The Historical Importance of Corn in Spanish-Speaking Countries
Before it became the world’s most-produced crop, corn in Spanish-speaking countries started out as just another wild seed. It looked nothing like the modern corn you see today!
We’re going to take a dive into Mesoamerican history to uncover the real origin of this popular crop and discover why it’s so important.
The Many Uses of Corn Today
You probably eat corn multiple times a day without even thinking about it! From your crunchy taco shells to your corn-syrup sweetened cereal, this starch has found its way into thousands of households.
Corn is important in other ways too! It’s one of the main ways livestock are kept fed and can even be used to make ethanol or plastic. The U.S. alone produces several billion bushels of corn each year. It’s no surprise that corn production is high since more than 6% of global food calories come from this crop!
Corn: A Long History
Corn has a long history and evolutionary history. This crop didn’t just appear out of nowhere! Around 10,000 years ago Mexico’s indigenous peoples worked hard to find the most calorically dense and suitable crops for domestication. This was no easy task as there were hundreds of different seed species!
The Origin of Corn
If you saw the first corn crop thousands of years ago, it would hardly resemble the canned-corn in your kitchen cupboard! Corn actually originated from a wild grass called teosinte. These kernels were very small and not placed close together. Nevertheless, the seed became popular throughout North and South America as indigenous civilizations selectively bred the crop for better and better traits.
So how did such a small grass turn into the bright yellow starch of today? Well, like most crops, this grass was modified by humans. Mesoamericans had to work hard to create corn from its wild grass origin. They would choose kernels with specific traits, such as large sized kernels, adaptability to climate, and drought durability. Mesoamericans were so successful with corn that it spread throughout the Americas and eventually to Europe and beyond.
A Piece of Culture
Corn in Spanish-speaking countries is more than just another plant. It’s a part of their culture, history, and traditions. Corn was a crop that completely changed the way people ate.
This crop’s early variations were some of the first plants to be domesticated in Mesoamerica. It helped humans go from hunting and gathering to crop domestication. This was a huge transformation! It allowed more time to be spent outside of foraging for food.
Because of the importance of corn in Mesoamerica, civilizations like the Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Olmec all have legends revolving around this essential food. Corn was a symbol of life, abundance, and sustenance.
Cultural Corn Cuisine
There is a saying that goes, “Mexico is corn, corn is Mexico.” An ancient Mayan story even illustrates that humans were created from corn!
Since corn has been an essential crop for so long in these countries, it’s no surprise that Latin America has a surplus of corn-filled dishes. Tamales, for example, originated in Mesoamerica as early as 8,000 to 5,000 BC!
The Aztecs were the first to use nixtamalization for corn. This process involves soaking and cooking the corn in an alkaline solution before cooking it. This was an important step because it allowed for the nutrients to be released. The corn was then dried and ground to produce the flour used to make tortilla.
Think of all of your favorite and delicious Mexican foods — nachos, tortillas, quesadillas, tamales — they were all first created by using nixtamalization!
Keep the corn knowledge flowing by reading more about Tortilla Culture in Latin America.
How to Say ‘Corn’ in Spanish
Now that you know the history and origin behind this versatile crop, practice saying corn in Spanish with this corny vocab list!
- Corn — El maíz
- Kernel — El grano
- Ear of corn— La mazorca de maíz
- Corn husk — La chala/Las hojas de maíz
- Cornstalk — El tallo de maíz
- Corn tassel — La panoja
- Cornfield — El campo de maíz
- Harvest — La cosecha
- Farming — La agricultura
- Farmer — El granjero
- Crop — El cultivo
- Plant — La planta
- Seed — La semilla
- Starch — El almidón
- GMO — OMG/El organismo transgénico
- Food — La comida
- Sweetcorn — El maíz dulce
- Cornbread — El pan de maíz
- Corn chips — Los piquitos
- Corn flakes— Los copos de maíz
- Corn flour — La harina de maíz
- Corn syrup — El azúcar de maíz
- Corn oil — El aceite de maíz
- Corn on the cob — La mazorca de maíz
- Cornmeal — La polenta
- Recipe — La receta
- Culture — La cultura
- Tradition — La tradición
- History — La historia
The Many Types of Corn in Spanish-Speaking Countries
When you think of corn, you probably picture bright, yellow kernels with a starchy and slightly sweet taste. However, this is just one of the many variations of corn!
Corn in Spanish-speaking countries often takes on multiple forms. Mexico has over 59 indigenous corn varieties while Peru has around 55. In contrast, the U.S. grows less than 10 different types. Of course, the most common one is the yellow corn you probably eat at barbeques or in salsa. However, corn in Spanish countries like Mexico and Peru can take on many different colors, shapes, and sizes. Imagine dark blue or bright purple corn. It even comes in white!
Why do these countries have so many different varieties? You only really need one type of corn right? Well, having different types of corn actually serves an important purpose. No two variations are the same!
Each variation of corn is suited to different environmental conditions, soils, temperatures, altitudes, etc. They also work differently in recipes as they have different flavors and textures. Ultimately, it’s important to have diversity in corn crops because they each have their own specific uses.
Sure, one crop might work well right now, but what if there is a drought next year? What if environmental conditions change? Having a variety of corn choices allows farmers to adapt their crops so they can still produce bountiful harvests.
Corn GMOs — The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
With such a surplus of information on the internet, GMO facts can be hard to understand and put into reference. But don’t worry! I’m going to break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of corn GMOs so that you can easily understand exactly what a genetically modified organism is and how it affects corn in Spanish-speaking countries.
There is lots of controversy surrounding GMOs not only of corn, but of many crops and produce. One of the main concerns about these genetically modified organisms is that they are unsafe or not healthy for consumption. Luckily, the reality is that GMOs are not only completely safe for human consumption, but they’ve also become an essential part of agriculture.
Plant modification sounds fancy and scientific, but humans have been doing it for centuries! It’s not always a complex process done in a lab with a bunch of tubes and chemicals. Rather, it’s a way to develop new crops with different sizes, colors, and usages. One of the first ways to modify crops like corn was through selective breeding. In this way, humans selected specific kernels of corn with desired traits to create a new variation better suited to their needs.
Without human involvement in selective breeding, we wouldn’t have many of the crops you consume today. Carrots would be purple instead of orange and sweet potatoes and broccoli wouldn’t exist!
Modern Plant Modification — GMOs
Plant modification has since developed to make the process faster and more efficient. There is a huge advantage to genetic modification. Instead of taking centuries of trial and error, new genetic modification enables us to target specific desired genes to “invent” a new species right away. It allows us to have corn crops resistant to drought, pesticides, and different temperatures. This means we have a lot more food available, which is incredibly important as the world population continues to grow!
Industrial varieties of corn are genetically modified to be resistant to common pesticides. These pesticides are used to kill insects and pests that would otherwise eat and destroy crops. The downside to this is that the pesticides can find their ways into nearby ecosystems and cause significant harm.
Another big problem with corn GMOs is that they are not equally accessible to everyone. In order for a farmer to use a patented GMO seed, they must pay licensing fees and sign contracts that dictate how they can grow the crop. Sometimes they even have to allow seed companies to inspect their farms!
Additionally, farmers cannot use their crops for next-years seeds. Instead, they are forced to buy them each year or be liable for patent infringement. These steep prices make it harder for small farmers to compete and stay afloat.
Monsanto is one such leading seed company that specializes in GMOs and is known for using it’s wealth reserves to crush small farmers with lawsuits. 90% of U.S. of U.S. corn is produced using Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds.
Spanish-speaking countries like Peru, Mexico, and Costa Rica are fighting back from Monsanto’s monopolization of the market. Their governments are rejecting Monsanto’s requests for their seeds to be used in these countries.
Loss of Variation
The many useful varieties of corn in Spanish-speaking countries are threatened by Monsanto. Already, 94% of seed diversity has disappeared and this number is only expected to grow higher. The loss of corn variation goes beyond just food, it’s also a reduction in culture, identity, and traditions. Different corn varieties have long been a source of tradition in cooking and ceremonies as well as being an economic driver through tourism.
Many countries have created seed banks to help combat this issue. These seed banks store seeds of many different varieties of corn and other plants that are otherwise extinct. They freeze them so they are still viable years later. However, even frozen, these seeds still have a limited lifespan.
The Future of Ancient Corn
Undoubtedly, the many beautiful varieties of Spanish corn face steep challenges. However, education and celebration of Spanish culture can go a long way in helping to preserve their history. Maybe next time you find yourself in need of a corn product, consider opting for landrace corn. Landrace corn is made up of maize varieties that have been cultivated and subjected to selection by farmers for generations. You can even buy landrace tortillas at Whole Foods!
How do You View Corn?
Clearly, corn in Spanish-speaking countries is so much more than just another crop. It’s part of their culture and history and still has a huge impact in their way of life. Tell me in the comments if this history changes the way you view this versatile crop. What will you be thinking about the next time you bite into a crunchy corn tortilla?
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