Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rice shapes and is shaped by history

Look in a grocery store and you will see that the most expensive rice is most likely labeled "Morelos".  Deservedly so. Earlier this year Morelos rice was awarded a certificate of controlled designation of origin by Economy Secretary Bruno Ferrari.  Just as tequila must be from Jalisco and Ataulco mangos from Chiapas, so Arroz Morelos must be from the state of Morelos.

A new rice harvest is in the works. The anxiously awaited rainy season is quickly approaching. Days will soon be cool, skies clear, vegetation greener.  Driving south on the Cuernavaca-Acapulco road we'll be treated to scenes seemingly right out of Asia.  Campesinos up to their knees in mud will be shaping terraces in which they'll plant individual rice sprouts in flooded fields.

In other parts of Mexico farmers scatter rice seeds in their flooded fields.  From the top of the five-storied Mayan building at the Edzná archeological site in Campeche, I've watched light planes swoop down to land on the highway where burlap bags full of rice are poured into their hoppers. The planes take off again to drop rice in huge flooded fields in that very flat state.  This would seem a more efficient and effective way to plant.  Nevertheless the care and extra effort Morelos' rice farmers take in planting is recognized and rewarded.   

Rice and sugar cane go hand-in-hand.  They have been principal crops in Morelos for generations.  Both were introduced by the Spanish conquerors who had acquired them from the Arabs.  In fact both "arroz" and "azucar" derive from Arabic words.  The Valley of Cuernavaca was ideal for the cultivation of cane and Hernan Cortez himself established its first sugar haciendas.  An easy, almost care-free plant to grow, cane processing requires a large investment and workforce as well as an enormous supply of water. 

Rice, the grain that produces the most calories per hectar, kept the workers going on the sugar haciendas.  Large scale rice farming in Morelos began in Jojutla in the 1840s. 
The rice mills also generated additional income for plantation owners.  They even had a captive clientele in their own workforce who bought from them at the "tienda de raya" (company store). 

The southern front of the Mexican Revolution was the direct response to the increasing land, water and labor hunger of the sugarcane haciendas. Emiliano Zapata headquartered his troops in a rice mill in Tlaltizapán while fighting for land reform.

Sugarcane continues to be grown in the Valley of Cuernavaca, now mostly on ejido and campesino-owned fields.  It is milled in the government built, co-operatively run Ingenio Emiliano Zapata. 

An unfortunate chapter in U.S. and Mexican history led coincidentally to rice farming improving dramatically in Morelos in the 1940's.  U.S. President Roosevelt asked Mexican President Avila Camacho to send prominent Mexican citizens of Japanese descent to U.S. internment camps during World War II.  Mexico’s president refused but under intense pressure ultimately compromised and agreed to relocate citizens of Japanese descent far from the U.S. border and the coasts.  

Those relocated did not necessarily lose their property as befell most U.S. citizens of Japanese descent.  Instead the decree required Japanese-Mexicans to relocate to either Guadalajara or the Federal District.  For those already living in those cities it caused little disruption in their lives.  For those living elsewhere it meant moving to Guadalajara or Mexico City, one week's notice.  Many families were split, with a "Mexican-looking" spouse remaining where the family home was located and the "Japanese-looking" members of the family being uprooted.  

In Mexico City the existing Japanese colony helped refugees find places to live.  Sanshiro Matsumoto housed almost a thousand on his hacienda in San Jeronimo in the southern part of the Federal District.  Matsumoto and Shunji Yoshida also gained permission to stretch the boundary of the Federal District in order to lease the Temixco hacienda just south of Cuernavaca. There they housed 660 other Mexicans of Japanese ancestry. These  "residents" were allowed to farm in order to cover living expenses.  

Recalling stories told by their grandparents they began farming rice in the Asian style--planting sprouts in the flooded fields instead of scattering the seeds.  Morelos' farmers watched and learned.  These temporary “residents” also started flower farms.  Today roses are an important crop in the valley south of Cuernavaca.  

"No hay rosas sin espinas" (there are no roses without thorns) is a Spanish saying.  Appropriate to think of as we drive through the Valley of Cuernavaca and admire the lasting legacy of Mexico's citizens of Japanese ancestry who left such beauty, enduring quality, and sources of employment in spite of the tragedy that brought them there.

On another note:  Starting today, the pharaonic Tecnologico de Monterrey campus in Xochitepec, overlooking rice, rose, and sugarcane fields, will be hosting the exhibit from Ellen Macdonald's collection of Mary Davis' photographs restored by Tec de Monterrey students.  The inauguration is by invitation. The exhibit will open to the public tomorrow, weekdays 9 am-7 pm, through the month of June.  A description of the exhibit and its origin is available at <http://charliesdigs.blogspot.mx/2012/05/old-photos-rediscovered.html>.

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