March 30, 2009 | posted by Lars under guatemala, lent, mexico, reflections
In Central America, the tortilla is more than just a food staple, it’s a way of life. Corn has been cultivated in the region since before the first European encounter; according to the Maya creation story, humans are literally “people of corn” – it was from corn, not soil, that God formed the first beings. Traveling in culture with this collective history, when eating the occasional tortilla-less meal, Jon and I have been asked if we want any, because for many, if tortillas aren’t present, you haven’t eaten.
As a result, tortillerías – or tortilla ‘bakeries’ – are everywhere. I remember from my cross-cultural semester in Guatemala the sound of the women in these shops patting out the dough by hand over the comal and a low-burning fire. Fresh tortillas, made at home or in one of these corner stores, were present at most meals.
But throughout Mexico, the picture was different. There was no light clapping overflowing into the streets, only the faint whirr of the occasional tortilla machine and the painted Maseca logo on the outside of the store. “Quality & Consistency,” they promised – a promise as valid in southern Mexico as it is in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where you can also buy the flour. Three years ago in Guatemala, the corn for tortillas had come from the farms in the countryside and was made into nixtamal (or hominy, an intermediate step in making tortilla dough, a process which incidentally enriches the corn with essential nutrients) in the same neighborhood where it was eaten. There had been no national corn processing company so prominent as Maseca; that was the work of many smaller-scale farmers and corn processers.
Our last evening in Mexico, I asked our host, a restaurant owner and partner with INESIN, about Maseca. Sometime in the past, tortillas must have been made by hand in Mexico, and now they’re not. I had my strong suspicions that the shift was connected to the 1994 beginning of subsidized corn imports from the United States through NAFTA, but I wanted to hear the story.
The change in her town began “somewhere around ten years ago,” she told us, when it became cheaper to buy the 20 kg. bags of ground corn than to grow and process the corn grown locally. She emphasized that the taste of tortillas made with Maseca is notably more bland; but since farmers have stopped sowing corn because they can’t get a good price for it anymore, they’re becoming the only option.
Regardless of the reason, for a culture so closely connected to cultivating and consuming corn, this is a significant shift. Clearly it has implications for farmers who no longer are able to farm; but what happens to a culture which once understood their Creator through their work and food when those are exported and imported? How is the health of a people affected when the staple of every meal contains more starch and fewer necessary nutrients? Increased diabetes rates may be the simplest of the outcomes.
In Guatemala, I still hear tortillas being made; but then again, CAFTA is still very young.
Thought kernels: Where do we fit into this picture? Where do we find our identity? How do we understand our God?