Cover Story

Romancing the corn

"Romancing the corn" Continued...

Issue: "Tortilla wars," March 10, 2007

Guarding the building were enough policemen in full riot gear to fill several cargo trucks. Conspicuously missing from this demonstration were national and local media. An animated protester, Dezi Motolinía, explained: "Protests? In Mexico, at least nowadays, they are part of everyday life. The papers, no matter their ideologies, are tired of covering them."

Moderates joined radicals in indignation about corn-inflation. "I'm not a political person," said Omar Egusquiza, a 35-year-old hotel room cleaner. "I'm here now only because of corn. Things have gotten out of control; everyone's protesting." Egusquiza and the Barajases opposed the idea of storming the offices of the country's largest news station, but they didn't mind a bitter joke about the acronym of Calderón's political party, PAN: It means "bread" in Spanish, and the implication is that Calderón was simply saying of his people, "Let them eat pan."

Some of the demonstrators wanted more than a tortilla price reduction. Some want more schools and hospitals: Chants of "Queremos más escuelas! Queremos más hospitales!" provided a cadence for the march on Televisa. But others wanted to talk corn and corn only. Two men and a woman held a long, parade-style banner whose block letters, made to resemble ears of corn, read: "Sin maíz, no hay país." Without corn, there is no country.

When the demonstration ended, the Barajases went one way, and Alán Rodin, the student who spoke of thievery, another.

The Barajases returned to their tortilleria, thick and muggy with smog, but also smelling sweetly of cornmeal. Stretched out in his denim shirt, his head craning toward the open street, angling for customers, Adolfo soon was whistling along to radio songs.

For 24 years in this storefront, he and his wife have run their tortilleria, a humble one off Calzada San Antonio Abad, a north-south thoroughfare. Across the street sits a deserted plaza. Dandelions had split aging brick from mortar, but several locals peered out from a parasol as they ate pork rinds. Those wanting tacos were at the nearby two-generation-old taqueria of the Aguirre family, friends of the Barajases.

In the vast tortilla business-one that encompasses thousands of grungy mom-and-pop corner stands as well as national chains like Bimbo-the Barajases' tortilleria is relatively modest. Years ago Adolfo Barajas bought a cheap mixer to give his wife's arthritic hands some rest, but it is now defunct. Larger chains like Industrias del Maíz Puebla, off nearby Avenida 5 de Febrero, operate with shiny, whirring amasadoras-giant, clunky mixers that can produce hundreds of tortillas an hour, and even keep them warm.

So the Barajases must always struggle. Their misshapen tortilleria has the feel of a deep stairwell closet. Eight feet wide and severely tapered in the back, it bounces an echo back and forth and lets it fade into the 20-plus feet of depth. From this shadowy recess, Lourdes Barajas worked on a batch of tortillas. She had steeped corn kernels to bring the skins to the top of pungent lime liquor called nejayote. The corn now had a hominy-like appearance.

This process, she explained, makes certain nutrients, like niacin, soluble. It's a crucial step: Americans constantly eat foods, like bread, that are fortified with vitamins, iron, even folic acid, but Mexicans often depend on nature (in the form of corn) and its natural processes (in the form of steeping) for their nutrients, in addition to receiving the majority of their caloric intake from tortillas.

Lourdes plopped the cornmeal onto the comal, the griddle, as a line of midday customers began to form. In 15 minutes it stretched beyond the next three storefronts. Adolfo nodded in approval as his customers conversed pleasantly with him upon reaching the cash register, which was really an old relic of a Burroughs adding machine.

A few, though, winced: The Barajases are now charging eight pesos per kilogram of tortillas, or about 73 cents for three dozen, enough to feed a modest family for the day. Putting those numbers next to Mexico's minimum wage of $4.60 per day is a reminder of poverty's unpleasant face-and the face of several million in Mexico City alone. Families of four, small by any Mexican standard, supported by single-income minimum-wage earners, can expect to spend nearly the equivalent of a rent or mortgage on tortillas.

"You see her?" Adolfo asked suddenly, motioning to a young woman, "She buys from us every day. She has eight growing children to feed"-a smile of sympathy crept in here-"so yesterday I gave her half a dozen extra for free."

Student Alán Rodin headed to his home in Tepito, a Mexico City neighborhood known for crime where prostitutes amble through loud, brightly variegated mercados. Rodin, a psychology student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, sat on a plastic barstool with a lapful of tacos, shaded by the corrugated metal overhang on the taqueria's façade. Despite the French surname, Rodin's onyx hair and nose like a stone Olmec displayed his mom's Zapotec Indian ancestry. His talk showed loyalty-to the class-warfare ideals that Obrador and other radicals stir up.

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