Enrique Ochoa, professor of history and Latin American studies at California State University, Los Angeles, provided the keynote address for Notre Dame’s first annual Undergraduate Student Conference, “Mexico: 1810, 1910, 2010.” In his talk, entitled “Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz: Mexico’s Food Crisis and the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Historical Perspective,” Ochoa described the nexus between the turmoil of maize in free-trade practices and impoverishment in Mexico.

Ochoa began his lecture discussing the historical origins of maize and the tortilla. Founded in Meso-America, the tortilla was symbolic of identity, not commodity. The maize connected to the people and was not an item of economic value. When the Spanish conquest took place though, Europeans would introduce wheat bread to the Americas. Europeans looked at the tortilla with disdain, for it was of “scientific and moral deficiency.” Wheat bread had higher protein quantity, while maize was considered backwards.

The Mexican government would begin to shift in its ideals. Revolutionary state food policies would take shape, as a rise of domestic industry in Mexico occurred. Industries focused on building a better marketplace, having more competition. The government party in Mexico, PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) created policies that provided modest subsidies to urban consumers instead of eradicating the social concern of poverty. Thus, state policies driven only by political and economic incentives, left the country malnourished and destitute.

In recent times, national processors have emerged and like the government, carry their own economic agenda. Ochoa described Grupo Maseca, who houses both Mission Foods and Guerrero Tortillas. He highlighted a dichotomy between the two smaller companies. While Guerrero product designs are representative of the national colors of the PRI, Mission product designs are more strategic. Mission Tortillas appeal to the American audience, thus no national colors of the PRI but rather, Mickey Mouse themed tortillas are even being sold. In this instance, Ochoa argued that national processors are working to de-Mexicanize the tortilla. The tortilla, which carried such high value in identity, has become merely an object of monetary value.

On a different level, Ochoa stated, “Mexico is now home of the fastest growing food industry.” He pointed out how American consumer-goods company, Sara Lee, recently sold their North American Fresh Bakery unit to Grupo Bimbo as one vivid illustration. “But with this industry,” Ochoa proclaimed, “One out of five Mexicanos suffer from poverty and a food crisis.” Workers are tirelessly producing for these large food conglomerates, and in return face exploitation and low wages.

Ochoa emphasized, however, that “without maize, there is no country.”  He explained that Mexican workers keep the companies alive. Therefore, Mexican workers should be given the chance to voice their opinions and to demand their rights.

“Food sovereignty is about the right of the peoples to define their own food and agriculture, to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production,” Ochoa said. He expressed a need for local autonomy and control, as well as, an appreciation of the heritage of the tortilla in Mexican culture.

Sponsored by the Institute for Latino Studies, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and the Latin American Studies Program, the Undergraduate Student Conference gave Notre Dame students the opportunity to present their research papers and projects pertaining to the topic of Mexico.

Adriana Garcia is a junior theology/honors sociology major and actually presented at this conference! She voiced that it was an exceptional occasion and encourages all to submit their work next year. If interested, she can be contacted at agarci16@nd.edu.