Written by Hope Bigda-Peyton and Douglas GayetonPhotography and video by Douglas Gayeton
WALKING THROUGH THE BUSTLING Villa de Etla market at noontime, in a dusty village on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Irma Rosales shrewdly picks out the ingredients for her family’s favorite sopa de guias. “Where did you grow these guias?” she asks a woman selling squash vines and flowers from a blanket on the floor. Satisfied with the vendor’s answer, she scoops the vines into her arms, dividing them up for her daughters Hazly and Diana to carry. “You always have to ask,” she remarks. “Lots of food, even at my community market, is from other places and is grown using agrochemicals. But I try to buy agro-ecologically produced local foods. It’s made all the difference for my daughters, myself, and my community.”
Today, Oaxacans spend nearly 40% of their monthly disposable income on food, most of which is ultra-processed. Redirecting that spending towards healthier, local, and sustainably-grown foods is key to addressing Mexico’s nutrition challenges. Increasingly, it includes one particular ingredient native to the region that nearly vanished from local markets: amaranth.
AMARANTH WAS FIRST CULTIVATED IN MEXICO over 7,000 years ago. High in protein and rich in essential minerals, the grain was once considered, along with corn and beans, a staple food across Central America. Amaranth also played a vital role in Aztec (or Mexica) religious practices. Each year, farmers across Mexico sent nearly 20,000 tons of the grain to Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) in annual tribute to the Aztec emperor Montezuma.
Amaranth was so closely tied to Aztec religious rites that Aztec people ground the seed— with corn and honey—to create a dough called tzoalli, which was then shaped into the forms of gods, mountains, deer, snakes, and birds. These figures were eaten during ceremonies at the great temples—with blood splattered onto the sculptures to magnify their importance—or shared at family gatherings. The widespread use of rituals involving amaranth shocked the Spanish conquistadors; they eventually forbade its cultivation, burned fields, and cut off the hands of farmers to discourage its future use.
In the intervening centuries, corn and beans became two of the world’s leading crops, while amaranth faded into obscurity and was largely forgotten across the Americas. Because amaranth was once so important to Aztec and other pre-colonization diets, it is a promising forgotten food. Moreover, amaranth cultivation can improve nutritional outcomes especially since most of the world now receives the bulk of its calories and protein from a mere three crop species—corn, wheat, and rice.
Before colonization, amaranth—along with corn, beans, and other crops—were key elements of the milpa, a nutritious group of plants that have a symbiotic growing relationship, making them ideal for human health and sustainable agriculture. In recent times, Mexicans have turned away from their milpa-based diet, a shift accelerated by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which flooded Mexican markets with inexpensive, processed food products that increasingly displaced traditional foods. In rural communities, a new dependence on processed foods is a principal cause of both malnutrition and obesity; in 1980, 7% of Mexicans were obese, but by 2016 that figure tripled to over 20%. Today, obesity is the number one cause of death in Mexico.
Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, an NGO focused on improving nutrition in rural Oaxaca, offers communities a number of programs.Its cooking workshops teach marginalized farmer families nutrition education and methods for using amaranth. The versatile plant’s seeds have a richer nutrient profile than comparable cereals like wheat, rice, and corn. Its leaves, a great source of iron and other micronutrients, are available for consumption throughout the plant’s life cycle. Irma Rosales took what she learned from the workshops and integrated whole foods into her family’s diet—she now uses amaranth in guisados, soups, beverages, and sweets.
Through Puente’s cooking workshops, Irma met other women in her community seeking to improve their families’ diets. One friend,María Cristina, uses her newfound knowledge to regularly prepare healthy amaranth-themed meals for her grandchildren, Dafne Nicol and Leandro Sebastián. “In rural areas, there is a lack of dietary diversity which results in malnutrition amongst girls and boys,” Maria notes. “Amaranth offers a great deal of diversity and is easy to incorporate into our meals at a low cost.” By increasing healthy whole foods like ancient grains in their diets, Oaxacan families improve their nutrition and wellbeing.
Amaranth is a pseudo-cereal similar in nutritional make-up to its cousin plant quinoa. It boasts a richer nutrient profile than comparable cereals like wheat, rice, and corn. Families prepare amaranth in any number of ways:
MESOAMERIC’S AGRICULTURAL LEGACY begins with corn. The oldest seeds were found in Tlacolula, Oaxaca; one of agronomy’s great mysteries is how centuries of intentional plant breeding here led to the domestication of corn from the tiny teocintle. Incredible human innovations like these changed the face of history—without seed sharing and saving, this biodiversity could have been lost in a single generation.
Minerva Cruz always wanted to be a farmer. She has a deep appreciation for the land she was raised on, but when she started out, Minerva used chemical inputs including fertilizers and synthetic pesticides like many of her neighbors. It wasn’t until she noticed that she had to buy increasing amounts of chemicals each season to ensure the same level of productivity that she decided to explore other farming practices.
Like many farmers in this region, Minerva has turned to the past to learn about the agricultural methods used by her ancestors—from seed saving and sharing to agroecological practices. When Minerva and her neighbors implemented these techniques, other regions of Oaxaca took notice.
The Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca has a particularly dry and arid climate, rendering agriculture a risky and difficult endeavor. Manuel Villegas Mora had long thought that if farmers found a way to preserve and enhance their delicate soils without synthetic fertilizers, they could increase productivity and improve family livelihoods.
For Manuel, building biodiversity began with building healthy soil; he now teaches young farmers to cultivate thriving ecosystems by breaking their reliance on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They’re learning a time-intensive process to ferment locally available organic matter then apply it directly on the soil. Manuel acknowledges that the process of recuperating their farmlands and replenishing the soil with biodiverse microorganisms may take years.
Farming in rural Mexico has never been a high-income profession, but access to appropriate technologies, ranging from seeding to threshing and cleaning machines, can save labor, help share knowledge, and dramatically increase the profitability of small-scale agriculture. Through access to appropriate technologies, farmers like Minerva and Manuel are able to earn a living wage and attain viable livelihoods from their farms.
Another form of knowledge sharing is through community radio. XETLA radio programs are broadcast in Mixteco and Español and available throughout the Oaxacan countryside. “Fuerza del campesino,” a daily radio program, features interviews with specialists who discuss community-based agricultural activities, while another show, “Colores y Sabores del Campo” (Colors and Tastes of the Countryside) broadcasts interviews with nutritionists and medical experts who share the food culture of indigenous populations. Finally, “La Hora Mixteca” (the Mixtec Hour) collaborates with Radio Bilingual (a show based out of Fresno, California) to offer a mix of music and current event programming. The station provides an important outlet to share knowledge on a local level, and remains one of the most important sources of communication and news in rural Mexico.
IN INDIGENOUS MOUNTAIN TOWNS like San Cristobal Amoltepec, located in Oaxaca’s Alta Mixteca region, wage-paying jobs are scarce. Amoltepec women like Alma Ortiz can earn 50 pesos, or just over $2 USD per day, weaving straw hats, while many others find work as house cleaners or store attendants. Both types of work require travel, which separates women from their young children and families, and can be quite expensive and difficult given road conditions and the lack of transport options.
With Puente’s help, Alma created a social enterprise that brings together local women. They develop a number of value-added products with amaranth, which they sell in neighboring villages. By working together, community entrepreneurs both increase their own access to healthy foods while also earning sufficient income to support their families. The opportunity to work in the same community where they live eliminates travel expenses and increases the quality of life for marginalized families.
To share knowledge and provide access to technology in their communities, female entrepreneurs also form volunteer-operated cooperatives. Grassroots networks across Oaxaca like the Red de Consumo (Healthy Food Network) are made up of farmers, microenterprise groups, and consumers. The networks have helped strengthen the amaranth value chain and increase local organization around healthy food systems by increasing accessibility to affordable, healthy food at a community level. Cooperative members see their labor as a service to the community at large. Collective social entrepreneurship, which operates through volunteer collaboration, reinforces community fabric and forges new social ties.
OAXACAN COMMUNITIES ARE DEFINED BY a highly formal cooperative model called Usos y Costumbres, a system based on public participation, volunteerism and community-led decision making. It’s an indigenous governance structure steeped in traditions and customs, with community members working together to make collective decisions through asambleas (town meetings) to implement community improvement projects through shared labor practices like tequio and gueza. In this tequio, Miguel and his neighbors volunteer to reforest and restore their community watershed.
A unique form of indigenous celebration and reciprocity in Oaxaca is guelaguetza — the idea of giving to one’s community as a form of celebration, without hoping to receive anything in return.
Today, the Guelaguetza is an annual event featuring indigenous dancing from Oaxaca’s seven regions, but the origins of guelaguetza extend back to pre-Columbian times, with agricultural celebrations of corn, amaranth and other crops and to pay tribute to earth gods.
By reclaiming indigenous crops like amaranth and traditional forms of agriculture, rural communities reaffirm their identity and sovereignty. Amaranth provides Oaxacan communities with the opportunity to celebrate and elevate their culture, together.
by Katelyn Mann of The Lexicon
edited by Raúl Hernández Garciadiego of Alternativas and Quali
Amaranth is a herbaceous plant growing 4 to 9 feet (1.2-3 m) tall. The plant is cultivated in temperate regions as an annual and used either as an ornamental plant or as a food source. The long stems alternate simple leaves and end in a colorful spear of radially symmetric spiky flowers (panicle inflorescence) that hide thousands (up to 60,000 seeds) of tiny amaranth grains. Amaranth is part of the plant family Amaranthaceae, which also features quinoa, beets and spinach. There are 60 different species of amaranth.
The seeds and leaves of the Amaranth plant are commonly eaten. The tiny seeds have a flavor similar to quinoa. Amaranth is easy to cook, simply needing to boil in twice the volume of water to grain for 15-20 minutes. Amaranth is boiled into porridge or sweet beverages and ground into flour and baked into desserts. The seed is also popped, mixed with sweeteners such as agave syrup or honey, and formed into balls or bars for a high protein snack. In Mexico the leaves (called “quelites,” a blanket term for edible green leaves) are utilized similarly to spinach, cooked into dishes and served sauteed as a side. The leaves are also commonplace in many Asian and African cuisines.
The amaranth grain is naturally gluten free and close to a complete protein with 10 essential amino acids including lysine, which most other grains lack. A serving of grain amaranth contains upwards of 20% of the recommended daily value of protein, fiber, vitamin B6 and several other minerals. Amaranth leaves, when cooked, contain high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin A, calcium and manganese and notable amounts of iron and potassium.
Amaranth grows best in hot, tropical environments but can grow in temperate regions without frost. Amaranth is comparatively drought resistant, making it a valuable crop in times of erratic climatic change and water scarcity. With its tiny grains, a small amount of amaranth by weight can plant a large area, making it a cost-effective crop for small farmers. Compared to the number of seeds used for planting, amaranth produces a high yield with large seed heads and up to 60,000 grains per stalk. The grain is harvested an average of 90-180 days after planting, depending on the variety and season’s weather. Amaranth leaves are picked carefully to avoid slowing down the maturation of the grain. Amaranth is often grown in field rotation with beans and corn to prevent soil degradation.
Amaranth seeds are difficult to thresh and clean. The seeds are wrapped in a cuticle topped off with tiny sharp spines, painful for those who handle the unthreshed grain. Machines to thresh and clean amaranth grains are hard to come by and expensive, especially for small scale producers. This is perhaps the greatest technical difficulty present in preventing the expansion of amaranth cultivation- the lack of appropriate and accessible processing technology.
Amaranth is native to Mexico and Central America and has been a traditional staple of the region for centuries. The cultural roots of amaranth go back to 6500 BCE. The domestication of amaranth, corn, beans, chile and other crops in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley region by the ancestors of the current Popolocas marked the beginning of Mesoamerican agriculture. People of the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley region were incredibly skilled agrarians who not only began the cultivation of many important crops, but also developed irrigation runoff control technology, as seen in the Purrón Dam Complex.
The Aztecs, who migrated to the Valley of Mexico in 1325 after the domestication of amaranth, reportedly received 80% of their caloric consumption from amaranth prior to Spanish conquest and the consequential introduction of rice and wheat to the Americas. Colonization by the Spanish meant the suppression or replacement of many traditional cultural, religious, and agricultural practices.
Indigenous peoples preserved the cultivation of amaranth in Mexico, particularly in regions surrounding the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt (chain of volcanoes that runs east-west across central-southern Mexico) such as the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Morelos and more recently, Querétaro and San Luis Potosí.
Amaranth production was revived in the 1980s as the negative effects of foriegn-dominated maize monoculture agriculture were coming to light, largely thanks to the work of research Alfredo Sánchez Marroquín and his 1980 book “Potencial Agroindustrial del Amaranto” (The Agroindustrial Potential of Amaranth) which awakened the interest of institutions and nonprofits to rescue and promote amaranth. By 1982, organizations such as Alternativas were already embarking on experimental amaranth plantings. Indigenous traditions, such as amaranth production and consumption, grew in popularity and gained respect as answers for social and environmental ills such as malnutrition and environmental degradation. Amaranth varieties such as A. hypochondriacus were recovered from wild varieties and non profit seed collectors. Amaranth continues to grow in popularity worldwide as a nutritious, easy to grow crop that is adaptable to climatic difficulties such as drought.
The Mexican government began research into amaranth’s potential in the 1980s, with Alfredo Sánchez Marroquín’s research for the Center for Economic and Social Studies for the Third World (CEESTEM) and investigations by national institutes and universities. Around the same time, civil organizations promoted amaranth cultivation and development in Puebla (Alternativas/Cedetac) and Hidalgo (Utopía Huixcazdhá). In 1995, the nonprofit Alternativas published the Seeding Guide for Intensive Cultivation of Amaranth in Semi-Arid Zones, which was recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Development Program for its technological accomplishments. Mexican community organizations and nonprofits such as Puente a La Salud Comunitaria in Oaxaca and Alternativas in the Tehuacán Valley continue to promote amaranth production as a tool for community health and economic and social development for smallholder producers. Amaranth is being researched as a promising crop for areas with high soil salinity.