Milpa & Quelites

MILPA is the Mesoamerican policulture which has been the basis of indigenous alimentation for centuries. It’s a self regulated system at the core of Mexico’s gastronomic and cultural megadiversity. QUELITES are harvested in the milpa, they are edible herbs of the indigenous complementary diet . They are superfoods: anti-cancer, antioxidants, antidiabetics, full of vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, iron, proteins, and fiber.

In 2019 I met independent curator Su-Ying Lee, we shared meals and ideas about ancestry and food sovereignty, that was the antechamber of her invitation to me for participating in her cycle of talks Alimentary, about food in relation to care, healing, sacred and ancestral knowledge, community and representation. In preparation for my talk I visited milpas in Central Mexico and Veracruz, documented some of the farmers traditions and gastronomy. When the quarantine because of COVID-19 started I had to stop my field research and redirected my attention to the quelites as a way to keep myself healthy and focus on domestic bonds with ancestral traditions.

The Art Gallery of Burlington hosted a long distance Alimentary talk about quelites & a cooking session on the 26th of September, 2020.

In here you have some useful links and resources to approach better the fascinating indigenous food culture of my beloved Mexico, and its defendors.


Milpa, the Birthplace of Maize

“The milpa is a productive self-consumption system that covers the efficient use of climate, soil and human labor. Its purpose is not the market, although surpluses can be sold.”

Cornell Alliance for Science

Milpa Agriculture

“Several important rituals are performed at key points during the growing season. The timing of these rituals varies by region and altitude due to variations in climate and the length of the growing season but they are invariably tied to significant events in the ritual calendar.”


Milpa Solar Systems of Mexico towards a Sustainable Future of Agriculture

“Protection as well as reintroduction of the Milpa system is of great importance, particularly because Mexico is the world’s reservoir of maize genes including Teosinte, the ancient relative of maize. México has got the greatest quantity in the world of maize species and the Milpa system have managed to preserve through centuries this heritage of incredible value, which can provide a global service.”

Milpas and Milperos: Implications for Prehistoric Times

“At present, popular topics for students of Maya culture are the problems of demography, subsistence, food shortage, and the possible retlationships of ‘city,’ ‘rural,’ and ‘jungle’ Maya inhabitants to their administrative sociopolitical systems.”

University of Pennsylvania

The Diet of the Milpa

“Polyculture has several advantages over monocultures, for example that it produces useful inputs for the kitchen during almost the entire cycle, and not only at the end, at harvest. Also due to its constitution, it is less attacked by pests, and plants also generate synergies, that is, they complement or support each other; lastly, it does not require agrochemicals in the quantities used in monocultures.”

*Only in Spanish

Secretary of Health, Mexico

The Maya Milpa: Fire and the Legacy of Living Soil

“In Xocen a ceremony to request a good burn from the spirits of the Earth is now only rarely observed. The ritual serves as an occasion to plan the upcoming burning activity and to exchange knowledge about burning techniques and safety.” 

The Ecological Society of America


Quelites: the Pre-hispanic Superfood

“They were a symbol of wealth and fertility and were also attributed medicinal properties.

Unfortunately, the quelites consumption in Mexico is very low, despite their nutritious properties, its cheapness and how easy it’s to cook.”

El Universal

Quelites, Mexico’s Wild Greens

Pronounced “kay-LEE-tays,” quelites are widely eaten all over Mexico. I have a series of cookbooks from Mexico that feature the common cuisine in each of their 32 states, and quelites feature in every one of them. Other than perhaps the Greeks, no culture I know of makes more use of wild edible greens than the Mexicans.”

Honest food

Quelites, the Silent Heroes of the Mexican Food

“Over the last five centuries, the diversity of species consumed as quelites has decreased by 55-90%.

15 species of quelites are currently consumed in the valley of Mexico, compared to 84 to 150 that were consumed in 1580.”


Symposium on Wild and Cultivated Mexican Greens

“In the pre-Hispanic era in Mesoamerica, maíz (corn) was the king of plant food.  Corn’s companions in the kitchen were chile and wild herbs, in addition to occasional wild game.  In his Codice Florentino, Fray Bernadino Sahagún documented this same diet that prevailed after the Spanish conquest and which, in many instances, continues to be the predominate diet.”



Sin maíz no hay país

Promoted by more than 300 peasant, indigenous, human rights, urban, and consumer organizations, environmental groups, representatives of international cooperation, intellectuals, artists, scientists, students and ordinary citizens, fighting for food sovereignty by strengthening peasant production through favorable public policies and an alternative project for the countryside. Amongst many other actions, they demand the Renegotiation of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA

Red de defensa del maíz

It is a space for permanent dialogue and practice made up of indigenous, mestizo and peasant communities, as well as hundreds of organizations, all of them acting in solidarity in a front of struggle for autonomy and food sovereignty.

Semillas de vida

Civil association that joins the efforts of different actors from the countryside and the city to achieve a balance between sustainable agriculture and a healthy diet, strengthening Mexican agrobiodiversity and taking care of life from seeds.

Boca de polen

The Network promotes technical and journalistic training for members of indigenous and peasant communities and organizations; promotes individual and collective projects of the participating organizations; and serves as a forum for discussion on the media.


Sadly I haven’t found cookbooks in English but I hope you can find means to read these.

  1. Florentine Codex picturing a quelitero (the one who collects the quelites)
  2. Huey Tozoztli ritual offerings of the milpa (image by Research Gate)
  3. The ancestral milpa (image by Arqueología Mexicana)
  4. The ancestral milpa (image by Arqueología Mexicana)
  5. Milperos from Yucatan (image by Revista Explora)
  6. Nahua rites in Guerrero (image by Revista Souvenir)
  7. Otomí ritual to stop drought (image by Sin Embargo)
  8. Mazahua decoration with popcorns, syncretism is alive across indigenous cultures (image by Mexico Desconocido)
  9. Tarahumara people celebrating the Holy Week (Image by Pueblos Mágicos)
  10. Traditional female cooks (image by Animal Gourmet)

Long live the Milpa!