Vanilla in Mexico

By Jason Lopez

Aug 12 2023

It is in Mexico where Vanilla planifolia is said to originate, where it is entwined in the rich histories of both the Totonacs and the Aztecs.

The Totonacs of Vera Cruz have a long history of vanilla cultivation that continues to remain a great source of pride for their people: “local farmers in Papantla who trace their ancestry back to those pre-Columbian civilizations take pride in stating, ‘We know vanilla. Vanilla is in our blood’” (Cameron, 15).  Much of the reputation of Mexican vanilla being the gold standard for vanilla the world over is owed to the legacy of the Totonac people, so much so that: “in the mid- to late eighteenth century, the Totonac of the Papantla region of the state of Vera Cruz were the first and only vanilla exporters for nearly 100 years, in part because of the exceptional quality of the vanilla that was produced” (Hernández-Hernández, 3).  The Totonacs have a deep and spiritual relationship with the land, and particularly with vanilla, which they consider a gift from the gods and features heavily in several of the mythologies of the Totonac people:

Various legends are told by the Totonac people concerning the sacred origins of vanilla…in one version of the myth, a goddess princess named Xanath daughter of the goddess of fertility, fell in love with a mortal man.  Because they could not be married and she could not walk among men as a deity, she transformed herself into a Vanilla vine to remain on Earth. Each year she flowers and produces fragrant fruits to bring happiness to the people and to remind them of a sacred love (Cameron, 14).

This amorous and yet tragic legend accentuates one of vanilla’s medicinal usages as an aphrodisiac, “as the Vanilla vine was declared a sacred plant devoted to the cult of love and was raised as holy offering to the Totonac gods” (Cameron, 14).

In Diego Rivera’s mural of El Tajin, the Totonac are depicted paying a tribute of vanilla to the Aztecs, who likely would not have had access to the spice otherwise since it “could not be grown in the dry, high elevation areas of central Mexico near the Aztec capital” (Cameron, 13).  This highlights the unfortunate fact that the history of vanilla has often times been brutal and violent.  According to Bernadino de Sahagun, a Franciscan missionary from Spain, the Aztecs came to call vanilla tlixochitl (Root, 550).  The Aztecs used vanilla in their recipe for xocolatl, an energizing chocolate beverage said to combat fatigue, in which they also mixed “ground cacao seeds… ground corn and chilli peppers, and no trace of sugar” (Cameron, 13).  It is through the bloody exchange between the Aztecs and Hernán Cortés, known as the Battle for Tenochtitlan in 1521, that vanilla is usurped as a spoil of war and introduced to Spain and then the rest of Europe (Cameron, 16).  However, Europeans understood very little about the spice, and even less about the secret to making vanilla bear fruit.

Jason Lopez is a summer intern in the Urban Foodways Internship program. Generous support for the program is provided by the Mellon Foundation

Cameron, Kenneth Michael. Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation. Timber Press, 2012.
Hernández‐Hernández, Juan. “Mexican Vanilla Production.” Handbook of Vanilla Science and Technology, edited by Daphna Havkin-Frenkel and Faith C. Belanger, 2nd ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2019, pp. 3-25.
Root, Waverley. “Vanilla.” Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, Smithmark, 1996, pp. 549-553.