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From Sun God to South Philly

May 12th, 2012 - By Lari Robling

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Philadelphia has strong ties to a small town in Mexico — more than half of its citizens have left their rural farms in San Mateo Ozolco to come work in Philadelphia for higher wages.  To build a bridge transnational bridge, a cooperative was formed to support farmers and preserve traditional farming methods that have roots in their Aztec culture. The Blue Corn Alianza not only helps provide a living wage to traditional farmers in San Mateo Ozolco, but also brings organic sweet blue cornmeal known as “pinole” from this region to stores throughout South Philadelphia. Rich in healthy nutrients, Pinole can be used in a variety of recipes.


The Mexican immigrant presence in the city is somewhat familiar. It’s in corner stores, restaurants, and festivals. But what we don’t see is the vacant towns left behind.  For instance, 60% of the town San Mateo Ozcolo now lives here in Philadelphia. It is a saga that is repeated throughout Mexico.

The film, The Sun Rises for Everyone, captures this journey. Producer and media instructor, Laura Deutch, says the pull to make more than seven dollars a day is overpowering.

“One of the early scenes in the film is somebody walking through really tall corn from the point of view of somebody who would be leaving the land,” says Deutch. “You see people leaving their pueblo — most of the economy in Mexico is based in agricultural living”

Deutch observes, “If they can’t off their land or they are not being paid enough to live off the land because American corn is cheaper than what they grow in their own backyard then immigration becomes necessity.”

Pedro Soto came here from San Mateo about ten years ago and dances with Cenzontle Cuhicatl, a group that honors indigenous Aztec culture. Their performances depict the sacred act of growing blue corn.

Soto expressed mixed emotions about leaving his hometown, “When I wake up in the mornings when I was a little kid and you will see the beautiful mountains — paradise that’s all I can say.”

He adds, “Plus I am born there so I have my Grandmom there.  So when after I left my little town I came here and I was like, oh no, I have to remember my Grandmom and when she used to make the blue corn.”

And Soto remembers in a big way. He works with Reuben Chico, who was one of the founders of Blue Corn Alianza, a co-operative that brings the ground blue corn to Philadelphia’s restaurants and markets. The project pays San Mateo farmers up to 150 percent of the Mexican price and eliminates the international middlemen that eat up the profit.

You’ll see this traditional flour seasoned with cinnamon and orange zest used for tortillas and tacos around the city but local chefs are also spinning their own take on the Blue Corn flour— at Paloma  in South Philly it’s used in a finely textured vanilla based ice cream with tangerine.

Blue Corn Alianza also developed recipes for home cooks because, to be frank, not everyone will like the blue corn as it has been consumed for centuries.

Says Soto, “The traditional way to eat the blue corn is dry, so people got confused with regular flour. That’s when I realized out culture is so way different to you guys it will never make sense to me it’s so normal.”

Along with the flour you will get recipes for cheesecake, cookies and muffins.  Says Soto, “You can make pancakes…oh it’s delicious!”

Besides taste, these foods add to our culinary diversity. Lauren Swann is registered dietician and consultant who studies ethnic foodways. The Blue Corn Alianza with its indigenous practices offers a unique look.

“Cultural and ethnic practices in this country which are handed down second third and fourth generation may become Americanized,” says Swann, “That’s OK that can create a new sense of cultural adaptations, but immigrants bring authentic traditions.”

And Swann also notes that like many indigenous plant based foods, blue corn is higher in antioxidants and protein than our hybrid yellow corn.

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Photo by Flicker user Chiot's Run / CC BY-NC 2.0

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December 2014
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Get Healthy Philly is part of the Communities Putting Prevention to Work Initiative, a federal effort to: prevent and delay chronic disease, reduce risk factors, promote wellness in children and adults, and provide positive sustainable health change in our communities.

Food Fit Philly is part of Get Healthy Philly, a program that works to reduce and prevent obesity and related chronic diseases (like heart disease and diabetes) by increasing access to healthy foods that people can afford.

Your body needs help when it's time to quit. SmokeFree Philly is a program of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health that offers support and tools to help smokers quit. The goal of SmokeFree Philly is to: help people to quit smoking, stop people from starting to use tobacco, and reduce heart disease, cancer and other illnesses caused by smoking.

Philly Food Bucks!
Philly Food Bucks are coupons that help ACCESS/food stamp customers save money on fruits and vegetables. Philly Food Bucks can be redeemed for $2 worth of fruits and vegetables for every $5 spent in ACCESS/food stamps at a participating farmers' market. Learn more about Philly Food Bucks at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health's recently expanded web site Food Fit Now also accepted at the West Oak Lane Weaver's Way Food Coop.