UA Scholar to Study Wheat Cultivation in Mexico

Maribel Alvarez, an assistant research social scientist in The University of Arizona Southwest Center, has received a Fulbright/Garcia Robles grant to conduct research in Sonora, Mexico. Alvarez will use the nine-month, $10,000 grant to analyze the historical and cultural significance of wheat cultivation and consumption in Northern Mexico.

Fulbright grants are highly prestigious awards given every year to U.S. scholars. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to "increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries." Fulbright/Garcia Robles grants support collaborative work between U.S. and Mexican academic institutions and scholars in the border regions.

The Wheat Industry in Sonora

Mexico is one of the most important producers of wheat in the Western Hemisphere, and Sonora is the third largest producer of wheat in Mexico. Wheat products such as "tortillas de harina," or flour tortillas, breads and pastries also are iconic markers of a manifest Norteño cultural and regional identity in northern Mexico and the southwestern U.S.

First introduced in the region in the late 1600s by the Jesuit priest and explorer Eusebio Kino, wheat cultivation, milling and trading now comprise one of the most important economic sectors in Sonora. According to an assessment by the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, wheat farmers in Sonora obtain some of the highest wheat yields among developing countries.

In 1943, wheat cultivation in Sonora was the focus of a series of studies funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that launched what is generally known as the "Green Revolution," creating a series of approaches to soil and crop sustainability credited for reducing hunger in the world and that earned its principal investigator, Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Today, giant bread producers in Mexico like the Bimbo brand (a co-owner of the U.S. brand Oroweat) exert considerable influence on this sector of Mexico's economy. The importance of wheat in the world today is on the rise. Economists and sociologists estimate that a 3 percent per-year increase in world wheat production will be needed over the next several decades to meet world food demands.

Maribel Alverez's Research

Alvarez's research project is expected to last nine months and will be conducted in collaboration with Guillermo Nuñez Noriega of the Center for the Research of Nutrition and Development in Hermosillo, Sonora. The research will bring together perspectives from history, anthropology, economics and folklore.

Alvarez will spend the first

three months of the project researching historical archives in Hermosillo and the National Archives in Mexico City. Alvarez and Nuñez Noriega plan to spend the bulk of their time conducting interviews, collecting oral histories and taking part in participant-observation activities in the Yaqui

Valley region near Ciudad Obregon, at the southern tip of Sonora. They hope to get to know, in-depth, key workers associated with the wheat industry, including not only farmers but also bread and tortilla artisans, marketers, educators and cooks.

Alvarez said she hopes her research leads to an understanding of wheat beyond the economic dimensions. "Wheat is also a highly charged symbolic element of Sonoran ways of life. Concretely, we can discern evidence of a sense of cultural distinctiveness centered on ‘harina de trigo' (wheat flour) in everything from language to foodways to gender roles," she said.