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People of … Maseca?

March 30, 2009 | posted by Lars under , , ,

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?


  • 6 Responses to “People of … Maseca?”

  • On Mar 31, 2009 Mark Keller wrote:

    Where do the farmers go to get a job when they can not make a living growing corn in Mexico?

  • On Mar 31, 2009 James Akerson wrote:

    Thanks for your reflection. We have similar losings in our culture from the industrial revolution and trade. No longer do our people knit and sew or make things in our workshops. We tend to view those things as work, something to be avoided if we can buy them cheaply. Your question of identity is an interesting one. I suppose we are a people of leisure more than a people of industry. That has large implications about our views of work, stewardship, and our willingness to help others in need. So many things are translated into money, the common denominator of work, instead of doing them ourselves — even in our thinking of helping others. We may miss the opportunity to love in direct ways.

  • On Apr 6, 2009 Caleb Yoder wrote:

    In Honduras they definitely use Maseca. That is what all the corn tortillas I eat are made out of, however they are often formed by hand. In rural areas they still mill their own corn.

  • On Apr 13, 2009 Lars wrote:

    Mark: good question, and one I didn’t address. You may be able to guess the answer from stories of the descent of the small farm in the United States. From what I gather, for Central American farmers the options are not attractive. Most (1) migrate within their country to regional production centers where they can work in factories or sweatshops, living in the “misery belts” which ring most urbanized Central American cities; or (2) emigrate to the United States and send remittances back to their family. While very dangerous, illegal, and disruptive to family units, this option is quite lucrative and rather attractive. Fully one quarter of Salvadoran citizens live in the United States, and the money they send home by Western Union or MoneyGram makes up the country’s largest industry, earning the country more than $10.5 million per day, most of which is spent on basic expenses like food, utilities, and schooling. It’s a bleak picture, but when the market one works in dries up, one is left with few options.

    Caleb: thanks for sharing a glimpse of your experience in Honduras, and thanks again for hosting us! We had a great time. Hope you had a nice vacation this week.

  • On May 7, 2009 Kirstin Soares wrote:

    OK so I am finally checking in on you guys after a long, long time – great to see the progress you have made and all of the adventures!!
    Wondering if you want to come back to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico to do promotional work for INESIN. Great reflection and synopsis – seems as though you really were able to get a sense of what we are trying to do – baby step by baby step! You both would be welcome any time!

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