MEXICO CITY- "He is a thief!" one demonstrator shouted. The next indignant leftist, 23-year-old student Alán Rodin, went further: "Your president, Felipe Calderón, is more than a thief! He is taking all the corn, too! He wants you to starve! Calderón cares nothing about us-not you or me!"
When President George Bush comes here next week to visit Calderón, who won the presidency in a July election almost as close as the Bush-Gore hanging-chad election in 2000, he should hope he's adequately briefed on how the U.S. ethanol craze is affecting the lives of the poor and breathing new life into leftwing politics south of the border-in this case, the political party of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost narrowly last year.
Bush proposed in January a four-fold increase in the use of ethanol, which is made from corn, as a substitute for Middle Eastern oil. That's good for U.S. farmers but bad for Mexicans who have become reliant on American-produced corn. The growing of hybrid corn in the United States is so efficient that, despite the distances involved, American corn in Mexico often costs less than Mexican corn. Many Mexican farmers, unable to compete, have turned to other crops. Basic economics: Demand now exceeds supply, so the price of corn in Mexico City has doubled.
"We don't have the luxury of choice," complained Jairo Castro, a Mexico City plumber. Nationally, Mexican per capita consumption of corn is more than one pound per day, and estimates put tortillas at about 70 percent of the daily caloric intake in rural areas. This means poor families now pay a quarter of their income, or more, for a staple-double what they paid last year.
President Calderón has lately addressed the crisis, assuring Mexicans that he "will not tolerate speculators or those who seek to monopolize" corn prices. A price cap of 8.5 pesos per kilogram of tortillas was supposed to give that promise some teeth. Yet price caps won't withstand for long the waves of demand, and every Mexican knows several vendors who still charge 10 pesos or more. There is added grumbling about the concentration of Mexican tortilla production in the hands of a few companies: The behemoth Grupo Gruma controls as much as three-fourths of all Mexican corn flour.
Calderón doubled the quota on duty-free imported corn. On Jan. 18 he raised it by 110,000 tons, but prices leapt higher, so on Feb. 8 he tacked on another 600,000 tons. The increases deal primarily with white corn imports, which is used for tortillas. Ethanol, on the other hand, is made from yellow corn-a fact that has prompted the biofuel industry to describe the link between ethanol production and tortilla prices as tenuous. But Mexican officials say the correlation is simply that the soaring price of yellow corn has had a knock-on effect on white corn as well.
So what of the Mexican government's responsibility? A 54 percent tariff comes with all white corn imported over quota (it was 72 percent in 2004), so importers need the government to sign off on foreign white corn purchases. By quotas and tariffs, Mexico has been striving for autonomy in the white corn industry, critics note, but at what cost?
Meanwhile, Obrador supporters consider him "el presidente legítimo," the real president, and mount daily anti-Calderón demonstrations. One last month, at the statue of revolutionary hero Benito Juárez in Alameda Park, featured 100 demonstrators passing around a megaphone amid shouts of "thief." Meanwhile, vendors hawked pro-Obrador paraphernalia alongside stacks of pirated Elvis CDs. T-shirts with slashes across Calderón's screen-printed face were 80 pesos, and 35 gave the buyer his pick of poor-quality Obrador posters. (Some posters paid Obrador odd compliments: one read "El Super Gallo," or "The Super Rooster.")
This protest was bantam-weight compared to the larger, fiercer protests that raged for months after the presidential election, or even one on Jan. 31, when 75,000 cheered Obrador's attack on rising corn prices and "a government dominated by white-collar criminals." Still, the demonstrators interlocked arms and marched to Paseo de la Reforma, a boulevard that looks like the Champs-Élysées but has, for Mexicans, the significance of Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. From there they marched to the office building housing Televisa, Latin America's largest news station, which the protesters said has a pro-Calderón bias.
They halted before a large, graffiti-tagged, 30-foot-high cement wall on the building's street side. Two of the protesters were Adolfo and Lourdes Barajas, owners of a tortilleria in the Obrera neighborhood about 30 blocks away from Televisa's building. They go to demonstrations rarely, but friends had invited them because of their "great story of struggle" in the corn crisis. Other protesters had signs and ears of corn to wave or fists to clench; the Barajases looked like uncomfortable tourists.
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.
Rodin spoke confidently of "the beginning of the new face of democracy in Mexico," which, more than ever, he sees as an us-versus-them country: Democracy means winning an election and then doing unto others what has been done unto them. Mexico will be, in his words, even more a country of poor and rich, of laborers and businessmen, of black and white, of a widened income gap-until a revolution comes.
People like Rodin make Adolfo Barajas nervous: "If it's not corn for them, then it's something else-but always something. We agree, now, that Calderón must change things. But I disagreed when Obrador said he was the real president. . . . His ideas are not good for Mexico."
Barajas has been around long enough to see unrest and earthquakes rock his city, youthful ideals fade, and Mexico's democracy flounder. And he won't be surprised to see a revolution founded on the price of a tortilla.