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Fair-Trade Network Empowers 'Mexadelphians'

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The indigenous people of San Mateo Ozolco, a small town in the state of Puebla, Mexico tend to fields of blue corn near an active volcano for a meager $7 a day. Hence, America’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour beckons them. In the last decade, about 2,500 of San Mateo’s 4,500 residents have moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to find work, a Latino advocacy group told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But now, the recently formed Blue Corn Alianza provides San Mateo’s young men with an economic incentive to stay on their home soil. The co-op was created by about two dozen San Mateo expatriates now living in Philadelphia. The expats, known as “Mexadelphians,” include nearly a dozen original members of Grupo Ozolco (GO), founded in 2000 and spearheaded by Peter Bloom, the former director of JUNTOS, the South Philadelphia-based community center for recent Mexican and Latin immigrants. GO’s main goal was to preserve the ancient Aztec cultural practices of the people of San Mateo Ozolco and economically support them on both sides of the border. GO has since taken the name “Potehtli-Pinole Project” to include Mexicans beyond San Mateo.

The organizations support the sale of potehtli, which means blue-corn meal in Nahuatl, the Aztec dialect, or pinole in Spanish. The ancient strain of corn grows in the mid-highlands of this area, 50 miles outside Mexico City, and is exported to Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. “The idea is to empower people, here and there, and create a fair-trade network,” Zac Steele, director of South Philadelphia-based JUNTOS, a community center for recent Mexican and Latin immigrants, told the Inquirer.

Farmers get paid up to 150 percent the domestic price for blue-corn meal, which runs $1.25 a pound in Mexico.

The blue corn, which is ground into meal, is traditionally consumed in tortillas, chips, porridge and pinole—toasted blue-corn flour sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and served in a sack, said Philadelphia Weekly. Pinole is considered a rarity—a childhood memory to the Mexican transnational community, who would suck on pinches of the dry powder.

In late April, Philadelphia received its first shipment of 1,100 pounds of blue-corn meal, which was dispensed both raw and in baked goods at a Blue Corn Alianza booth at the 2011 Cinco de Mayo festival in South Philadelphia, reported the Inquirer. The long-awaited arrival of pinole is a major step for GO, whoses initial goal was to earn money in Philadelphia through pinole sales to fund the construction of a $25,000 high school in San Mateo. The rationale was that a better education would provide San Mateo youth a shot at getting better jobs and level off immigration to Philadelphia. In 2006, GO raised $7,000 from Ozolcan residents in Philadelphia to finance the construction.

In 2008, JUNTOS and Bloom secured a $300,000 USD three-year grant for GO from the HIP (Hispanics in Philanthropy) Foundation to develop, brand and import a sustainable product, said Alfonso Rocha Robles, transnational organizer for Building Transnational Bridges, which was developed to manage JUNTOS finances. The grant was divided between the Philadelphia-based GO and the San Mateo-based team, managed by the Fundación Produce Puebla A.C (FUPPUE), which organized a farmers co-op now called “Amigos de Ozolco.” In San Mateo, the grant covered processing equipment includuing a grinding machine and industrial seed toaster, packaging and exportation of pinole in accordance with FDA requirements. The co-op offers workshops on organic farming, natural fertilizer production, genetic seed improvement by natural selection of quality seeds and restoring the blue corn (maiz criollo in Spanish) in a seedbank.

“I call it fair trade 2.0,” Bloom told the Weekly at the time of the grant. “For example, with fair-trade coffee from Chiapas they give the growers a decent exchange rate but the buyer makes most of the money. The cool thing about this project is it’s transnational—wherever the money is made it stays in the community because they live here and in Mexico.”

Blue Corn Alianza organizers are now pitching the product to commercial bakers and restaurateurs. The project immediately gained the support of Adán Saavedra, founder and chef of Paloma, which serves “Mexican haute cuisine.” The Michoacán, Mexico-raised chef grew up on pinole. “My mother used to feed us atole every night,” says Saavedra, who describes the beverage as water cooked down with hard brown sugar, cinnamon and dilluted pinole.

On May 5, Saavedra held an invitation-only, four-course dinner at his restaurant for Blue Corn Alianza’s prospective clients, and Saavedra offered to cover every expense himself. For the Cinco de Mayo dinner, Saavedra prepared a pinole bisque; ensalada Nahuatl; tilapia with a pinole mousse and chardonnay-habanero sauce; spinach- and pinole-stuffed chicken breast dusted with pinole, pan-seared and served with a cilantro-jalapeno-tomatillo-white wine sauce; and for dessert, Saavedra’s wife prepared a pinole gelato with grated tangerine, cinnamon and Mexican vanilla (which is now a regular menu favorite); and Rocha Robles, a pinole cheesecake.

Even Carlos I. Giralt-Cabrales, the Consul of México, attended the event. "That was his busiest day of the year," said Barbara J. Cohan-Saavedra, the chef's wife. "He cleared his entire calendar and stayed from the very beginning until the very end."

Among pinole’s many other fans is Adan Trinidad, former executive chef at El Vez, Stephen Starr’s Mexican-themed restaurant, and current executive chef at Zengo, Richard Sandoval's New York-based Latin-Asian-fusion restaurant. Trinidad hails from San Lucas, a border town of San Mateo, and has experimented with pinole in desserts at El Vez like pinole ice cream and champurrado—a hot chocolate thickened with the blue-corn meal. “Pinole is such a rare thing,” he once told the Weekly. “If you ask people from the north of Mexico they probably will not know it.”

Trinidad relocated to New York two years ago and hopes to incorporate pinole in dishes at Zengo and its sister Richard Sandoval restaurants Maya and Pampano. "I should start playing with pinole again, talk to local chefs," Trinidad says. "Especially in New York, which has a large Mexican community and small restaurants. We could really utilize this product."