In this interview, Eduardo del Conde brings to life something hidden, and so quietly touching – a lost way of living. This is the life of farming before the advent of the machine. In this case, it's the cultivation of rice by hand. In Mexico there remain only four rice producers working in this ancient way - and they produce by far the best rice in Mexico. Not so long ago, there were 22 such producers.
Del Conde has crafted a book of great beauty, both visually and in its subject matter -
Los Hombres Del Arroz. Complementing his book, his son made an award-winning documentary film of these men of rice,
El Espantapájaros [the scarecrow
Will these producers, dedicated to this way of life, be able to survive competing with cheaper, lower grade imported rice? After reading our interview, perhaps one will hope so. To that end, Del Conde is hopeful a publisher can be found to produce an English edition. This, he feels, might help reverse the trajectory towards the disappearance of a much overlooked cultural treasure.
Thanks to the efforts of Ellen Reynard, one afternoon Eduardo del Conde appeared at my front door. We soon got down to business. His book sat on the coffee table between us and from time one of us would pick it up and thumb through the pages to find a particular photo as we talked.
Richard Whittaker: It’s a beautiful book and a beautiful film. Did you do them together?
Eduardo del Conde: Not really. I started doing photographs of the Men of Rice
. The idea came to me about 25 years ago. I was in Campeche to photograph for a book—that’s south of Mexico City. It was a beautiful evening and I saw men harvesting the rice. They were working with big baskets. They would cut a few rice plants at a time and hit them on edge of the basket so the rice seeds would shake out. It was like a dance. It was a very beautiful place. It was one of those days when you feel completely overwhelmed. Seeing them that evening was an accident. I asked the driver to stop so I could take a few photographs, and they stayed in my memory. Many years later I was in Morelos—it’s where this work was made—and again I met the men of rice; this time they were preparing the land to plant the rice. I met this man here [points to a photo]. He’s dead now.
RW: These men have such a presence in your photos.
Eduardo: Yes, very much.
RW: And this one, his name is?
Eduardo: Don Cuco. He was the first one I met. I started to work with him for a couple of weeks when they were preparing the land. This work they’re doing there is all done by hand. It’s hard work.
RW: The rice fields have to be level, right?
Eduardo: Yes. They build terraces so the water will flow to all of the fields. In Spanish they’re called bordos
. And they don’t use any kind of level. It’s just done by eye.
RW: I read that they let the water guide them in finding level.
Eduardo: Yes, the book talks about all of that. This man, Don Jesús [pointing to a photo] started to work with his father when he was a child. This is his brother, Adalberto [points]. He’s in charge of the molino
where they prepare rice. It’s like a mill. They clean the rice and prepare it in two different ways. The first way is integral
—it’s the whole grain, and in the other way, the grain is polished. It’s so clear they call it “crystal,” but it isn’t as nourishing.
RW: I see. Let’s go back. You were touched when you first saw these men working. You took some photos and remembered that moment for years, you said.
Eduardo: Yes. Probably more than twenty years.
RW: What do you think that was? I mean, that impression that you remembered for over twenty years…
Eduardo: It was like a poem. It touched me very much. That’s why it was in my mind for such a long time. When I got in touch with them again, it was in a different circumstance. It was in the months of April and May, which are very hot, but I remembered that first time when they were harvesting.
Eduardo: I knew almost nothing about the production of the rice. I just knew a little about how they do the harvest. But the whole process is a very complicated. So I asked don Cuco, and he told me how it was made.
In order to take photos, I had to get close to the men at work. The water was very hot and I had to get into the water to take the photographs. In order to get close, I couldn’t wear shoes, because the wet soil is very sticky. The first time I did it, I tried wearing long boots, and when I tried to take the next step my leg came out, but the boot stayed there in the wet mud.
Eduardo: So, I spent twenty-five or thirty minutes just trying to get my boot out of there, because it was a good boot. So the next time, I just rolled up my pants up and used bare feet and got into the water.
RW: So that day, over twenty years ago, how old were you, more or less?
Eduardo: I was forty five years. This is twenty five years ago.
RW: Okay. So what about your earlier life do you think would have made you so open to receiving this first impression of the men harvesting the rice?
Eduardo: Many things got together in that right moment of my life—there was my mood, the sound of working like a song, the movement of the men. I remember it like they were doing a dance. It was more than just hard work, and it’s very hard work, because the places where the rice grows are very humid; when they’re hot, the humidity makes you sweat so much; you are all wet. It’s very uncomfortable, but the whole atmosphere helped me not to feel all that uncomfortable. It was beautiful. It was very touching, really touching.
RW: Yes. So, you were a photographer? Is that what you did?
Eduardo: Yes. I was working to make a book about the State of Campeche. Then, we were traveling through Campeche with some guides who were taking us around the State. That’s when we found these people, and I lived this experience.
RW: I see. So, in your earlier life, before the Men of Rice, how would you describe yourself? Let’s say you’re 40 years old and someone says, “Eduardo, what do you do?” What do you say to that question?
Eduardo: It’s a good question. Well, I think, I would have said that I was a photographer, and that I was trying to express something. I think that’s why I'm a photographer.
RW: Would you say something about your history with photography that leads up to this moment?
Eduardo: I was about twenty years old when I went to photography school in Mexico, but for a very short period, because in those days, there were not many schools of photography. Then I went to a university where they were teaching cinematography. They also had some photography. I was interested in photography, not in cinematography—probably because since as a young boy, I asked Santa for a camera. We used to live in Mexico City. It was another city then, so many years ago. In the winter, from the roof of our house, I could see very clearly the volcanoes in the Valley of Mexico. It’s a very unique view. In the winter, after the sun sets, they all get red and pink and different colors from the sunset. I really liked that view, so I thought I could take a photograph so I’d be able to see it not only in the wintertime, but during the year.
Eduardo: Then I got a camera, a Kodak Brownie. I ran to the roof to take the photograph the first evening it was so beautiful. When I got the film back, in the print I could see the neighbor’s house and some trees and everything else was white. So, I never used the camera again. That was my first experience.
RW: When you were disappointed, did you start thinking about getting another camera?
Eduardo: No, no, no. Besides, I knew by then it was my father’s present and not from Santa, and my father didn’t have much money. Many years later, with my brother Octavio, well, I wanted to be a photographer and we bought a camera together and both started using it. I needed a camera in school and that was my first approach, kind of professional approach, to photography, and I really loved it. I saw and felt that I could express myself, things of myself, through photography.
RW: Would you say that as you began actually doing photography and had a better camera, that this was coming more from your heart than your head?
RW: From the way you speak, I feel you’re talking about a kind of beauty. Was that true for you?
Eduardo: Yes. Now that you express it so clearly, that was exactly what I remember about the first time I saw the men working with the rice. And when I got in touch with them the second time, I started to understand much more of them, of the men, and that poetry, that beauty, started. For me, it’s very important, all the—how do you say? Aesthetic?
RW: The aesthetics? Beauty.
Eduardo: Yes. And in this book, it’s very important to me, too. But it started to become much richer because of the life of the people and my contact with them, which was very difficult, because we are very far apart—culturally, where they live and how they live; their everyday life is absolutely different from my life. So, it was often hard to communicate some things. But for reasons I couldn’t express clearly, I started to do better with that communication problem.
RW: You began to cross that cultural gap and make contact, across that difference?
Eduardo: Yes. It’s many things, even the words. We speak the same language, but we use the words differently, and give them different meaning sometimes. If you live in my part of society, it’s different. But I started to try to understand their words and their meanings so I could use them. That helped break that wall that was between us. It worked with Alejandro incredibly; his nickname is Sapo.
RW: He’s the espantapájaros
Eduardo: Yes, the one in the film [El Espantapájaros
]. You saw Ricardo’s film? [Eduardo’s son]
Eduardo: Okay. He’s the main actor.
RW: But that’s his real job, right?
Eduardo: Yes. About three days ago, I was with one of these groups of men again and I learned that his life changed after the film. He doesn’t want to work the same as before. Now he wants to be an actor.
RW: Oh, dear. This journey you’re speaking of from your cultural world to another cultural world. It’s a real journey, right?
RW: You’re from an educated part of society.
Eduardo: And I eat with a spoon and knife and cubiertos
[cutlery]. They eat with the hands. If you use a fork with them, they feel you’re different, you’re apart. You have to start doing what they do, trying to talk what they talk, go and drink a cerveza
[beer] and spend time together—and listen
RW: And listen?
Eduardo: More than talking, you have to listen to let them express what they want to express. They appreciate that very much because they are used to how people from my world go to “teach them,” to tell them this is wrong, this is right and so on. But if you start giving—accepting more than giving, if you start to accept their culture—which is incredible, which is, I would say, is much more real. Yes. I think if we were like they are, if humanity could understand what they feel and think and how they live, the world would be better.
I'm talking about these men I got together with. They are country workers, very simple people, very poor people, but some of them, like that man I showed you first who is in-charge, don Jesús?
Eduardo: This is what they use now [shows me a photo]. It’s not a basket; it’s metal now. Don Jesús went to school—he almost finished engineering at the university. He’s an educated man now, but he’s a man of rice; that’s his life. He can’t think of himself as something different because that’s what his father did and his grandfather did. For him la Cultura
—the tradition and culture of these men and their work—is very important; it’s part of his life.
There’s an interview with Don Jesús. There’s an Argentinian woman who was editing part of the book, and I brought her with me because she wanted to meet Don Jesús. She said, “I have a lot of questions about information we need.”
When we got there, I said, “Jesús, we want to make an interview with you and I would like to turn on a recorder if you accept.”
“Of course, I accept,” he said.
So, I turned on the recorder and said, “Please talk to us about your work, about the rice.”
The recording is an hour and forty five minutes, and he never stopped. He talked and talked and talked and said everything he wanted to say about rice without any questions, and without stopping. When he finished, this woman, Nora, said, “If you had to say in one word what rice is for you, what would you say?”
“My life,” he answered immediately. He didn’t even give time to think about that or anything, it just came out from inside.
RW: I remember that quote in the book.
Eduardo: It’s at the end of the interview of this man—he’s a wonderful person really, one of the very few people I know among the rice men, who can have both sides of life. One day, he works in the field. He does hard work. When he finishes, he goes to the mill. He has an office there and a computer, and he goes into Facebook to send and receive messages. Maybe the next day, he has a meeting with the Governor of the State; the next day he’s going to Mexico City to have an interview. He’s just going everywhere, and he’s always wearing his huaraches and his hat. He has a very clean shirt to go to the reunions and that’s it.
RW: Is it true that these poor farmers and the men who work with their hands, that they are not particularly respected, not appreciated in Mexico?
Eduardo: No. No way. Unfortunately, the campesinos
—these men who work with their hands on the land—are not recognized, not even their work. Many people would say they’re very lazy people, because they only work until one or two p.m. But they start working at four or five a.m. when it’s still dark, because it’s so hot later in the day they have to start early. And they do work eight or nine hours.
When I was working with them, I would spend three hours taking photographs, not working hard like they were. It was really exhausting in the heat and humidity just walking, moving myself from one side to another to take another photograph.
RW: In the introduction of the book, I think the writer describes the two great virtues of farmers: patience and hope. And it’s clear how deep his respect is for these men who farm and work the fields.
Eduardo: I think who you’re talking about was the Major of Cuernavaca in those days. He wrote the introduction of the book.
RW: He also speaks about how these men should be honored. They should be respected, and people should know about how important their work is.
Eduardo: He’s the son of a Rice Man. He went to school, to University. He was born in Puente de Ixtla.
RW: I have a big question: you’ve entered this world of real work, I mean work with your hands; you get up early, you have your own tools. A tradition is passed down for generations and an understanding of the seasons. You have this relationship in your body; your knowledge is absolutely connected to the Earth. This is a traditional, ancient way of life. Right?
RW: And it still exists, this ancient life that is absolutely related through our bodies. I'm sure you must be touched by that alone. Right?
Eduardo: Yes. You respect that immediately. That’s what you feel.
RW: Then there’s another thing, and that’s the rice and the specific way they grow the rice. I mean is it especially good? Is it different?
Eduardo: What they have found out is that this rice, primarily came from the East in a barco
[a boat] called Nao de China
and got to Acapulco, on the Pacific coast. They started to plant the rice around the coast and it didn’t work very well. A man from Jojutla went to Acapulco and took a few rice seeds back to Jojutla and started to cultivate rice.
RW: Is that the oldest place in Mexico where rice cultivation began?
Eduardo: Successfully, yes, in 1836 or so—less than 200 years ago. But the conditions of the soil, the water, the temperature—everything worked incredibly there in Jojutla for growing rice. The grains are bigger and when you cook it, you get more.
RW: I see. The grains expand more than with other kinds of rice.
Eduardo: Yes. After they started to recognize that, the university started to make a study about the conditions of the place, the soil, the rice and everything, and they helped the rice to grow even better since then. This is what I learned when I was doing the book. There in Mexico in one-hectárea (10,000 square meters) on average, the rice fields yield about five tons of rice. Last year in Jojutla, and in the surroundings of Jojutla, the yield was 12 tons, more than twice what any other state in Mexico—and it’s a much better rice.
RW: That’s amazing. Do you think that the way that this rice is being cultivated in the traditional way by the Men of Rice, by hand, that this produces more and better rice than if they bring in machines.
Eduardo: Yes. They say that the quality of the rice has a lot to do with the way it’s grown. It’s made by hand, everything except what’s done in the molino. I think in Asia they still work with their hands in many places, but in Mexico, or in America, as far as I know, this is the only place where the work is the same as it was 200 years ago. And they have the best results.
All this was what I was learning with them and that’s why I think I'm so close to all of this. I don’t know if I can do something to help them.
RW: This is a way of life that’s in danger? I read in the book that already 66% of the land where they used to grow rice has been taken over for other uses.
Eduardo: Yes, it’s going to be lost. People are building weekend houses on the land that was used for growing rice.
RW: And I read in the book that the GATT agreement and NAFTA have both hurt this kind of rice production.
RW: They've allowed cheaper rice to come into the country.
Eduardo: That’s the main problem. And they don’t have any tariffs to protect this indigenous rice production. For example, if you go to Jojutla, you can’t buy this rice. It’s too expensive and the people in Jojutla are poor, so they buy imported rice for eight pesos. This hand grown rice costs 22 pesos for the same amount. So they have to find the right place to sell this production of rice.
That probably will change because of things that have happened lately in Mexico. I have a friend who is the new sub-Secretary of Agriculture. We run a little hotel in Morelos, and this man visited us three or four times. I knew he was interested in the men of rice. So, I asked him if he would like to meet them and go to the harvest. So I invited him to all of that. He was really interested.
Finally, we did a meal at the hotel with the men of rice. He came to it with a few people who work with him. He was very interested in all this, and he’s going to be a important person in this new government. He wants to help these people so that Mexico can become self-sufficient with its agricultural production. I think something good is going to come out of this.
RW: Yes. It makes me think of one quote in your book. One of the men of rice says, “Yes, they can buy a threshing machine. Now three people work or maybe four, and 42 people are not working any longer.”
Eduardo: Right. That’s 42 causalties.
RW: This is a big social problem. It tears the cultural fabric and it’s happening.
Eduardo: …Everywhere. The men of rice value this way of living that I respect very much and they want to preserve it. Don Jesús said, “I can make more money with machines, but I would leave a lot of people without work.” He is conscious of that and he’s working to preserve this way, even though it’s not the best financial result for himself.
RW: The movie your son Ricardo made, El Espantapajaros
, is beautiful and the soundtrack is very sensitive. It has a lot of beautiful quiet space. Besides taking the viewer through a season of rice growing, it’s a portrait of the man, Alejandro (El Sapo), I think. It was quite touching.
Eduardo: Before the book was done, there was an exhibition at Instituto Nacional de Antropologia. They bought the whole exhibition of photographs and we had the first exhibition in the Palace of Cortés in Cuernavaca. I invited all of the men of rice, but they didn’t go because it meant they would have to go to a Palace, and they didn’t feel comfortable.
I did go to see Alejandro´s house. He lives in the country on a little hill. He made his house with varas
—the dry rice stalks they pick up from the harvest. It’s a very, very simple house. You see it in the film during the morning when he’s lighting the fire. That’s his real house. He lives alone, but it’s his
land. He’s proud because he paid for that land and he made the house. It took only eight days to build, but he’s fine there.
I went to see him and I gave him his photograph in black and white. I wanted to see his face when I gave him the photograph. I took it out of the car and took in. Then I uncovered and I was looking at his face. He looked at it and said, “Wow. I didn’t shave that day.” [laughs] That’s the last thing I thought he would say. By then he was already thinking of himself as an artist, and wanting to be in a film again. But he’s a great person.
The first couple of days when the filming was beginning the film crew stayed at the hotel we have, and El Sapo, Alejandro, stayed there, too. He entered the hotel room and asked me, “Where do I sleep?”
I didn’t know his house back then. I didn’t know how he lived. I showed him, “In there you have a bathroom, and you can go to the bathroom if you need to—and you can take a shower in the morning, if you want. And we could leave early.”
He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me, just like, “Okay.”
The next morning I got up very early and went to see everybody. I knocked on Sapo’s door and he opened it. I could see that he never touched the bed. He slept on the floor. I said, “What happened, Sapo? Why didn’t you sleep there?”
He said, “I had to respect this place. This place is not for me.”
I didn’t say anything. Of course, he didn’t go to the bathroom, either. He didn’t take a shower or anything. So he started to work, and was very shy the first day. My son, Ricardo had to tell him, “Sapo, you go and walk from here to there—do this, and do that.” It was a little hard for Sapo because he wasn’t used to this and was a little nervous. But three days later, you could see him on top of the hill calling, “Hey, Ricardo. Why don’t I walk from here to where you are, and you film me.”
After three days, he was now the director [laughs]. It was really very impressive. He’s an excellent person. His life has been, of course, very difficult, as you see part of it in the film.
RW: It sounded really difficult. In the film, he says, “My mother died when she was thirty. When my father saw that she was sick, he abandoned us—seven boys and one girl.”
Eduardo: Sapo was the oldest brother, and he had to take care of the whole family.
RW: And he was still a kid.
Eduardo: Yes. That’s how he started. His life was a very difficult. Then he got married to a woman he loved very much. Then this woman left him and went with another man. It’s a tragic life, but I'm going to tell you one anecdote.
I did the book and Ricardo did the film, and he was interested in what I was doing. So he coming with me and was filming some of the things I was photographing. We were driving across the country and I heard Sapo—which you also hear in the film—what he does with the látigo
, the whip, to scare the birds away. He was doing that while we drove through.
It was like the same experience I had that very first day when the rice men had started the harvest. Sapo was doing his work with this whip. It looks like it’s very simple, but it’s really hard. He said to me, “I'm sure you can’t do this because you’re a city man.”
I said, “Probably not, but maybe I can if you show me.”
“Of course, I can show you!” And he showed me how to do it. He gave the whip to me and he said, “Be careful, because you might hit yourself or hit me. So be careful.”
And I didn’t do it very well, because I was afraid of hurting myself. Then he laughed hard and said, “I told you can’t because you’re a city man!”
I said, “Well, but one day, you will teach me.” Anyway, the whole thing—and this person—really caught my attention. Besides, I asked, “What’s your name?”
He said, very properly, “Alejandro Catalán.” The way he answered was a prince. It was very impressive. It’s something I remember from that day.
So, when I heard him all these weeks later, I wanted Ricardo to meet him. I said, “You’re going to meet a character, un personaje: El Sapo
.” We stopped and went to meet Sapo who had his hand in a bandage all around. He was fooling around with the bandage, and he asked my son, “What’s your name?”
“Ricardo, your father can’t use the látigo
And I said, “I'm sure I can if you teach me how, because it’s hard to do it just the first day.” And he started swinging the whip and yelling and everything, and I saw he had that bandage. I asked, “What happened to your hand?”
“Oh, last night, I had to take care of the cows and a coyote or something came. I had the escopeta
(a shotgun) and somehow I shot myself.” He showed me—and he was working with that injury that had just happened the night before.
RW: Oh, my gosh.
Eduardo: It was really impressive. And this made a big impression on Ricardo, too. He said, “Father, now I know what the film has to be. It will be 24 hours of Sapo’s life.”
I think it’s the best work he’s done. He hasn’t done many films because he’s still young, but it’s a very beautiful piece of work. Just from the trailer, it won a prize. In Latin America each year one documentary film is picked up from each country, and they give you enough money to make the film. He won that, so he got money to make the film, which is fifty-two minutes long. I did the exhibition and the book, and he made the film.
RW: What is your hope for the book?
Eduardo: I’d like to be able to exhibit what we do more. Of course, I would like to make an edition of the book in English. I think it would be much more appreciated than in Mexico. There are people who appreciate it very much, but it’s not a topic of importance—it’s like the campesinos
there; they’re overlooked. If I can get it into Europe and United States, it’s going to be much more accepted—the book and the film—and this would be a support to the men of rice and their traditional way of working. This is the hope.
Eduardo: But you need money to do all of this. It’s like the exhibition. I didn’t have money for the photo exhibition—for printing the photographs and the frames and everything. So, I looked for support, and found someone who had the contact with the people in the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia. He presented me to these people and they loved the work and not only did they pay for the whole exhibition, but there was some money for me. They kept 50 images; they bought the exhibition. But I have the rights and can print more.
RW: Now it was 25 years ago when you first encountered the men of rice, but how many years did you work on the book?
Eduardo: All this work was made in three years, almost four, but mostly the first three years. A rice crop begins in February and finishes in September.
RW: How has this affected you getting to know these men from a different level of society, these men who live in a different world?
Eduardo: Very different. I learned very much from them. Many things I used to think and still think are the same, but these men really touch the ground, touch the soul; you can feel that, and not just when they’re working. It’s their way of life, their way of living. That communicates to me many things, and I feel very close to them, and a few of them are very close to me, too—particularly, Jesús—who I didn’t start working with. I met him later. He’s the one who went to the university.
Just three days ago, I was with him. We went to Mexico to an appointment with this man who is offering support. He wants the men of rice, to work and to produce much more, but he knows they need support for that. So, I hope that is going to help them, and they are very happy with it.
They are happy because the molino, the building, is part of what was an old hacienda. The government owns of the molino, and the rice men don’t have to pay for it. But a year ago there was an earthquake and the whole thing came down. Now they’re working to rebuild the place, and it seems that the government is going to donate the place to them. So, things are beginning to look better for them.
RW: Now, rice production in Morelos—I think, in one of the essays, it said that at one point, there were 22 rice molinos and now it’s down to 4. Is that right?
Eduardo: The State divides into thirty three municipios
and twenty two of them were rice producers and each one had a molino. But now, only a few are producers. And there are only four.
RW: Only four? Are they all in Morelos?
Eduardo: Each county had one. Twenty-two counties had one a hundred years ago. Now there are only four: La Perseverancia is in Jojutla, Soberano is in Puente de Ixtla. Garza de Oro is in Coatlán del Río. And another one, Buenavista, is in Cuautla. Those are the four molinos.
RW: Are these four all producing rice the traditional way?
Eduardo: The same rice. All four now have the official designation Designación de Origen
and nobody else will be able to say “Morelos” rice. But it’s still not working properly because there is a rice brand called “Morelos” and it’s American. It sells very well, because Morelos has this tradition of rice. As you read in the book, this rice grown in Morelos won the medal for “Best rice in the World.”
RW: That’s quite something.
Eduardo: Yes. A man of Jojutla took the rice to the World Fair In Paris, in 1900 when the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated, and he won the first prize. His great-granddaughter has the medal and it’s part of the tradition with these people.