Itinerant Tacos: A Brief History of Tortilla Factories

The squeaky wheels, the baking corn masa, and the silver behemoth carrying golden circles on a metal conveyor — the sights, sounds, and smells of tortillerías invoke memories of childhood visits to Mexico. However, tortillerías, or tortilla factories, increasingly dot the United States, illustrating a lingering cultural tie to the region south of the border. While a growing number of Americans with Mexican heritage do not speak Spanish, they cling to the culinary history of their abuelas, tías, and neighborhoods as the tortilla conquers new regions and new palates, bridging gender, economics, and public health in the process.1

The 1535 Codex Mendoza depicts a Mexica woman teaching her daughter to grind maize on the metate. The lessons continue with sweeping and weaving. Two tortillas hover over them, referring to rations children received for these tasks. (Codex Mendoza/Bodleian Library of Oxford University)

To understand the cultural importance of tortillas, one must examine the historical significance of the maize disk. Indigenous groups in the Americas, specifically Mesoamerica, relied on corn for sustenance, giving the yellow ears a special place in paintings and wall murals. The Aztecs, or Mexica as they were called, prayed to the goddess of corn, Centeotl, for a healthy harvest. Human relationships underscored the divine character assigned to this grain. Aztec women ruled over the home and often instructed daughters and nieces in how to prepare tortillas. Using slabs of volcanic rock called metates, they demonstrated the grinding down of maize with an equally heavy pestle into a fine dough.

Even during the colonial period (1492-1810), it fell on women to prepare this food staple as best they could. Rural, poor, and indigenous women suffered this labor-intensive process the most. The ritual often began before dawn, as women rose to briefly simmer unpeeled ears of corn. They added a mineral lime, or sometimes ash, to the water in order to ease the removal of the husks and to make digestion of the grain easier. They then ground down the wet ears of corn on the metate, on the floor, producing a white mush at first, then eventually, masa. The masa dough was patted between the hands into a flat disk and then placed on a comal, or griddle, heated by a small fire.2 In a matter of minutes, the hot tortilla could be turned out to be eaten with beans or squash with onions. Until the twentieth century introduced mechanized tortilla-making, generations of Mexicans ate tortillas prepared in this fashion.

Nonetheless, tortillas were not completely embraced by the population in Mexico. The early Spaniards eschewed tortillas, arguing that the consumption of these indigenous foods would turn Europeans tan and dark like the natives. Others distinguished between the foods of the “civilized” versus the “uncivilized.”3 These cultural differences spiraled into regional rifts in culinary heritage.

Northern states, such as those bordering the U.S., preferred wheat flour bread. Historian James Wilkie famously calculated quantitatively the successes and failures of the Mexican Revolution. The ideological goals of the conflict (1910-1946) aimed to provide basics for peasants and indigenous (land, food, and education). Wilkie, however, associated the population who regularly ate corn tortillas, instead of bread, with poverty. He argued that the tortilla signaled a traditional diet tied with backwardness, one hindering “modern civilization” in Mexico.4 Regardless of economic class, Mexicans continued to consume tortillas. (A happy truce was eventually reached with the production of flour tortillas, often a mix of white flour, minimal masa, and a fat, traditionally lard.)

Women attempted to also financially benefit from tortillas, shifting their operations from the home to the street. Tortilleras, or tortilla vendors, set up shop on sidewalks. They arrived with a bucket of home-made masa and began the rapid pat-pat-pat in forming perfect corn disks between their hands. With a child often at their side, they displayed their comal and small fire next to a growing pile of their specialty. Other tortilleras walked the streets while carrying full baskets ready to sell to private homes or passers-by. When the government of President Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) sought to drag Mexico into the twentieth century, it sent public health workers to educate street vendors in germ theory, hygiene, and cleanliness in production — a didactic lesson in domesticity from the patriarchy.

A crew of women selling tortillas and coffee observe new hygiene regulations. (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico)

Women, especially those in growing towns and cities, embraced the mechanization of the tortilla process. Hours, energy, and labor were saved and channeled into other endeavors. Among them, tortillerías came into existence, often headed by or owned by a woman.

After the neoliberal policies of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the 1990s, immigration from Mexico increased dramatically, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center.5 Moreover, these new arrivals settled in non-traditional Latino centers in the U.S., often contending with a lack of tortillas in their supermarket choices. Tortilla factories had long existed in the U.S. Southwest, Texas, and Chicago, yet they soon popped up in new areas of the country.

By 2010, tortillerías contributed to the economies of Kansas City, Baltimore, and parts of the U.S. South. In addition, they often employed local distributors to peddle their products in local supermarkets and convenience stores, adding to their customer base. This is not just a U.S. phenomenon. Paris and Berlin also have tortillerías. Behind many of these ventures, women often work as the primary owners, as in the case of Doña Delfina Solorio in Europe, who was recently profiled by the Univision television show Primer Impacto. Adding to the tortilla tour-de-force, the taco-truck movement has connoisseurs who often comment on Yelp and other review sites about the “freshness” and quality of the tortillas.

Tortillería machine. (Christopher Porter/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

Despite the robust economic contribution of tortillas to the economy in the U.S., diabetes, the scourge of the Latinx community, raises the question of the relationship between this heritage food and public health. The American Diabetes Association recommends in their pamphlet, “Do Latino Foods and Diabetes Mix?,” that patients should go for corn tortillas or whole wheat tortillas over white flour tortillas, once again recalling regional preferences and culinary history.6

The affected community inevitably ponders how long the tie to this heritage food will last. Self-imposed limits on tortilla consumption seem to be the order of the day, as overheard recently in a Northwest Arkansas restaurant. “Basta. Éstas son mis ocho para el día,” or “Enough. These are my eight for the day,” stated a man dismissing his concerned wife with a wave of the hand as he tucked into a giant bowl of menudo with a rolled tortilla in his hand.7

The indelible tie between Mexicans, their descendants, and the tortilla merges the histories of colonialism, public health, and gender. The mixing of these histories, the grinding down on time’s metate, and the burning questions of the griddle create an approach to food and identity, which extend culinary roots in new directions.

Notes

  1. Abuelas are grandmothers; tías are aunts. Return to text.
  2. Jeffrey Pilcher, ¡Que Vivan los Tamales!: Food and the Making of Mexican Identity (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 11-12. Return to text.
  3. Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700, 146-147. Return to text.
  4. James Wilkie, The Mexican Revolution: Federal Expenditure and Social Change since 1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 225-229. Return to text.
  5. Pew Research Center, “Mexican-Born Population in the U.S., 1850-2011,” pewresearch.org. Return to text.
  6. American Diabetes Association, “Do Latino Foods and Diabetes Mix?Return to text.
  7. Menudo, in this context, is a spicy tripe stew, not the Ricky Martin 80’s pop group. Return to text.

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