Man in the Middle

By Howie Kahn. Photography by Mark Powell

Dante Aguilar fled the world of film—where he used to take marching orders from the likes of Schnabel and Cuarón—to grow and sell tiny leafed vegetables to restaurants in Mexico City’s flourishing haute-food scene. Business has taken off, and now Dante wants to spread the wealth to his new partners: four Mixtec tomato growers in the high mountains of Oaxaca. Here, Dante pays his first visit to the group—and takes Howie Kahn along for the ride.

Cameras roll, flashes strobe and bodyguards with earpieces cluster off to the side of the red carpet, while telenovela stars, teens in power suits and, allegedly, Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, sample the menu inside. The occasion is the Mexico City opening of the Monégasque steakhouse Beef Bar, and Dante Aguilar, 36, is the last guest to arrive. He’s five-foot-five, 110 pounds, buzzcut with a widow’s peak, and he’s hoisting a tray of his homegrown microgreens above his right shoulder as he walks the red carpet.

Dante’s enormous, ghostly, light blue eyes, which are framed by round vintage glasses and recall those of tiny primates with off-the-charts night vision, seem to give him an advantage in the dimly lit recesses of Beef Bar. Dressed in the same clothes he’s worn all day—cobalt plaid button down, dirt-flecked jeans—he sidesteps a clique of fur-vested women and a grouping of armless, tufted, $4,000 Swiss chairs. He passes a long leather wall, and a tall granite wall, and walks beneath Beef Bar’s undulant light fixture, made from over a thousand individually-blown Italian crystal shafts. Dante stops to scan the room, and decides that his baby cilantro and infant radish stems deserve a prominent spot behind the opulent, misting bar, in between a decorative pallet of limes and a Ferrari-red meat slicer. An exasperated man in a blazer immediately struts up to Dante to challenge the placement. “I am the restaurant’s designer,” he says in a curatorial huff. Dante levels his gaze at the man and fires back: “Don’t worry, I am the designer of the greens.”

Lavish premieres aren’t new to Dante, who has worked in the film industry for the last twenty years. He coordinated transportation for Julie Taymor’s Frida. He was the production manager on Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls—and, when shooting wrapped, claims to have stolen a 1958 Ford Fairlane from the set as “compensation” because he felt he’d been screwed on his check. Dante scouted locations for Love in the Time of Cholera and Y Tu Mamá También, during which the director, Alfonso Cuarón, asked him to stop traffic on a high mountain road in Oaxaca. Dante T-boned his van across the highway, “but people needed to make their deliveries,” he says. When a guy driving a semi tried to push him off a cliff, Dante was sympathetic. “Films,” he says, “should never get in the way of milk.”

Wherever his work took him—Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guerrero—Dante made a point of collecting seeds. “I’d visit every single market,” he says, “and ask, ‘Is there anything that grows here and no place else?” In the process, he developed a deep interest in Mexico’s rich agricultural history, which, Dante believes, hasn’t received the credit it deserves. “When the Europeans came to America, tomatoes grew from Mexico to Peru and there were more than 120 varieties. Tomatoes come from the New World, even though they’re thought of as being from the Old World. Globalization is as old as man,” Dante says, “especially when it comes to seeds.”

In recent years, Dante’s film work began to burn him out. Capturing life on celluloid felt lifeless; plants, on the other hand, were literally alive. “I think they’re the most powerful interest I’ve ever had,” he says—this from a man who, at 17, spent nine months living on an ashram in the Catskills, and later taught himself how to build pinhole cameras and Fresnel lenses. Dante lacks the kind of casual restraint possessed by mere hobbyists, and growing food offered him a characteristically intense, personal, all-consuming path to a new and meaningful livelihood. It would be an opportunity to become his own boss—to supplant the Cuaróns and the Schnabels as the sole auteur in his own story.

Three years ago, Dante began building his rooftop production facility, where his greens now grow in 200 trays. A spiral staircase leads from the house—where he lives with his 7-year old Samoyeds, Popo and Izta (named for the local volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl), his ten-month old twin daughters, Flora and Ixlú, and his Australian wife of nine years, Verity—to a greenhouse with plastic sheeting for walls and striated polycarbonate overhead. (Dante, who puts his holistic views into practice whenever possible, even when it compromises the appearance of his plants, preferred his facility’s previous, open-air iteration, when insects could nibble on the greens, and birds could eat the insects; however, he was forced to enclose it last year when a demolition job in the neighboring lot started kicking up dust and coating the plants.) Dante built much of the shelving himself, using rebar, steel beams, screws, rope, and L-brackets. The most recently sown trays—dirt to the naked eye—sit lower, needing less light. The more developed ones, higher up, sprout flossy stalks in translucent lavender (micro cabbage), iridescent pinks (micro beet), and a host of homogenous greens and yellow-greens (cilantro, rocket, epazote). Each tiny leaf possesses the vibrant flavor of a much larger plant. A couple of micro-rocket leafs, for example, pack the punch of an entire arugula salad.

If anybody else at Beef Bar has a connection to the natural world, it’s likely because they own a sizable tract of it. But Dante, who left home at 16 and never went to college, is nonetheless making his presence known here, touring the 6,500 square foot kitchen with corporate higher-ups. “We want Beef Bar to be exclusive,” they say, mini burgers zipping by on silver trays. Dante wants to be exclusive, too, but he will not pander: “I’ll only sell to chefs who call me themselves,” he says. “If their supply managers call, forget it.”

Dante is in business for Dante, and he has come to Beef Bar to market his microgreens—to give them a stronger, more personal identity, and therefore, a higher value. “Last week,” he says. “there was a 116,000 peso bottle of wine in a restaurant—in Mexico! It makes me know I should charge even more for the product. People die of famine in this country, but there’s also a class of people who can buy that wine.”

With these new tastes in mind, Dante changed the name of his business from the artisanal-sounding Artifacto Comestibles to the red carpet-worthy Cultivo de Autor. “My clients think they’re artists,” says Dante, “and that allows me to ask higher prices.” Besides Beef Bar, and the Morimoto outpost next door, Dante distributes to restaurants like Enrique Olvera’s Pujol (presently regarded to be among the best in the world) and a couple-dozen other D.F. elites. “I’m the artist of the veggies, they’re the artists of the dishes. It makes them happy to think that,” says Dante. “But sometimes the only dignity their dishes have comes from me.”

“The product is one of a kind,” one of Beef Bar’s managers says to Dante. “Even in France we don’t find this quality.” Dante’s proud to hear it. A pat on the back from a European restaurateur getting ready to make a mint selling Kansas City steaks to wealthy Mexicans means something to Dante, both as a matter of strategy and as a matter of ego. But ever since Fall 2010, when his business concerns began to grow beyond his own garden, Dante started seeing himself as something between an infiltrator and a delegate, schmoozing on behalf of four female Mixtec tomato growers—business associates of Cultivo de Autor—who he’s going to meet in Oaxaca tomorrow for the first time. If he can get the Beef Bar set to covet his greens, Dante’s thinking goes, then perhaps he can interest them in buying the Mixtec women’s tomatoes.

Toward the end of the event, people are still trying to figure out whether Slim was there. Dante hits the bathroom and has trouble finding his way out. All the bands of mirror and glass obscure the door, making Beef Bar’s crystalline men’s room feel like the Fortress of Solitude. When Dante finally emerges, disoriented and amused, he re-walks the red carpet, past the slouching bodyguards, and says of his business dealings with the Mixtec women, “This is the start of a social project. It’s a way of getting to some of the wealth and delivering it to people in this country who need the money. What I’m doing now, it’s really a Robin Hood thing.”

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Dante first met Jorge Bolaños Jiménez, a 24-year old anthropology student (thesis topic: the appropriation and degradation of nature and environment in Mixtec culture), at his local pizza parlor in Colonia Escandón, where Jorge was working as a waiter. “He was being exploited,” Dante says. “He needed a better job and I needed somebody to help me because things were getting crazy on the roof. I was about to give myself a heart attack at the pace I was working, supplying ten restaurants and building everything myself.”

Dante put Jorge to work sowing seeds, building shelves, harvesting trays, washing, packaging, and delivering the microgreens. One day, while they were up on the roof, Jorge—who’d been traveling regularly from Mexico City to the village of San Isidro, high in the mountains of Oaxaca, as part of his thesis research—told Dante about a group of Mixtec women whom he’d often seen carrying baskets of tomatoes on their backs down the mountain, but not of late; all their tomatoes had died. “We decided there was something we could do to help them improve their methods of growing,” Jorge says, “to stop them from using the agro-industrial stuff and to help them utilize their unused greenhouse.”

Dante relished the opportunity to expand his business in a socially conscious way. “Dante the Red”—the nickname he’d earned while sticking up for the rights of low-wage workers on film sets—would share some of the seeds he’d collected over the years with the descendants of the people who’d originally sown them. He’d act on his ideas about the injustices that underpin Mexican agriculture. Dante asked Jorge to relay his proposal.

But the Mixtec women resisted. They didn’t care about Mexico City. They sold at the local market down the mountain in Tlaxiaco and that was it. In short, they didn’t want a middle man—and Dante, who proudly refuses solicitations from supply managers, could hardly blame them. Eventually, Jorge had to gave them his debit card, so that Dante could deposit money into Jorge’s account, and the Mixtec women could withdraw it. Dante’s been sending the women seeds—“tomates ancestrales,” he calls them—since February, 2011, and they’ve shipped about 350 kilograms of tomatoes back to him by MultiPack truck since the following June. But Dante still hasn’t set foot in San Isidro, an 11 hour drive Southeast from his house. “It’s finally time to go,” Dante says eagerly.

We pull out of Mexico City at sunrise. We drive past women selling bags of tortillas and gingerbread cookies shaped like pigs. Men peddle by on bikes, hunched over their handlebars beneath enormous humps of merchandise. Out past the airport, everything is piled in stacks: houses, cars, garbage. Exposed rebar, capped with Coke bottles, poke up from the rooftops. “They leave it like that in case they ever have the means to build,” says Dante. “The bottles are put in place so nobody impales themselves.”

In the mountains between Mexico City and Puebla, Dante pulls over for breakfast at a truck stop, choosing a restaurant in a long row of low-slung, crudely-built congruent restaurants, most of them named for the women who run them: Itzel, Lupita. We walk past a turquoise cauldron brimming with sausages, potatoes, green chilies, and eggs. Bags of crisped, contorted pork fat hang from an awning. Inside the restaurant, Dante pulls out the driving instructions from Jorge—who regretfully had to stay behind—and reads them aloud.

The first town is Cucquila. You will notice a small church upon a hill. There you should ask for San Isidro. You get there through a deviation to the right of the roads. Take a dirt road that goes downhill, then, after getting to a graveyard on your left side, follow the main roads. When you start seeing homes, stop at the first grocery shop. There, ask for Adelina Nicolas. Or Natalia Leon. Or Anastasia. Or Carmen, the wife of the chief of communal property. These four women are the Ña´a Lu´u——it means “pretty women” and that’s the name they picked for their tomato growing business. Good luck and hugs to the group.

Dante pulls off the highway, down onto a tight gravel path where he stutters forward, parks, hops out and starts to walk down a trail. As the high Oaxacan panorama reveals itself, three donkeys trot in front of Dante and stare him down—though it’s probably his short-sleeved, collared shirt they’re eyeing. (It’s printed with chilies, red peppers, fennel, onions, carrots, parsnips, lettuce, cauliflowers, zucchini, and tomatoes.) “They have seen me before,” Dante says. He was recently here on a shoot—a biopic about José María Morelos, Mexico’s second leader in their War of Independence against Spain. And it was here, Dante says, that “the army had to be shown crossing a difficult passage.”

Dante nods at the donkeys, walks on. “Let’s say I’m these Mixteca tomato growers,” he says, ducking beneath an enormous spider web, “and I want to cut out the middle man, sell my produce myself in the big market. Let’s say I even have the means to get my produce to Mexico City: a truck or a trailer.

In Dante’s telling, trade at the Central de Abasto is a tightly controlled, high-stakes game whose rules are not available to farmers living hundreds of miles, and seemingly many decades, away. There’s little communication between them. They don’t know there’s a gatekeeper. They don’t know there’s protocol.

“So there he is, this gatekeeper, reading the papers,” says Dante, “and I say, ‘Hey, do you know how I can sell these tomatoes?’” The gatekeeper sends hypothetical Mixtec Dante to a buyer, who offers to pay him a paltry one peso per kilo. “I ask for a better price, and he brings it up to two pesos.” But he’s still low-balling Dante, so Dante tries the next guy. “He offers me 50 cents. The next guy tells me, ‘30 cents.’” Dante has no other choice but to return to the first buyer, where he finally learns that they’re all colluded. “The first guy looks at me asking for my two pesos, and he tells me, ‘That was before. Now I will pay you 30 cents.’”

Back in the van and heading to higher altitudes, Dante proceeds to launch a full-throated critique against NAFTA, which is central to the subject he returns to most on our trip: the marginalization of small-scale indigenous Mexican farmers, whose ingenious millennia-old traditions are, from his point of view, worryingly at risk. Dante explains how small-scale, non-subsidized native Mexican farmers, threatened by extreme poverty, are often forced to sell their crops for less than it takes to grow them, if not abandon the idea of selling altogether in favor of keeping their harvest to fend off malnutrition and starvation. (The journalist Peter Canby, invoking a term from economics, describes this growing phenomenon as a “retreat to subsistence.”) Some have submitted to government pressure to start using industrial fertilizers; others have given up on farming and taken factory jobs throughout the country, or otherwise sought work North of the Border, leaving a noticeable dearth of men in high Oaxacan villages like San Isidro.

Dante’s microgreens business, however, doesn’t suffer from the deleterious effects he describes. Indeed, where Cultivo de Autor is concerned, it’s hard not to see trade liberalization, and its role in expanding the ranks of Mexico City’s nouveau riche, as a net-positive. But Dante isn’t driven by profits alone. Assuming an activist stance as a middle man—a position he otherwise maligns—is his way of addressing the problem.

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In Tlaxiaco, 26 winding miles east of San Isidro, Dante procures 2.5 liters of pulque funneled into a plastic Coke bottle at the large outdoor market in the center of town. He passes piglets on leashes, wheelbarrows full of roasted grasshoppers. As we get deeper into Oaxaca, Dante more frequently adopts the air of an observer. He’s quieter here, humbled by what he doesn’t know and what he’s never seen.

We trace the lips of several canyons, buzz by wild turkeys and big, black sheep with gnarled coats. We hit Cucquila with its turquoise and mango-painted buildings. “You can always tell the houses that are sent American dollars,” says Dante. “The men go away, send back money, and those families are the ones who can afford to make their walls bright.” It’s nearing sunset and golden light washes over the valley below. Each hairpin turn reveals a new crop of neatly tended black crosses, echoing a shot from for Y Tu Mamá Tambien.

Natalia, Carmen, Anastasia, and Adelina greet Dante at the foot of town. They are waiting in a line. He shuts off the engine and hops out of the van to greet them with hugs. Even at 5’5”, Dante looks giant standing next to the women. They’re stocky, somewhere between four-and-a-half and five-feet tall, with deep, nut-brown skin, attentive, beady eyes, black or salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into lengthy braids or elaborate, twisting buns. They’re wearing long skirts and short-sleeves, some with sweaters tied around their shoulders. Once they’ve all hugged Dante, the women waste no time and lead him to their greenhouse. They walk in single file, descending a winding gravel path. Dante walks in silence, hands clasped in front of him, fifth in line.

The greenhouse is nestled between two small slopes at the bottom of the trail. Inside, blue-grey twilight filters through the plastic covering, which is stretched over metal frames. Tomato vines present themselves in wild, vertical strands nearly twenty feet high. Although their agricultural traditions have been passed down for millennia, growing in a greenhouse is new to the Ña´a Lu´u. Also, after years of using agro-industrial seeds, which require agro-industrial fertilizers, they’re now having to learn how to work organically all over again. Still, while their indigenous peers struggle to compete with their highly subsidized counterparts to the North, these four women, at least, now have the chance to earn a better living.

Everyone in the greenhouse is animated, talking with their hands, pointing to different parts of the plants, calling out what they all know about tomato anatomy. Dante is nodding, the women are nodding. They all agree: leaves must be pruned regularly so the plant can spend more of its energy making fruit. They all agree: even in here, there must be a system of crop rotation. And they all agree: they’ll plant something else in the winter—maybe lettuce or carrot—to properly prepare the soil to grow tomatoes again in the spring.

Dante’s galvanized by the exchange, but he’s ambivalent about its long term impact. He wants to be involved and wants to affect change, but he also knows his limits. “I feel a greater craving for doing more and more with these small communities,” he says. “But I do not want to become a businessman. I really just want to share my work with other people and help with their incomes.”

Outside, children are listening to Norteño and Banda music and taking turns jumping over a fire. The women lead us back up the trail and into a small basement room with concrete floors, stone and wood walls, and a low corrugated metal ceiling. They sit us down at a small table and, in near silence, serve us a meal of tortillas and soup. The spicy, simple chicken soup is served in the coarse local pottery. The tortillas—red, blue, yellow, and white—are brought over one by one, each set in a woven basket, tucked beneath a cloth. The women stay huddled around the stove until Dante asks where they thought their tomatoes were going.

“We thought Dante was the name of a restaurant,” says Carmen. Then Anastasia reminds him about their payment schedule and brings up how much they’re currently owed, making it clear they’re holding on to their skepticism about Dante just as Dante clings to his distrust of the Beef Bar set.

“We’re making money now in a way that’s better than going to the market and selling tomatoes,” says Carmen. Pre-Dante, their tomatoes sold for six pesos a kilo. Now, they sell for 50. “We feel closer to our identity, not using the seeds and products from elsewhere. At first, we thought Jorge was a tourist and we didn’t trust him. But he would insist and insist and insist.”

Now, they’re insisting Dante take home the soup bowls, which they have washed, and the tortillas in their woven wrap. At first, Dante resists. He doesn’t want to take too much from them. But now he’s overcome, and he knows that they can see that. To continue saying, No, I can’t, I couldn’t possibly, would be foolish. Ultimately, Dante says yes to the Mixtec women’s gifts—which they clearly want to give him—out of deference.

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Dante hands me the bowls to hold in my lap and drives down the mountain from San Isidro in complete blackness. “I’m dying to see Jorge,” he says. “I’m going to give him a big hug and tell him, “Hey, man, you’ve done an excellent job.’”

Gravel crunches under the tires. The half-finished bottle of pulque tumbles around beneath the seats as we take on turn after turn. “From Beef Bar to here,” says Dante, every bit the auteur: “This is the complete picture of food in Mexico. All the levels, all the scales, all the classes.”

As the road straightens, Dante accelerates. “These four women,” Dante says, tightening his grip on the wheel. “I should think about them everyday. I should really visit more often.”