Research News

Food fight: How a community in Mexico used food to resist the Aztec empire

Inspired by an ancient people’s use of food to resist defeat, PhD student Keitlyn Alcantara now uses food to resist cultural loss among Latin American middle schoolers in Nashville.

Ancient food traditions

As a bioarchaeologist, Alcantara studies how Tlaxcallan, an ancient city in Mexico, was able to resist the dominant power of the Aztec empire. Alcantara has discovered that food was key.

“Ingredients are part of recipes and recipes are part of culture and community,” said Alcantara.

With Tlaxcalla’s location on a major trade route, one would expect to find evidence of a variety of goods brought in from as far away as the gulf coast. Instead, however, Alcantara has found evidence that Aztecs economic blockades may have limited their access to trade.

In Vanderbilt’s Stable Isotope Lab in the Department of Anthropology, Alcantara examines the isotopic makeup of archeological samples of bone and teeth to determine the diets of these ancient people. The findings suggest that Tlaxcalla diets were high in C4 foods and low in the isotope 15N.

Alcantara’s isotope research illuminates general trends, but through oral histories she has been able to expand the meaning behind those trends. It seems likely that the C4 diet indicates meals of corn, amaranth, chia and cacti (all locally grown products). Low N15 values show an absence of seafood or other gulf coast products.

An understanding of local ingredients and shared foodways allowed Tlaxcallan to maintain independence. Rather than becoming economically strangled by Aztec expansion into surrounding areas, Tlaxcallan relied on local foods and community wisdom to survive.

Tlaxcala today

Today Tlaxcala continues to exemplify this determined loyalty toward traditional food ways. Despite being the smallest state in Mexico, Tlaxcala is home to the widest diversity heirloom corn. Many grassroots organizations have refused to give into the political and economic push to specialize and mass produce. Instead, annual corn festivals and weekly farmers markets, such as the Mercado Alternativo de Tlaxcala, encourage residents to share knowledge, celebrate traditions and build community.

“Talking to the community members of Tlaxcala gives me a model of community action that emphasizes the power of coming together,” said Alcantara.

Building community in Nashville

Inspired by Tlaxcala’s example of resistance and community, Alcantara founded Sazón Nashville to assist kids in maintaining their Latin American heritage. Sazón’s goal is to empower local middle school students to explore the experiences, memories, traditions and identities that make them unique as a Nashville Latinx community.

For Alcantara, who experienced firsthand the cultural loneliness of growing up Mexican-American, “I got to heal a lot of the feelings of being left out, or placelessness that I felt as a kid through food. Though cooking together and sharing food, particularly when everyone had different origin stories, we could unite around the idea of creating community.”

Given the recent climate surrounding immigration, Alcantara has found that now it is more important than ever to help young students connect to their heritage. “Keeping cultural traditions alive reminds you that you are part of something bigger and that you’ve got a whole community of ancestors whose experiences you can turn to to make sense of the world.”