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In Santiago de Anaya, Indigenous Mexican Cuisine Thrives—Against Many Odds

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It was about 6 p.m. when Elvia Gachús pulled into the hamlet of Lomas de Guillén in the passenger seat of a red pick-up truck with a big cardboard box, nearly six feet tall, strapped into the back. “Looks like she won a fridge,” Elvia’s brother, Sergio, said, fiddling with his cowboy hat as the car pulled down the dirt driveway that separated his modest, cinderblock house from his sister’s. Sergio’s wife nodded slightly and cooed at the infant in her lap. No one in the family seemed surprised. It wasn’t the first time, after all, that Elvia had come home from the annual food festival in the nearby town of Santiago de Anaya with a prize—it was the fifth.

Photo by Michael Snyder

This year was the 37th edition of the weekend-long Muestra Gastrnomica—best translated as culinary exposition—held each year in Santiago de Anaya, a village of some 14,000 people in the arid plains of western Hidalgo state, 65 miles northeast of central Mexico City. The muestra began in 1980 as a government-sponsored potluck that drew women from the surrounding villages to raise awareness about traditional cooking and nutrition. This year, 1000 women, some from neighboring municipalities and states, came to compete for the 20 top prizes. “Almost every year a woman from Lomas wins,” Elvia told me, her sly, happy smile framed cheekily by a pair of short plaits. This year, 5 of the 20 women from Lomas who entered the competition were awarded prizes. “That’s why no one likes us in Santiago,” she laughed: “Because we always win.”

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Elvia’s winning dish this year was a tamal stuffed with escamoles (custard-like ant larvae, the Mezquital region’s most famous delicacy) steamed in avocado leaves rather than the more typical cornhusks. Though some women in the area will start gathering their ingredients weeks in advance, Elvia told me she’d settled on her dish just the day before. “I’d originally planned to make albondigas”—meatballs, basically—“from escamoles, but they didn’t come out well, so I decided to change my plan at the last minute. You should never make something you wouldn’t want to eat yourself,” she said. “Here, we stick to our traditions.”

Photo by Michael Snyder

Those traditions belong to the Otomí indigenous community, who live primarily in the plains and low hills of the Valle de Mezquital, which covers a third of western Hidalgo. At the valley’s southern extreme lies the ancient city of Tula, center of the Toltec civilization. The Aztecs viewed the Toltecs as as their intellectual predecessors and a zenith of cultural advancement (a political exigency that allowed them to claim legitimacy among other tribes of the central valleys), but today we know little about them. Whatever the Toltecs may or may not have achieved in their time, the Valle de Mezquital, their former home, has for the last several centuries been both sparsely populated and, like most predominantly indigenous regions in Mexico, devastatingly poor. In the early 20th century, irrigation projects brought water and agriculture to the valley—a third of all Mexico’s green chilies are now produced here—but it also brought pollution in the form of wastewater pumped out from Mexico City.

Despite changes in their resources, many of the Otomí—particularly those in villages like Lomas, where there is still no form of public transportation to larger towns and markets—continue to cook with the same insects, flowers, wild animals, and fruits used by their ancestors, the hidden bounty of a high, dry place. Sergio and Elvia, for instance, subsist largely on what they can gather near their home or grow on their small plot of land. They earn extra money by selling the mauve pine nuts they collect in the surrounding hills and the escamoles they dig from the parched earth, the same ingredients that, earlier that day, had been the centerpieces of the muestra.

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Photos by Michael Snyder

For the first few hours of Saturday, the most important of the festival’s three days, a small army of judges circulated among the dozen or so long tables set up under a high plastic tent over the town square. In Spanish, a local emcee shouted down a microphone, thanking the municipal president (of whom “we are all gloriously proud”); an array of representatives visiting, for reasons that remain mysterious, from places like China and the Ivory Coast; and, of course, “God, far away but always close to each of us.” The food laid out on the tables was profligate in its diversity and gorgeousness: earthenware bowls budding with long red aloe flowers, colorful salads studded with the delicate ink-black bodies of mesquite beetles, and all manner of ground-dwelling animals stuffed with slices of nopal (cactus paddle) and yellow maguey blossoms.

The press finally got its go around midday. For an hour I wandered up and down the aisles, sampling a salad of buttery escamoles mixed with wild herbs plucked from the banks of narrow mountain streams; wild rabbit baked in a pale purple puree of pine-nuts; escamoles and snails steamed in mixiotes, the thin, parchment-like membrane pulled from the insides of young maguey leaves; baby pumpkin stewed in a mole made from three types of dried red chili; and—my favorite—a dish of escamoles with aloe, maguey and mesquite flowers, yerba buena, and parsley, all wrapped in the leaf (or penca) of a maguey and baked under hot coals.

Photo by Michael Snyder

Outside the tent, the muestra spills into the small grid of streets that forms the center of town, where local families set up their own stalls selling regional dishes to the visitors, mostly from Mexico City, passing through for the weekend. There are stalls selling gorditas stuffed with escamoles, clay jars of pulque (an alcoholic brew made by fermenting agave sap), and aguas frescas dyed magenta with the acidic cactus fruit known as xoconostle. East of the tent was a self-contained area for kids, complete with a caterpillar coaster, a carousel that I never once saw moving, and a trampoline enclosed in mesh with a rubber ball dangling from the ceiling, amusingly out of reach of the small children bouncing around inside. To the west, dozens of vendors sold shawls and sponges woven from the agave fiber known as iztle.

One of the most popular stands belonged to a man called Don Pley who sold, among other local dishes, tacos made with seven varieties of wild animal—wild boar, fox, squirrel, polecat, a local species of ringtail called cacomixtle, opossum, and rattlesnake—all caught in the mesquite forests around town. On Friday night, in preparation for the festival’s busiest day, Don Pley and his family members had prepared 60 animals, stuffing them with a mixture of guajillo chili, nopal, and onion, wrapping each in its own penca, laying them out in a broad, shallow pit lined with seething hot stones, and burying them there to cook overnight—a technique called barbacoa used around Mexico, but particularly associated with Hidalgo.

Photos by , Michael Snyder

Pley first started selling at the muestra about seven years ago, when the feria outside the exposition was still fairly small. “We have a delicious cuisine here, but we were surprised that people kept coming and asking for fox tacos and all that,” he said. “This is what our ancestors ate—and they lived for 100 years.” Fox, he claimed, could help cure diabetes and cancer. Pulque, I was told, could keep a man potent into his 90s, at least. Everywhere I went that weekend, I heard similar claims—some outlandish, some totally plausible—about the connections between longevity and indigenous cooking.

That’s no small thing at this particular moment in Mexican history. A 2013 report from the UN found that Mexico has entered an unprecedented public health crisis: Around 74% of adult women and 70% of adult men in Mexico are either overweight or obese, and a 2017 report from the OECD projects these rates to increase. According to data published earlier this year by Mexico's National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), 7 in 10 indigenous Mexicans live in poverty. They have shorter lifespans, higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, and substantially higher rates of malnourishment, too. For Mexico’s poor, there is little in between.

The Otomí of Santiago de Anaya seem to live on the margins of those statistics. That evening at Don Pley’s house, I met Dr. Yesenia Peña, an anthropologist who’s worked in the Valle de Mezquital for 20 years. “There’s this idea in Mexico that indigenous communities are malnourished, but that’s not necessarily the case. Here in Santiago de Anaya and the surrounding villages, I found under 7% malnutrition in children between the ages of four and seven. Go to other villages farther out”—specifically in a village called Cardonal, less than 20 miles north—“and you’ll find rates as high as 50%,” she told me. “The difference here is the connection people have to their food, the pride they have in their culinary culture.”

In many indigenous communities, those connections have been battered by centuries of oppression and an endless campaign, extending from the colonial period to the present day, to erase indigenous culture. The colonial government pursued an aggressive conversion campaign against the tiny proportion of indigenous people they didn’t wipe out through forced labor and the spread of diseases like smallpox, measles, and mumps. After the Mexican Revolution, a movement built on the promise of land reform to benefit indigenous laborers, the Mexican government's Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos (1921-24), actively discouraged indigenous language, dress, and food, labeling them as barriers to a Eurocentric modernity. In the last decade or so, autochthonous foodways have become newly popular among urban elites looking to "rediscover" an "authentic" Mexican past (see: mezcal, barely drunk in Mexico City until less than a decade ago). Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an indigenous face on television or in an advertisement. The excitement over all things Mexican that brought Noma to Tulum and brings hungry gringo weekenders to Mexico City in record numbers extends only so far. Appropriation can take many forms.

Photo by Michael Snyder

So even as the indigenous ingredients once frowned upon by the wealthy make their way (at least a little ironically) into the "modern" Mexican cuisine, many young people—drawn away from their homes in the countryside to seek opportunity in the city—continue to shy away from any clear cultural markers of their heritage. Those who do speak their mother tongues, for instance, will often avoid using it in public. Indigenous food and drink are replaced by soft drinks and cheap snacks from the 7/11. Culinary tradition is not static, and it’s foolish to romanticize the traditional just because it’s old, but there’s an ugly irony to the crossed wires of a culture in which those once accused of being anti-modern are now being killed slowly with modern food products, even as the wealthy seek out the epitome of a contemporary, global Mexico in ingredients they once deemed an embarrassment.

The same economic forces drawing young people to the cities have also drawn most of the men from the Mezquital to the United States, where it’s even more difficult to maintain any kind of strong indigenous identity. That loss can also, perhaps paradoxically, find its way back home in the form of income. While wandering through the exposition, I met a cook called Martha Gomez Aguilar from the village of Jagüey, just outside Santiago de Anaya. “Around here, there are whole villages where all the men have gone away to work and they send money back,” she told me, “so the women will use that money to buy sausages or eggs.” Resources from the United States might lift families out of poverty, but, thanks to the ubiquity and power of American processed foods, they also lift families out of malnourishment and into overnourishment.

The muestra, though, has given people in the communities surrounding Santiago de Anaya a concrete reason to maintain their traditions. As Gomez told me, “I always tell my children that they should never be ashamed of their roots—and this food, that’s our tradition.” By drawing outsiders to the community, creating a source of income for local families, and generating excitement—both within the community and out—over dishes that might otherwise have been lost, the muestra has reinforced both the cultural importance and economic potential of these traditions.

Photo by Michael Snyder

Don Pley told me that, since he and his family began cooking for the muestra, they’ve also started eating these traditional ingredients more frequently than they did before. Antonio Ramirez Mayorga, a local teacher who generously hosted me for my three days in Santiago de Anaya, told me on my last day in town: “Usually the village is almost empty because there’s no work here, but we’re hoping to change that in ten years’ time by bringing tourism here with our food.” The muestra, as Dr. Peña put it, “incentivizes people to maintain their tradition. It took what was seen as the food of the miserable and made it a symbol.”

It was Ramirez who’d brought me to Don Pley’s house on that first evening in town. As we watched him place the penca-wrapped animals into the oven, Ramirez said: “In many ways we have already lost our continuity with the past. We’re losing our songs and dances, language and clothes. You might be disappointed to come to the villages here and not see a single house made from penca or adobe.” Don Pley and the others proceeded to pile dirt onto the closed pit to seal in the moisture, checking the oven for any signs of heat escaping through its newly laid cap of soil. “But our food,” Ramirez went on, “these dishes aren’t just Otomí. They’re the stories of our families.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred José Vasconcelos as a former president of Mexico. He served as the Minister of Education.

Tags: mexico, indigenous culture