Meet the guardian of Michoacan’s Indigenous Purépecha Culinary Culture

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Doña Mela Is a Cook, Gardener, and Guardian of Mexico's Indigenous Culinary Culture

Every week, Imelda “Mela” Campos Sebastián walks a mile from her pine cabin on the rocky northern slope of the Cerro San Marcos and down into the center of Cherán, an Indigenous Purhépecha community in the west-central state of Michoacán in Mexico, to broadcast her radio show “El arte del bienvivir“—The Art of Living Well. For an hour, she shares her generational knowledge of traditional medicine and foodways over the airwaves of Radio Fogata, 101.7 FM: the utility of sorrel for detoxifying the liver, how fava beans can strengthen the joints, the lujo (luxury, a favorite word, usually uttered with a smile that reads as a wink) of a simple soup jeweled with chard and carrots, a pale green chile güero as its solitaire.

Barely five feet tall with long, gray-streaked plaits and fingers gnarled from decades grinding masa on her century-old metate, doña Mela, as everyone in Cherán calls Sebastián, moves through town with a hunched yet regal bearing. The unofficial guardian of her community’s culinary and cultural traditions— practices that, until a decade ago, were on the verge of annihilation—she presides from her wooden cabin on the Cerro San Marcos, where I’ve eaten some of the finest food I’ve encountered in five years living in Mexico.

“I wouldn’t call myself important,” she told me on a chill autumn morn- ing last November as she ground sesame seeds, peanuts, and pepitas for the pipián that we would eat that day for lunch, warm and soothing as embers. She cocked her head back and squinted up her nose, a habitual look of authority and wit, somehow both affectionate and remote, that undermined completely the words she’d just spoken. “I would say I’m original. I own my roots.”

Since 2011, Cherán has been famous throughout Mexico for defending those roots. In April of that year, after years of violent incursions by illegal loggers armed by drug cartels that hoped to clear the native forests for lucrative avocado plantations, the people of Cherán mounted an uprising. In the course of a single day, the community, led by a group of older women, drove the loggers and criminal informants—and the politicians and police who had aided and abetted them—out of their community. Immediately after, they lit 189 bonfires, one for nearly every corner in town. At first, the bonfires (the fogatas that gave the community radio station its name) served as protection against possible retaliation. Over the next nine months, they became spaces where people gathered to share stories and food and their vision for the future.

Rebecca Cucue Campos

Credit: Photo by Felipe Luna

Doña Mela spent those months circulating among the bonfires, sharing recipes that many of her peers hadn’t eaten since childhood and many young people had never tried at all. Smaller communities in the surrounding countryside had preserved their ancestral language and foodways, culinary and linguistic traditions with roots in an Indigenous empire that had resisted domination by the neighboring Aztecs for centuries before nearly being wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.

Yet in Cherán, centuries of federal policies designed to assimilate or destroy Indigenous identity, combined with large-scale migration to the north (there are as many people from Cherán living in the United States as there are in the community itself), had opened a chasm between young people and their history. At the fogatas, doña Mela helped to bridge that gap with dishes from a nearly lost repertoire: atapakuas, rich, masa-thickened stews of wild mushrooms stained red with guajillo chiles; of fava beans, onions, tomatillo, and cilantro; or of ground seeds and legumes, similar to the pipianes found around Mexico, but brightened, on the day we ate together in November, with wilted sorrel from her kitchen garden (recipe follows). “People would ask, ‘Doña Mela, when will you come and cook for us?'” she recalls. “‘God must have blessed your hands.'” She accepts this notion as reasonable, if not demonstrably true. “People have always seen something special in me.”

Source: Food & Wine