Snapshot from Slow Food Nation: Native American plants in the Victory Garden

I had intended to do some “man in the garden” interviews while I hung around the Victory Garden watching the crowds come through. But my first set of victims were so interesting I talked to them for the entire half hour I had in between lectures.

Maestra Macuilxochitl, Luz Alvarez-Martinez, and Carlos Ruiz-Martinez turned out to be members of a Native American dance troupe, Danza Xitlalli, invited to perform a blessing of Slow Food Nation. If I understood the soft-spoken Carlos correctly, Xitlalli is an ancient Aztec form of dance whose name means star. They are descended from the Aztecs and related to the Hopis and the Ute tribes.

They wanted me to take their picture in front of the Three Sisters planting of blue corn, pole beans, and giant squash. “This kind of planting is thousands of years old, it comes from our ancestors the Aztecs,” Carlos told me with pride. Not only do the three crops “offer the body complete nutrition,” but they grow well in concert: the corn stalks provide a natural trellis for the beans, while the broad leaves of the squash plants shade the ground and conserve moisture.

“It is so great to see it like this,” he said, “and for the young to be able to see it.”

Carlos led me over to the chest-high stand of amaranth across the path, a plant which I know only as a whole grain I buy occasionally to add to the multigrain porridge I make. “This was very important to our ancestors,” he said. The seeds were used to make figurines that decorated the altars in prayer ceremonies; the Aztecs danced around them and then when the ceremony was complete, they passed around the figurines and ate them. The Spanish conquerors had banned amaranth for many years, he said. “They were trying to get rid of our way of life.”

I could not help but think of how history repeats itself. But now the assault is coming from the dumping of cheap corn on Mexican growers and the spread of genetically modified maize.

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