The Children of Maseca

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS – Among the smells of flowers, mandarins and fish in the Castillo Tielemans Market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, something is missing.

The smell of nixtamal, fresh corn dough. That tantalizing and familiar smell that once wafted from the pink door of the tortillería La Insurgenta is gone. Former owner Monica Rodriguez closed the shop in August. It was one of the last tortillerías in the city to sell tortillas made from fresh corn, not mass-produced corn flour.

Traditionally, tortillas are made using a time-consuming process passed down through generations. Women cook corn with slaked lime then grind the mixture to make nixtamal, a dense corn dough that is patted by hand into tortillas.

But there’s another, newer, way to make tortillas, one that in the last 20 years has transformed Mexico’s tortilla market. All this new method requires is corn flour and water. Today, 46 percent of the tortillas sold in Mexico are made with corn flour. The largest corn flour producer in the world is Maseca, which controls 71 percent of the market and operates factories in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

Walking down the narrow, cobblestone streets of San Cristóbal, Maseca’s presence is everywhere. In nearly every neighborhood, there is at least one Maseca tortillería, instantly recognizable by its white façade and the yellow and green Maseca corn ear logo. According to figures from the Health Secretary of San Cristóbal, 70 percent of the city’s tortillerías use Maseca.

When Rodríguez decided to open a tortillería that used nixtamal instead of corn flour, she knew that she wasn’t choosing the easy route. “Preparing the masa [from corn] is complicated, and you have to be very careful. Maseca makes life easier,” she says.

Still, Rodríguez says that she wanted to help conserve the tradition of nixtamal tortillas and support Mexican corn growers. She decided to open La Insurgenta after visiting indigenous villages where the cultivation and consumption of corn is an essential part of the culture and lifestyle.

Business was good for a while. Rodríguez bought corn from an indigenous man from Zinacantán and sold up to 100 kilos, or 5,600 tortillas each day to restaurants and a loyal cadre of customers.

But a series of new hygiene laws passed when Mayor Sergio Lobato took office made it difficult for Rodríguez to stay in business. The new laws mandated that all tortillerías have adequate ventilation, chlorinated water and sinks, says Dr. Jesús Miguel Leyva Cervantes, the chief of public health in San Cristóbal.

The new regulations also require tortillería owners to paint the interiors and exteriors of their businesses white and produce medical certificates verifying proper health standards. Tortillerías must also pass periodic health inspections and pay 500 MXP, about $50, for a license.

“We took some health measures in order to safeguard the health of our citizens,” says Leyva Cervantes. Yet, the Public Health Department would not comment on why other food and food retail businesses are not held to the same regulations and health standards as tortillerías now are.

Rodríguez spent 20,000 pesos, $2,000, to comply with the new standards. She looked for a partner to help share the costs, but could not find one.

Other tortillería owners got some help. Eduardo Rique León Yveles, owner of the Tortillería la Única uses Maseca products. He says that the company sent representatives who painted the walls for him and gave him a good deal on the equipment he had to buy in order to meet the new codes.

León Yveles says that business is booming, thanks to Maseca. He sells approximately 300 kilograms, about 16,800 tortillas, per day. He adds that he doesn’t buy fresh corn because it is hard to find and has a short shelf life.

This isn’t the first time allegations have been made that government regulations and influence are involved in persuading business owners to use Maseca. According to sources with first-hand knowledge of Maseca, the company’s rise throughout the 1980s and early 1990s wasn’t exactly luck.

In the late 1980s, Maseca was a small corn-flour manufacturer struggling to find a market for its product. According to articles in The New York Times and other news outlets, while Maseca offered an easier alternative to making tortillas from scratch, many Mexican consumers disliked the taste of Maseca’s corn flour.

But despite the unpopular product, many alledge that it was the relationship between Maseca’s chief owner, Roberto González Barrera, and former Mexican President Carlos Salinas, that put Maseca on the map.

During his presidency in the early 1990s, Salinas’s brother Raul served as a government food distribution officer. According to a recent article in Grist Magazine, Raul was said to have promoted Maseca to the point that other tortilla makers were forced out of business. According to a article by Anthony DePalma of The New York Times in 1996, Raul’s agency “signed an accord with Mr. González [of Maseca] in which the rules of the market were fundamentally changed. The agreement froze the amount of corn that would be given to traditional tortilla makers and declared that all growth in the market be filled by corn flour. At the time the only producers of corn flour were the government itself, and Maseca.”

Raul was later arrested on charges of plotting the murder of his ex-brother-in-law, Pepe Ruiz Massieu, and, in January 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison for the crime.

Today, many suggest that the same pro-Maseca government principles are at work with the new health code regulations aimed at tortillerías. Maseca offices in Chiapas and Nuevo Leon did not return phone calls to comment on this article. Similarly, Maseca’s U.S.-based parent company, Gruma, did not respond to repeated inquiries for comment.

While much of the information about government relations with Maseca remains tangled in hearsay, it is a documented fact that more tortillerías have opened since the tortilla market was deregulated and free-market pricing took hold. Most of these new tortillerías use Maseca products because they are easily obtainable, have a long shelf life and the company provides support to their buyers.

Still, there are reasons some choose not to use Maseca. In 2003, environmental groups led by Greenpeace, raised concerns about the safety of Maseca after conducting a study that showed the presence of genetically modified corn in their flour. The cultivation of genetically modified corn is illegal in Mexico. Maseca imports 30 percent of their corn from the United States, where the practice is allowed.

Rodríguez says she still believes in traditional practices using Mexican corn, but the strict health regulations and lack of a partner forced her to close La Insurgenta. “I kept it open for a year. I had frequent clients. But I couldn’t do it alone,” she says.

Originally published 2006 PIWDW