Milpa

The milpa is the umbilical cord that connects the hijos del maiz to their mamapacha; it is the stretch of land where families’ hope and faith are planted in the form of neon pink-painted kernels of corn, praying that the rain falls at the opportune moment and that the caterpillars don’t eat the plants before eeking out a single – or, if they’re lucky, double – ear of corn.  It is where they continue to cultivate corn even though the price of corn has fallen and the cost of planting and fertilizing has risen and so the harvest is almost wholly for their own consumption without possibility of selling.  It is also where boys become young men, working with little more than a machete and their own wiry arms that turn into solid trunks.

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

Marcelo, 10 years old, taking a break after working all morning clearing the milpa

The rainy season began in full at the beginning of June, which means the ground is generally maintained damp by 3-6 rains per week.  After the first good rain storm the difference in Guajoyo was tangible; before the sun makes it over the mountains men in boots and sun-bleached work shirts fill the street and footpaths that lead to the surrounding areas where each man makes his milpa, armed with a machete and the occasional sprayer strapped to their backs.  A few hours later, once the kids have been sent off to school, the women – accompanied by a troupe of dogs – follow the same path to bring breakfast to the men.

Until the rains come is a time of rest between the harvest and the planting, when there’s plenty of time for things like soccer games and fishing for river shrimp.  But now everyone has their work to do, and the day not spent working their own field is a day to possibly be hired as a mozo to help in someone else’s field. Mozos are paid $5 to work approximately a 6 hour work day, so for my family to plant approximately an acre of corn, they paid $25 for the 5 mozos and $15 to the man who lent his oxen and plow to break the earth.  $40 is about as much as a man can hope to earn in a good week of hired work, which is hard to come by and hard to hold onto.

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

Father, son, and the hired mozos drop seed into the ground

And because of this and because of the large amount of work that has to be done with no pay until the harvest some 6 months later, money is even harder to come by these days, and in my family we refer to this as “the time of the beans,” because most of the time there is only beans and tortillas to eat.  Even eggs are a commodity, because with the change of seasons comes a virus that attacks the chickens and the majority of people in Guajoyo lost most if not all of their chickens by the end of May.

A few weeks have passed since the planting, and plants ranging in size from 6 inches t 2 feet tall fill the milpas in curvy rows that are planted according to the dips and slant of the earth.  The time of the beans is passing, because as the plants get more established the workload is less heavy and the possibility of seeking paid work is slightly improved. Now is the time for fertilizing and mending fences and for going fishing in Rio Lempa, which is swollen and muddy with the rains. MILPA with ox

I have a new appreciation for the farmers’ faith, the incredible amount of faith it takes to leave a tiny seed buried in the ground and hope that the right combination of rain, sunshine, and control of insects work in your favor.  There was a 4 day stretch when it did not rain after the rains had supposedly started, and many who had planted were fearful that the seed would dry up in the ground or be eaten by insects before the rains came and the tiny kernel miraculously sprouted roots.  There is little certainty in farming, and there is a deep understanding that much of the outcome is far beyond man’s control.  It makes sense that many agricultural societies have a very mystical outlook on life; the mystery of the combination of a man’s faith in a small seed and the combined input of weather, wildlife, timing, and soil cannot be explained by logic or science alone.

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

About 2 weeks after planting, the corn is a sturdy 8 inches tall

When it was time for planting, I spent several mornings with Candida, the mom of the family I’m living with, hauling water from the river to fill the sprayers that her husband and son used to spread weed-killing poison on the milpa to make room for the corn to grow.  As we walked from the house to the field, then multiple trips to the river and back with large canteens of river water perched on our shoulders, we would talk about all sorts of things.   Candid has an extensive knowledge of native plants and their medicinal, nutritional, and spiritual properties.  Anywhere we go, she casually points out plants that to my untrained eye blend into one undistinguishable landscape, describing how it can be boiled or shredded or rubbed on one’s skin or smoked to heal illnesses of the body and of the heart.

One tree that overlooks the now happily sprouted corn in our milpa is, according to Candida, good for keeping secrets.  She explained that if when you have a newborn baby and they have stomach pains and cry a lot, you have to take the umbilical cord nub when it falls out, and without telling anyone where you’re going, go into the woods and find one of these trees.  Then you make a hole precisely the size and shape of the umbilical nub in the trunk of the tree, and deposit it in the hole.  With the umbilical cord tucked neatly inside, you whisper to the tree about what is ailing your baby, and ask it to heal him.  They did this for their third child, she tells me, and that is how he was rid of terrible stomach pains as a baby.MILPA jalar agua

The whole business of planting and growing and eating of what comes out of the earth makes me realize the vulnerability of these communities, but also the resiliency that familiarity of the earth and its plant and animal inhabitants gives them.  Here people have survived for hundreds of years not only on corn, but on knowing what plants are edible in times when the crops fail or war makes harvesting impossible.  Knowledge of their medicinal properties are how they survived illness before hospitals, and the milpa was school to generations of kids before the Ministry of Education built buildings and called them schools.  And I see what a profound loss it is that the momentum of the current time in history is taking us away from such knowledge; that sees crops as little more than yet another marketable good to be produced at the lowest possible expense.  And it makes me realize that the direction we’re going in makes us more and more vulnerable, even while it’s security we’re seeking.

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3 thoughts on “Milpa

  1. I am concerned about losing one’s chickens every year. Do you suppose Molly’s dad might be of any assistance in this matter?? Dad
    P.S. Thank you for writing so well, and helping me feel as if I am there with you…

    • thats actually one of the projects on the list for next year — equipping the community with the needed chicken vaccinations and training a handful of women on chicken health and epidemiology so they can promote healthy chicken raising and hopefully prevent such viruses from knocking out the majority of the chicken population. Aaand we’ve already got a local chicken expert on the job 🙂

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