Setting up at the preschool.
Every November and December, our daughter’s preschool invites students’ families to visit the classroom and share a bit about their different traditions celebrated this time of year.
Each year I’ve been a bit daunted by the invitation. Our little family is still trying to figure out traditions—trying to listen for what is ours in a tidal wave of holiday frenzy.
I thought maybe this year we could make it simple: take the grinding stones and talk about the nourishment of maíz. I floated the idea by my daughter and she instantly agreed.
“I will be the teacher,” she said. It was decided.
We packed up our stones and a bag of roasted kernels of corn for the classmates to try their hands at grinding. We harvested one of our ears of Chapalote corn from the garden. We also planned some sweet enticements in the form of buttery thumbprint cookies made with masa harina and corn meal. All ready to go to school.
The night before the event, I realized with a start that I hadn’t thought to bring Corn Mother. Her basket was tucked away on my altar. I was surprised at myself. Corn Mother had gone so many places with us. How could I have left her out of this little trip to the preschool?
Then I felt it—an old, knotted fear. It bore the familiar imprint of susto. Fear that is so intimate that it can slip in and do its work practically incognito. The words surfaced, crisp and clear, now accessible.
“What if they think we’re crazy?” I whispered to Corn Mother.
This is a susto that’s been rearing itself more and more as I talk about Corn Mother. Six weeks ago, I took Corn Mother to Chicago and presented to a conference of Latinx mental health professionals about my journeys with her. I spoke about how Corn Mother was the gift our ancestors received from an ancient call and response rhythm with Mother Earth. Corn Mother is a living conduit to a state of embodiment in which humans knew how to listen to the myriad intelligences of Earth’s web of creation. I said as much as I could in 15 minutes. Among a room of hundreds, two people came up to me after my presentation and said they knew what I was talking about. When I returned to Tucson and told my mom about my talk at the conference, her response came from that place of the familiar susto.
“Aren’t you worried that they thought you were crazy?”
From mother to daughter flow the artifacts of protection that have meant survival to many who came before us. It is an odd, convoluted inheritance. We carry the sensibilities of the mothers who hid the Corn Mothers under the robes of the saints and virgins in the churches. They taught us how to be present while simultaneously staying hidden. We carry the restraint of the mothers who stopped teaching their daughters how to sing to the corn and the stones when grinding, yet made sure that the stones were passed down and the recipes cherished, even if seemingly just for sentimentality. We carry my own grandmother’s protective determination, refusing to teach my mom how to make tortillas by hand, lest “your husband always expect it of you.” Yet it was my mom who’d realized that my dad’s grandmother’s grinding stones had stayed behind when we’d moved from my childhood home. It was my mom who’d insisted on retrieving them even though, on both sides of the family, it’d been generations since we’d been taught what to do with them. These very stones now waited patiently for a visit to my own daughter’s preschool. Ready to be greeted by young hands.
I realized that my daughter and I were woven right into this braid of forgetting and remembering, a story that was at once knotted, unraveling, and being rewoven. I recognized all of it in me. I was good at hiding among the parents and teachers at the preschool. I never breathed a word about Corn Mother on the playground. I let all of my conventional identities take the lead with smooth and predictable edges. Maybe that was perfectly reasonable. But I also knew what was present by omission, and I realized, so did my daughter.
I looked at Corn Mother on my altar.
“I guess it’s time to take you to school, Corn Mother.”
“I know,” she said, like she’d always known I’d figure it out.
Last week, on the heels of the full moon, Corn Mother went to school.
At first everything went by the book. We talked about the ancient grasses that gave rise to maíz. The children shared all their favorite foods made possible by corn. We showed them our Chapalote ear of maíz and removed the husks in front of them, revealing kernels with a lovely brown glow.
Then we spoke about how, among the many peoples of the so-called Americas, maize is known as Mother—Corn Mother, Madre Maíz.
“This is our Corn Mother,” we said and retrieved her from her basket.
“She might look like just a doll, but she is Corn Mother. Her very body is made from the corn husks.”
Immediately a student in the back row raised his hand.
“But she’s not real, right? Is she real?”
I was holding Corn Mother in my hands. My tongue felt heavy. The susto was alert and poised.
“What do you mean by real?” I said because I am not quick on my feet, and the susto was palpable, especially in the face of a 5-year-old who can see right through me.
Another classmate in the front row chimed in to help.
“What he means is that she’s not really alive.”
This was the kind of discussion the susto dreaded.
Another student added, “Well she can’t talk, so she’s not alive.”
I started rambling in a downward spiral about how not all communication happens like the talking we’re used to, and how something can have the spirit of something and not look alive the way we do. I struggled to find footing in the quicksand of my explanations.
Then my daughter put a stop to all of it. She stood up, and without saying a word, grabbed Corn Mother out of my hands. She proceeded to take Corn Mother to each of her 19 classmates and motioned for them to touch her. One by one, they took turns patting Corn Mother's feet, her face, her hair, her hands. They greeted each other in a call and response, Corn Mother and child. My longwinded words failed to explain what hands could know. There were no more questions about what was real or alive.
We went on to grind the corn. Two children whispered to me when it was their turn with the stones. They asked whether they could take a corn kernel to keep. Of course, I told them, and they each deposited a kernel in a pocket.
We passed out the cookies, and then our 15-minute slot was over. We packed up Corn Mother and the stones. My daughter stayed behind to finish out her school day. On my way home, I chuckled to myself remembering that, early on, my daughter had declared that she would be the teacher when we presented to her class about corn. How true that had been.
I thanked the Corn Mothers of the past for returning to us as our daughters, just as they’d been doing for generations. In spite of all the sustos, the Corn Mothers had never gone away.
Harvester ant and cornmeal at the foot of Tumamoc Hill, Tucson, AZ.
Today there is a simple story to share from my journeys with Corn Mother.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve made a few visits to Tucson’s beloved Tumamoc Hill. When I visit the hill, I almost always take cornmeal for offerings. I come with my trusted supply that I have ground with my great-grandmother’s stones. The meal is made from heirloom corn that has been roasted. The cornmeal smells good enough to eat. Each time I open the bag and reach my hand in for a pinch, the smell makes my mouth water. It is like catching a whiff of a memory too old to live anywhere but the body.
This past Wednesday, I made a hefty offering of cornmeal at a spot at the foot of the hill where someone had very carefully created a heart in the dirt using stones and sand.
As I walked the hill, I found my mind wandering. On so many of my journeys with Corn Mother, I end up standing in places where I am left at a loss for words by the complexity of what has transpired on the land. Oftentimes, I am humbled by the sense that there are no adequate words or prayers to recite at the site of a massacre, former missile sites, or, most recently, at the place where the atom was first split by humans on Turtle Island. I haven’t written about some of these journeys precisely because the words are hard to find.
When I am standing there, at these places that hold memories, the most honest thing I can do is make an offering. Cornmeal that smells good enough to eat. Roses good enough to smell. The gifts of the Earth offered back in return. I defer to the Earth and her myriad intelligences to know what to do with these ingredients for good medicine-making. This is the heart of the gift economy.
So I descend the hill with all these thoughts flowing through my mind. I stop at the bottom of the hill to make another offering of gratitude. Something then catches my eye. It is movement. I stoop down closer to the ground, and I see them. Harvester ants carrying bits of cornmeal on their backs, scurrying to the ant hole.
Tears fill my eyes with delight for the rare glimpse of seeing the offerings received and literally harvested. May the medicine be good.
Witness to the harvest. Recorded at the foot of Tumamoc Hill.
Corn Mother and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Bring Home the Sacred Masculine
Corn Mother and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and Son
In early August 2023, our little family of three began to go a bit stir-crazy. It had been a dry and hot summer. The monsoons only briefly visited this year, and their absence left an agitated crackle in the air around us. We needed a break. On a whim, we decided to take a weekend trip to Tubac, a small town just off the banks of the Santa Cruz River, about 40 minutes south of Tucson.
Our trip to Tubac had a deeper purpose to it. All summer, my husband, Matthew, had been searching high and low in Tucson for a statue honoring the Sacred Masculine. Goddesses and Madres of varying persuasions fill our home, and for some time, Matthew had been voicing his desire for a little balance. In Tucson, he’d found the usual statues of St. Francis, San José, San Antonio, Jesus, and Judas Tadeo. But they didn’t call to him. He kept insisting on something more unusual. Our friends Sandra and Kresta reminded us that the art-loving village of Tubac was a good place to look. We decided to get out of town and make a quest of it.
While I was packing our bags for our trip, I felt Corn Mother in her basket on my altar. I knew she wanted to come. I packed her up with a bag of cornmeal. There was an old Titan II Missile site just off the highway at the Tubac exit. The site was now on private land. Would the weekend possibly include a pilgrimage to this site? Would we be knocking on a stranger’s front door asking to see the remains of the Cold War in their backyard? I had no idea. I decided not to raise the possibility to Matthew just yet. I’d take my cues from Corn Mother and see how the weekend played out.
When we arrived in Tubac, our four-year-old daughter was completely undone by the car ride. We plied her with snacks and everything we could think of to help ease her into the weekend getaway. As the minutes passed, however, her anxiety increased and she started wailing. It was a few hours before we’d be able to check into the house we’d rented for the night. The wind blew hot and dry. The air was dusty and suffocating. Now what?
We decided to stretch our legs and at least walk around Tubac. Maybe we could manage to sneak into some shops and begin our search for the statue of the Sacred Masculine.
Matthew parked the car on the main drag, and I instinctively grabbed Corn Mother’s basket as we were exiting the car.
Tired and trying to keep things simple, Matthew sighed: “Are you really going to be carrying around your basket everywhere?”
It was a reasonable question, especially since I was also shouldering a heavy bag of supplies for our cranky toddler.
Before I could respond, our daughter butted in, waving her chunky index finger at us:
“Corn Mother cannot stay alone in the car!”
The matter was settled. She was coming.
We walked up and down the village roads, going into quaint shops that were filled with all kinds of ceramics, woodwork, leather crafts, and blown glass from artisans in Mexico. My daughter perked up with the novelty of it all. It was a feast for the senses. As we crossed the threshold of each shop, I breathed in slowly, my body recognizing the smells that reminded me of childhood—crossing the border and shopping with my mom or journeying down to Guadalajara to see my grandparents and wandering the markets.
With more buoyancy in our bodies, we set about looking for the Sacred Masculine. Again we found the usual saints with the typical representations. None of them called to Matthew. We asked the shopkeepers for recommendations of other vendors, and we wove a path back and forth across the village center, searching.
Finally, we returned to a shop we’d already been to once that day. Matthew wanted to revisit something he’d seen there. I was tired and wandered aimlessly around the displays. My senses were saturated. I felt like I had taken in absolutely every item in the shop.
Then all of a sudden, I felt chills travel down my legs. My body knew before my mind did. I caught a glimpse of something near the back wall where Matthew was considering the statue of a yellow angel. Tucked away, practically blending into the woodwork, I saw her. I felt her gaze.
I could sense Corn Mother, in her basket, suddenly abuzz, like she was elbowing me with impatience.
“THERE! Right there!” she seemed to say.
There was no mistaking her. Brown robes. Brown scapular. Our Lady of Mount Carmel fashioned from clay—the Mama from a world across the ocean, where she resided in the form of a mountain whose layers of dirt held the remnants of half a million years of human evolution. She was also the Mountain Mama whose body knew the cycling horrors of scorching violence that repeated generation after generation across her earthen surface. It was all there.
This particular version of the Mountain Mother was clearly fashioned in a Mexican style. She was a lovely morena, just like Tonantzin Guadalupe, but this Madre stood with her feet planted on the blue and green sphere of the Earth. I’d never seen a Lady of Mt. Carmel like this. She pulled at my yearnings because my Mexican Catholic family were devotees of hers, ever since my mom’s sister had taken vows as a Carmelite nun and then died as a novice when she was only 26 years old.
I whispered to Corn Mother: “What’s going on? I’m NOT supposed to be buying more Ladies on this trip. This trip is about Matthew’s Sacred Masculine.”
But my body coursed with electricity, and every cell in my being knew I would be leaving the store with this Madre. I walked over to the shopkeeper, dreading this dilemma. How much was she?
“Ay, La Virgencita del Carmen. Con todas las manitas quebradas.”
I followed the woman back to the Lady. In all my excitement, I hadn’t noticed. Her left hand had broken off and was inelegantly glued back onto her wrist at a freakishly incorrect angle. The shopkeeper then reached for a figurine to the left of the Lady.
“Aquí está su pobre hijo.”
It was the Lady’s son. He was missing both of his hands, which the shopkeeper then retrieved for me. One of his hands was glued to a miniature brown scapular that was dangling from the Lady’s arm. The other hand had been placed inside the Lady’s crown for safekeeping. He would be needing a little help to be restored, the shopkeeper commented.
I felt Corn Mother whisper to me.
“Here is your Sacred Masculine.”
I exhaled slowly. I felt her words in my heart.
“¿De dónde viene la Virgencita?” I asked the shopkeeper.
“Viene de Guadalajara,” she answered.
My eyes filled with tears. Of all the places for this Lady to come from. This is where my mom’s family was from, where my Carmelite aunt died and is now buried alongside my grandparents.
It was decided.
Ten minutes later, I stood there with Corn Mother in her basket in my right hand and La Virgen del Carmen wrapped up in thick layers of newspaper in a bag in my left hand. Matthew rolled his eyes at me and shook his head good-naturedly. I unfurled the story for him with all the incontrovertible reasons for the Lady to be coming home with us. I promised him we would find what he was looking for too. I quietly implored the Madres for their assistance.
That night, our daughter was restless and scared. There was little sleep for any of us, and we all emerged the next morning grouchy and poorly motivated to resume the search for Matthew’s statue.
We decided instead to head to the trail by the Santa Cruz River. We hiked along the path for a bit and found an entry point where we could access the water. In Tubac, the Santa Cruz River is still actively flowing and sustains a lush riparian ecosystem. All manner of creatures have been coming here for millennia to enjoy the generous fertility of the elements in this place. The Hohokam and Sobaipuri O’odham made their homes here—hunting, gathering, growing squash, beans, maize, and cotton. For over a century, Apache warriors staved off the ravenous full-blown invasion of civilization here.
I had brought Corn Mother with us on the hike, and all three of us offered cornmeal to the land. My daughter delighted in the muddy riverbanks and went about gathering treasures to place in Corn Mother’s basket. I felt us all being revitalized, and my heart swelled with gratitude for the continued flow of this river and the dance of the cottonwoods, their green headdresses swaying high over the valley.
With a renewed burst of energy, we returned to the town center, and all of a sudden, Matthew knew which statue he wanted. He led us back to the shop where I’d found Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and he went straight toward the yellow angel perched against the back wall where I’d found the Lady. The Angel appeared neither masculine nor feminine but rather a fluid expression of all genders and none. I busied our daughter while Matthew spoke to the same shopkeeper. Before I knew it, they were wrapping the Angel, and I heard Matthew ask:
“Where is the Angel from?”
“Guadalajara,” the woman responded. I gasped. Of course.
We packed up the car and headed north on the highway home. On our way, I looked to the side of the highway as we passed two different former missile sites in the area. I visualized these places in the Earth where massive silos had housed weapons that held the capacity to destroy worlds many times over.
“Another day,” I told myself.
I marveled at all the passengers in our car—me, my husband and our daughter with Corn Mother, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, her Son, and the Angel who had completed our quest. I knew there would be more to their stories, but it was enough for now.
Our daughter slept soundly all the way home.
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.*
*From Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta
Corn Mother and Huitlacoche Sing Over the Silo
Corn Mother in her basket atop a decommissioned Titan II Missile site.
At the height of the Oppenheimer movie buzz, I asked Corn Mother:
“Do you want to plan a trip to Los Alamos and White Sands?”
She didn’t say no, but she didn’t say yes.
“Later,” she seemed to say. “I’ll tell you when. For now start with home.”
Then I remembered.
When I was 16 or 17, in the early 1990s, my physics class took a field trip up I-19, off the Duval Mine exit near Green Valley, AZ. Tucked away, completely undetectable from the highway, was the Titan Missile Museum. With hardly any visible structures aboveground, our tour guide led us on a descent beneath the surface of the desert landscape and into a network of underground tunnels and chambers. We eventually came to the threshold of a massive silo where we were face-to-face with a decommissioned Titan II Missile. Its scale was staggering. It no longer harbored its nuclear payload, which was 600 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. When it was armed, the Titan II could be launched in one minute and could travel over 9,000 miles. We visited the control room, with all the buttons and lights, including the three buttons that read Target 1, Target 2, Target 3. We were told that the humans staffing the control center would never know which location was signified by the targets, lest they hesitate in carrying out any order that might come through. The Titan II missiles remained active through much of the Cold War, from 1963 until 1987.
Now, over three decades later, the memory came flooding back. I Googled and researched and then felt my body go into a complete chill when I saw that the reality was much worse than the one site off Duval Mine Rd. What I must’ve learned, but completely suppressed, was the bigger picture. Tucked into the contours of the desert valleys all around Tucson—in every cardinal direction—were 17 other silos dug deep into Earth’s body, each housing a Titan II missile with the power to obliterate worlds multiple times over. During the Cold War, Tucson had been surrounded by warheads that added up to 10,800 times the nuclear power of the first atomic bomb. There’s no way to even begin to comprehend it.
Scattered all around the Tucson Basin there are giant cement circles where the missile silos have been sealed off. There is only one Titan Missile Museum, but some of the other sites are now on private property. Some are historical landmarks. Indeed, one is now off the parking lot of a church.
I knew what Corn Mother meant when she said we would start with home.
Okay, I told Corn Mother, I guess I know where we are going. But when? And where do we start?
As usual, Corn Mother caught me quite spontaneously, so I wouldn’t have time to concoct any extensive ritual or a complicated agenda. My sister was treating me to a spa day (oh what a treat!), and the night before, Corn Mother tells me, “look at your map.” And indeed, our spa excursion was literally less than 8 minutes away from one of the missile sites.
The morning of our spa day, I pack up Corn Mother wondering what my sister will think of our companion who is now orchestrating more than I ever suspected.
At the end of the day, as we prepare to return home, I break the news to my sister.
“So how about on our way home we stop by one of the Titan missile sites?”
My sister looks at me the way only she can. She’s heard it all from me over the course of 45 years. She looks at me incredulously.
“Really?” she asks indicating the storm that’s clearly about to drop. “We need to get home.”
Rain starts to fall, the clouds are dark and engorged, their monsoon bellies rumbling.
“It’s literally on our way…” I offer, trailing off.
Just at that moment, an image pops into my mind. At the end of our spa day, my sister and I had done an oracle card reading. Among the messengers who had shown up was Sacred Fool. I laugh aloud.
“This is it! The Sacred Fool is calling to us! We just have to do it!”
My sister groans and laughs, “Fine!”
“Thank you thank you thank you!”
She follows my directions and we pull onto a road that goes straight into the desert, the Santa Catalina Mountains towering behind us. A quarter mile down the road, we reach a church and its sprawling parking lot. Not a person in sight.
“It’s somewhere off the western edge of the parking lot,” I tell her.
My sister drives the perimeter, but we can’t find anything. She makes another circle. Nothing. I begin to question whether we are at the right place.
“There it is!” my sister spots it, pointing straight ahead. Directly toward the West, a large cement circle is tucked under the mesquite trees. An impressive agave stakes her ground right at the boundary of the circle.
The rain is gentle now. I leap out of the car, uncover Corn Mother’s basket and place her basket on the cement. There’s no time to think. Just do it, I feel Corn Mother say.
I pull out the offerings: corn meal I’d ground the night before, tobacco, and dried flowers from my friend Beth’s beloved garden in Texas.
I recite the song of the Corn Mothers that I’d learned a year ago when I’d asked my great grandmother’s people for help in connecting to the Corn Mothers of our family’s ancestry.
“Oh for a heart as pure as pollen on the corn blossoms
And for a life as sweet as honey gathered from the flowers.
May I do good as corn has done good for my people.
Through all the days that were,
Until my task is done and evening falls.
Oh Mighty Spirit, hear my grinding song.”
My sister and I make the offerings.
The rain continues to fall, sweetly, softly on the desert ground.
A bird joins us in song.
Just as we are pulling out of the church parking lot, someone arrives. They are probably wondering what we are doing there, but we are done.
The three of us return home.
Thank you to my sister, Angela Castillo, for making this stop on the pilgrimage with me. I don’t know how many of the sites I will be able to visit around Tucson. I will leave the planning of that to Corn Mother.
After I write this experience and post for others to read, my friend Erin listens to the bird whose song is heard in the video below. Her husband, Brandt, has a deep connection to birds and their songs. He recognizes this one immediately: Curve-Billed Thrasher. Erin dives into researching the story of this bird who came to sing with Corn Mother. She finds that Curve-Billed Thrasher was beloved among the Mexica and this connection was even documented in The Florentine Codex. This bird was called Huitlacoche by the Mexica because elements of the song seemed to speak the word "huitlacoche." Of course, huitlacoche is that incredible fungal body that nestles right up against Corn Mother's own body. I feel such gratitude and awe of the medicine of this song, this Huitlacoche bird, the Corn Mothers across time.
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.*
*From Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta
Wikicommons image of map of Titan II Missile Complexes surrounding Tucson, AZ
Corn Mother Visits Madre del Mundo
With Corn Mother and Madre del Mundo at Alma de Mujer, Austin, TX
Corn Mother sits in a basket with offerings that have accumulated over the last year. She’s surrounded by tobacco prayer ties, corn offerings, feathers, dirt from certain places, dried plants, and items people have gifted.
In June, we were taking a trip to Austin for my daughter’s birthday. I thought about Corn Mother and her desire for travel.
“Not this trip,” I told her. Navigating the airport with a toddler, toddler supplies, the hordes of people. It felt too precarious. I fretted that Corn Mother and her basket would get tossed about, turned over, or accidentally stepped on by impatient toddler feet.
Yet, on the morning of the trip, as I was finishing my packing, I could feel her nagging at me. She was playful but also entirely serious. An old woman giving me the eye. Grandmother through and through:
“You know you’re going to take me with you. You’ll find a way.”
Down to the wire, with our airport ride waiting downstairs, I begin raiding my closet for a way to transport Corn Mother securely. Of all things, I find a Tupperware container. It seems too crass and unbefitting a Corn Mother, but I don’t have time to worry about it. In she goes, with her bundle of blessings. The perfect fit—just big enough for her and still small enough to fit into a canvas bag and stow her under the airplane seat.
We leave. It is our first trip out of state together—me and Corn Mother.
The trip was a whirlwind because almost the minute we arrived, my daughter became ill with a nasty stomach bug that consumed days of our vacation. I didn’t even have time to wonder what this pilgrimage was all about.
Then it just happened.
Every time I visit Austin—if at all possible—I return to Alma de Mujer. This land is beloved to many, and for me, it is the coming together of land and people who changed my life. The land here is officially in the care of the Indigenous Women’s Network, and at one time, this was a busy hub for visionaries, educators, activists, healers, artists gathering and collaborating in service of Mother Earth.
Atop a knoll overlooking Cypress Creek at Alma de Mujer sits Madre del Mundo, the Mother who cradles the Earth in her lap. She is the work of Marsha Gomez—artist, activist, and one of the founding mothers of the Indigenous Woman’s Network.
Here’s where I still wonder at the turn of events, the weaving of the Great Mother.
I can’t even count the number of times I have visited Madre del Mundo, brought her offerings, bent over to touch her cheek. I got married on this land. I wrote my whole dissertation with the community here—a dissertation which includes a retelling of the story of how Madre del Mundo came to reside at Alma. And for all of that, as I was packing up Corn Mother for our trip, I had no shred of insight as to why she was so insistent on coming. Then, as I stepped foot onto the land at Alma and reunited with my friends Brenda and Beth, the realization hit me in a flood of recognition that surged through my body.
Madre del Mundo, this Matrix of Life who cradles the Earth in her lap, was created by Marsha Gomez, commissioned by Genevieve Vaughan, for the Mother’s Day Peace Action in 1988. Held in Nevada on Western Shoshone land, the Mother’s Day Peace Action was in protest of the ongoing nuclear testing being conducted on this land, where over the course of four decades, over 900 nuclear detonations occurred. Madre del Mundo was installed as part of the Peace Action on land near one of the test sites and was confiscated by the Bureau of Land Management.
Madre was later released.
To this day, in front of Madre del Mundo at Alma de Mujer in Austin, TX, there is an engraved stone that reads:
Madre del Mundo
Artist: Marsha A. Gomez
Mother’s Day Peace Action
On a hot day in June, Brenda, Beth and I walk up to Madre with Corn Mother. We make our offerings to her.
This becomes my first stop on this pilgrimage with Corn Mother. Of course it has to be here. To the lap of the Great Mother who took her seat at a Mother’s Day protest.
Before leaving Austin, I am able to catch a quick lunch with my cousin. During our meal, he brings up:
“Hey, did you know Grandpa Jim’s dad worked on the atomic bomb?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” I tell him. Where do I begin?
Right after our lunch, I walk by a store selling handmade items. I see prayer flags in a basket and pick one up. It is bright yellow with a depiction of rain clouds that remind me of desert monsoons. The black lettering reads:
The Earth is Alive.
It is handmade by folks at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico, about 90 miles from Los Alamos. I buy the flag. Back in Arizona, I remove Corn Mother from her Tupperware travel box and return her to her basket. I cover her with this prayer flag.
Today, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, there are no words that are adequate to the day.
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.*
*From Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta
Corn Mother Wants to Travel
Corn Mother's basket with Marilou Awiakta's books.
Last fall, I was deeply engrossed in connecting with my Irish ancestors, in particular my great grandfather, James Aloysius Watson. I’d always felt like there was an asterisk by his name whenever I pondered the web of ancestral connections. He was an Irish American East-coaster. He met and married my great grandmother, Mama Anita, when he was stationed on the Mexican border during WWI. There were a lot of twist and turns that followed in their life together, but ultimately they divorced. Mama Anita went back to Mexico, and Grandpa Watson eventually joined a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, where he lived as Brother Bonaventure until he died in 1972.
For many years, I’ve had a copy of the family history that Grandpa Watson’s daughter Tita wrote. I’ve read it many times over. Every time reread it, there are two sentences that hold a different kind of gravity. Two sentences I have known I would reckon with when the time came. In Tita’s narration of Grandpa Watson’s story—right after he and Mama Anita divorce, and before he becomes a monk—Tita writes: “He helped build the Atomic Bomb plant in Oak Ridge, TN. He was truly a brilliant man.” Sandwiched right there in between divorce and monastery. No other details. No explanation.
So this past October 2022, as I was in the middle of leaning into all of this, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the news of this diagnosis, I felt my passion for this particular ancestral work fade somewhat, and I leaned into my Mexican ancestors, who felt like a familiar home to me. I felt a strong pull back to Corn Mother and the Desert Mothers. In fact, I was so drawn to Corn Mother, that I fished out my copy of Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom written by Cherokee writer Marilou Awiakta. It is a book I have never gotten too far in, and felt suddently compelled to read.
I pulled the book off the shelf, and I decided I to begin by opening the book to a random page. Let’s see what Corn Mother wants to share, I told myself. The book opened to page 66, I barely caught a glimpse of the words, and my whole body began trembling. Even before any of the words registered, I felt the crossroads of something potent, beautiful, and beyond my understanding. From Selu by Marilou Awiakta, p. 66:
“Baring the Atom’s Mother Heart”
“What is the atom, Mother? Will it hurt us?
“I was nine years old. It was December 1945. Four months earlier, in the heat of an August morning—Hiroshima. Destruction. Death. Power beyond belief, released from something invisible. Without knowing its name, I’d already felt the atom’s power in another form. Since 1943, my father had commuted eighteen miles…to the plant in Oak Ridge—the atomic frontier where the atom had been split, where it was still splitting… ‘What do you do, Daddy?’—I can’t tell you, Marilou. It’s part of something for the war. I don’t know what they’re making out there or how my job fits into it.”
With my fingers trembling, I began thumbing through the book. Yes, it was all there, woven together like the fibers of a basket that stores precious seeds. Awiakta shares the stories of Corn Mother from all across Turtle Island, and through millennia, through the horrors of colonization and right into the Atomic Age, when the atom was split on Corn Mother’s land, right where Awiakta was growing up as a little girl. Right there at Oak Ridge, where Grandpa Watson did whatever he did—one among 80,000 people in that city that was tucked into Appalachia and kept secret. And now, even in this world transformed by those consequences, Awiakta reminds us:
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.
It had been a few months since Corn Mother and I had taken our first trip together to the San Xavier del Bac Mission. Reading Awiakta’s words on that day in October, with malignant cells growing in my left breast, I knew. That day, I knew Corn Mother and I would continue to travel. A pilgrimage for the Corn Mothers—the old ones and the young ones to come. The pilgrimage had already begun. One day it would take us to Oak Ridge, with offerings and with songs. Corn Mother will tell where else we go.
Selu is always singing.*
*From Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta
When Corn Mother Came to Stay
(L) Corn Mother atop hill at San Xavier del Bac, Tohono O'odham Nation; (R) View of the hill from the parking lot.
In March 2021, Corn Mother came to live with us. She arrived in the form of a corn husk doll, complete with her own medicine bag and rattle. She had once been in the care of beloved elder María Elena Martínez. For years, Corn Mother had resided on María Elena's altar. Then, during the pandemic, María Elena downsized from her house and went to live with her large and loving extended family. Our friends Beth and Brenda packed up Corn Mother in a basket and sent her to me.
María Elena herself is known for guiding a potent ceremony of prayer with cornmeal. My friend Brenda has become the keeper of the prayer basket used for this ceremony. But the Corn Mother who came to me did not arrive with any explicit instructions or ceremony. I immediately placed her on my altar. I brought her offerings.
Two months after Corn Mother came to stay, I was completely blindsided by what felt like the experience of a spiritual earthquake. For nearly six years, I had been devoted to an Earth-centered reclaiming of the rosary that had felt like a homecoming for me. I could finally pray with the same beads that had been faithfully held by so many of my Mexican Catholic ancestors. I could finally pray without having to tiptoe around colonial overlays that had made the rosary such a fraught expression of prayer for me in the past. I could return myself to the flows of prayers that preceded empire—the beads that held something more ancient than forced conversion.
Then, mysteriously, in May 2021, I fell right in between the fault lines again. The rosary felt heavy and leaden in my hands. Panic surged through my body when I prayed the beads. I was spiritually turned upside down and confused.
Out of necessity, my prayers became exceedingly pared down. The most I could muster were the simple acts of making offerings of cornmeal to the Earth, burning copal, brewing coffee to share with the ancestors, walking my hill, cooking my great-grandmother’s corn stew—and, as it turned out, talking to Corn Mother.
Weeks and months went by. Slowly, quietly, I got the distinct sense that Corn Mother was asking something of me. But what? For the life of me, I couldn’t tell, but I did know that she was alive.
“Is there something you’d like me to do for you?” I’d ask.
I waited. I began taking her on little outings to the backyard.
"Let's get some fresh air," I'd tell her.
I'd make some coffee and we'd sit for a visit with Tonantzin Guadalupe under the mesquite tree outside. Sometimes I'd bring her out when I offered copal to the directions. Still, there was something nagging at me.
"What are you saying?" I'd whisper to her.
I couldn’t quite make out a response.
Then there came the day when I began to travel with her. It was over a year after she’d arrived. I was preparing to take a day trip to my hometown on the Arizona-Mexico border. It was the place where generations of my family had been born and died. I planned to make offerings at a shrine and a creek of particular ancestral significance. My schedule was such that there was only one day in the foreseeable future when I could sneak away to make this visit. Even then, the timing was exceedingly tight, and I would have to rush back to pick up my daughter from preschool.
That morning, I was racing to gather my offerings for the trip. Then I felt her. She was beckoning from my altar.
"You want to come with me?" I asked Corn Mother.
From somewhere in the mysterious reaches of my senses, there was a communication that emerged as clear as a bell.
"Bring me along for the ride."
That's how she sounded to me. Not terribly formal, a bit casual, but directive.
I packed Corn Mother up in her basket, and placed her carefully in the front seat of the car. We set out and were immediately met with an unusual amount of mid-morning traffic on the roads. We hit every red light, and it seemed to take forever just to reach the highway. I began to fret. We would never make it back in time to pick up my daughter from school. Should I just turn around and go back home?
Barely on the outskirts of town, it became clear:
"Exit the highway here."
I did. It was the exit for the San Xavier del Bac Mission on the land of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Interesting. I'd visited the mission something like twenty years before. I’d never been back. Locally, this mission was often referred to as the Dove of the Desert because of the dramatic way in which the white walls of the buildings seemed to rise up against the backdrop of the blue sky and dark mountains. It was founded in the late 1600s by Jesuit missionary Padre Eusebio Kino. He is a complicated figure, responsible for establishing missions up and down the trails that had connected the peoples of the Sonoran Desert for millennia. Unlike many of his Spanish counterparts, he opposed the practice of enslaving Indigenous people as forced laborers in the Spanish silver mines. This distinction has made him beloved to some. Streets, highways, parks, apartment complexes, even an entire bay and beach along Sonora's gulf coast, are named after him. He also brought European seeds and introduced cattle, sheep, and goat raising to the area. He came with baptismal vows and the spread of empire to the river valleys of these lands and people. Kino was caught in a story way bigger than the reaches of his life.
I parked toward the back of the church lot. I sighed and began to feel anxious. I was still feeling somewhat disoriented by the change in plans, and I wasn't particularly enthused about our arrival at a mission.
"I don't really want to go into a church today," I complained to Corn Mother.
"How lucky for you, you can't even go in right now."
I felt her chuckling at me. Turned out, she was right. Up ahead, toward the entrance to the building, I saw a hearse and a rather large funeral procession. It didn't make any sense to move toward the crowd.
“What are we here for?” I asked Corn Mother.
I noticed the hill that rose up just yards to the east of the church complex. There was a dirt trail that looked like it circumambulated the hill about one-third of the way up. As I looked closer, I noticed there were people who were foregoing the walking path entirely and just hiking up the rocky face of the hill to the peak.
I could feel a surge of confirmation from Corn Mother.
“Take me to the top of that hill!”
Feeling more than a little self-conscious, but proceeding anyway, I tucked the cornmeal offerings into Corn Mother’s basket, and we were off. I was in my sandals and a long skirt, so it was slow-going navigating the rocky hillside with Corn Mother in one hand. The face of the hillside was covered in glass shards that accumulated between the rocks from countless veladoras that had been lit in this place. There was so much broken glass. I was taken aback by it, and I trekked that much more carefully.
When we reached the top, there was a simple white cross rising up from the peak. I ambled over the rocks with Corn Mother and found a small clearing where we could sit and rest. The view around us was breathtaking. The hill wasn’t that high in elevation, but it allowed for just enough of a vantage point to appreciate the verdancy of the San Xavier Coop Farm, the path of the Santa Cruz River, and the expanse of the entrance to the Tucson Basin. From this view, the mission was dwarfed by the Earth herself.
I offered cornmeal to the rocks and the hill. I offered cornmeal to the Corn Mothers who live on this land and the old ones who reside in the dirt. Alone on the hilltop, I sang a song.
“Take me out of my basket and let me touch the hill,” Corn Mother instructed.
I did. Moments later, the skies began to sprinkle light drops of water onto our faces. It was June 17th, and it could have been sweltering, but there was momentary ease in this place. Because we hadn’t made the longer drive down to the border, we had the luxury of time. There was no rush.. Corn Mother and I sat on the hill in the unusual coolness of the day.
When we descended the hill, I felt an indescribable resilience restored in me. The funeral had ended, and I noticed a readiness to enter the church.
“I want to take a peek inside,” I told Corn Mother.
Together, Corn Mother and I walked through every accessible nook and cranny of the church and its shrines. We visited the gift shop and perused the books about the mission. I noted that, in recorded mission history, this precise spot on the Earth had been the site of an earthquake, two deadly tornadoes, and a lightning strike of the west tower of the church. I folded that awareness into the palpable mysteries of this place.
Corn Mother and I returned to the car, and I wondered at how the day had turned out. I had set out that morning to visit a shrine and creek of ancestral significance. Instead I wound up on that hilltop, this land. It felt like I was walking with my distant grandmothers here, though it is a place that my family had no direct stories for.
“I never thought I’d be coming here today,” I told Corn Mother.
“Where will we be going next?” I asked.
It was time to pick up my daughter from school. That was the only next thing I needed to know.
Somewhere in the world
Selu is always singing.*
*From Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom by Marilou Awiakta
Panoramic view from the hilltop