Sunday, December 2, 2012

Food Sovereignty

Food Sovereignty Tours gave me the opportunity to learn about the agricultural and culinary history of Oaxaca from indigenous experts. Learning directly from a Zapotec professor, a local dairy farmer, and a community leader whose qualifications came solely from working the land, could never be equaled by reading book or in a classroom. Travel is education that should be accessible for everyone.

When I applied for the program, I was worried about the cost. It seemed so extravagant to spend so much on just two weeks. That was also two weeks and a day of work I had to give up, in addition to the tuition fee of the trip, and airfare from New York to Oaxaca. I decided to do it in lieu of a school program which would have also been in Mexico, and started fundraising. Part of the cost was covered by funds provided by the school where I’m studying public policy, and another portion was covered by Food First’s scholarship. It all worked out, and I got to spend one of my most memorable Christmases in the Sierra Norte in a temazcal.

My interest in Mexico comes from working with indigenous immigrants. Many students of the program where I work are from Oaxaca and neighboring Puebla. After visiting Mexico, I have a better understanding of the forces which have compelled so many to migrate from the south to the north. A big part of that story is that of the trade agreements between the US and Mexico, and the encroachment of the global business policies on food sovereignty.  It explains why some of these students whose mother tongues are Mixe, Mixteco, or Nahuatl are studying English as their third language as adults in New York City.

For me, one of the most profound points made during the trip was by the Zapotec professor of anthropology. He pointed out that organic food and GMOs are culturally important. The mainstream media never focuses this. Instead, they talk about environmental impact or nutrition, but these seem remote and abstract when we’re talking about daily survival. Sitting next to a lake in Benito Juarez’s hometown, and hearing how invasive strains of corn are endangering cultural practices, made the matter one of containing the attempt at cultural genocide that the people have been resisting for 500 years. He was able to link indigenous food sovereignty and cultural preservation because he is a part of that culture.

While there are many reasons that food sovereignty is an important issue, none have resonated with me as much. As an immigrant to the US, and as someone who is very sensitive to the value of lost language and culture since I lost both, Professor Ramos’ point made the entire trip and issue more relevant for me. If I hadn’t traveled to Mexico, I never would have heard this point. As a result, while continuing to work with indigenous immigrants, the fight for food sovereignty has become mine as well. It is a part of their struggle for empowerment and social justice both here in the US and in Mexico.