Every morning, while her girls are still in bed, Irma Rosales makes tortillas for breakfast. She prepares the masa, pats it into little cakes, places them on a flat pan over a charcoal grill.
It’s a scene that’s been repeated in millions of households for hundreds of years, all across Mexico and Central America. But look closely at the tortillas on Irma’s comal and you’ll see something new: little white seeds. They’re amaranth, a crop native to the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, where Irma lives. Once, amaranth was a staple of Mesoamerican civilization. Now a Oaxacan nonprofit is trying to bring it back.
The organization is called Puente a la Salud, or Bridge to Health. Irma went to one of its workshops after a doctor diagnosed her daughter Ashly with chronic malnutrition. The doctor was a young man from the city, just out of medical school, doing his nationally mandated year of service in Mazaltepec, Irma’s small town.
“She’s underweight,” he said. “Your daughter is showing symptoms of chronic malnutrition.”
Irma listened as the doctor rattled off the signs: listlessness, depression. And if it wasn’t corrected, long-term brain damage. That hit hard.
Her family wasn’t wealthy, but Irma had thought her girls were okay. Like many people in Oaxaca State—one of Mexico’s poorest—she and her husband are subsistence corn farmers. They eat a typical rural Mexican diet of corn and beans. They are well-off enough to have a chicken, so they have eggs. Every now and then they even have meat.
Everything Irma had done, she had done to make life better for Ashly and her other three children. Like many Oaxacans, she had made a long and difficult illegal journey to the U.S. in hopes of making money to send home. She’d spent five years in Los Angeles with her husband, making jeans in a clothing factory for crappy pay. As often as she could, Irma talked on the phone to her daughter back in Mazaltepec with her husband’s family. Every time they talked, Ashly cried. She’d say, “Mama, when are you coming back?”
Eventually Irma and her husband had enough. The job wasn’t worth splitting the family. They returned home to Ashly and malnutrition.
As she left the clinic where her daughter was diagnosed, Irma saw a flyer for Puente a la Salud, inviting her to a workshop about a grain called amaranth. She decided to give it a shot.
Today, amaranth is rare and expensive, the sort of thing one buys in small bags at American natural-foods stores. Most Mexicans no longer eat it. But before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, amaranth was eaten throughout the highlands of central Mexico and south into the high valleys of Oaxaca State.
Amaranth’s leaves are edible and full of vitamins. The combination of corn, beans and amaranth, whose grain-like seeds can be ground into flour, provides a complete protein, meaning it delivers all the amino acids the body can’t make for itself. The combination is as nutritionally complete as meat.
In the Aztec culture—unfortunately for the history of the Mexican diet—amaranth also had religious significance. It was a favorite food of Huitzilopochtli, the hummingbird-visaged God of War who, legend had it, led the Aztecs out of the country’s northern wastelands to become lords of central Mexico. Amaranth flowers are bright and sweet; hummingbirds love them. Huitzilopochtli, like all the gods of old Mexico, also loved the taste of human blood. A regular diet of sacrifices sustained him and kept the world from falling into darkness.
Every year during Huitzilopochtli’s sacred month, which corresponds roughly with December, Aztec families built little statues of the god in their homes out of puffed amaranth and honey. According to some accounts, they also included blood from human sacrifices. At the end of the month, the statue was carved up and eaten. The people would take the god into them, like Catholics with the host.
To arriving Spanish priests, the practice looked like intolerable paganism. And while not every Mexican used amaranth this way, the Spanish took no chances. Everywhere they went in Mexico, the Spanish tried to eradicate worship of the old gods. Because the amaranth service seemed like a demon mass—and because the Spanish god preferred wheat—the priests did everything possible to end the cultivation and consumption of amaranth.
It’s not clear if anyone missed it. Today, subsistence farms across the country that once grew corn, beans and amaranth now grow only corn and beans.
Amaranth was all but forgotten, surviving only in the highest, most isolated mountain valleys, places the Spanish language and the Catholic faith never penetrated.
The religious purge of amaranth succeeded, but the priests and farmers who banished it wrecked the rural Mexican diet along the way. Without amaranth, it was no longer possible for farming families—too poor to own animals—to get all the protein they needed.
I congrat you if you actually read all of this. I learned something new!