“Corn: From the Sierra Madre to the American Prairies” by Jeff Biggers

Jeff Biggers has worked as a writer, radio correspondent, and educator across the United States, Europe, Mexico, and India. The paperback edition of his latest book In the Sierra Madre was published September 2007.


I drove across the Blue Ridge at dawn recently, a harvest moon illuminating my way over the ridges. And there, tucked into the valleys like overburdened fence posts, were rows of corn. The stalks leaned with their abundance. A combine, its light flashing from above, would soon trundle down the narrow row to collect the harvest.

Did you know, an anthropologist had just written me, that Cherokee corn has been traced to corn from the Raramuri or Tarahumara natives in Mexico’s Copper Canyon? I had been discussing Charles Frazier’s novel, 13 Moons, which deals with the Cherokee in the 19th century.

Corn, of course, which gave birth to my European ancestors’ new culture in America, has crossed our imaginary borders for centuries. Its origins have been traced back thousands of years to the Sierra Madre, when the first teosinte grasses were broken and cultivated. It went on define our new nation; it still defines the Midwest where I live now. And it has always defined native Americans like the Raramuri, who live deep into the canyons of Mexico.

“But was it part of the present, or the past, like a historical novel?” I had been asked on my tour in Appalachia. “No,” I responded: the Raramuri are still thriving, the second largest indigneous group north of Mexico City. I did not write a requiem, but a chronicle of their resiliency, and the wonders of their presence in our world today. The treasures of the Sierra Madre. What they have contributed to our side of the border, and what they have taught a fascinating parade of travelers and adventurers in the Sierra Madre.

Unlike the harvest in the Blue Ridge, or my own Midwest, the Raramuri in the Sierra Madre have been facing drought for over a decade. After five centuries of conquest, from the ravages of smallpox and other outside diseases, the assault of logging companies in their virgin forests, the violence of narco drug traffickers who control the region, and dubious tourist schemes, the withering reality of global warming has come to the canyons of Mexico with their most trying moment of survival. While the rains came this year, erosion and exhausted soils have resulted in a still poor harvest in many areas.

Will the corn of the Sierra Madre–the real treasure of its people, as the old prospector told Humphrey Bogart in that great film–make it this time?

As the morning sun moved over the first pines in the Blue Ridge, I knew that question had yet to be answered, on either side of the border.

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