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Culture : For Mexicans, Growing Corn is a National Heritage : Seven thousand years of evolution have yielded an astonishing variety. For this nation, maize has deep symbolic values.

February 18, 1992|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS JOYAS, Mexico — For centuries, peasant farmers in the mountains of western Mexico have unwittingly guarded a secret that could turn out to be the botanical discovery of the century: a kind of corn that does not have to be replanted every year and that is naturally immune to half a dozen common crop diseases.

Since researchers learned of the plant a little over a decade ago, Zea diploperennis has become the centerpiece of a new kind of nature reserve and an eloquent argument for protecting habitats that may hold undiscovered plants and animals. As scientists learn more about it, the plant is coming to represent yet another cause: preserving traditional farming and a culture that revolves around corn.

Far from being a completely wild species as first thought, the plant appears to be a sort of benevolent weed that thrives in conjunction with organic corn farming, according to scientists at the University of Guadalajara Without the peasant farmers, the plant would probably be extinct.

That conclusion is particularly significant these days, when negotiators from Mexico, the United States and Canada are trying to hammer out a free-trade agreement that includes agricultural commerce. The two northern countries are efficient, low-cost producers that sell corn for about half the price it commands in Mexico.

But in Mexico, corn is not just a commodity. It's a cultural issue. So, the specter of low-priced northern corn inundating the Mexican market is seen not just as a trade issue but as a threat to the national heritage.

Mexicans call themselves the "children of corn," descendants of people whose religious pantheon included three corn gods. Cornstalks were common patterns in ancient Mexican art. Statues of the Aztecs' hairless dogs had corncobs carved in their mouths, the way the English place apples in the mouths of roasted pigs.

The most ancient evidence of human corn consumption was found in caves in Puebla, a state in central Mexico. Archeologists estimate the corn discovered there is 7,000 years old.

Today, corn remains a fundamental element of Mexican culture. Most of the country's corn is grown by subsistence farmers, who sell their excess production at local markets.

The lack of commercial corn farming has meant little use of sophisticated, commercial hybrids. Two-thirds of Mexico's cornfields are planted in native maize varieties, known in the United States as "Indian corn."

Too poor to tolerate waste, farmers use every part of the corn plant. Cobs and stalks are fed to animals, burned as fuel or woven into roofing material. Many foods are steamed in cornhusks. Corn silk can be brewed into a diuretic tea.

The multiple practical uses of corn have imbued the grain with magical properties. Kernels are tossed and read like tea leaves. Figures made from husks--such as the cornhusk mules sold on Corpus Christi day--are part of religious ceremonies and holiday celebrations.

But most important, corn is the basis of the Mexican diet.

Mexican cuisine includes more than 600 corn dishes. Every neighborhood has its tortilleria, where housewives line up to buy steaming tortillas by the kilogram as quickly as automated operations can press the dough and move it through specially designed ovens.

Everything from tamales , a sort of corn mush with a filling steamed inside a cornhusk, to atole , a thick, hot drink, is made from corn.

But not from the same corn. The hominy-like white kernels found in pozole , a spicy soup, could no more be used to make cornudos , a triangular corn puff, than popcorn could be used for corn bread. Differences in corn varieties are a big part of the personality of regional dishes.

Between the Guatemalan and U.S. borders grow at least 32 varieties of corn, each with various sub-varieties, developed in response to climate and soil differences.

"This is 7,000 years of evolution," says Suketoshi Taba, head of the seed bank at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside Mexico City, picking up an ear from one of 11,000 bins, each containing a different type of corn, stored at the center.

The center collects corn from peasant farmers all over the world.

"This is the resource to combat disease in the future, to make a new crop, to fight hunger," Taba says of the native corn.

That point was driven home when Rafael Guzman, a University of Guadalajara botany student, found a wild relative of corn growing in a Mexican village in the Manantlan Highlands, a four-hour horseback ride from the nearest road.

Because of the plant's tiny ears, with only half a dozen kernels, people here call it milpilla, or little corn. They occasionally mix the kernels into corn meal but mainly use the plant for fodder. They have transplanted milpilla to various locations throughout the highlands where cattle graze.

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