Hearts of Corn

When the Tsot­sil Maya peo­ple of south­ern Mex­ico’s cloud forests mi­grate to the city to work, they bring their food tra­di­tions with them

SAVEUR - - Contents - BY KATE HILL

Tsot­sil la­bor­ers travel hun­dreds of miles to work, bring­ing along the com­fort­ing foods that sus­tain them

The Tsot­sil Maya call them­selves the peo­ple of the corn. It grows read­ily in their home, in the foggy cloud forests of Chi­a­pas in south­ern Mex­ico, the lush high­lands in which their an­ces­tors grew the grain for thousands of years be­fore the first Euro­peans ar­rived. Ac­cord­ing to Mayan cre­ation be­liefs, hu­mans were made from corn it­self—white corn for men, yel­low for women.

Ear­lier this year, I vis­ited a group of Tsot­sil, far from their ru­ral home­land, in the cen­tral city of Puebla, 65 miles south­east of Mex­ico City. They are an in­dige­nous peo­ple who still speak their own lan­guage and main­tain much of their ru­ral way of life, but have come north tem­po­rar­ily with their fam­i­lies to work, per­haps to help pay med­i­cal bills or build a small ce­ment-block house at home. When they make the 18-hour bus jour­ney to this sprawl­ing city of 3.5 mil­lion, they don’t carry much, but they do bring their food tra­di­tions. Life is very dif­fer­ent here, where the Tsot­sil women must shop the lo­cal mar­kets for fresh corn and find a lo­cal mo­linero, or grinder, to make fresh masa for tamales and tor­tillas.

I had come as a guest of Yo’on Ixim, a small school and com­mu­nity cen­ter on a side street in the Loma bar­rio, to work with the women and help them share their sto­ries and food tra­di­tions in a small cook­book. Yo’on Ixim be­gan as a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Ros­alina Ordóñez, a Tsot­sil woman, and Sa­man­tha Greiff, a Mex­i­can-amer­i­can born in Puebla. When they met in 2013, Ordóñez was sell­ing chew­ing gum on a busy street cor­ner. She spoke lit­tle Span­ish and could nei­ther read nor write it. But soon, th­ese two very dif­fer­ent women with barely a com­mon lan­guage were work­ing to­gether— Greiff teach­ing Ordóñez Span­ish, Ordóñez teach­ing Greiff enough Tsot­sil vo­cab­u­lary to learn about their cul­ture and life.

Five years later, Yo’on Ixim has be­come a real school, with black­boards and cubby holes, three salaried teach­ers, a hand­ful of vol­un­teers, and 60 stu­dents, from age 4 to 38. Lo­cated in the same poor neigh­bor­hood where the fam­i­lies live when they are in Puebla, it is also a com­mu­nity cen­ter and co­op­er­a­tive, where Tsot­sil women—typ­i­cally un­schooled and mar­ried by 14—can study and work to­gether on in­tri­cately hand-em­broi­dered gifts and weav­ings to sell at the tourist mar­kets and on­line. Yo’on Ixim means “heart of corn,” a re­minder that we are what we eat. My ar­rival co­in­cided with an end-of-term cel­e­bra­tion, and the school­room had been re­pur­posed for an af­ter­noon of mak­ing hun­dreds of blue corn tor­tillas on a coal­heated co­mal (grid­dle).

In Puebla, the men and boys eas­ily blend in, with their mod­ern clothes, but the Tsot­sil women wear their na­tive blusas—blouses of hand­wo­ven fabric, la­bo­ri­ously em­bel­lished with heavy black wool and fine, col­or­ful me­tal­lic threads—over long black em­broi­dered skirts, se­cured by wo­ven cum­mer­bunds, which are worn from the time the girls are very young. The ex­ten­sive hand­i­work in a woman’s clothes is her pride and of­ten her most valu­able pos­ses­sion. Out­side Puebla th­ese gar­ments could be trea­sures, but here the bright colors are a tell that the wearer is a mi­grant worker, ren­der­ing her invisible in many sit­u­a­tions. Not all lo­cals are kind, or open to try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with women who strug­gle with Span­ish. Taxi driv­ers refuse them rides. Even shop­ping for gro­ceries can be­come a nu­anced cross-cul­tural dance. But as a unit of blue and pur­ple, with sev­eral chil­dren in tow, the women of Yo’on Ixim moved through the gi­ant Mer­cado Hi­dalgo at the south­ern end of the neigh­bor­hood, in­spect­ing stall after stall of av­o­ca­dos, chiles, pineap­ples, nopales, or cac­tus pad­dles, and the prized

pol­los rancheros, yel­low-skinned long­necked farm chick­ens that hang with heads and feet in­tact. After the group con­ferred and car­ried out some manda­tory hag­gling with the shop­keeper, they bought sev­eral chick­ens for soup. Then their shop­ping bags quickly grew heavy: 37 pounds of fresh ay­ocote beans for tamales, 11 pounds of toma­toes, 11 more of onions, a bag of green pep­pers and chiles for salsa, and a bulging sack of dark green chay­otes—small, dense squash—also for the chicken soup.

Upon re­turn to Yo’on Ixim, the women car­ried in a squat tin coal stove, and the school space be­came an im­promptu kitchen. There was a ca­sual grace to the way they worked to­gether: one hold­ing the pot for an­other, while a third shooed sev­eral tod­dlers away from the fire. An older woman taught a younger one how to wrap the bean and masa tamales in ba­nana leaves; Ordóñez, the co­founder, han­dled a ma­chete like a par­ing knife. This way of work­ing to­gether is not tra­di­tional for the Tsot­sil. In vil­lage fam­i­lies, the mother-in-law usu­ally rules, but here in the city, it is ex­pe­ri­ence and con­fi­dence that de­ter­mines who adds the salt and

tastes for sea­son­ing, who sets the rhythm press­ing pale blue masa to make tor­tillas.

Caldo de pollo is at once the sim­plest chicken soup and a cel­e­bra­tion of bounty and com­mu­nity. It is, like most shared dishes the Tsot­sil make, re­ally just a ve­hi­cle to eat masses of tor­tillas. Hun­dreds of the disks, charred from the co­mal, were kept warm in bas­kets and plas­tic wash tubs lined with clean kitchen tow­els. The ay­ocote beans stud­ded a dense masa for tamales steam­ing over a tin stove. Pel­liz­cadas, a sort of thick tor­tilla, fea­tured pinched rims to hold in spoon­fuls of a sim­ple tomato salsa and crum­bled fresh cheese. Each dish cel­e­brated corn, that heart of Tsot­sil cul­ture that teth­ers th­ese fam­i­lies to their homes in the cloud for­est so far away.

• Clock­wise from top left: Fresh ay­ocote beans, limes, and chay­ote; Tsot­sil women in tra­di­tional cloth­ing shop at the Mer­cado Hi­dalgo; pol­los rancheros; a stu­dent stud­ies Span­ish at Yo’on Ixim; a Tsot­sil woman car­ries her baby through the Mer­cado Hi­dalgo; shelling ay­ocote beans; tamales in progress; work­ing masa into a dough for tor­tillas and tamales; co­founder Sa­man­tha Greiff with two stu­dents.

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