Sin ellas no hay maíz ni país
Tortillas, firewood, and food sovereignty in rural Mexico
In rural Mexico, the work and knowledge of tortilleras, women who make and sell tortillas in a traditional way, is central to the conservation of agrobiodiversity and traditional foodways. Looking at the wood that fuels the fires used to cook this staple food reveals the intricate relationships between food sovereignty, gender, and energy.
By María Villalpando | Paid subscribers can listen to a version of this piece read by Maria on our podcast.
What makes a good tortilla?
One answer to this question can be found in Mexico’s countryside, where tortilleras — a name given to women devoted to the making and selling of tortillas through traditional methods — turn maize into magic. Tortilleras start by heating grains of maize with lime and water and then rinsing them several times in an hours-long process known as nixtamalization. Then, the maize kernels are grounded using a metate — a special grinding stone — and mixed into dough. Once the dough is ready, the women flatten it by hand into small circles over a comal, a smooth, flat griddle set over an open fire, flipping and turning it until cooked to perfection.
If the work that goes into making tortillas is the backbone of local food systems in peasant communities in Mexico, then women’s knowledge is the beating heart. These women are not cooks, but artisans: they can distinguish between different varieties of maize simply by looking at the colour and texture of the tortilla, and know readily which variety of native maize — blue, purple, red, yellow — is best suited for what type of cooking process. In the countryside, everyone knows that “good” tortillas are those made artisanally by tortilleras; one needs only to taste one of the samples the women often hand out at the market, warm, soft, and crowned with a pinch of salt, to be convinced of that.
The work of tortilleras is crucial for the conservation of heirloom maize in Mexico, the ancestral home of what has now become the world’s largest food crop. In a world where many traditional forms of agriculture have been neglected in favour of monocultures and high-yielding varieties, smallholder and peasant communities in Mexico have managed to weather the flooding of US-grown maize into the market over recent decades. Many continue to grow heirloom maize, cherished for both its nutritional and symbolic value, and rely on these varieties to sustain their livelihoods. Women’s knowledge of traditional maize processing techniques and culinary customs is central to this enactment of food sovereignty, making it possible for these peasant communities to determine the shape and scale of their food system.
The knowledge and cooking skills of tortilleras are not limited to the food itself. The fuel used for the fires that cook their tortillas is also an important factor in their practices. In Mexico’s countryside, the use of fuelwood — wood that is harvested from forests and used to stoke the fires needed to transform maize into tortillas — and food transformation activities cannot be analyzed separately. For more than 28 million people in Mexico, tortilleras included, wood remains a main or secondary fuel. Tortillera women burn more than 25kg of fuelwood over the course of the eight hours per day they spend cooking over open fires.
Its use comes with drawbacks. Fuelwood gathering is time-consuming; women can spend anywhere from thirty minutes up to three hours per day foraging for it. The use of open fires also exposes women to kitchen smoke and toxic pollutants which can cause respiratory and eye damage, lung disease, and even cancer. This exposure is one of the leading causes of illness and premature death in rural Mexico.
For these reasons, mainstream definitions of energy poverty equate the use of firewood to material deprivation. Moving from wood as a source of energy to more modern sources, like liquified petroleum natural gas (LPG), is therefore regarded by many as forward-moving development — progress that should be embraced. In rural areas, LPG has historically been scarce and expensive. Although access to and use of LPG has increased in the past two decades, it has not totally replaced the use of fuelwood. This is because, for the women in Mexico’s countryside, the decision to continue using fuelwood to make tortillas is about more than just price and availability.
The process of using fuelwood to make tortillas is central to cultural traditions, embodied practices, and ways of knowing. “They taste better,” many women will say about their tortillas, in comparison to others cooked in non-traditional ways. They’re proud of the way their maize is grown, cooked and transformed into nutritious food. To assume, then, that tortilleras will swap firewood for more “modern” fuels neglects the importance of their foodways. It also neglects the need to ensure that women have control over the access and management of the natural resources that they work with, ideally in healthy and environmentally sound ways.
The importance of fuelwood to tortilleras’ food practices suggests that in thinking about food sovereignty, we should be looking beyond the right of people to define and control their own agricultural systems and access foods that are healthy, safe, and culturally acceptable. Our conceptualizations of food sovereignty should also include consideration of people’s right to define and control the energy sources that go into food production — fuel sovereignty, if you will. We also need to consider how the use of energy in relation to food is deeply gendered. This directly relates to energy justice — which applies the principles of justice to the energy transition — and indirectly to discussions about agrobiodiversity, which is maintained in part by time-honoured ways of growing and eating.
In the Mexican state of Michoacan, the grassroots group Red Tsiri was born out of the need to support tortillera women’s access to clean sources of energy and to revalue traditional maize cooking practices, which in turn contribute to the conservation of heirloom maize. In 2009, this women-led collective, in collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Group for the Appropriation of Rural Eco-technologies (GIRA in Spanish), developed the Patsari Stove, an improved cookstove that retains heat efficiently while helping to protect both the health of people and the environment. (In the Purépecha language, Patsari refers to the ancient practice of covering embers from the fire with dirt to keep them alive so they can be used to generate a fire the next day.) The Patsari Stove not only allows women to reduce the time they spend gathering wood, but it also reduces their exposure to carbon monoxide and smoke pollutants while maintaining the dimensions and functions of traditional open-air stoves.
The design has proved popular; so far, more than 250,000 rural women in Michoacan have adopted it. The making of the Patsari stove, or similar stoves like the Lorena Stove used in Southern Mexico, has been largely taken up by communities themselves and expanded organically beyond Michoacan. It’s difficult to track how many are actually in use across the country, but this type of stove is serving as one solution to the complex issue of fuelwood use. With them, Mexican women are able to maintain their traditional foodways while also protecting their health and their time, and making more sustainable use of the natural resources needed to fuel their cooking.
We know that food is culture. But the energy used to produce food is culture, too. The centrality of maize and tortillas to life in Mexico’s countryside reveals the complex relationships between fuelwood use and food sovereignty. When we think about how to preserve foodways, we must think about how to support traditional ways of agricultural production. We need to develop fuel alternatives that are safe and efficient, but also sensitive to gender and cultural practices. Powered by fuelwood, tortilleras remain the stewardesses of native maize, allowing communities to benefit from its nutritional benefits and colourful diversity. Sin ellas no hay maíz ni país — without them, no corn nor country.
María Villalpando is a Mexican Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. She is interested in the complexities of rural spaces in Mexico and believes in approaching writing and research as socially committed practices.