A young village woman was paid to make tortillas and deliver them to our living quarters on the school grounds. Corn tortillas were part of every meal in rural Southwest Nuevo Leon. Poor soil and low rainfall made corn the core food staple in the semi-arid region. Weekly, the tortillas arrived wrapped in a cloth inside a wicker basket.
Lacking electricity, refrigeration was not available. Still, the tortillas would keep for several days due to the year-round cool nights. At the end of the tortilla’s shelf life, the weekly menu consisted of a steady diet of Migas (corn tortilla crumbs or chips): Migas con huevos (eggs), Migas con papas (Potatoes), Migas con chorizo (sausage), Migas con charro beans and rice (variation of tortilla soup) and refried bean tostadas with a sprinkle of queso fresco (goat cheese). The tortillas never went to waste.
A corn mill was situated by the entrance of the village’s school grounds. Villagers would go there to grind the corn kernels into masa for making tortillas. Few families had a tortilla press. Most villagers like my paternal aunts in La Bolsa made tortillas completely by hand. The corn kernels were cooked in a cazuela (earthenware pot). Calcium hydroxide was added to ensure that the ground corn held its form when shaped into a tortilla. A metate (stone) was used to grind the corn into masa. Once turned into masa, it was molded by hand and placed on a comal (a flat surface made of clay) to bake.
As a preschooler, I learned to eat spicy food in my paternal aunt’s jacal (a living space constructed on the bare ground with adobe or rock walls and straw roof) kitchen. When visiting my aunts, Ruperta, Ticha or Chencha, they would always offer us a chile pepper and salt taco made on a fresh corn tortilla. I watched as the chile pepper salsa was made using a molcajete- a bowl-shaped object for grinding ingredients together made of volcanic stone or clay mortar. Initially, the spicy pepper seeds burned my mouth, but hunger has a way of forcing taste palates to adapt quickly.
My aunts also made corn gorditas, a thick tortilla which was cut in the middle to create a pocket where pinto beans, goat cheese or nopales (Opuntia cacti) were placed. Salvadorians call gorditas “pupusas.”
The experience may sound like an episode of the PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” where American chef and Mexican cuisine enthusiast Rick Bayless seeks out new dishes. It was not. What my aunts fed me and my siblings were not delicacies. It was the only thing they had to offer, provided with great sacrifice to the modest resources possessed for their daily survival. I hold them in great esteem for their generosity when things got difficult for my mom between pay periods. They provided an example of what it is to be a giving human being early in my life.
Eating hot salsa corn tortilla tacos prepared me to eat pickled jalapeños for snacks. A practice the children in the village would partake in during breaks in the school day which my siblings and I began to emulate. It was a habit similar to student consumption of whole dill cucumber pickles in the states. The jalapeños, along with saltine crackers, were purchased from a general store which was located within walking distance of the school. A scale on the counter stood out in the one-room shop. It was used in the sale of weighed portions of pinto beans, rice, sugar, animal crackers and other products. The jalapenos were placed in a plastic sandwich bag with a little vinegar and carrot slices.
There were other habits we picked up from the local children, like mispronouncing words, “pa’ca” or “pa’ya” (Here and There) as opposed to “Para acá” or “para allá”, (“Over here” “Over there”)“arita” (right now) instead of “ahorita.” Classmates would also say “quesque” in place of “Que” in verbalizing rhetorical questions. I now wonder if they were speaking incorrect Spanish or using a form of French, like “qu’est-ce que c’est?” (What is it?) Coming from a family of teachers, my mother would correct mispronunciations immediately. But the acute accent of the people where corn was plentiful would persist in our voice. It made us sound “rancho” (country). My maternal grandmother would rebuke us for sounding like what city dwellers derogatorily describe as “nacos” (poorly educated rural people) when we visited her in Monterrey. She was a rural person in the big city who also ate corn tortillas. The only difference was that she bought them from the tortilla factory located in the lower working class neighborhood where she resided. Hearing her rural origins in the inflection of her reprimands, I was perplexed by her pomposity.
Seeing the prevalence of corn as a child, I came to recognize how corn tortillas sustained my family in rural and urban areas of Mexico. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my personal experience underlined the impact corn has had on the life of poor people for centuries.
In the US, flour tortillas became a common part of our household meals. But physically, I have never been able to get use to the texture of flour. And spiritually, eating flour tortillas feels like an extravagant act which is unnatural to my humble indigenous origins.