Okichike Ka Centeotzintli:1 Reindigenization in the City

Bienvenidos a Mesoamerica en Shikaakwa

At 420 N. 5th Street in Raton, New Mexico, Jim Cortez grew marigolds, xitomatl (tomatoes), chilchotl (hot chiles), and ayotli (squashes). Later, my first teacher of indigenous placed-based knowledge bought a larger lot upon which he and my grandmother planted fruit trees and tended a larger garden. My Grandpa Jim also taught me the lessons of piñon. In order to enjoy the roasted, salty delight you first had to spend hours foraging for them. We would climb the mountains located blocks from our home and seek out pine cones we found on the ground or in the low-hanging branches of the evergreens. We filled large bags full of piñon and hauled them home. There we coaxed the seeds out of the cones, washed, salted, and roasted them. My grandmother, María Eugenia Cortez, taught me the lessons of quelites. Like piñon seed, this wild edible plant, packed full of nutrition, was a common dish for our family.

In Northern New Mexico we ate an Amerindigenous diet of corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, and chiles, especially local varieties from Hatch, NM and Pueblo, CO. For special occasions my tías and other adult women including my mother would make empanadas. I remember only two kinds of empanadas: ‘sweet’ and ‘with meat.’ The meat empanadas included things such as lengua (cow tongue) mixed with a variety of spices and other ingredients. Like our Mesoamerican ancestors, special occasions also called for tamalli (tamales in Spanish); usually purchased from a local tamalera but sometimes made at home. Our diet tied us to the thousands years old food arts and sciences of our Amerindigenous ancestors.

My grandparents were my first teachers of indigenous foodways. Since in many ways we were de-indigenized and assimilated, I didn’t know that I commonly ate ancient foods from Abya Yala/Turtle Island. The fact that we ate flour tortillas instead of corn illustrated the degree to which the attack on indigenous foodways had been successful. By the time I was born, European wheat culture had been successful in stealing centeotzintli (our sacred maiz) from many of us Mesoamerican diasporans/Mexican Americans/Chican@s. Our trips to fast-food joints, “Chinese” restaurants, and steakhouses demonstrated how Anglo American values and late capitalism successfully penetrated and colonized our culture and our foodways.

My connection to land, place and Tierra Madre included a rural-small town Illinois birth where nature engulfed us and a move to the Southwest in my eighth year. In mountainous New Mexico we lived at the foot of Goat Hill. Across the street from my home we ran in and jumped over centuries old irrigation ditches. The ditches no longer served as a technology of sustenance for the Nuevo Mexicano and other indigenous people who have lived in the area for centuries. While they no longer served an agricultural function they were an important marker of a rural-small town New Mexican culture, especially its food culture. The ditches once irrigated the fields of chile and frijol that continue to form the foundation of a Northern New Mexican diet.

I daily walked into my grandfather’s, grandmother’s, aunts’, uncles’ and mother’s kitchens to experience numerous types of chiles and chile preparation techniques. When the local harvest came in we would buy 50 or more pounds of chiles to roast and freeze. I learned to make a Northern New Mexico enchilada casserole with red chile powder and a salsa with dried red chile flakes that to this day never fails to please large numbers at fiestas and meetings. Ranching and hunting played important roles in our food culture. My tías and tíos would cook venison or steak with green chiles, garlic, and onions. The all-too-common, in my opinion, dinners of tripa and menudo were always spiced with chile. Whether I liked it (which I most often did) or not (as in the case of menudo), the ancient chilli (in Nahua) formed much of my diet and identity. I have vivid memories of my grandmother chiding us to see who could prove their Mexicanness defined as toughness by eating a raw jalapeño. As the light-skinned ‘coyote’ (biracial) boy, I always took the bait and learned to love the burn in the process. It formed my cooking and eating style. Today, everything gets some form of chilli.

Frijoles, primarily pinto beans, accompanied most things during my youth. Our kitchens were often a sensory wonder as we could smell, hear, feel and taste frijoles. The seemingly giant pot or equally giant pressure cooker sputtered with boiling beans that including chile (of course), onion, garlic and salt; sometimes with a large bit of manteca (lard). Burritos of beans, chile, cheese and onions wrapped in warm homemade flour tortillas are the most memorable food item in our household prior to my teen years. Beans were taken for granted. This familiarity often brought discomfort and embarrassment as it symbolized being Mexican; that is, brown and racially othered. We were ‘beaners’, after all. As much as I internalized a racist self-image with Mesoamerican food at its center when I was a child, today my reindigenization involves a love of Northern New Mexican food and nature as well as a pan-indigenous exploration of foodways. Beans, corn and squash fill my garden beds, my kitchen and my pantry. My infrequent restaurant outings to spend time with my children finds me at El Pollo eating burritos, enchiladas, or chilequiles always with chiles, beans and corn. Mine is a decolonized, anti-colonial food practice using the indigenous foods of my friends and family as its base.

My personal journey out of New Mexico through the pursuit of a PhD sharpened my understanding of the ills of capitalism, colonialism and other hierarchal institutions and belief systems. The Zapatistas and their revolutionary insistence on being themselves as place-based peoples was my first education in capitalist colonialist use of food as a weapon. Under unfathomable hardship the Zapatistas unashamedly claimed their dignity and indigeneity. They fought and died to be themselves and help create a world in which all worlds fit (un mundo donde caben todos los mundos). These inheritors of centuries-old maíz culture struggle to maintain ecologically-sound, culturally-appropriate food and life ways. From them I learned lessons in the importance of local struggle ‘against neoliberalism and for humanity.’

My associations with anarchists and other anti-authoritarians deepened and further politicized my understanding of self-determination and community taught by my grandparents and the Zapatistas. Anarchists in Texas introduced me to community supported agriculture (CSA), practical use of the general assembly and provided me the first real examples of community living and collective decision-making. They brought my attention to the centrality of food to the global capitalist system and how to create an anarchist food system.

Shikaakwa (Checagou or Chicago) taught me the words “food justice.” Living and working in working-class Black and Mexican@/Chican@ communities deprived of access to healthy, dignified, culturally-appropriate food introduced me to the unjust realities suffered by people of color in urban environs under racist, capitalist colonialism. The abundance of liquor stores, corner store junk-food outlets and fried fast-food options, and the lack of fresh produce and meats at ‘grocery stores’ vividly illustrate the consequences of capitalist weaponizing of food every time I step outside my door in working-class communities of color in Chicago. The resistance of Black and Brown community gardeners, social justice activists and revolutionaries makes evident the possibilities for a different social order. They argue for food autonomy and self-determination as the basis of a new world. In The Green Lots Project’s gardens (Sacred Greens, Roseland Community Forest Garden and Jardín Izquierdista) I practice a version of indigenous anarchism and with the Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living we teach and learn indigenous ecological knowledge (IK). We combine TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) with the Black agrarian and self-determination traditions, permaculture and urban agro-ecology as survival strategy and tactics in a class war of position in Chicago. Resistant resilient Mesoamerica survives in the North through seeds, ritual and the calmecacs (indigenous institutions of higher learning) of urban growing spaces.


Dis-placed, Mis-placed, Re-Emplaced

I write dis-placed in a city designed to mis-place us from ourselves; our relations with the biosphere/all of our relations. From my maternal grandparents I learned indigenous foodways, horticulture and the values of respect, reciprocity and interrelatedness. I was subsequently educated to forget all of this in pursuit of a PhD and individual success. In Chicago I saw that I wasn’t the only one dis- and mis-placed. The concrete and car pollution (the most obvious manifestations of violence against nature and us that is the colonialist industrial built environment on the Far Southside of Chicago), the racist stigma of farm work, and the cultural encouragement to disassociate from living systems in favor of petroleum-based entertainment conspire to deprive Blacks and Mexican@s of the necessary human relationship to land. The food autonomy movement in Black communities in Chicago repairs that relationship for many of the mis-placed. Through community gardening, farming, foraging and other foodways, and efforts at natural living and homesteading, we are re-emplacing ourselves and re-territorializing and re-indigenizing urban and rural spaces.

In 2008 I moved to the Roseland community. It has turned out to be one of the most important relocations of my life. In Roseland I learned about Chicago, inequality and the problems facing Chicago’s working class Black community as well as its rich and dynamic struggle to thrive. Roseland is a community on the far Southside of Chicago. Early in its history it served the Pullman railyard with many of its residents working in the industry. From the time of its creation in the mid-1800s till the 1960s it was also overwhelmingly white. Its reputation has garnered it the nickname, “The Wild 100s.” Roseland and its 50,000 residents, 97% of whom are now Black, have a revealing history that repeats itself in Black neighborhoods throughout Chicago and the country. As the neighborhood changed from White to Black, whites fearing displacement mobilized. In 1943 they protested new housing intended to attract Black residents. Finally, in a last ditch effort to keep Blacks out, whites erupted in the Fernwood Riots in 1947. White residents beat Black newcomers in an effort to keep Black migration east of the railroad tracks (Hirsch, 1983). The unsuccessful riots took place on the streets outside my former home, where my children attended school, and on the very spot where Sacred Greens Community Garden is located.

In the 1970 and 1980s, Black middle-class flight to the suburbs left Roseland with few professionals and Black business-owners. The tearing down of the vast federal housing projects in Chicago led a new population of marginalized to migrate to urban bantustans such as Roseland. The result was a further breakdown of the community. The gutting of Roseland included a lack of food. Today, Roseland is a food junkyard in which there is not a single full-line regional grocery chain in the geographically large community. A few small and discount grocery stores compliment the dozens of fast-food and corner store junkfood outlets that dominate Roseland’s foodscape. The community, like all communities suffering under food apartheid, has more than just the problem of a lack of food. The average median income was $10,000 less than that of Chicago as a whole with a poverty rate of 27% compared to the city rate of 21%. Yet, the average rent in Roseland is higher than the city average. One in five households is headed by a single woman who outnumber men by more than 5,000. Roseland can be tough on its residents including a crime rate twice that of the rest of the city, older housing stock, and few natural spaces to help us cope with the concrete, crime and crack. In spite of these difficulties many in Roseland such as Diane Latiker of Kids Off the Block have created spaces of healing and resistance. Some of these spaces include gardens.

Upon my arrival to Roseland in 2007–2008, Master Gardener Gregory Bratton pointed me to the Roseland Community Peace Garden (now Roseland Community Forest Garden) where I met Dominique R. Bowman (now Vining) and the other members of the Green Lots Project. Dominique envisioned turning the lot on the northwest corner of 104th Street and Wabash into something of an outdoor community center with a garden as a central meeting place for neighbors to build community and better health and to employ neighborhood teens. She worked with Fred Carter and Dr. Jifunza Wright of The Black Oaks Center for Sustainable Renewable Living to develop an organizational structure, set of principles, and a strategy for achieving her vision.

Over the years this vision has expanded along with the amount of land under cultivation. Working alongside Black Oaks, GLP re-indigenizes ourselves and our communities through re-claiming neglected spaces in our neighborhoods, learning from the land and tapping into the old ways with our hands and hearts in the soil. We transform the concrete and trash-stewn lots of racist, colonialist industrial Amerika into places of indigenous knowledge development and learning from the land.


Cultivating Quelites and Learning from the Land

Wild native plants are important to garden designs at The Green Lots Project gardens. At the forest garden we simply weed and tend pathways. We let the ‘wild’ edibles like verdolagas (purslane), clover and quelites (lamb’s quarters2) sprout up amongst the ‘volunteer’ cultivars that decided to grow from previous seasons’ wind-blown seeds and the perennial bushes and trees that we planted a few years ago. At GLP gardens we let nature lead. In this way we learn from quelites, other wild edibles and all our relations. The land calls out for rewilding. In order to feed ourselves (materially and spiritually) we agree to work alongside it and reciprocate with gifts and services to all of our more-than-human relatives with whom we interact.

Discussions of wild edibles usually begin with the question: “This is a weed, right?” On numerous occasions a small group working in the Outdoor CommUnity Classroom at the RCPG/RCFG would begin a conversation about what constitutes a weed. How do we define it? Can you identify one when you see it? I usually point to a dandelion nearby and ask “Is that a weed?” Typically everyone agrees that it is. The dandelion is probably the most well-known and easily recognizable ‘weed’ in the country. I or others explain how to use every part of the dandelion for some form of sustenance and nutrition. We form a circle and harvest a dandelion to examine. The beautiful plant has leaves to eat fresh or lightly cooked like other greens, flowers to eat in salads or fried, and roots to make a coffee-like substance. I have some dandelion leaves drying in the basement as I write this. Soon it will be a key ingredient in household teas.3

It’s all about context and knowledge. A dandelion is a weed to most in the colonized urbanized middle-class aspiring context of the industrial monoculture grass lawn. We don’t understand the dandelion and learn to despise that which we don’t know. For our community food development course, Baba Fred shed important light on ‘weeds.’ When thinking about our relationship to all our relations and how we are supposed to interact with others he defined a weed as “a plant that you don’t know how to use.” It is the human’s ignorance and not anything inherent in the plant itself that causes the Amerikan homeowner to define it as a problem, a ‘weed.’ Divorced of the knowledge of its value, the highly nutritious and useful dandelion becomes a weed. The monoculture landowner assaults the dandelion and other ‘weeds’ with herbicides in pursuit of the perfect lawn; chemical warfare is declared daily by the monocultural grass-lover. I tell my fellow gardeners that I solve the ‘dandelion problem’ by simply eating them. It’s all a matter of context, perspective and knowledge. So, along with dandelion, quelites and verdolagas, GLP members have learned to use chicory, clover, mulberry, feverfew, goldenrod, and burdock for food and medicine. We have begun to rewild by learning the lessons of wild edibles.

Quelites is a case in point. I remember eating quelites as a kid, but my memories are a bit hazy. My sister, on the other hand, has clear loving memories of eating quelites. She described to me how our grandparents made the ‘wild spinach’ with bacon and butter. Given my distance and time away from New Mexico it makes sense that I would have lost some of my memory of this food tradition. A few years ago I re-encountered quelites and it took me several days to realize that the lamb’s quarters growing everywhere in the community garden were the same quelites I ate as a kid. My recognition of quelites led to new insights regarding time, geography, memory, class, imperialism, and tradition. Quelites began to teach me valuable lessons useful in food decolonization work. This is what we mean when we say that the land teaches.

I recall my experience with quelites as a means to reindigenize and rewild, through decolonizing the history of the Mexican Diaspora. Our ancient ancestors foraged for the native wild quelites, ultimately cultivating them in their gardens. Mesoamericans continued the tradition. In fact, the name ‘quelites’ is native to the Americas, deriving from the Nahua word, ‘quilitl.’ It was a key ‘green’ in the home gardens of most Amerindigenous families who valued it for its high nutritional content. Today, we know that it is high in vitamins A, C and K, iron, fiber, vegetable protein and various minerals. It is prepared easily like spinach and grows abundantly. What is not to like about quelites?

With European imperialism, the diets and horticultural traditions of native Mexicans changed dramatically. Along with the Cross and disease, Spaniards brought a new ‘ecological revolution’ that included an attack on native foodstuffs. Sometime between the Spanish Colonial Era in Mexico and the 1970s in New Mexico when I was a child, quelites became a weed again. Yet, we still ate it. De-indigenized Mexican Americans/Hispanos of New Mexico recognized quelites along with piñon and verdolagas as delicious foodstuffs. However, imperialist ideologues and gringo culture deemed them unsuitable for cultivation in our gardens so most of us don’t grow them.

My story of the loss of a traditional way of preparing quelites illustrates further a story that is altogether too common a part of the Mexican diasporic experience. Few of my friends and family eat quelites. Our diets have been colonized and wild edibles are certainly not part of the U.S. national diet. We have turned over our diets to corporations and advertisers. While many in New Mexico, for example, still eat roasted New Mexico chile, piñon seed, and red chile with venison, or hunt as part of our foodways, as people move out of the geographical area or up the economic scale, distance is placed between us and our indigenous food traditions. Of course, the ubiquity of fast food and the continued denigration of things Mexican and indigenous are the primary deterrents to maintaining our ancestral foodways. I moved up and out. I lost quelites. My loss mirrors that of many “Mexicans living in the United States, [who] no longer ‘know the maiz or the bean’” (Rodriguez, 2014:xxv). Fortunately, the food decolonization movement and the tenacity of indigenous people in the face of the colonization of our diets has led to a re-membering of quelites and other Amerindigenous foods and my relationship to them. As a result, I and other members of the GLP ‘know quelites’ and other wild edibles. We know it medicinally as a highly nutritious foodstuff. I also now know it intimately, spiritually and emotionally.

My recognition of quelites and the decision to let nature guide my hand in the garden and to encourage others to do so in our community garden taught me to see colonialism and decolonialism in two important ways. First, I experienced a real-life example of our dangerous tendency to want to control and colonize nature. I, like many gardeners and farmers, too often attempt to impose my will on nature. I pull weeds with a vengeance when I only want one row crop in a given bed. If it is true that a primary characteristic of nature is that it is fecund, then it seems foolhardy to attempt to eradicate ‘weeds.’4 Quelites and other relations have taught me to take more seriously the idea of complementary or companion planting that our ancestors gave to the world so many thousands of years ago – the elegant principle of the polyculture milpa exemplified by las tres madres (corn, beans and squash along with other relatives). I now understand the importance of wild edibles and native plants instead of shaking my head in frustration as the ‘weeds’ out-produce my vegetable plants. Letting quelites teach leads us to the realization that nature produces perfectly. Cooperation, complementarity, and mutual aid are important to how an ecosystem works without human intervention. These natural principles or Original Instructions should be applied to human systems if we are to create a new society that would be environmentally and socially just.5 In the garden I stop to try and imagine what our world would look like if we incorporated just these three natural principles into our human-human interaction. How might we change if we get to ‘know’ our wild edibles and the secrets of all our relations?

Reconnecting to quelites brought forth a history that illustrates the material consequences of colonialism. Loss of food traditions results from the colonial process in which all that is native becomes vile, savage and backward while all that comes from the settlers becomes idealized, overvalued and esteemed. Quelites becomes a weed and ‘civilized’ people don’t eat weeds. To the colonizer and victims of capitalist ideology, it is a marker of my backwardness that I do. This plant was a primary factor in the survival and prosperity of millions of native Mexicans for centuries. As with the loss of corn to wheat and the concomitant rise in obesity and related problems, the loss of quelites, a key source of affordable nutrients, offers insight into the health consequences of colonialism. We lose quelites, verdolagas, chilli, tortillas de maíz and nopal (cactus) and have them replaced with chemically preserved packaged and fast foods. We lose health as we lose tradition. Colonialism takes the very resources necessary for our survival, our food traditions, arts and sciences and sells them back to us as Taco Bells. Our traditions are hidden away or turned into a commodity. Either way we lose the ability to determine our own food choices; we lose autonomy over our very survival. Because we lose our connection to all of our relations, we lose ourselves. The dis-placed, mis-placed capitalist colonialist industrial individual remains trapped in concrete food junkyards.

But, here in the city our anti-colonial food movement seeks to decolonize our urban spaces, minds and spirits while reindigenizing our values, ethics and relationships to the world. Indigenous dichos like the Mayan in lak’ ech (you are my other me) and Lakota mitakuye oyasin (all my relations) mingle with the Black agrarian tradition and anarchist organizational forms to rewild our spirits and our places. Approaching all our relations with humility and respect inevitably leads to rewilding our culture. Our actions result from considering their potential effect on our grandchildren’s grandchildren. This future-looking respectful process causes me to plant trees and nurture the seeds of indigenous wisdom passed down from Jim and Mary Cortez.


[1] Rodriguez (2014:3) writes: “The concept okichike ka centeotzintli, which was developed in collaboration with Nahuatl educator Paula Domingo Olivares of CuUentepec, Mexico, means ‘made from sacred maiz.’ The centeotzintli narratives encapsulate the idea ‘We are the people of sacred maiz,’ ‘Somos gente de maiz sagrado.’”

[2] Quelites refers to a category of wild edible greens of which there are hundreds. I grew up calling lamb’s quarters “quelites” since this is what my grandmother called them.

[3] See “Dandelions II” of the Ethnoecology blogs at http://ejfood.blogspot.com/2012/12/ethnoecology-blogs-autumn-2012_30.html for more information on the dandelion.

[4] See Bookchin, M (2005) Ecology of Freedom and The Murray Bookchin Reader (1999) for discussion of ‘nature’s fecundity’ and any number of permaculture books for discussions of the cons of weeding.

[5] Murray Bookchin and Peter Kropotkin are among the central figures of anarchist theory who propose that these principles be part of an anarchist society.