Gustavo describes the work of UniTierra through verbs that refer to processes and forms of action. What is the value of thinking in terms of verbs, instead of nouns? See the photo essay “Language and Food” by Ryan DeCaire and compare his emphasis on verb-based languages with Gustavo’s perspective.
How does the concept of ‘comida’ challenge dominant notions of food in western cultures?
Gustavo suggests that we are witnessing “the death of 5,000 years of patriarchy”. What evidence does he use to justify that statement? What do you think about that statement?
Valiana Aguilar, the young woman who, along with Ángel Kú worked with Gustavo at UniTierra, brings a perspective of Mayan people and youth to the challenge of food sovereignty. See the photo essay “Mutual Nurturing” for their perspective on the importance of intergenerational learning.
What was the meaning of the phrase, “Sin Maíz, No Hay Pais” (“Without Corn, There is No Country”) in the campaign to defend corn? What strategies did Gustavo and others use in this campaign?
How did this campaign connect with a global movement for food sovereignty?
What was the strategy of the National Indigenous Congress in nominating Marichuy, an Indigenous woman, for president of Mexico? How does she represent the global struggle for Indigenous rights and food sovereignty?
Research the groups in your community and country that are defending healthy and traditional food systems against industrial corporate food systems.
Claudia Serrato is a cultural and culinary anthropologist, an Indigenous plant-based chef, a womb ecologist, and a food justice activist scholar. Claudia has been writing, speaking, and cooking up decolonized flavors for over a decade by remembering and recentering her Mesoamerican foods and foodways along with cooking traditions and nutrition.
La comida is a carrier and embodier of ancestral knowledge which can be tasted and passed down through cooking and eating. Recentering la comida as a social activity enhances these processes which ultimately engages in the decontamination and decolonization of earthly landscapes. To do so, also recenters la mujer and the sabiduria de la comida in outdoor and indoor kitchenspaces. This wisdom, respectively, traditional ecological culinary knowledge, provides opportunities to comer y aprender how to maintain and sustain maneras de sanar that create stronger relations with la madre tierra.
To re-establish these relationships is to honor la comida or as Gustavo Esteva shared, to engage in la ceremonia de la comida. This ceremony is one of respect, honor, and most importantly, remembering food as relative, food as healer, food as knower, food as ancestor, and food as cultura. The dicho, ‘la cultura cura’ is applicable in this sense and if we take a deeper look, we can begin to understand that by recentering cultural heritage foods, we begin to dismantle the ‘taste of hierarchy’ that perpetuates patriarchy, creating food systems of oppression unto the land, the body, the spirit, and the mind.
So what does this food sovereignty work look like? How do we begin to defend la comida? As an Indigenous chef once told me, we need to begin by tasting and cooking our ancestral and traditional foods and in doing so, the food itself will let us know.
For Gustavo, eating and learning always go together. Comer y aprender. Verbs, not nouns. Gustavo lives his life as a verb, as an active process that is always changing.2
At 82 years, Gustavo Esteva still stokes the ‘fire in the belly’ that caused him to leave a position as an IBM executive 60 years ago and a high position in the Mexican government ten years later. At this time, Gustavo returned to Oaxaca where his Zapotec grandmother had inspired him as a child, despite the fact that the rest of the family looked down on this ‘Indian’ relative.
The 80s and 90s represented the neoliberalization of trade, epitomized by the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the dramatic uprising of the Zapatistas to reclaim Indigenous territory and rights, to work outside the state and build “a world in which many worlds can be embraced.”
In co-founding UniTierra, or University of the Earth, in both Oaxaca and Chiapas, Gustavo and his colleagues countered a notion of knowledge as a commodity transmitted through institutionalized education, and honoured the knowledges and ways of knowing of the majority Indigenous population in Oaxaca state. UniTierra is built around the verb aprender, or to learn, as Gustavo reminds me: “Instead of educating, we emphasize learning, both for us working here at UniTierra as well as for the communities with which we work.”
I am reminded of our first intense collaboration a decade ago: along with Lauren Baker and Michael Sacco, we invited Gustavo to York University in Toronto as a guest scholar for the annual International Political Economy and Ecology Summer School. The topic of the seminar “Food Sovereignty, Indigenous Knowledges, and Autonomous Movements” couldn’t have been more prescient of the interrelated themes of the dialogue we’re promoting through the Legacies Project.
As we sit down to talk about the current activities of UniTierra, Gustavo introduces me to a word or concept that encompasses the ‘earth to table’ spread of our project: COMIDA.
Gustavo: We define our priorities in verbs: to eat (comer in Spanish), to heal (sanar), to settle (habitar), to learn (aprender). A central line of action is COMER – to eat, or how to eat. We started 25 years ago as a centre of huertos (gardens) and of intercultural dialogue. The question of the comida, was born in UniTierra. Our name is University of THE EARTH. A brilliant Zapotec intellectual and composer, Jaime Martínez Luna, gave us our name. ‘In this university,’ he told us, ‘you must always have your feet on the earth, and also take care of Mother Earth.’ And the whole relation with Mother Earth is centred on la comida.
One of our obsessions is to return eating to the centre of social life. Fast food marginalizes la comida. It’s to make food rapidly in the midst of all your activities. But in Oaxaca, everyone stops all activities at 2 PM to eat. The important activity then is to eat and it’s an important time for the family.
In English you don’t have the word comida. In Spanish the technical term for food is alimento, not comida. Some people think of comida as just the ‘meal.’ But for us, comida is everything: growing food, preparing it, eating it, washing the dishes – it’s all the social activities that have to do with food as really central to our lives.
Mexico is the country with the highest consumption of Coca-Cola per person: 180 litres per year.
Deborah: The effort to return the centrality of comida to daily life is challenged by a corporate global food system, that has poisoned the earth, and both ‘stuffed and starved’ populations, a contradiction that Raj Patel names in a book by the title.
Gustavo: We’re using the slogan, from a poem by Eduardo Galeano, ‘Global Fear: Those not afraid of hunger, fear food.’ Of course, there’s still a fear of hunger, as there are one billion people who are still going to bed hungry with empty stomachs. Hunger is here, again, it’s in Oaxaca, it’s in New York, it’s everywhere. It’s a threat again. It’s shameful.
So there’s a fear of hunger, but there’s also a fear of eating. Which means that our bodies are contaminated by what’s in the market. The issue is very serious in Oaxaca, which has the highest incidence of diabetes in the country. Mexico is the country with the highest consumption of Coca-Cola per person: 180 litres per year. We had a president who had been the president of Coca-Cola. For these reasons, we think we need to multiply our efforts.
We started a project this year, to use all forms of community media (community radio, social media, videos, Facebook, circus, theatre) to share information and stories about the damage to health of fast food and chatarra (junk food), and to celebrate everything that can be made with maíz – all the drinks and food that can be made from corn. Our main effort is with kids and young people, and we organize many activities with them.”
Deborah: Gustavo recognizes that the campaign for healthy food is part of a larger political struggle to defend maíz or corn; in fact, he has been involved in that national and global battle for a long time.
Gustavo: One of the first things that UniTierra did in Oaxaca, in 2002, one year after its founding, when we discovered the contamination of our native corn by GMO corn, was to create a committee of defense of native corn with 60 other organizations. We organized actions, for example, disrupting an international meeting of NAFTA. We recognized that it was a very serious matter.
“So we launched a national campaign ‘Sin maíz, no hay país’, or ‘Without corn, there is no country’”
So we launched a national campaign ‘Sin maíz, no hay país’, or ‘Without corn, there is no country’. In Mexico City we mounted an enormous exhibit with one million visitors; it included books, videos and music. We accomplished what we hoped for, to have many other organizations join the campaign. And they continue to be active now, 15 years later. There’s a network of groups in defense of maíz. It was very important for us to participate in a tribunal about corn denouncing the actions of Monsanto and other corporations, fully supported by the government. Vandana Shiva and many other friends joined us in this effort.
The trial, held in 2015, was built on the Permanent Peoples Tribunal created by Bertrand Russell, with headquarters in Italy. In the course of the long process in Mexico, it chose Oaxaca for a tribunal on corn, which was attended by more than 800 people coming from all over Mexico. The final sentence of the Tribunal was a condemnation of the government, and included a recommendation to expel the multinational companies responsible for the transgenic contamination of maíz from the country, including Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont and Aventis.
Via Campesina represents the largest people’s organization, with hundreds of millions of members in almost a hundred countries. They redefined food sovereignty in a way that corresponds clearly with our vision. We should define what we eat, and we should produce it. At UniTierra we are working with campesinos to recover their traditional, organic practices.
In the city of Oaxaca we support the multiplication of gardens; we have our green rooftop garden, where we give workshops on growing food. We work mainly with women to strengthen their efforts to grow their own food at home. There are already hundreds of them in the central valleys and this is an ongoing project. We circulate information and organize workshops both at UniTierra and in the backyards of some families. We also participate in local community fairs and events, publish materials, and organize many other activities.
The work on la comida is directly connected to UniTierra’s commitment to ending patriarchy and promoting autonomy.
If we do return la comida as a central activity, then we also return the centrality of women. Because it is women who take care of the world, take care of life, take care of the comida. Women are not just the cooks, they are responsible for everything that precedes the act of eating, and the ceremony of la comida. Today, in the midst of the food crisis, small farmers, mainly women, feed 70% of the people on Earth, in spite of the fact that agribusiness owns and controls more than half of all the food resources on the planet. While there are several men participating in UniTierra’s Milpa3 project, all three programs under COMER (green rooftop garden, milpa and urban gardens) are coordinated by women.
There is a consensus that we’re at the end of a historical cycle and living the death of 5,000 years of patriarchy. Patriarchy – the hatred of life, which is manifested in extreme violence, extreme hierarchy, extreme authoritarianism, which we see in the world today – is dying. The violence is its extreme form of defending itself.
For many it’s not about recovering comida… because they never lost it. You recover what you’ve lost. Like recovering a territory that has been lost or taken. The best of the traditions of the Indigenous Peoples is the tradition to change tradition in a traditional manner. Nobody remains what they were 500 years ago. They’ve been changing all the time, but they do it in their own way.
Here’s a very concrete living example: In the last 10 years, 8,000 of the 12,000 communities in Oaxaca have gathered assemblies of men and women, realizing that for centuries they hadn’t had women participating in the assembly, but they now decided that women should participate. It’s been part of a process we call the feminization of politics. Many women started to organize themselves and take leadership in social change.
So women in most communities are now part of the communal assemblies and have leadership positions in the villages. At the same time they are paying a high price – violence against them has increased a lot.
An important factor is that when many men migrated to the U.S., they left everything in the hands of the women, and when they came back, the women wouldn’t give them back the power. This has been a very substantial change.
Deborah: As Gustavo explained, UniTierra supported the decisions of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in 2018 to nominate María de Jesus Patricio, or Marichuy, as an Indigenous candidate in the presidential elections. Putting an Indigenous woman forward was the CNI’s strategy to make Indigenous Peoples and their issues visible and to create spaces around the country for Indigenous struggles for land, for identity, for their very survival.
Some questioned whether this strategy was congruent with the position of the CNI, of the Zapatistas, and of UniTierra to not support nation-state politics or democratic elections. What they did was challenge that very system and use it for their own purposes.
Valiana, the Mayan collaborator who also works with Gustavo at UniTierra, participated in the meeting of the Indigenous National Council (CNI) in 2017 when the strategy to have a presidential candidate was developed. She suggested that Marichuy was chosen as a woman who represents all the ways Indigenous People, Indigenous women and Indigenous knowledges have been marginalized. Marichuy is a gentle and caring person, who combines humility and strength. She is thus the counterpoint to the patriarchy that is in its death throes. Marichuy is part of a broader movement of Indigenous People who are reclaiming, reinventing themselves, but building on deep ancestral histories and knowledges.
For Valiana, Marichuy’s candidacy was inspiring for the kind of intergenerational and intercultural exchange we are promoting with the Legacies project. Marichuy is an experienced herbalist and healer, someone who knows plants intimately and understands that all plants or food are medicine.
Thus she embodies a broader conception of food, connected to the earth, and a deeper understanding of food sovereignty, grounded in Indigenous knowledges about growing food and healing, both physically and spiritually, with plants.
Marichuy is an advocate for la comida.