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