Women of maize, ancestral wisdom against an industry that sickens

To defend maize you have to plant it but also cook it, only then can you know its true flavor.

In Mexico City, less and less native maize is eaten, since processed corn flour has monopolized everything.

Facing a million-dollar industry, there are still women who know about native maize and above all know about its transformation from nixtamalization.

They defend the cornfield, its nutritional values ​​and above all the ancestral way of cooking and eating native corn. 

Portrait of Francisca, grandmother of Monserrat Vázquez, with her native maize harvest in the patio of her house.

By Anaiz Zamora Márquez and Greta Rico 

Despite its rush to modernize and standardize its food with the rest of the world, Mexico City still has kitchens with unbeatable smells, which evoke firewood and childhood memories. In these kitchens there is an ingredient that continues to be the protagonist: maize. Recipes are heritage and have a link with the territories. 

Cooking maize is serious business. You have to know what it needs to grow and how long it will take. Identify its color and smell to know if it is ready. Recognize its ability to transform, that kind of alchemy dominated by women who, just by listening to the pot, can distinguish the exact point of cooking, or by putting a grain between their teeth they know if it will become tortillas or something else.

The wisdom of these women has resisted political decisions, trade agreements and culinary fashions that try to erase the legacy that lives in their hands. In a city where a quarter of those who live there face a condition of food insecurity, this wisdom feeds more than their families.

“Without corn there are no tortillas, and without tortillas there is no country, but who makes the tortillas?” asks Ivonne Vizcarra Bordi with an ironic laugh Ivonne has dedicated a good part of her academic life to studying the relationship between women and the field, and especially with maize, the basis of food, but above all, with Mexican nutrition. And nurturing the family, says Ivonne, Doctor in Anthropology, “is a practice that occurs from feminine intuition.”

In traditional agriculture, women know “how the cob comes, if it is chopped, and from there you know if the grain is going to be used to feed animals or for dough. The best seeds are saved; they are for the coming harvest,” explains Ivonne, who worked for several years exchanging knowledge with native Mazahua women who “make tortillas.”

Tortilla maker Master

Monserrat Vázquez's kitchen takes up almost an entire floor. There are days when it extends to the patio. It is her workplace and her laboratory for gastronomic experiments. There she built her project Nixcomea family micro-business dedicated to planting, cultivating, harvesting and transforming native maize seeds.

Monse, as she is affectionately called, studied at a Gastronomy school, but she learned about corn and nixtamal from her grandmother and mother, from her Mazahua roots. She could define herself as a businesswoman, farmer or workshop owner, but she decides to call herself a “tortilla maker master.” A claim that, he assures, is not easy to assume in a city that discriminates against those who smell like dough or smoke, a city that, no matter how much it loves tacos, relegates the few tortilla makers that remain and that generally satisfies their demand of tortillas in one of the more than 5 thousand tortillerias - places where you can buy tortillas - that exist. 

In the Nixcome product catalog you can find colored tortillas, made from blue and purple or white nixtamalized maize, mixed with nopal, chili and beetroot.

“Working maize as such involves a lot of creativity, a lot of passion and a lot of patience, making tortillas doesn't just mean working the dough and throwing the tortillas on the comal (special pan for cooking tortillas). I believe that it goes further and is a topic that is little talked about, (to) make tortillas you must work, from recognizing a good corn seed, doing a good nixtamalization, a good rest, a good grinding, a good kneading and to be able to make a good tortilla,” says Monse with her low voice. Between giggles and eyes full of tears, she adds that her project is also a way to honor her grandmother and all the women who know a lot, but are little valued. 

Her kitchen always smells like corn and is located in Cuajimalpa, very close to Santa Fe, one of the most exclusive areas of Mexico City. It is full of utensils to transform the dough, some family heirlooms and others built by her father.

Monse's hands prepare the nixtamalized purple maize dough to make tortillas.

Monse spent time in other kitchens, one in which sushi was prepared, another where the specialty was international dishes and one more where coffee was served. There, she learned about the struggle of coffee growers for fair prices without intermediaries. She understood what she saw as a child, when her grandmother, because she was Mazahua and a peasant, “was punished by prices” every time she went to Toluca to sell the products of her milpa and the tortillas she made.

“Every day we eat tortillas, but we value them very little. We know that they are in the center of the table at least three times a day, but we don't know who is behind that tortilla, we don't know how many people benefited (with its preparation) or what varieties of corn were used," says Monse, who is self-taught.

Monse and her grandmother Francisca visit the field where they planted native maize for this year's harvest. They do not use pesticides or herbicides. They carry out agroecological planting that involves working by hand to uproot the grass, and that does not take away nutrients from the maize, bean and squash that they planted last May. 

Tortilla, battlefield

“Nowadays we call anything a tortilla,” says Monse, although she believes that the “handmade tortilla” is the only one that should exist and is made with only three ingredients: water, lime and corn. Because although it is historical, the tortilla is no longer what it was before, nor is it prepared the same.

When the food industry began to sell corn flour, the government established the Official Mexican Standard 187(NOM 187),which establishes the sanitary specifications that the dough, tortillas, toasts and flours prepared for their production must meet, and there it defined the tortilla as a “product made with dough that can be mixed with optional ingredients, subjected to cooking” and among the ingredients it lists there are additives, such as artificial colors and flavorings. For example, Monse modifies the color of her tortillas by varying the type of corn so it maintains its nutritional value.

An investigation carried out by Empower Journalism exposed how the tortilla industry is far from traditional kitchens and dough-making processes, and therefore, from providing nutritious foods. In fact, NOM 187 continues to be the subject of dispute.

As part of her activism, Monse holds tortilla tastings, where people learn to differentiate the flavors and nutrients of tortillas made with nixtamalized maize and tortillas made with processed flours that may contain genetically modified corn. 

Minsa and Maseca, the later part of the Mexican Gruma consortium, were born in 1949 and have exploited the love for tortillas ever since. Both companies assure that the tortillas made with their flour, in addition to being “whiter,” are more nutritious, although the Alliance for Food Health – a group of people, civil associations and social organizations concerned about the epidemic of overweight and obesity in Mexico, and malnutrition – assures the opposite,as does the x-ray carried out by the NGO Consumer Power. 

However, the reach of both companies is such that, although they supposedly only contribute 30 percent of the corn production for the tortillerias, they have the power to regulate the price of tortillas throughout the country and to impose the idea of the whiter and the longer it lasts, the better. 

From Nixcome, Monse tries to fight against the discourses established for decades about what a tortilla should be like. To begin with, they are not white, since corn is never uniform. And although you weigh each ball of dough to try to match the consistency, shape and size of the tortillas, the result depends on the force with which you flatten the dough, how many times you pass it through your hands, and even if the flame of your comal is too high or if they break a little when you put them on the fire. 

Ivonne Vizcarra remembers that women have always thrown tortillas and “saved the day with their nixtamal,” with that they managed to feed entire troops, but “there was a colonial practice of saying that the tortilla is poor people's food, and that comes from the arrival of foods that are not native to Mexico.” According to the academic, this explains why a lot is presumed about traditional cuisine, but little ise about its processes.

The art of nixtamal

Fewer and fewer people know what a kitchen smells like when nixtamal is put on, especially if it is with firewood, like the one Monse provides. It is a scent that permeates, that evokes memories of warm moments. The smell of smoke mixes with the smell of maize, which becomes stronger when the water begins to boil. During the process, the maize changes consistency, color, rises to the surface of the pot, already stained by lime, because to transform maize, it is not enough to boil it, that would only soften it, lime is what makes everything fit.

If making tortillas is an art, making nixtamal is even more so. To do this, the senses are used. Monse can't remember how many times she has messed up while learning. And although it seems that she already masters it, she doesn't trust herself. “It is never the same amount of water, nor the same amount of lime. It depends on the density of the grain. You have to try for example, pink corn in particular is very much destined for pinoles (a traditional flour used for beverages), because they are maize that is a little sweeter, more mealy, so nixtamalizing them is a little more complicated, they need less amount of lime".

In nixtamalization, in addition to physical changes, “chemical changes occur, the lime penetrates the corn and then manages to break down these proteins that the body cannot process. If we do not nixtamalize, we will not obtain calcium, there will be no essential amino acids, there will be no vitamins, or phosphorus,” explains Monse. 

Ana Larrañaga does not use nixtamal in her kitchen, but she knows about it. She studied Nutrition, did her Master's Degree in Food and Development, and has been working on promoting food policies for several years. She explains that through comparative studies, we know that nixtamalization improves the availability of absorption of a product that in itself is already nutritious. 

There is a concept of nutrition called “bioavailability”, which refers to the ability of our body to absorb nutrients, “Nutrition is an external process, we do not choose how and what nutrients we absorb and where they go, so you see on a package that has a nutrient, but it does not necessarily mean that your body will have the ability to absorb and use it.”

Much of Ana's work focuses on ensuring that people not only eat, but are nourished, and to do so, they must know the decisions that are made behind food policies. There is a trend – she explains – for light products that has reached tortillas, but “What are you going to take away from the tortilla if it should be only maize? If you only go by calories, you are not taking into account the full load of nutrients that a tortilla does have: fiber, calcium, zinc, magnesium. It is also very low in sodium, that is, it is not a food that should be considered to cause any weight or health problems.”

However, in products made with industrialized corn flour, even if the packaging says “nixtamalized,” it is not the same. According to the Alliance for Food Health,in traditional nixtamalization, it is allowed to rest for up to 18 hours, while Maseca does it for a maximum of 6 hours. Furthermore, it is not possible to know what else is added to speed up the process.

Thanks to the nixtamalization process, 30 times more calcium can be obtained from maize. One of the easiest ways to identify if a tortilla has been nixtamalized is that it changes color when you add a few drops of lemon. 

"In reality, (companies) are not obliged as such to nixtamalize, precisely because enforcement of the rules in Mexico has been a little insufficient. Currently there is interest in doing greater monitoring, but the reality is that there is a regulatory capacity that is still very limited for all the points of sale that these large industries have,” says Ana.  

The more than 110,000 tortilla factories that exist throughout the country and all the companies that sell corn flour are monitored by the same institution: Cofepris, but to carry out this monitoring a complaint is necessary. Between 2012 and 2022, Cofepris carried out only seven NOM monitoring and verification visits of the NOM187.

Transgenic corn 

“When the tortillas are placed in the center of the table, the food is ready,” says Ivonne Vizcarra, and in Monse's house, that is a rule. They come out warm, wrapped in a napkin, and whoever eats them notices that they taste “different”, they actually taste as they should taste: maize. But the common thing is that corn flour tortillas arrive in most homes. The one that now also wants a place at the table is transgenic corn.

Resistance to transgenic corn is not new. It began in the indigenous peoples and communities that defend their seeds and their territories, and reached the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, which in 2021 ratified a precautionary measure granted to a collective action lawsuit filed in 2013. 

To the already limited monitoring capacity carried out by Cofepris on nixtamalization, one more task was recently added:to monitor, together with the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt, by its acronym in Spanish) through “the analytical strengthening of the National Reference Laboratory”, that transgenic corn is not used in the dough and the tortilla.

During this six-year term, resistance has become more present. In February of this year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree to prohibit transgenic corn in masa and tortilla, and with this began a fight with the government of the United States, the main exporter of the grain, to which Canada also joined.Consequently, in July the Ministry of Health presented the “Draft Modification of NOM 187”, which explicitly prohibits the use of this type of corn for the production of tortillas.

One of the most common native maize in the Milpa Alta mayorship is red maize. Each year, families select the best seeds that have been with them for generations, for annual planting. In this area, farmers make milpa and grow pesticide-free agroecological crops.

Alma Pineyro, considers blue maize atole (another traditional beverage made out of maize) her favorite dish with the ingredient. Shehas dedicated much of her research as a Doctor of Science to the understanding of transgenics, above all, to know “what we are putting into our bodies.” In addition to looking at the food of Mexico City from an academic interest, she lives there. 

Native maize in the city is scarce, there are production problems, “We don't get what is produced in the rural area of ​​the city, (we have problems) especially with supply,” says Alma. Much of the corn that arrives for consumption comes from the north of the country and a large amount from the United States and Argentina. More than 17 million tons

While much of the corn that is imported is used to feed livestock, which is ultimately converted into meat for human consumption, much of it goes to dough production. Alma explains that the United States leads the production of genetically modified crops, so it is a reality that this corn is entering Mexico and our bodies. 

In a study in which she participated together with fellow researchers, the presence of transgenic sequences in tortilla dough in the state of Michoacán was analyzed, and transgenes were detected in 30 percent of the samples. The study was also carried out on tortillas from Mexico City and, although the results have not been published, Alma anticipates that these laboratory tests are also positive.  

Since maize is loved so much in the kitchens of Mexico, it is eaten in many presentations, but since rush is a constant in the kitchens, preference is given to packaged presentations, ready to eat and with a longer shelf life: tortillas, tostadas, tortilla chips, etc. 

In the studies in which Alma has participated, the presence of transgenic genes has also been found in these products. Another way in which transgenic corn reaches kitchens is in yogurts, soft drinks, cereals or soups, since they include a key ingredient: high fructose corn syrup made in the United States.

In the Nixcome workshop in Cuajimalpa, in addition to tortillas, Monse prepares sopes, tlacoyos, tamales and gorditas based on native nixtamalized maize. 

Since transgenic corn entered the world's kitchens, research has been carried out to understand its impact on the body, but according to Alma's vision, “the safety tests were done in such a way that they were going to come out negative.” That is, there were studies of feeding GMOs in rats, but since they did not drop dead immediately, they assumed that it was not toxic. However there is no study that considers the way we consume maize in Mexico: every day of our life. 

Alma explains that they added a gene from a bacteria to the transgenic corn, which makes it immune to glyphosate, a high-spectrum herbicide that is used in these crops to kill all the plants around it. “The herbicide formulations are made so that it penetrates the plant tissue. This means that you cannot wash the herbicide away from the transgenic plants that resist it. They are absorbing it.”

And what sets off the real alarm bells is glyphosate, since it has been identified as having significsntimpacts on health. Countries such as Canada, England or Scotland have prohibited its use.In the recent forum “Damage and health risks from consumption of transgenic corn and international regulation”, organized by Conacyt, different investigations were presented that covered the topic, such as that of Dr. Andre Leu, who collaborated in a study that identified that the glyphosate is related to the increase in cancer and autism..

Trendy food systems 

What exists and happens in a kitchen is not accidental. What we eat is related to the place we live, or at least it was before. But what happens in a kitchen also responds to political decisions, market bets and created trends.

To explain that what we eat may seem like a free decision, although in reality it depends on many factors. Ana Larrañaga uses the concept "food system," which integrates all the links that pass between the production of a food until its consumption. That is, “its transportation, storage, packaging, how it is offered in the market, in which markets, how it is advertised, aspects of hygiene, maintenance and quality of the food.”

Food is a strongly political process, it depends on decisions that are made at many levels. For example, the costs, and whether people have the financial or time resources to acquire it. It also influences what we are told we should eat and how what we eat should look like.

To make the most of their agricultural land, Laura's family planted fruit trees and nopales (cactus trees). This type of edible cactus is one of the basic ingredients of gastronomy in Mexico. 

Since her training as a nutritionist, Ana identified the existence of constant messages and very strong advertisements about how healthy packaged products supposedly are; “On your cell phone you will see advertising for a large number of products. It is now part of the normal landscape. You are driving through Periférico, or Circuito, - two of the biggest avenues in the city - and you see billboards displaying soft drinks, the new potatoes that are now blue in color, but I have never seen a spectacular one over the milpa.”

According to the Report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, Mexico City is the most expensive region in the world to eat a healthy diet, as doing so costs almost half of the minimum wage. According to Profeco (Federal Consumer Protection Agency), the basic shopping cart (21 products) in the country's capital is the most expensive, costing 1,733 pesos, while the minimum wage is 5,186.10 pesos per month. 

However, a UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) studystates that it is a myth. According to its analysis, eating a healthy diet is just as expensive as consuming ultra-processed, high-calorie products with no nutritional value. If you do the math correctly, eating maize is not expensive, but in the City there is a tendency to make us believe that it is cheaper to eat packaged things, even though on repeated occasions we have been warned about the health risk of industrially processed foods.

Ivonne Vizcarra, from her feminist research on maize, considers that there are two consumption models in Mexico City, the one that is gaining ground is the one operated by industrial companies. The other is supported by peasant people with indigenous roots, who work more, but are valued less, especially for the contributions of women, which are made invisible, and that "is a great structural violence." 

Food sovereignty in the city

April and May are harvest months for broad beans and young peas in Tlalpan, one of the mayorships in the south of Mexico City. During those months, in Laura Flores Rodríguez's kitchen, those ingredients, which are part of the family harvest, become protagonists. Lau, as her family call her, is a lawyer and a farmer, and divides her day between both professions. In the mornings, very early, she goes to the field, sometimes it is time to weed, reseed or simply to keep an eye on the crop. On those trips to the family plots, she harvests what is already ready for the day's meal.

In a traditional way and for generations, Laura's family has made milpa. In the image, Laura arranges the maize leaves rolled up by the beans and holds the first fresh maize of the season.

For Lau, eating is a political and economic act. Her cuisine confronts a system that has modified consumer habits, “We are at a time when, if I am a transnational, I say what you eat, it doesn't matter where you live, we are all going to have juice and cereal for breakfast.” Instead, breakfasts at her house are based on the area's agricultural calendar. In May, instead of orange juice, pear tea is served. There is no packaged corn cereal, but there are bean sopes with nopales (cactus) and cheese. A pampering breakfast, with a different flavor every day.

In San Miguel Xicalco, the community where the Flores Rodríguez family lives and farms, they have a panoramic view of Mexico City. In her almost 40 years, Lau has witnessed how the urban area has grown, largely due to displacement towards the peripheries. The spaces for agriculture have been reduced because despite being considered conservation and agricultural land, where before there was maize, now there are houses.

Panoramic view of Mexico City from Laura's land in San Miguel Xicalco, in the Tlalpan mayorship. 

She and her family live in another possible world, materializing food sovereignty in the city. “It is important not only to have the land, but to continue working on it, since it has to do with the issue of identity, obviously, (but also) to be certain that the maize that we consume is maize that is feeding us. The majority of the city actually doesn't know what they are eating, (informing us about what we eat) that is a political act.”

“You add three bean seeds, then you take a small step, and you add three squash seeds,” explains Laura as she opens the soil with her foot and takes the seeds out of a grocery bag. Now she can teach other people how to plant, but it wasn't always like that. As a child, she went to the countryside but she didn't like it. It wasn't her job to plant. She and the rest of the women in the family, including her mother, had to bring food to her father and the other men in the house.

During the planting season, between March and May, in the Mexico City conservation zone, blue, red, white and yellow native maize seeds were sown with native beans of different colors and textures.

For many years, Laura believed in the idea that the countryside was not a destination to pursue, and that it was best to look for a future in the paved city. Then she did not proudly say that she was from San Miguel Xicalco as she does now, she wanted another life and that led her to study Law at UNAM. 

But perhaps she didn't imagine living off the land because no one taught her how to use the necessary tools to work it. She didn't know how to separate seeds or harvest. She was also not sure if she was going to inherit the land. Her story is not unique, land ownership has always been in the hands of men, data from the National Agrarian Registry shows this, only 27 percent of those who own the land in Mexico are women (2022).

When Laura was a child, only the men in the family worked in the fields. Since she decided to dedicate herself to agriculture, she encourages the entire family to do these activities regardless of gender. In the image, Laura and her family plant maize and make milpa in San Miguel Xicalco, in the Tlalpan mayorship in Mexico City, in April 2023.

Someone who also speaks about this disparity, from the stories she has heard and from the academy, is Ivonne Vizcarra. Through her research, she seeks to make visible what has always been there: the role of women in rescuing maize, through the activities they carry out and not through speeches. "We do not want to recognize that behind a love story for maize, there is also a structure of darkness in women, they take great refuge in giving and caring, but inside, they cultivate a resistance to wanting something different”.

That wanting something more, which took Laura to university, paradoxically returned her to the territory. She wanted to be a lawyer because her father had been actively participating for several years in the process of recognition of San Miguel Xicalco as a community, a conflict that arose after the agrarian distribution. 

The history of her family was present in her classes: “studying makes you understand many things, that is when you begin to realize the value that the land has, but in addition, the necessary value that the land has in the city, that you have (the power) of having your own food, that is appropriate to your culture, that was when my love for the land awakened.”

As part of the activities of the agricultural cycle, Laura and her brother Tomás visit one of the fields where they planted native maize and made milpa. A month after planting, they monitor the seeds to make sure they have germinated. Where they haven’t, they try to plant again. 

It took a lot of time and even more work, but Laura decided that the land, food sovereignty and being proud to be a farmer was her life choice. She returned to her family and suggested that they go back to work in the fields and that's what happened. They started planting carnations (flowers), but they realized that it was not a good investment. After trying other crops that did not give enough yield, they realized that the answer was always there: maize, but only as a companion with the milpa.

The milpa

To say “milpa” is to name the perfect companions of maize: squash, purslane, chilies, beans, broad beans and even fruits. The combination of crops helps it grow better, take better advantage of the nutrients in the soil, and even sunlight. These companions also help it to further deploy its power: that of being a highly nutritious food. These are big words, not only because it has been recognized as an Agricultural Heritage System of World Importance,but also because it is a complex system, which “you have to know” and, above all, work on.

Each region of the country has a different maize because the climatic and altitude conditions influence it. Exactly the same thing happens with the milpa, it is different and has different components depending on where it is planted, but regardless of where it occurs, the products that grow there provide diversity of foods and nutrients that the body needs. Entire families, even several members, have historically fed on it. 

Planting milpa is diversity, and guarantees food needs throughout the year. “From here we eat, everything is fresh, and what is left over is what we sell,” says Laura while showing off the squash flower she just cut. It's not yet 9 in the morning and her first day journey is already over.

In the milpa, not everything grows at the same time and not everything gives the same amount. The maize is planted first, because it is the column,. When it begins to germinate and is replanted, where it is not going to grow, something else is planted, it could be broad beans, or beans. You have to make sure to leave enough space between seeds. Next comes squash, maybe a chili, green beans and peas, which curiously are the fastest growing. Purslanes grow alone, they like humidity and sun. The long squash takes a little longer to grow, but as it does, it produces an orange flower, one of the favorite ingredients in a mexican quesadilla. 

“Milpa system” or “polyculture” are other ways in which the milpa is named, which, like Laura's, can include cactus, leaves for tea, fruit trees and even medicinal plants. The cornfields are also friendly to backyard animals that are sometimes integrated into the system – chickens, pigs, hens, sheep, they are fed using that intelligent method developed in pre-Hispanic times, and from which many of the recipes for what we call “Mexican food.”

However, fewer and fewer people plant milpas, because it is a lot of work. Once the corn has been planted, you can no longer use machines to sow the rest, you have to do it by hand, with your arms, bend down, step carefully between the furrows so as not to damage the other seeds. Peasant agriculture takes time, something we lack in the city.

The milpa is not only grown corn, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes and chili are also planted. In addition, huitlacoche, quelites, romeritos and pumpkin flower grow in the cornfield. Photograph of Laura's family's cornfield in June 2023.

The milpa is not only grown corn, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes and chili are also planted. In addition, huitlacoche, quelites, romeritos and pumpkin flower grow in the cornfield. Photograph of Laura's family's cornfield in June 2023.

But when it is possible to bring products from the milpa to a kitchen, it means having very good quality food that provides the diversity necessary for a healthy diet, says Ana Larrañaga, since one of the fundamental components of an optimal diet is variety, which is not only obtained by mixing food groups, but occurs in what is produced naturally in each context.

“All natural foods have a different quantity and variety of nutrients such as vitamins or minerals and well, a varied diet (does not mean) thinking about I have to consume so many grams of this and so many grams of that, because the same variety will suit you to offer all the nutrients that your body needs, it is going to offer you a little bit of everything,” explains Ana.

In2010, UNESCO declared the Mediterranean diet as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity to promote its consumption, but this declaration does not recognize regional biodiversity, as it is a diet that includes ingredients that are produced in another geographic region, which makes it more

On the other hand, following the “milpa diet” has always been possible for those who live in Mexican territory. Ana recently participated in the review of the Ministry of Health's dietary recommendations guide, which already includes foods that are not foreign to us: atole, pozol, quintoniles, avocado and even pulque. It is, in some way, an invitation to stop thinking that the milpa is “poor people's food.”

Standardize our kitchens

“Peasant work has nothing to do with being rich, being poor, it is an issue of nutrition,” says Laura. In her kitchen, she invented recipes so that the month's harvest has different flavors. When she was a child, her neighbors' kitchens were similar, but now they include store-bought items. “They add tuna and mayonnaise to the peas and eat them with crackers instead of tortillas, to have a more modern image, (traditional food) was lost with this concept, that beans, quelites are for poor people. And meat, well, it is synonymous with purchasing power.”

Next to Laura's dining room there is a shelf with pots, casseroles, plates and clay cups that she uses to make food, not only for her home, but also for sale. Doing the entire process, from planting to transforming the cornfield products, creates a different connection with what they eat. “When you make the tortilla, it has a different meaning than buying it at the store.” The link we have with food becomes increasingly diffuse when there is an industrial process, labels and packages in the middle.

In addition to products derived from the milpa, Laura's family also grows lettuce, arugula, chard, cilantro and some other vegetables that they market in local agroecological consumption networks. In the image, Laura arranges her products in a cafe in Colonia Condesa in Mexico City where she makes deliveries. 

In her kitchen, which is not in Tlalpan but in the south of the city, what academic Ivonne Vizcarra most enjoys preparing are enfrijoladas, a recipe that is also inspired by the milpa. Although on a smaller scale than Laura, she tries to have this type of diet, which is not the most popular, because “there is a tendency to standardize everything, to tell us not only what to eat, but also how it should look. Every time we reduce the variability because we want to look like the other.”

Betting on the rescue of Mexican food is also a bet on resistance. Ivonne does not like culinary trends, because they take us to a world where everyone has to like the same thing, there has to be the same foods all the time. “The standardization of lifestyles is one of the highest risk threats to the loss of food biodiversity.” A threat to kitchens where mornings still smell like atole or chocolate.

The native maize cacahuacintle is planted in high altitudes with low temperatures, such as the mountains of Tlalpan. It is used for dishes such as pozole, and is the most anticipated by the people of Mexico City, as it is highly consumed during the month of September.

We live in a system that is based on consumption, and Laura knows that. Her products are agroecological, that is, they are grown and harvested with ancestral and traditional techniques, no chemicals or industrial processes are used, but to market them, she uses fashionable terminology, in which agroecological and traditional is known as "organic", although using that term already costs money as a label, since they are certificates granted by the Organic Certification Body. These agencies put rural people at a competitive disadvantage who, despite carrying out a 100% natural process, cannot pay for the certificates. 

Laura recognizes that her kitchen and her project are part of a system that “creates markets.” She celebrates that there is now an intention to put the word ancestrality in menus and restaurant descriptions, as she considers that it is naming what has always been there, but the knowledge is not new, the interest in it is. 

Food as a commodity and not as a right

To season something is to make sure that it will taste good. When something is well seasoned there is an unbeatable smell. There is a phrase that says that food enters through the eyes and it is true. But we believe in it so much that there are standards for how fruits and vegetables “should look” when we buy them. The tomatoes should be red, even, perfect oval, the squash straight, the mangoes without dark spots. No bump should be seen. The reality of real food is that their products are not the same, “they grow as they grow.” 

The rule of how they should look causes supermarkets to throw away hundreds of foods. In Mexico City alone, between 13 and 14 thousand tons of food are wasted every day simply because they do not meet beauty or size standards. Nature is irregular, fruits and vegetables will always be that way.

Mariana Jiménez, director of Strategic Alliances and Innovation of the Network of Food Banks of Mexico, affirms that if we recovered only 50% of what was thrown away, we could guarantee one hundred percent of the Mexican population in extreme poverty a healthy and varied diet. “In addition, let us remember that when we waste food, we also waste the resources with which it was produced, such as water, energy and also human resources.”

Feeding a city of almost 10 million inhabitants is not easy. The sale of food is based on an unequal system. You can buy processed products in more than 84 thousand grocery stores and in a large chain of supermarkets, which also offer vegetables and fruits that are purchased at the Central de Abastos, a space where merchandise from all over the country arrives. The Central supplies approximately 80% of the city's food consumption with more than 2 thousand vendors. In this mass of intermediaries, the local and direct treatment was diluted quite some time ago.

Ana Larrañaga has made several observations about this system where “food is seen, not as a right, but as a commodity.” From her point of view as a nutritionist, a diet based on local products, in addition to having health benefits, allows food to not become more expensive due to the use of intermediaries. 

"The food crises that we face in the cities," reveals Ana, "are not necessarily due to a lack of food or a lack of production, or because there was a bad harvest year, they are because people cannot buy food, because the objective of these food systems is not to guarantee the human right to food, if that was the objective, then they would have a completely different food supply.”

In an ideal world, what happens in kitchens should have a relationship with their contexts and territories to guarantee food justice, even in large cities, like Mexico City, where the milpa is possible not as a dream, but as a reality that resists and nourishes. Alma, Ana and Laura, are women of the maize, who inhabit another possible city.   

Learn more maize stories:

Native maize, the inhabitant of Mexico City who resists eviction

The agricultural cycle of native maize and how it is affected due to climate change.

About maize, we must continue talking