As 32-year-old ethnobotanist Efraim Hernández Xolocotzi treks through the cloud forests of the Chiapas High Plateau, he follows a Maya-Quiche campesino (peasant farmer) to a mountainside milpa, where an explosive cultivation of beans, squash, and maize intermingle with each other in a tangle of green vines and stalks.
The campesino explains this plot is only used for the year, then will lie fallow for another 5-10 years. An increase in planting would result in eroded and nutrient-depleted soils, ruining any chance of cultivation for future generations.
With a smile, Hernández nods and scribbles in his notes. As an agent of the Mexican Agricultural Program (MAP), his job is to gather reports that will maximize crop efficiency to teach “backwards” peasant farmers efficient modern methods. But in his reports’ praise of the milpa’s sustainability over time, Hernández subtly implies that the campesino already knows exactly what he is doing.
Modernity was abuzz in 1940’s Mexico, promising that MAP, the joint cultural project of the Rockefeller Foundation and Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture, would improve the nation’s crop production and save the starving campesino. But, although spending a decade working for the MAP—the first program of the Green Revolution—Hernandez, also known as Maestro Xolo, critiqued its cultural consequences. He spent his life advocating for campesinos in many roles as a researcher, professor, and ethnobotanist.
As of January 1, 2024, his vision culminated with success when Mexico banned the importation and cultivation of transgenic corn from the United States to protect their country’s native corn varieties against the world’s trend towards GMOs. This victory is more than policy change, but a testament to a life spent challenging the Green Revolution.
Hernández was born in the midst of the Mexican Revolution on January 23, 1913 in the agricultural village of San Bernabé Amaxac de Guerrero about 85 miles (140 kilometers) east of Mexico City, in Tlaxcala—one of the poorest states in the country. He immigrated to the United States with his mother and aunts at the age of nine, only to return to his birthplace to visit his campesino father ten years later.
There, he noted how campesinos grew maize, beans, potatoes, squash, and peas on mountainsides despite a lack of irrigation. Hernández was particularly struck by the rural living conditions, where the lack of potable water and electricity was the norm contrasted sharply with his life in New York City. He vowed he would one day help Mexico.
Armed with a degree from Cornell University, Hernández returned to his father’s house to help at the age of 25. During his first jobs, he spent time with campesinos, observing centuries-old practices like roza-tumba-quema (slash-and-burn) to clear land for vegetation.
The subsequent creation of MAP in 1940 marked the birth of The Green Revolution, in which technological initiatives like genetically altered seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and controlled irrigation transformed the agricultural industry.
Hernández’ familiarity with several Indigenous languages and “energetic, touch, and fearless nature” served him well as a new germplasm collector for MAP. His collection of over 2,000 maize samples laid the foundation for the identification of 300 modern and 25 ancient maize races.
His work earned him a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to complete his master’s at Harvard University, where his thesis detailed the importance of maize granaries to Indigenous social cohesion.
The Green Revolution revamped agricultural education, and funding by MAP, RF and other Foundations poured millions of dollars into the Escuela Nacional de Agricultura, also known as Chapingo. By the 1960’s, the college gained an international reputation where its labs and experimental fields could deliver campesinos into modernity. Hernández, now a Botany professor, was a dissident voice in Chapingo’s halls.
Students regurgitated everything from their textbooks, and learned nothing outside of their specialized area of study. Graduates of Chapingo often took up jobs in what Hernández called “ivory towers” in government agencies, agribusiness company offices, and research labs far away from campesino’s realities. Others became “extensionists,” known for their top-down style of talking at peasant farmers to utilize the newest tech.
“We are fine with using additional teaching aids, but the sooner we get away from teaching exclusively with a chalkboard, eraser, and chalk, and textbook experiments, the sooner we shall give vitality and meaning to the elements of life,” he wrote in recommendations to overhaul Chapingo’s curriculum.
As a professor, he often told students to go “ask the campesino” about local botanical knowledge. His salidas de campo (field trips) took students on scenic detours en route to collection sites where they spent entire days in pueblos interviewing campesinos and studying local ecosystems. The eccentric professor’s classes, which imbued logic and philosophy, became known for legendary debates known as “La Xolocotzia.” These debates became a platform for his students, the xolocotzianos, to challenge the system.
Student resentment grew towards the Rockefeller Foundation. Plan Chapingo launched in 1963, an agreement between the Mexican government and several American foundations and banks to convert the school into a “Holy Trinity” as a National Research-Education-Extension center, complete with new labs and a library.
Students’ dissatisfaction in their school’s willingness to be formed by foreign powers boiled over into a national strike in 1967. In solidarity with students at Hermanos Escobar, who struggled with their issues surrounding founder embezzlement, expensive tuition, and crumbling infrastructures. Along with 33 agricultural schools across the country, Chapingo students suspended classes and occupied the campus, blocking researchers entering the National Research and Extension Centers.
As part of a faculty mediation committee to facilitate peace talks, Hernández advocated for students’ demands with government officials, who loosely threatened to invade the campus. But after almost two months, the strike ended peacefully with an agreement to that gave Hermanos Escobar students everything they wanted. The other schools ended their solidarity strikes and celebrated the win.
After the strike, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center sent Hernández into informal exile to collect seeds in South America. However, Hernández sharpened his theories on “plant-man interrelationships” in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru by gathering more empirical evidence of people interacting in dynamic natural settings, and he returned to Mexico as an ethnobotanist, melding botany and anthropology together.
Meanwhile, the shortcomings of the Green Revolution began materializing. As the country was forced to import American corn, agriculturalists began searching for other solutions. Back at Chapingo, Hernández launched the Traditional Agricultural Technology (“El TAT”) graduate program that focused on peasant studies.
Other colleges followed ensuite with their own version of his popular Ethnobotanical Methodologies seminar. His students published complex studies under “El TAT” that demonstrated how campesinos practice what is today known as sustainable agriculture through their acute knowledge of their environments.
Known as an expert in his field, Hernández published several articles and books, shared knowledge in several national botanical societies, and received awards and honors for his work, which he continued until his death in 1991. In the 1990’s, Mexico adopted free trade agricultural policies under NAFTA, whose promises failed to materialize. Many activists argued instead for national solutions that infused modern science with campesino knowledge to create food sovereignty and security.
On January 1, 2024, Mexico banned the importation and growth of patented transgenic seeds from the United States. The move echoes Maestro Xolo's lifelong mission of preserving Mexico's cultural and agricultural heritage, so campesinos can continue freely exchanging seeds and stewarding the land as they have done for centuries.
“We begin with the firmly rooted stimulants that had until now gone unused or unappreciated: Mexicans’ love towards nature, and his old tradition of going to nature to rest and breathe clean air,” Hernández wrote in a speech. “We begin our new form of extension] with humility for all people, of all levels of education and culture. We learn by observing.”
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