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The Booming Tortilla Industry in Mexico
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Lorena Garcia
Oblivious to those long lines of people, my friends were trying to decide what to have for lunch. Meanwhile, I was counting the lines -- within a few blocks I counted three.
As we wound our way slowly through the streets, we detected the aroma of freshly made corn tortillas, so I suggested tacos al carbon for lunch.
It was then that my friends realized what I had known all along. These lines form every day throughout México at noon. It is traditional to buy fresh tortillas daily, regardless of the time people have to stand in line.
There are approximately 320 tortillerias (tortilla factories) in Ciudad Juárez, according to Salvador Bañuelos, President of La Cámara Nacional de Producción de Masa y Tortilla. Roughly translated, cámara means "association." Anyone desiring to open a tortilleria must belong to the cámara, and thus all tortillerias are affiliated with the association.
Bañuelos, whose office is above his own tortilleria, described the process of making corn tortillas. These are no preservatives in these corn tortillas, but they still freeze well, maintaining their flavor.
From Bañuelos's office, I could hear the people working in the tortilleria. A large molino or grinder crushes the corn which is then treated with lime, mixed with water and made into masa. The smell of corn, the roar of the machines, the quickness of the workers are not hidden behind walls. If you wish to purchase tortillas, you are treated to the sights and sounds of the entire process. And you can walk out with a kilo (approximately 2 dozen) for about 38 cents or 1,150 pesos.
Mexicans usually buy tortillas de mesa, the larger ones used as bread. Business more often buy tortillas para tacos, the smaller 3-4" product which we would soon enjoy.
In November 1990 the federal government implemented a new program called tortivales (tortillas coupons). Booths are set up throughout México for people to be approved for the program. Bañuelos explained that very low-income people must meet certain guidelines and, if approved, receive these tortivales. Each coupon is good for one free kilo of corn tortillas daily per family. The government then reimburses the owners of tortillerias weekly when they present the coupons at federal offices.
Before this program, the federal government subsidized both the corn and the electricity purchased by the tortillerias. A kilo of tortillas sold for about 900 pesos (about 30 cents), and all income levels benefited from the subsidy, as did foreigners. To eliminate this inequity, the government designed the tortivales.
The program seems to be working out, and in March 1991 the federal government will have given people a permanent card instead of the coupons.
Later as we savored our tacos we discussed the age-old tradition of buying corn tortillas every day. How long have the people of México queued up for their tortillas? We didn't know. But we do know that corn is still the "Mexican staff of life."