Migrant potato

By Paulina Trejo Mendez

The UN declared 2008 as the "International Year of the Potato". The potato comes from the South of the territories that were colonized and called: America, but which had their own names and foods cultivated by the inhabitants of those same territories. Food is linked to culture, to the way of understanding and relating to the environment, it is what nourishes and shapes identity. Those of us who have migrated know that there are flavors that are irreplaceable, there are also smells that remind us of a familiar place or sensation. That provides a warmth in the heart and body that is difficult to replicate from a distance.

Living in a country other than the one you grew up in implies finding new flavors, being open to trying foods that may not exist wherever you lived before. Food, like people, has also migrated and shows us the complexity of the histories that shape us. 

In France, Parmentier wrote about the uses of the potato and is considered to be the person who introduced it to that country in the 18th century. His remains are in a famous pantheon alongside those of Jim Morrison and Chopin. In Germany, King Frederick the Great of Prussia is considered to have introduced potato cultivation. At the tombs of both of these figures (in Germany and France) people leave potatoes for them when they visit them. However, that piece of history is incorrect. Potatoes had already been growing in both countries (and other parts of Europe) for a couple of centuries. 

It was the people who do not write history, who first cultivated it for local consumption long before European elites became interested in the tuber and in the diets of ordinary people. Small farmers around the world continue to maintain knowledge about local food and biodiversity. Their work is key to food sovereignty, which has to do with the right of self-determination of peoples to decide about their food and related cultural practices. 

In the Second World War, potatoes played an important role in the survival of many people. In Nazi Germany, consumption doubled from 12 to 32 million tons. To achieve this, people were forced to work in Nazi-occupied territories. This plant became a symbol of national identity constructed by the regime associating Germans with the potato. Historian Rebecca Earle shares that at that time the diversity of potatoes previously grown in Germany was reduced from 1,500 variants to only 74. The intention was to produce the best quality of citizens (white, Christian, heterosexual and able-bodied) and potatoes to feed them in order to strengthen the nation.
This is an example of the ways in which food and society are inseparable from systems of domination such as racism and ableism that impose a hierarchical classification between people. It is also an example of how imposed homogenization is part of the logic of domination of people and territories. 

In the UN list of the most important foods, the potato is in fourth place. It is grown around the world with China being the largest producer. The potato comes from the Andes and has been consumed in those territories for thousands of years. Beginning in the 16th century, colonizers took the potato to Europe and from there to other territories where it has become part of the local diet of millions of people. There are about 5,000 varieties of potato.

In the Andean cosmovision there are no animate and inanimate beings. It is understood that there is an active relationality between people, animals, plants... all interwoven in the web of life. The potato is related to the underworld, to the humidity and the earth from which its spirit comes. The philosopher Aimé Tapia says that in the cosmovisions of the native peoples it is understood that everything (plants, animals...) has a heart and defines it as dignity. The cultivation of this food has been accompanied by rituals that reflect the relationality and complementarity (non-hierarchical) of Andean thought. 

Speaking about the potato and its history implies recognizing the ways in which it has been reduced to just another product on the market for consumption. Undoubtedly, this tuber has given sustenance to millions of people and animals around the world, it has also spun the stories that have been shaping the societies where we live. Stories that have, at times, been traced by  violence such as exploitation and colonization.

To close I share Eduardo Galeano’s version of a story about the appearance of the potato in Kaypacha which means the world (time-space), one of the three strata that exist according to the Inca perspective.

An indiscreet kuraka is turned into a potato
A chieftain of the island of Chiloé wanted to make love like the gods. When the god couples embraced, the earth trembled and tidal waves were unleashed. That was known, but no one had seen them. Willing to surprise them, the chieftain swam to the next island. He only caught a glimpse of a giant lizard, with its mouth wide open and full of foam that gave off fire from its tip. The gods plunged the  indiscreet one underground and condemned him to be eaten by the others. In punishment for his curiosity, they covered his body with blind eyes.

Researcher Rodolfo Sánchez Garrafa tells us that the potato is the "result of a human incursion into the domain of the divinities of the inner world" and that the blind eyes place it where the light does not reach, the underworld. 

Note: A previous version of this text in Spanish was published for the blog of Borregas Moradas 

1.Earle R. Feeding the People, the Politics of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2020.
2.  Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO)
3.  Sanchez Garrafa R. Simbolismo y ritualidad en torno a la papa en los Andes. Investig Soc. 2014;15(27):15-42. doi:10.15381/is.v15i27.7657