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