‘Corn, our flesh:’ Learning about ethnic food

Carlos Antonio Rovelo, political science and art history professor at Tarrant County Community College, presented “Corn, Our Flesh” at Richland Sept. 27. The event was sponsored by the club, Achieving Latino Academic Success (ALAS).

 At the event, Rovelo discussed the importance of corn and how it symbolizes the identity, history and culture of Latin American culture.

“It has to do with the way we are,” Rovelo said during his presentation. “Our faith is important. The food we eat is important. Knowing where we come from is important.”

His presentation explored, not just on how corn has influenced Latin cuisine, but how its domestication in the early Mesoamerican period became part of how they practiced religion. Corn was part of their interpretation of the creation of life, the understanding of nature and as an artistic icon. All contribute to the identity of what it means to be Hispanic.

“Every year we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month but, most of the time, the celebration is based on personalities like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, astronauts and artists in general,” Rovelo said. “But there are things that are more at the center of heritage. Heritage is not just about people. It’s about what makes us and corn is a descender of the way our ancestor made us.”

Mexican-American Studies professor Carlos Rovelo shows a corn tamale during his presentation.

Mexican-American Studies professor Carlos Rovelo shows a corn tamale during his presentation.

When talking about the historical importance of corn, Rovelo focused on how cultures such as the Mayans and the Aztecs, revolved around the growing and consumption of corn. That lead to the creation of commonly known food items such as tortillas, atole (a corn dough based drink) and tamales. Additionally, he talked about the various ways corn is harvested in certain regions of Latin America. He discussed the milpa rotation system used by farmers for self-consumption growth and how it contrasts with the American method that focuses on mass production and market distribution. 

Most importantly, Rovelo explained corn’s relationship to Mesoamerican religions in which the gods used the crop to symbolize of the cycle of life. Each culture represented the corn in their architecture, art and stories like the Mayan scripture, the Popol Vuh, which tells the story about how humanity originated from a grain of corn.

“As I started doing the research, I realized this was a very big subject,” Rovelo said. “That is not just artistically, but it is also philosophically, [theologically] and obviously about humanity.”   

Rovelo was keen on identity and cultural origin during his presentation. When talking about how corn represents the identity of what it means to be Hispanic, he chose works of art from artists like Diego Rivera whose work is inspired by Mexican culture. Rivera painted his famous public murals that are scattered throughout Mexico City. His work reflects his personal interpretation of what it means to be Mexican. One painting, which Rovelo showed, was “La Molinera” in which Rivera painted a native woman preparing tortillas as she grinds corn and makes it into dough. The painting demonstrated a traditional aesthetic of Mexican culture from her traditional attire to the way she prepared the tortillas.

“People need to know where they come from,” Rovelo said. “We need to know where everything began in our own culture. My own culture didn’t start in Europe. It started with the [native] Indians of Mesoamerica.”