It was early August, and the campesinos shifted uncomfortably on the
rows of wooden benches.1 The sounds and smells of the humid jungles
of the Chinantla region in eastern Oaxaca surrounded the tiny meet-
ing hall and blended with those produced by sweaty, restless bodies.
Attending official meetings was something new for most of these strug-
gling peasants. Some nervously picked at the dirt beneath chipped nails
while others tightly clasped hands callused and swollen from coaxing
coffee from tired lands. They were there to learn about the uses of a
root, a wild yam called barbasco, which the majority harvested and
sold for cash to buy food for their families. These campesinos wrested
the root from the ground, hauled it over rough terrain, and sold it
miles from their homes on the same day they picked it. As the speaker
began, they listened in what seemed uncomfortable disbelief. Cer-
tainly he could not be serious. They laughed nervously, jostled one an-
other, and waited impatiently for the meeting to end. But the speaker,
Melquíades Santiago, also a campesino and the president of their
local union, persisted. He earnestly explained that the tiny blue pills
that he was passing out to attendees had once been barbasco. Through
what he called a “chemical process,” a substance in the gnarled tuber
had been transformed into potent medications. Moreover, he insisted
that the little round pill could cure aches, pains, and the “worms in
their stomach” that caused cramps and gave them diarrhea.
The year was 1983, but in a 1999 interview, Santiago would recall
that when he left the meeting hall the ground outside was strewn with
tiny colored pills. Most of the campesinos at the meeting had not be-
lieved him.
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