It’s 105 degrees out, but Rochelle Garcia, the owner of Blue Corn Custom Designs (BCCD), has kept her promise to set up her pop-up near the Phoenix Indian Medical Center.
A sign near her truck advertises "Free Roasted Navajo Tea." She displays her offerings on a Pendleton gray blanket with geometrical patterns in white, light green, and dark green. There is corn flour, sumac berries, Navajo and sage teas, juniper ash, different flavored blue corn cookies, necklaces, candles, and more. A large white umbrella provides some respite from the heat. Garcia patiently spends time with her customers and answers their questions. So far, every visitor has made purchases.
The pop-up is a new venture for Garcia, a Diné woman who founded her Indigenous-centric business in 2019 on Indigenous People's Day. Then, she sold corn husk flowers and centerpieces. She has since expanded into blue corn cookies and bread. She's typically sold her merchandise online. But she debuted the pop-up in June and it was enough of a success to repeat it. She also enjoyed hearing people's stories in person.
When the pandemic hit, Garcia realized that many Indigenous people could not come home to Arizona and visit family. They missed Dinétah ("among people").
“So, we tried to bring home to them and put intention behind it,” she says. Her customers felt the intention and verbalized it in their Etsy reviews.
Why blue corn? Garcia’s family represents the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, Navajo Nation, and Tohono O’odham Nation. For the Navajo, corn is not just a crop. It’s a spiritual entity representing the direction east.
“At dawn, we pray to the deities and start our day to acknowledge the elements that sustain us,” says Garcia. “[Corn] represents us and who we are.”
Aside from being a traditional staple food to Indigenous people, corn is also used in several ceremonies: Kinaalda (a girl’s coming of age), Blessing Way (bestows positive blessings), Mountain Way (a healing ceremony), and Shooting Way (a curing ceremony intended to restore the relationship to powerful entities). All parts of the corn are used, from pollen to husk to seeds. The dry kernels are used to make fire. The husk is used to roll tobacco. The pollen, husk, and flour are used in some ceremonies as well.
Blue corn mush is the traditional preparation. There is also corn cake (a disk-shaped bread) and corn mush beverage.
Garcia grew up on the reservation and no matter where her family lived, her parents would find a plot of land, large or small, to grow corn on. When she had children and moved to the city, blue corn remained a way for her to stay connected to her parents. Every time they’d visit her, they’d bring some.
Blue corn is also said to have 20 percent more protein compared to other corn. By adding juniper ash to some of her baked goods, she deepens the color and flavor and adds extra calcium. An analysis of Juniper ash by an NAU student found that each gram of ash has as much calcium as a glass of milk.
“It’s not about making money for me. It’s about connections to our traditions.” She remembers her grandfather, a medicine man, using blue corn in ceremonies. Although he spoke Navajo and she spoke English, they found a way to communicate.
The juniper ash is prepared by her family in Kayenta, Arizona, where Garcia is originally from.
Aside from food, Garcia offers centerpieces and flowers made with corn husk, mountain tobacco, seeds, corn pollen, soaps, and candles.
She plans to add mesquite cookies to her offerings. Her husband and son are members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, and she wants to respect where she lives now.
“We are trying to bring the knowledge of our foods to people,” says Garcia.
Visit her here to order and learn about BCCD's upcoming events.