By: Natí García y Lix López – Voces Colectivas de las familias de la huerta Maya
For thousands of years, our ancestors, the Maya people have worked the land planting corn, beans and squash known as “the three sisters”–the staple diet of the Maya people. There is also a spiritual component when cultivating the land. It is said that the seed’s journey begins before it is planted into the soil in order for it to thrive. Each season begins with a traditional Maya ceremony to ask permission of Mother Earth and the Creator to break the land and to bless the seeds. Before we harvest, another ceremony is offered to thank the Creator and Mother Earth for all that has been produced.
Why the three sisters? Corn, which we call Maize, is the primary source of energy but must grow in a community with other crops rather than on its own – it needs complementary companions. Maize provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans release nitrogen, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen to the Maize. Bean vines also help stabilize the Maize plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Squash vines become a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the overall crop’s chances of survival in dry seasons. Squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the Maize and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, to build up the organic matter and improve its structure. Maize, beans and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Maize provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn, and squash provides nourishing vitamins.
Maya civilization and culture has evolved around the planting of the “three sisters”. Initially it started with those three seeds but now other plants with medicinal elements, such as amaranth (bledo), yerba mora, and apazote, are grown, among other crops. All crops are organic, this was always the ancestral way.
The garden is about 1,883 square metres and is located in University of British Columbia (UBC) Farm campus on Musqueam Territories, where it is managed by a group of Maya-Mam families who fled from Guatemala in the 1980’s due to the military genocide operation that targeted indigenous communities. Many Maya families in that time fled to Mexico for refuge where very few families received aid but a small percentage of families, out of thousands, were able to seek refuge in BC and other regions across Canada. There are three main family groups who manage and cultivate the land.
Lix López (Maya-Mam Elder)
My name is Lix López, I am a Maya born in Guatemala. I studied at the Catholique University in Guatemala, la Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, and obtained a Masters in Educational Administration at UBC. I have also worked with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Fabiana & Nati (Mother & Daughter)
My name is Fabiana, I am Maya-Mam from Western Highlands of Guatemala. I have been living in Vancouver BC for 26 years. I grew up in the country farm learning from my mother and father in how to grow crops-it was part of my childhood. When I came to Canada I missed working in the corn fields and the connection to the land I had back home. The connection to the land is very important to me because it gives me strength. With the Maya Garden at UBC I am now able to teach my children and grandchildren the knowledge that was passed down to me. My daughter Nati is learning the stories of our ancestors, and learning how to cultivate a harmonious life as our grandfathers and grandmothers lived.
Francisca & Maximo (Maya-Mam)
My name is Francisca I grew up in the country fields with my husband, Maximo, in Guatemala. We are Maya-Mam and have been working at the UBC Maya Garden for 16 years. We participate in two other community gardens in Nanaimo Neighbourhood and Collingwood Neighbourhood House. Cultivating crops is part of our way of living. I am also a weaver and learned when I was 8 years old. It is important to us that the Maya-Mam culture is not forgotten. We are passing down this knowledge to our grandchildren to continue the growth of our ancestral roots.
Marvin S. Cohodas Phd. Art History
Marvin has been part of the Maya Garden since the establishment in 2000. He completed his Phd. In Art History focusing on the Dance of the Conquest in Guatemala. His studies encompass both Ancient American visual representation, contemporary ritual and weaving arts of Maya peoples in Southern Mexico and Guatemala along with Native American basket weaving in California and Nevada. Marvin is a professor at the University of BC in the Arts Faculty. He continues to be actively involved with the Maya families in the farm and a dear friend.
There are also volunteers who help out and provide cultural exchanges when participating in the garden. Volunteers include UBC students, international students, local community members and many more from all walks of life from youngest to oldest.
Mayan are often referred to as the “Children of the Corn.” It is who we are as a people. Our culture evolved around Maize. It is challenging to farm here in Vancouver because the summer period is so short. But it really is a continued practice of a long Maya tradition that has been around for thousands of years.
There is a story of how we came to be the “Children of the Corn” that is written in the Popol Wuj, meaning “Book of the Community” which provides a narrative on the creation of Maya people. The story tells of how two hero twins Hunahpu and Ixbalanque prepared the way for the planting of corn, for human beings to live on Earth, and for the four creations of the Maya people.
In this story, the Creators, Heart of Sky and six other deities including the Feathered Serpent, wanted to create human beings with hearts and minds who could “keep the days.” But their first attempts failed. When these deities finally created humans who could talk out of yellow and white corn, they were satisfied. In another epic cycle of the story, the Death Lord of the Underworld summons the Hero Twins to play a momentous ball game where the Twins defeat their opponents. The Twins rose into the heavens, and became the Sun (Hunahpu) and the Moon (Ixbalanque), providing sustainability for the corn to grow and the strength of Maya civilization.
Our creation story teaches us that the first grandparents and grandmothers of our people were made from white and yellow Maize. Maize is sacred to us because it connects us with our ancestors. It feeds our spirit as well as our bodies.
The goal of the Maya garden is to maintain the agricultural practice that our grandfathers and grandmothers left us which is part of our great cultural legacy and identifies us as Maya people. The garden provides a source of food sovereignty, cultural sharing, and ancestral knowledge to our children, grandchildren and future generations.
Farms can also provide economic security depending on the farming system, locality, crops, and many more critical components. The Maya Garden at UBC does not sufficiently provide financial profitability to meet household needs for each family; however it does provide profitable efficiency in maintaining the farm.
We are in the stage of diversifying income streams to build more economic security, which include selling our products at the UBC Farm Market, providing cooking workshops, and educational workshops. All the income received goes directly towards the maintenance of the farm, the purchase of needed equipment, and other necessities in managing the farm.
Our ancestral teaching is to share the generosity of what the earth gives. We share the harvest with the community. The remaining products are canned and dried as a food source for winter season.
As settlers to this land we are greatly appreciative for the caretakers of the Musqueam people. We are grateful and privileged in being able to have the garden in the sacred lands their ancestors have lived on for thousands of years. It is vital to be connected with the land because it is so strongly connected to the roots of many cultures. Seeding the land with new growth of knowledge is as seeding our communities with new dreams.