"Las Cuatro Milpas", sung by Los Alegres de Terán. Youtube claims one person as the songwriter, although other sources differ and mention other writers. Whoever wrote it, the song is a classic of Mexico's early 20th century music repetoire.
You might well ask, "What exactly are the cuatro milpas, so sadly lamented in this old song?" The words cuatro milpas come close to translating to 'four cornfields'--but the milpa is far more than a cornfield, in Mexico's ancient agricultural practices. Why is the millenia-old milpa (it is first documented in botanical archeology from about 2400 years ago) still so critically important to Mexico's way of life?
The name milpa is derived from the Náhuatl word milli, sowed ground, combined with the náhuatl word pan, meaning on or in--combined, the literal meaning is "what is grown on the land". The plants grown in the milpa are the fundamental Mesoamerican triad of corn, beans, and squash. Today's milpa, which after thousands of years of cultivation consists of these same plants as well as others (including quelites and tomatoes), produces one and one-half times the yield of modern-day 'improved' corn which is planted in enormous fields without the nutrients that are fed into the soil by the companion plants of the ages-old milpa.
Maíz criollo--native corn--in a few of its more than 60 diverse forms and colors. More of the plant is used than just the elotes (ears of corn). The tassels are used to make tamales, corn silk is used as a medicine, the dried husks are used to wrap tamales, and in Michoacán, the leaves are used to wrap corundas. Dried corn stalks are stored year-round for use as forage for cattle and pigs.
The milpa, where food is grown not only for humans but also for animals, produces crops during the better part of the year. In the milpa, the first crops harvested are the quelites (tender wild greens). Later, the squash plants begin to flower--only the male flowers are harvested for cooking. The female flowers are left to develop squash. If the plants are calabacita (a zucchini-type squash), the first small calabacitas are consumed when they have barely begun to develop.
Drawing dated 1543 of phaseolus vulgaris (the common bean, which originated in Mexico). At about the time that young squash are harvested, beans begin to flower. The flowers are often eaten either in tamales or with the beans themselves. Around this time of year, corn stalks put out their first tender elotes (ears), which are eaten in an infinity of ways, either alone or in combination with fresh beans and wild greens.
In the milpa, corn grows tall, light-weight bean plants twist around the corn stalks for support, and squash plants grow close to the ground so the heavy fruit of the vine has a place to rest among the corn stalks. When you see a small 'corn field' near a house when you're out for a drive in the Mexican countryside, pull off the road and take a closer look. Watch for other crops among the corn. You're looking at a milpa.
Calabaza de castilla (Castilla squash) is one of several squash varieties that grow in the milpa. At the end of the growing season, large hard-shell squash like these are harvested and stored to be used for food throughout the season when the milpa lies fallow. In addition, beans are gathered and dried for food as well as for seed for planting during the following year. Other milpa-grown plants are harvested and stored for animal feed.
Offerings of corn in various forms, from the 16th century Códice Florentino by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, the first ethnobiologist in the so-called New World. The 14-volume work, written in Náhuatl, describes every detail of the indigenous life found by the Spaniards.
Indigenous woman cooking beans. The curled symbols coming from her mouth are speech indicators; it's quite likely that she is pictured at prayer while placing the beans in her cooking pot. Códice Florentino.
Mural fragment, Hombre de Maíz (Corn Men), Templo Rojo Cacaxtla, Nativitas, Tlaxcala. The mural was painted sometime between 100 and 1100 AD. Corn is thought to be the origin of humankind, its sustenance, and its hope for the future. The image of humans born from corn persists up to the present in some places; in Chiapas in 2008, I saw modern clay sculptures of fetuses curled into corn husks.
Diego Rivera, 1929 portion of a mural depicting a milpa. In the Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.
So what? Why is the milpa so important in today's world of 'improved' crops, modern farming, and agro-industry? In brief, the milpa is the spot where Mexico's rich cultural and agricultural heritage and knowledge join to make use of nature during the entire cultivation cycle. The milpa alone has demonstrated its capacity to sustain the healthy and diverse nourishment of large populations, nourishment sustainable from the pre-Hispanic era to current times. The key word is sustainable: the milpa is the living and lasting foundation of Mexico's biodiversity, renewable with each year's crop cycle.
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