With a potential for being sophisticated

While covering a story for a newspaper I contribute to, I was reminded that totomoxtle (Nahuatl for corn husk), is a more sophisticated material than what it usual uses would indicate.

Anyone who has seen a tamale has seen totomoxtle. With the exception of the far south of the country, it is the wrapper of choice for both cooking and serving (especially in the streets of Mexico City, where they are almost obligatory for breakfast).

But what else can you do with them? After all, not all corn winds up as tamales and even if it did, each ear of corn produces enough husk leaves to make several tamales.

The oldest known handcrafts made with the husks are that of human figures either as toys or as decoration. The most common type is that of women in some kind of traditional garb, but other kinds of figures can represent Christ, nativity scenes, clowns, angels, dancers, brides and more.

The making of these figures were done by the very poor and for the most part, have been crudely-made, of the natural color with maybe some details painted on. They are very fragile and unable to stand much handling. To be honest, most of what I have seen is not very alluring.

However, with talented and patient hands, truly stunning work can be done with this material. One reason is that it can be subtly dyed, taking on various hues and working with the fiber structure of the husk.

While the material may not be suited for the creation of something meant to be kept for a long period of time, Mexico also has traditions related to elaborate decorations for festivals and other events. Many different kinds of materials have been employed for these purposes, but interestingly corn husk only recently seems to be coming into the fore.

About time, too, the sublty of the dye effects along with the fiber structure of the husk makes for a very welcome break from plastic and paper. There is a very organic feel to well-done decorations, espeically those imitating flowers and foliage.

It can also be a sustainable alternative to a number of decorative structures. One in particular are the high floral arches that are constructed on certain days for churches. Most of these are made with materials which can be ecological, seeds, flowers, etc. but some are made with parts of succulents because these hold up longer against Mexico’s strong sun. The problem with this is that such plants take time to grow back, making overexploitation a problem.

Corn husks do not have this problem and can hold up for a long time due to the dried nature.

The first time I saw decorative panels made from such corn husks was AMLO’s inauguration, more specifically durig a ceremony were the incoming president accepted a baton of authority given to him on behalf of Mexico’s indigenous communities.

This week, I went to a conference on endangered languages, where I saw corn husk floral decorations on the doors of the main hall and on the stairs leading to it. There were also large figures of indigenous women which used the husks as a veneer. These arrangements not only looked good from a distance, they looked good close up, thanks to the talent of their creators

Decoration in corn husk at the Noche de Rábanos in Oaxaca

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