You know that saying, “you are what you eat?”
Well, if you live here in the rural town of Chajul, Guatemala, you would be corn. Which wouldn’t be a problem for the average citizen of Chajul, since corn is so revered in their culture. According to the Mayan creation story, people were first made of rocks, sticks and mud, but that wasn’t conducive to life because those aren’t sustainable materials. Hence, people are made of corn!
We ate lunch with a local family today, and they had enough corn stored to create a fair amount of people. The house was one room, with adobe walls and a dirt floor, with a bed in one corner and a small storage silo in another. We sat at a small table in the middle of the room, under long wooden planks that created an attic of sorts. Climbing the ladder and taking a look, all I saw was corn. The family’s harvest, all stored right above our heads. It was piled high, ears of yellow, white, and black, all shucked and waiting to be ground into cornmeal and made into tortillas.
I’ve been here in Chajul for 5 days now, and I am already sick of corn tortillas. The people here eat them with every meal, 3 times a day, and often use them as a substitute for silverware. Our meal today was a potato soup, which was a corn-based broth with two potato chunks placed in the center of the bowl. We used tortillas to scoop up the broth, and to pick up the potatoes. Our drink was atol, which is also corn-based. The corn is boiled and then drained, and the result is a gritty, semi-sweet, milk-like beverage.
But can corn alone sustain a person? We interviewed the woman who cooked our lunch today, about her opinions on hunger and malnutrition. In her eyes, “hunger” is having the desire to eat, but not having enough money to do so, which she said was synonymous with being “poor.” Her diet is restricted by her financial resources, and she cooks beans and rice in large batches at a time- sometimes the family will eat on it for 3 or 4 days. With the lack of diversity in the food supply, it’s easy to see the connection to malnutrition. In the words of a Chajulense housewife, “malnutrition starts in the womb.” If the mother isn’t eating a proper diet while she’s pregnant, the baby is already at a disadvantage. The effects of malnutrition are easily observable, simply by walking through the streets. Children that are 12 or 13 years old look like they’re 6 or 7, just because of their height. I didn’t believe the first child I asked – he said he was 14 – but now I’ve learned to take these kids at their word, and wonder about their diet and their health.
After all, if we are what we eat, these kids are just corn. Lots and lots of corn.