“Cherán was always a big town with a strong heart,” Imelda Campos, 65, told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. “Our food is our strength.”
Campos, affectionately known by neighbors and loved ones as Doña Mela, knows a thing or two about both food and strength. The culinary matriarch of her community in the central Mexican state of Michoacán serves as a torchbearer for Purhépecha traditions by passing down ancient recipes to younger generations and, in turn, helping rebuild a shared sense of pride in the town’s indigenous identity.
And with that pride comes a renewed appreciation for the wild mushrooms that sprout up in the Cherán highlands during the rainy season. For generations, yuntas, ahuachikuas, tiripitis, trompas de puerco and other colorful varieties served both as a hearty, flavorful ingredient in Purhépecha dishes and a source of income for those who scaled the slopes of an extinct volcano in search of edible—and profitable—fungi to sell at local farmer’s markets from June to October.
The resurgence of this indigenous community and their return to mushrooms follow years of unrest. In 2008, a violent influx of illegal loggers with ties to a Mexican drug cartel threatened the tradition—and the Purhépecha way of life. The loggers, flanked by machine gun-toting guards, cleared nearly 20,000 acres of Cherán’s woodlands over the next four years to make way for lucrative avocado farms. As a result of the invasion, mushrooms could no longer grow.
On April 15, 2011, a group of 15 fearless Purhépecha women like Doña Mela led a revolution to reclaim their town’s mushroom-rich terrain. Armed only with sticks, rocks and fireworks, they rose up and drove the loggers—and an oppressive political order—out of Cherán.
Nearly 200 bonfires were lit throughout town on that monumental day. These fogatas burned for nine months, with villagers using the smoke to share messages and the flames to share meals. The fire sites doubled as public kitchens and gathering spots, where Cherán’s new political order convened to break both bread and new ground by simultaneously embracing the community’s past and charting its future.
“The movement was a kind of mirror that allowed us to get to know our roots,” said José Trinidad Ramirez Tapia, a member of the first Cherán council elected seven months after the uprising. “It was at the fogatas that we got to know ourselves.”
Today, Cherán and its democratically elected 12-person town council operate under a self-governing system for indigenous populations.
Villagers have replanted nearly 80% of the land devastated by the rapamontes or “forest rapers.” And the mushrooms came back, serving as a metaphor of Cherán’s cultural resiliency. “After the movement, there wasn’t a single house that didn’t eat mushrooms,” Doña Mela recalled. “That’s what helped us to recover in those difficult years. It’s how we sustained ourselves.”
But the fogatas did more than provide sustenance. They ignited optimism and hope.
“It went beyond just traditional cooking to the relationship we have with our territory,” said Rosa Huaroco, 26. “There’s (now) a lot more valorization of our identity, which is something we’d lost.”
Centuries of oppressive policies had left Purhépecha communities like Cherán ashamed of their ancient culture. Thousands migrated to larger cities in Mexico or to the United States, leaving behind both their hometowns and cultural traditions they saw as badges of poverty.
Now, they see their indigenous heritage as a badge of honor. Cherán’s indigenous flag and uniforms of the community police bear the words Juchari Uinapikua, or “Our Strength.” And the culture’s mother language—widely abandoned over the last two decades—is once again spoken freely and proudly.
“Today,” Trinidad said, “we’re Purhépecha by choice.”
Read An indigenous community in Mexico finds its voice — and strength — in wild mushrooms to learn more about this remarkable revolution.