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Episode 35: Colores del Maíz (Shades of Maize)

By Duolingo on Thu 22 August 2019

Fernando Laposse is a Mexican designer with a particular obsession: corn. It’s an obsession that began in his childhood and would lead him to create a project that would not only help save the diversity of native corn in Mexico, but also revive a small farming town that was about to disappear.

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Martina: For millennia, Mexico has been home to diverse varieties of corn, or maíz. Geneticists believe the birthplace of corn was in Southern Mexico, where it was first domesticated by indigenous people 9,000 years ago.

Fernando: La comida más importante de México es el maíz. Es una planta que siempre va a tener diferentes tamaños y colores.

Martina: That’s Fernando Laposse. He’s a furniture designer, and he’s also obsessed with corn. His obsession took a new dimension when the Supreme Court of Mexico heard a case that would determine the future of corn: whether or not to ban genetically modified crops.

Fernando: Tradicionalmente, los indígenas escogían y plantaban el tipo de maíz de acuerdo con la altitud de sus tierras, el tipo de suelo y la cantidad de lluvia. Por eso, todos los maíces son diferentes.

Martina: In the 1990s, The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened Mexico’s market to a flood of cheaply produced genetically modified corn, or maíz transgénico. It destroyed the price and diversity of native corn, severely affecting the livelihoods of small farmers, or granjeros.

Fernando: Las comunidades ya no podían vivir del maíz y eso destruyó pueblos enteros. Desde que se firmó el NAFTA, más de dos millones de granjeros abandonaron sus comunidades para buscar trabajo en las ciudades.

Martina: Fernando felt like he had to do something to help these farmers save their jobs and to save Mexico’s native corn, but he wasn’t sure what. He would soon discover that the answer was in the least valuable part of the corn itself, in what most people throw away: their husks.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again – and we also offer full transcripts at

Martina: Fernando Laposse’s father is a French baker. His mother, a Mexican artist.

Fernando: Yo siempre tuve este ir y venir entre la comida y el arte, y entre México y Europa. En el 2015, yo vivía en Londres y decidí participar en una residencia artística en México.

Martina: Fernando’s residency was at a government-funded center for the arts that also hosts exhibitions and workshops. He had been accepted to a 3-month program focused on the intersection of food and art.

Fernando: ¡Era perfecto para mí! Yo iba a utilizar restos de alimentos para trabajar en mis diseños.

Martina: Fernando moved to Oaxaca, in the mountains of southern Mexico. It’s a city known for its colonial architecture, artistic traditions such as handweaving, and especially for its mole sauces and mezcal liquor. At the arts center, there were loads of silk screen presses.

Fernando: Un día, vi que mucha gente estaba usando esas prensas para hacer pósteres para una protesta.

Martina: It was a time when artists, farmers, indigenous groups, scientists, and academics were all taking to the streets to protect the future of non-GMO corn.

Fernando: Cuando me enteré de toda la historia del maíz transgénico en México, quise hacer algo. Para mí, siempre ha sido importante usar el diseño para buscar soluciones a los problemas.

Martina: Fernando started experimenting with native corn, and realized that if the corn’s kernels were different colors, the husks, or las hojas de maíz, would be too.

Fernando: Las hojas de maíz tienen el mismo color que el maíz. Son interesantes porque son grandes y resistentes. Estas hojas protegen el grano.

Martina: Corn husks are called totomoxtle in Nahuatl, an indigenous language. They are durable, and they reminded Fernando of some types of tropical wood that are used in furniture design.

Fernando: Como las maderas tropicales del palo rosa y del tulipán, que son muy duras y toman años y años en crecer.

Martina: Fernando wanted to make a veneer out of the corn husks. So he glued them to a thick paper backing, and cut them into geometric shapes. He made a design that would go on wooden tabletops, bowls, or even be used as wallpaper.

Fernando: Tenía una idea y sabía que podía hacer algo hermoso. Estaba muy emocionado, pero necesitaba el material para hacerlo. Entonces, fui al mercado tradicional en el centro de la ciudad de Oaxaca.

Martina: The market in Oaxaca is packed with colorful stalls, stocked high with fresh vegetables. You can also find prepared dishes there, like that famous Oaxacan mole, a sauce that can require over one hundred ingredients.

Fernando: Hay una larga tradición de comunidades que cultivan maíz y lo venden en los mercados. Preparan tamales, memelas, tlayudas y, claro... también tacos.

Martina: A lot of those dishes are variations of a corn tortilla with toppings. For example, a tamal is very common in Oaxaca: it’s made from soft corn dough, or masa, that’s wrapped around a stuffing like chicken or beef - sort of like a large dumpling. Then, it’s wrapped in a corn husk and steamed.

Fernando: Yo buscaba hojas de maíz nativo de colores e imaginé que ahí iba a encontrar muchísimos tipos. Sin embargo, le pregunté a unos 20 vendedores, pero tan solo uno o dos las tenían y en muy pequeñas cantidades.

Martina: Fernando went back to the market again and again during his 3-month residency, and got to know the merchants by asking for their unused corn husks. But mostly, they only had yellow corn, the kind that was endangering the native varieties.

Fernando: En ese momento me di cuenta de la gravedad del asunto. Ya no había hojas de maíz nativo de color en el mercado de Oaxaca, uno de los lugares más tradicionales de México.

Martina: The GMO strains of corn grew faster, and produced larger amounts, so the Mexican government created a program to incentivize corn farmers to switch their crops. They gave out free genetically modified corn seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers.

Fernando: Había tanto maíz transgénico barato, que los pequeños productores no podían competir con sus cosechas de maíz. Entonces, también empezaron a cultivar maíz transgénico y las diferentes variedades de maíz nativo de color empezaron a desaparecer.

Martina: With the few native corn husks he was able to gather, he created a few versions of the veneers he had in mind. The residency ended, but Fernando wasn’t done with his project.

Fernando: Me dije: “Tengo que ir a un lugar muy remoto. Ahí encontraré las variedades de maíz nativo que necesito”.

Martina: And that’s when it clicked - he knew of a place like that! It’s called Tonahuixtla, a small farming community that he used to visit as a child. One of his strongest memories there was the rainbow colors of the town’s corn.

Martina: We’ll get right back to the story in just a moment, but first we want to tell you about a great way to support this podcast and continue practicing your Spanish. If you haven’t already tried duolingo, you can download it today and learn over 30 languages completely free. For even more convenience, like offline lessons and an add-free learning experience, upgrade to Duolingo Plus. You can start your 7 day free trial of Duolingo Plus by going to Your subscription supports free content that you already know and love, like this podcast. Thanks and now let’s get back to the story.

Martina: Tonahuixtla is a small town about a 5 hour drive southeast of Mexico City, high in the mountains. It’s rural and agricultural with a population of only a few thousand people.

Fernando: Cuando era niño y vivía en la Ciudad de México, mis padres tenían una panadería. Un hombre que se llamaba Delfino Martínez trabajaba ahí. Cuando yo tenía seis años, Delfino nos invitó a mi familia y a mí a visitar su pueblo por unos días.

Martina: When Fernando and his parents first visited Delfino in Tonahuixtla, he was astonished.

Fernando: ¡No pude reconocer ningún alimento! Sobre todo, el sabor de las tortillas de maíz. ¡Era muy diferente! Había maíz azul, violeta y rosado.

Martina: He remembers running with his sister through the corn fields, playing with all the other kids in town. He loved it so much that first visit, the family went back summer after summer throughout his adolescence.

Fernando: Mientras buscaba el maíz nativo para hacer mi trabajo artístico, decidí viajar a Tonahuixtla. No pude avisarle a mi amigo Delfino porque en Tonahuixtla no hay teléfonos. Así que simplemente me fui para allá.

Martina: When Fernando got there, it wasn’t at all what he remembered. When he was a kid, it was full of life. There were families and kids running around everywhere. The streets were filled with horses, cows, and chickens.

Fernando: Ahora no había casi nadie en las calles. Parecía un pueblo fantasma.

Martina: Fernando went to the house where Delfino used to live, but no one was there. He would learn later that the region had been clear cut to plant GMO corn.

Fernando: Después de eso, los terrenos fueron abandonados cuando los precios del maíz transgénico cayeron. Todas las variedades de maíz de color nativo que yo recordaba habían desaparecido.

Martina: Erosion and droughts had become common. Without the cacti that originally grew in that area, or fields of corn holding the land together. Water had begun washing away the soil and the wells were dried up.

Fernando: Ya no podían cultivar nada ahí. La mayoría de la gente de mi edad, en sus 20 y 30 años, emigraron para buscar trabajo.

Martina: Women stayed behind to take care of the children while the men traveled to northern Mexico or the United States to find jobs.

Fernando: Finalmente, me encontré con unas personas en la calle y les pregunté por Delfino.

Martina: They people pointed him in the direction of the mountains on the outskirts of town.

Fernando: Ahí encontré a mi amigo acompañado por un grupo de hombres mayores, entre 70 y 80 años, justo como él. Estaban plantando los cactus nativos del lugar en una tierra donde no había nada.

Martina: Delfino, Fernando’s family friend, had left Tonahuixtla many years ago. But when he returned for a visit, he was shocked to see how it had changed.

Fernando: Cuando Delfino regresó a Tonahuixtla y vio que era un pueblo fantasma, se dio cuenta de algo: para reparar las consecuencias sociales que afectaban al pueblo, primero había que reparar la devastación natural que había destruido los cultivos.

Martina: Delfino started working on a plan to save Tonahuixtla. Soon after, he was elected to a position of authority in the community.

Fernando: Él era el jefe comunal de Tonahuixtla. El pueblo tiene una forma de gobernar muy interesante, conocida como “ejido”. Es un sistema donde nadie es dueño de la tierra.

Martina: An ejido is a communal way of managing the land. It means that no one person owns the land, or the grains produced on it, and all decisions are made by the community board.

Fernando: Cuando Delfino se volvió jefe comunal, una de sus primeras acciones fue organizar un programa para reforestar las tierras alrededor del pueblo y plantar cactus para detener la erosión. Su objetivo era regenerar el terreno y hacer los campos fértiles de nuevo.

Martina: On the day that Fernando returned to Tonahuixtla in search of his friend, Delfino was out in the fields working on the reforestation project.

Fernando: Ver a Delfino y a este grupo de hombres mayores plantando cactus para mejorar la tierra fue una gran inspiración para mí. Yo quería colaborar con ellos para recuperar el maíz nativo y ayudar a la economía local.

Martina: Fernando made Delfino a proposition: if the townspeople planted different varieties of native corn, Fernando would buy the colorful husks for his furniture designs. Delfino said that he’d have to present the idea to the community.

Fernando: Hablamos con los vecinos que quedaban en el pueblo, principalmente mujeres y hombres mayores, y les presentamos nuestra idea. Yo les daría semillas nativas y ellos las podían plantar con la ayuda de Delfino.

Martina: Fernando explained that the community would plant and cultivate the corn, and at the end of the season they could do whatever they wanted with the grains.

Fernando: La única condición era que yo quería las hojas.

Martina: Fernando would also pay them for the time it took to remove the corn husks and to prepare them for making furniture. The community agreed and the project was put into motion.

Fernando: La plantación avanzaba y con las pocas hojas de maíz de colores que tenía, yo ya estaba haciendo muebles únicos o ediciones limitadas.

Martina: Fernando’s first design was a little wooden coffee table. It had a large circular surface covered in a mosaic of shapes cut from colorful corn husks. They were pink, deep purple, red, and white.

Fernando: Yo mandé mis diseños a galerías en Europa.

Martina: Fernando also entered a design competition with his project—and he won! Media outlets started paying attention, and so did potential buyers. Everything seemed to be going well, but when it came time to harvest there weren’t as many corn husks as Fernando had hoped.

Fernando: La comunidad no se dedicó lo suficiente a nuestro proyecto. Las personas en Tonahuixtla prefirieron plantar más maíz transgénico, porque sentían que era más seguro para su economía.

Martina: It turned out that the farmers had only planted one or two rows of native corn, or maybe a corner of their crop.

Fernando: Fue muy frustrante para mí porque yo veía que no se dedicaban al 100% a las semillas nativas que yo les había dado. No estaban plantando toda su tierra con esas semillas y yo pensaba que era por falta de visión.

Martina: What Fernando learned was that his plan was much riskier for the people of Tonahuixtla and their cosecha, or harvest, than he had realized. The farmers knew the land and the seeds. They knew it wasn’t that easy to plant a new crop. Also different strains of corn are better suited for different regions.

Fernando: La gente tenía miedo porque pensaban que mis semillas no darían suficiente maíz para la cosecha. Yo no entendía eso y tampoco sabía que una mala cosecha presentaba muchos riesgos para ellos.

Martina: For Fernando, the risk wasn’t as high. If at the end of the harvest there weren’t that many totomoxtle, he could shrug it off, get new seeds and try again.

Fernando: Sin embargo, para ellos podía ser la diferencia entre comer o no.

Martina: So for the next planting season, Fernando changed tactics. He got permission to use a large plot of abandoned land that hadn’t been used since the 90s. He paid for trucks to turn over the soil and he used compost that Delfino made from local cow manure.

Fernando: Además de eso, me asocié con un banco de semillas que investiga el maíz desde hace décadas. Ellos descubrieron mi proyecto cuando yo gané el premio de diseño y me contactaron para trabajar conmigo. Ese banco de semillas tiene miles de diferentes especies y subespecies de maíz.

Martina: The director of the seed bank gave Fernando and Delfino a whole course on how to reintroduce the native seeds and design the fields where they were going to plant.

Fernando: Cuando el maíz empezó a crecer, la gente del pueblo empezó a creer más en mi proyecto. Al mismo tiempo, empezamos a recibir muchos pedidos para los diseños que yo estaba haciendo.

Martina: Fernando’s furniture was becoming popular. He made bowls and vases with colorful geometric shapes inlaid on the surface with a sleek glaze. He also made decorative fans and wallpaper with houndstooth pink and purple shapes.

Fernando: Para seguir trabajando, necesitaba más y más hojas de maíz nativo de color. La comunidad empezó a plantar más variedades de maíz nativo y menos maíz genéticamente modificado después de ver lo que yo estaba haciendo.

Martina: Only a few years had passed since Fernando had first considered working with corn husks. And now his vision was becoming a reality.

Fernando: ¡Ya tenemos seis variedades de maíz en Tonahuixtla!

Martina: Fernando decided to call his project “Totomoxtle”. It’s become an example of an innovative way to protect biodiversity.

Fernando: Además, hoy tenemos más o menos 30 mujeres trabajando con nosotros. También queremos darle a los jóvenes la oportunidad de trabajar en su pueblo.

Martina: Fernando is able to pay the women working at Totomoxtle four times the minimum wage, in an area that was rapidly losing population and disappearing.

Fernando: ¡Ahora, las mujeres que se quedaron en el pueblo ganan más que los hombres!

Martina: Fernando’s designs are in museums from New York City to Germany, including the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The most exciting moment was when he, Delfino and the women of Totomoxtle were invited to Mexico’s capital to talk about their work.

Fernando: Yo creo que fue un momento catártico y muy bonito porque es poco común ver ese tipo de oportunidades. El proyecto tiene menos de cinco años y ya pudimos crear una nueva economía. El pueblo está volviendo a la vida.

Martina: This story was produced by Sarah Barrett, a Canadian journalist living in Mexico.

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Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the #1 education app, with over 300 million users worldwide. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro – gracias por escuchar.


This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Script Writer: Sarah Barrett
Narrator & Protagonist: Fernando Laposse
Script Editor: Catalina May
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro