CUAUTITLÁN IZCALLI, MEXICO — Growing up in a concrete city of more than 5 million people, María de Lourdes Félix never thought she would harvest corn and worry about worms.
But during the pandemic lockdown in March 2020, the 32-year-old enrolled in an online three-month economics course offered by Instituto Mexiquense de la Juventud, a government agency. Inspired, 10 classmates started a project to plant and harvest corn, calling themselves Maizkali. They borrowed a piece of farmland that had been in one of their families for generations.
The members harvested their first crop in November 2021 — then had to spend several days cleaning it, after discovering that they had stored it incorrectly and left it vulnerable to vermin. This was just one of many lessons learned by returning to the earth, Félix says.
“We would like more young people to realize that caring for and valuing the countryside is important, even in this place where there seems to be no reason to do so anymore,” she says. “Working the fields represents not only an economic alternative but also has to do with recovering forms of organization and cosmovision.”
After more than two years of the pandemic, younger generations of urban Mexicans have found unexpected inspiration in more traditional ways of life. Although this trend was brewing before 2020, the lockdowns inspired more interest in the origins of food and clothing, and how to survive without modern conveniences.
“Young people nowadays don’t even know where the fruit and vegetables they eat come from. They don’t question it because they don’t know the countryside, their parents hardly taught them or they didn’t even work it themselves,” says Ana Isabel Moreno, professor and agroforestry researcher at Escuela Nacional de Estudios Superiores Unidad Morelia, part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
During the pandemic, Moreno and her agroforestry science students created Activando agroecologías, a free, downloadable PDF that encourages this emerging trend.
“There are plenty of spaces on the outskirts of urban areas where agriculture was practiced before,” she says. “Those areas are still there, and now it’s young people who are going back to them.”
In Cuautitlán Izcalli, a city in the State of Mexico, only 10% of the population works in agriculture. Urban development has turned this area into a bedroom community, where people sleep after returning from their jobs or schools, 34 kilometers (21 miles) away in downtown Mexico City. With most of their food coming from other states, there was some concern that the population would face shortages during the pandemic.
“I literally grew up surrounded by cement,” says Melissa González, 26, a political scientist and Maizkali member. “I don’t remember anything relating to the countryside, the forest and especially anything related to working with the soil.”
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This desire to go back to an agrarian way of life mystifies and even worries some of their elders. Rafael Cerón, 62, says he has dissuaded his children from farming a piece of land their family owns but has not cultivated in decades.
“I tell my children that the field has already given what it had to give and that is not what they are going to live on,” he says. “If they want to have small plants, that’s fine, but don’t invest in planting. We wanted to take our children out of the fields because it is a lot of work and little pay. We want them to go to the university.”
Farther south, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a rapidly growing urban center of close to 200,000 people in the state of Chiapas, this trend sprung from necessity, as the pandemic emptied the once-busy tourist streets. Emerging collectives of young adults and children sought to reclaim public spaces, such as the Tlaxcala neighborhood square, to grow vegetables and encourage traditional artistic activities.
Elías Darinel Vázquez Ballinas, 37, a member of Colectivo Plan Bioma, says that these spaces represent an opportunity for people to reconnect with the earth, cultivate their own food and build spaces for collaboration.
“We came to an agreement with the neighborhood board of directors to turn the square into a food-producing garden and a space for support and learning,” Vázquez Ballinas says. “All the members share what they know with others — knitting, embroidery, singing, playing the guitar, writing poems — while they grow onions, cilantro, chard, cabbage and carrots.”
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Basilia López, 26, from San Juan Cancuc, a neighboring municipality with a predominantly indigenous population, goes to the garden three times a week. In its 1 square meter (11 square feet), she has learned to cultivate 10 types of plants and no longer needs to buy as much food at the market. In exchange, she offers weekly embroidery classes to the other participants.
“Something I learned in this place is that if we all do our part, then we all win,” she says.
Geovanni Nájera Guzmán, 26, founded El Semillero, an agroecology center north of the city, in March 2020. He says that because of pandemic-related school closures, local youths needed safe outdoor activities while their parents were at work.
“A few kids wanted to get together to dance and rap, so I thought we could go beyond that to use hip-hop with agroecology and food production — to raise consciousness among the population about the importance of healthy eating, self-production and the consumption of healthy foods,” Nájera Guzmán says.
In Cuautitlán Izcalli, as Maizkali prepares for its second harvest, Félix says the group’s members have learned that farming connects them to both the earth and their cultural identities.
“This is a struggle, it’s a resistance, it’s a question of food sovereignty — and we want to understand how farming works in our country,” she says. “If we stop farming, we lose not only the corn but a myriad of practices and ways of seeing the world.”