Home / General / “Empowerment or Slavery”: Tortillas and Mexican Women’s Labor

“Empowerment or Slavery”: Tortillas and Mexican Women’s Labor


I hate the false dichotomy above, which comes from this interview with the food writer Anya von Bremzen about her new book on national dishes, which includes a chapter on Mexican women and tortilla making .What does “empowerment” even mean, especially in this context, other than women internationally adopting whatever the current ideas of western feminism are? All that said though, having spent more than my share of time in Mexico, there is little question that the making of tortillas is arduous, endless daily labor and that it is exclusively on the backs of women. And for whatever you want to say about said false dichotomy, von Bremzen does get to one key point–the fetishization of “authenticity” in global food culture does indeed mean that we are contributing to maintaining women in a traditional place of hard work where they may not want to reside.

What were the conditions that made maize and tortillas a national dish of Mexico?

It almost happened despite itself. From the time the colonists arrive in Mexico, they’re planting massive amounts of wheat and pushing the maize farmers to the margins. And from that time on, and really until the mid-20th century, the tortilla is associated with backwardness, Indigeneity, and lack of progress, where bread symbolizes whiteness.

But the Indigenous peasants are still making tortillas, and farming survives. And then it really becomes celebrated as something amazing with NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994]. There’s a scare of GMO contamination from U.S. maize, and there are grassroots protests happening against NAFTA. And this is against the backdrop of the Zapatistas protecting Indigenous culture. That’s when you get the slogan “Sin maíz no hay país” — “Without maize there’s no country.”

It appeals to patriotic consumerism, which is also a very important part of creating a national dish and a national cuisine. The idea of Buy Local. But you had these cataclysmic events threatening the heart of Mexico — this invasion, essentially.

Your cuisine doesn’t feel as important unless someone is trying to take it away from you.

You have this globalization and the advent of neoliberal economies in the ’90s. You have it all over the world. So you get all these protectionist organizations and mechanisms, like the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. It’s this urge to say, “This is our patrimony,” and make rules around it. Something is being taken away from you, by globalization, by wars, by NAFTA, by trade agreements that are transnational. And you have this push to defend it.

When did you first start thinking that traditional tortilla production work might not be great for the women doing it?

The first time I lifted the metate. I’m trying to learn how to make tortillas with one of the great local cooks in Oaxaca, and she’s making this taquito del sal, just one of the most basic things. And this was a moment for me in the book to say, Wow, this is such an amazing dish, let’s celebrate it. And instead I’m thinking, Oh, my god, is this what women have to do? Every day?

We’re talking about handmade tortilla production. They do the nixtamal, and they put it to a boil, and they take it to the molino. The molinos are usually run by men, and sometimes they don’t show up, so the women have to wait around. Then you take it home from the mill, and you have to do the metate again for a really smooth dough, which leads to back and knee injuries. And then you start slapping tortillas, and for hours you’re inhaling wood smoke and burning your fingers. When you look at the hands of the Indigenous women, they’re just scarred. I start asking women, “Is the tortilla slavery or empowerment?” And the answers are really surprising, because so many people — so many women — say slavery.

It’s complicated because it’s also empowerment in the family. I asked why they don’t just go and buy the tortillas from professional bakeries, and they said, “My family won’t eat tortillas made by another woman.” So in a way, it’s kind of family power. But on the other hand, they don’t have the time to go to school or do anything outside the home. I asked one question to all the women: “Would you want this for your daughters?” And they all say no — “I’ll do it, but I want my daughter to go to school.”

I talked to a political scientist, Dr. Gloria Zafra, who wrote Mujer, Trabajo y Salud en Oaxaca. And she says, yeah, it’s slavery. But also, what are the women supposed to do? This is grueling labor, but at least 10 women banding together and making and selling tortillas, they’re working for themselves. It’s still a better model for them than working in a shop, where they will probably be discriminated against. I also spoke to activist Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza. She’s trying to get the whole family involved in tortilla production, and get the men to gather firewood at least. She said, “We can’t abandon the tortilla. The women want to make it. But we have to give them respect, we have to try to empower them in other ways. And we have to get the whole community involved.”

As an American, so much of what I hear about food tourism in Mexico is about how life-changing and special a traditionally made tortilla is. As you were saying before, there’s this impetus for the country to promote this national dish and entice people to visit and buy it.

The paradox is not just for the foreign tourists. In Mexico, there’s a whole celebration of heirloom corn for making tortillas. What does it do to the price of the tortilla? Right now, it’s like 10 cents. If it goes up, local people won’t be able to afford it. We’re obsessed with eco-consumerism. And we want to buy well-sourced spices and all this stuff. But once it leaves the community, and it becomes an international object of handcrafted devotion, what happens to the local economies? We think that buying an expensive, heirloom thing will contribute to a local economy, but it creates this false sense of actually doing something for society, when all you’re doing is perpetuating consumerism.

I don’t know what the answer is for how we can help from here. Because it’s really on the level of regional legislation. But suddenly, all of Mexico wants to eat it. There won’t be enough for the Indigenous communities. So what do you do?

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