonates because it comes from somewhere profound… from a place of ancestors. Its message is: We are people of maíz. This is where we come from. This is what we are made of. This is who we are. Most Indigenous peoples form maíz–based cultures instinctively understand this message.
If you are reading this without seeing, or not having seen, the image, the front cover is a genuine amoxtli or codex unto itself, painted by Laura V. Rodriguez. It tells the ancient Nahua story of Maíz from the Chimalpopoca Codex – of the ants of Quetzalcoatl – and how it is that humans received the maíz. Truly, the imagery and message are both stunning. Again, it is a story, one of many ancient stories actually, that is thousands of years old, stories that were initially suppressed during the colonial era, but now are back, not as part of an extinct culture, but as part of living cultures that exist throughout the continent, including in what is today the United States.
More than that, there is a specific message for peoples of the Americas that have been de-Indigenized, disconnected and severed from their traditions, languages and stories: despite 522 years of European presence, most remain connected to maiz culture. In particular, this applies to peoples with Mexican and Central American and Andean origins that live in the United States. And thus the message: Okichike Ka Centeotzintli or “Made from Sacred Maiz.” After all, many if not most of the peoples from these communities eat maíz (tortillas), beans and chile, virtually on a daily basis. Along with squash and cactus, these foods are Indigenous to this continent.
This is not the message brown children receive in school. It is not the message they receive in the media and it is not the message they receive from government institutions.
The message in the book is that they are not foreigners, that they are not aliens and that contrary to what the US Census bureau promotes, that they are not white. Instead, the message is that they are children of maíz – part of Indigenous cultures on this continent that are many, many thousands of years old.
In effect, this message was banned during the colonial era… and also in present-day Arizona… the whole country, actually. This message, in effect, was made illegal (HB 2281) by politicians who think that only Greco-Roman culture should be taught in US schools. Maíz culture is the story of this continent… though in reality, it is one of the great stories of this continent (salmon, buffalo). These cultures produced not simply civilizations, but also produced values and ethos such as In Lak Ech -Tu eres mi otro yo and Panche Be – To seek the root of the truth. And it is precisely these and related values that were continually attacked during that battle to destroy Raza Studies.
But just as knowledge cannot be destroyed, neither can values and ethos be destroyed. Yes, a program was shut down, but that is temporary.
Another part of the message for this continent is, in Nahuatl: non kuahuitl cintli in tlaneplantla: the maiz tree is the center of the universe. The related message is that for those reasons, it is everyone’s responsibility to protect maiz from the multinational transgenic corporations that have literally stolen and hijacked our sacred sustenance. And it is not just the maíz that they have stolen and desecrated; they have done this or are attempting to do this to all of our crops…not just the sacred foods of this continent, but of the entire world. Because indeed we are what we eat, exposure to highly toxic (pesticides and herbicides) and genetically modified foods is highly dangerous, not simply to human beings and all life, but to the entire planet.
More than part of a de-colonial process, writing this book is part of an affirmation that as human beings, we are sacred because our mother is sacred… and on this continent, maíz is our mother.
This book is a compilation of elder or ancestral knowledge from throughout the continent, and as noted, it contains the simplest of messages, contained in both the front cover and the title.
The simple idea of this book was to counter-act… actually this book is not meant to counter anything. It is meant to affirm the thousands-of-years maíz–based cultures – to affirm that we are Indigenous to this continent – and to assert our full humanity, along with our full human rights, this in a society that brands us as illegitimate, unwelcome and nowadays illegal.
As Indigenous peoples continue to affirm: We cannot be illegal on our own continent. And yet more than that, the simple message of the humble maíz is that there is no such thing as an illegal human being anywhere. That is the primary message of the book.