Mexico City and La Milpa

On my way home from Tehuacán, I stopped in Mexico City for a few days. It turns out, a long weekend isn’t enough. My taxi driver, Leonardo, has lived there all his life. And he said that still wasn’t enough time to know all of Mexico.

In Mexico, Mexico means la ciudad de méxico. This threw me off when I first arrived in town. My students would say they went to Mexico for the weekend. They would say that Mexico is so crowded. I’d say, I thought we were already here? You think the population is too high? If you want to refer to Mexico the country, you’ll have to say el país. But as with most intricacies of language, context is truly everything. They must have thought, this lady is clueless.

Mexico City is crowded, as it turns out. But traffic doesn’t necessarily effect the tourist. Take public transportation, and you’ll be fine. Busy sidewalks, bustling markets, long lines at ATMs. The usual for any incredible metropolis. But what I didn’t expect to find in the center of the city was a milpa within the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares‘ courtyard. Corn stalks compete with two- and three-story buildings for height, reaching toward the sky. It was as if I’d run into Laia Jufresa’ s Ana, from Umami. A real person with an urban garden.

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The museum’s singular exhibit  starts outside with a potted corn field in a concrete lot in the museum grounds. It’s a detailed exhibit of indigenous agriculture with too much text to read. I’m not one for standing far and staring at a wall in a silent room when I’m traveling. I’m afraid I’m not an avid museum-goer. Sorry! I’d much rather wander outside, on city streets and backroads, then within the confines of an orchestrated indoor space.

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But a museum is much like a farm in that way. We try to organise it in such a manner so that it doesn’t feel organised. It needs to feel synthetically natural: a man-made ecosystem. Farmed plants and animals are not really part of nature. Where in the world can you find a group of cows wandering wild in the hills? They were placed there by people. Farms are manipulated in that way, just like the potted corn field. Things will grow as you guide them.

The exhibit itself is an encyclopedia of foods indigenous to Mexico. Those three sisters of the milpa: corn, beans, and squash, are celebrated throughout the space. Dried versions fill bins for children to touch and experiment with.

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Outside once again, the exhibit continues with a photography series. Printed on cloth, each image depicts people working the land, bringing the food from the earth back into the home.

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I haven’t tried to cook Mexican food since I’ve been back in the States. And I think Jufresa touches on this complicated sense of origin in Umami. “Food is a patriot,” says her character, Alfonso. “Under no circumstances will it be replicated outside of its mother country.” Mexican food is so Mexican. Tex-Mex or otherwise, it can’t quite be itself when out of place and time. Food is particular in that way. Maybe you can find here in the States, where the flattened masa is still laid down by hand. I just passed one yesterday in Baltimore. But even if the ingredients and process are true to the homeland, something about the flavor changes with the environment. Honest food, as Alfonso suggests, won’t stray too far from its home.

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