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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

April 21, 2010 Event Flyer

"And Wheat Completed the Cycle":
Flour Mills, Social Memory, and Industrial Culture
In Sonora, Mexico

Presented by Maribel Alvarez

2010 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Maribel Alvarez

"The abandoned flour mills throughout Sonora," said the Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Nuñez Noriega, "are the equivalents for Sonorans of the pyramids in Central Mexico." While this comparison may seem lopsided given the monumentality of the pyramids, the observation reveals a particular Sonoran understanding of "patrimony" that, unlike elsewhere in Mexico, depends less on volume, quantity, and colorfulness than on a vernacular sense of simply "being different."

From the perspectives on patrimony espoused officially by Mexican anthropology, this difference has not always been regarded as positive. The infamous declaration by the philosopher Jose Vasconcelos in the early 20th century that upon arriving in Sonora one "abandons culture" and is greeted only by "grilled meat" helped consolidate the view that the people from northern Mexico were "barbarians." In addition, by virtue of the proximity to the United States and the intimacy of Sonorans with the English language and American lifestyles, many a travel writer has remarked that the northern states are not "real" Mexico.

Since August 2009, I have been conducting research throughout Sonora, in Mexico's northwest region, exploring the central role that one grain, wheat, introduced by the Spanish to Mexico in the 16th century, has played in the construction of what the people of Sonora proudly proclaim to be their distinct regional Sonorense and Norteño identity. Forged historically as an alternative to the cornbased cultures of Mesoamerica and the ancient Southwest, this collective sense of identity is frequently expressed in culinary terms. Sonorans have a deep sense of attachment to specific foods and modes of cooking, and associate their food preferences with the entrepreneurial temperament, energetic outlook on life, and informality and equity in social relations that has made Sonora one of the most prosperous and politically important states in Mexico.

Curiously, this sense of distinction developed historically through a simultaneous, and often contradictory, engagement with practices and discourses that privilege both tradition and modernity. In fact, one can argue that in Sonora, being "modern" has been highly valued since the 18th century. This is especially true where it concerns agriculture. Since colonial times, in Sonora, the shape of modernity has been linked to technologies for improving upon nature — planting in the winter, harnessing limited water supplies, genetically modifying seeds for higher yields, breeding the most desirable cattle, and generating scientific knowledge that, as stated by the state's Governor at a recent public ceremony, "serves humanity." What does it mean, then, when Sonorans invoke "traditional foods" to buttress their arguments for distinction? How do the concepts of social memory, identity, desire, and nostalgia play into Sonorans' "invention" of patrimony? What is the relationship of these heritage-oriented discourses of regional identity to Sonora's everyday foodways, social networks, and most relevant economic sectors? And, most importantly for my project, is it possible to know all this through one single crop? What story does wheat tell in Sonora?

After grilled meat (carne asada), the second most emblematic sign of Sonoran identity is the tortilla de harina (wheat flour tortilla). In many ways, my work in Sonora could be summed up by the expression "everything you always wanted to know about the flour tortilla but were embarrassed to ask." The flour tortilla is one of those culinary products that, by virtue of their ubiquity, can easily be taken for granted. In addition, its simplicity does not immediately invite further scrutiny the way renowned, complex Mexican dishes like mole, chiles en nogada, cochinita pibil, capirotada, or tamales do. But these tortillas are the reason we recognize today the "burro" or "burrito" as a quintessential Mexican crossover staple in the U.S. The Sonoran tortillas de harina were, in other words, the original "wrap" food of cowboys in the American Southwest. Furthermore, linkages between what people eat and whom they feel or imagine themselves to be have been important in the history of Mexico. In New Spain, strong debates erupted about the human worth of those who ate corn (Indians) in opposition to the Europeans' preferred diet of bread.

The Jesuit priest Francisco Kino introduced wheat in Sonora in the late 1600s. The indigenous people were already farmers, but their primary crops were dependent on the monsoon rains in summer. Wheat, which is planted in November and harvested in the Spring, filled a gap in their cycle. Although they did not abandon altogether their cornfields or corn-based foods, they took to the new crop enthusiastically. But the legacy of "wheat imperialism" in northern Mexico has not been a cause for celebration by all sectors of the population. Today, the indigenous people of Arizona-Sonora suffer the highest incidence of diabetes in the world — largely induced by high consumption of simple carbohydrates such as flour tortillas and fried bread.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were close to 60 flour mills operating round the clock in Sonora. In the 1890s, Sonoran capitalists imported the latest equipment for processing wheat into flour available in the hemisphere. In the 1940s, Sonora became an experimental field for the genetic improvement of wheat. Dr. Norman Borlaug, an Iowan who is considered by most people in the state an honorary Sonoran, lived in the Valley of the Yaqui region and conducted seed-improvement experiments that were credited with aborting an anticipated worldwide famine. In 1970, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In his acceptance speech, he shared the honor with Sonoran wheat farmers. Today, Sonora is still the number one producer of wheat in Mexico, despite serious difficulties with plant diseases, drought, and most dramatically, unpredictable fluctuations in wheat's market value.

Maribel Alvarez,
Department of English
University of Arizona

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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