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The Unacknowledged, Grueling Labor Behind the Mexican Tortilla

In her book “National Dish” Anya von Bremzen asks, “Is the tortilla empowerment or slavery?”

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A woman flips a tortilla on a comal Getty Images
Jaya Saxena is a Correspondent at, and the series editor of Best American Food Writing. She explores wide ranging topics like labor, identity, and food culture.

When Anya von Bremzen interviewed the women tortilla makers of Oaxaca for her new book, National Dish, she had a consistent question: “Is the tortilla empowerment or slavery?” She was told repeatedly, by home cooks and academics, that traditionally made tortillas were part of the national identity and were Indigenous traditions that needed to be fiercely protected. She found that many families would refuse to eat tortillas made by anyone but the matriarch. Yet the traditional process for making tortillas often leads to shoulder and knee injuries from using the metate, and lung damage from inhaling wood smoke. And von Bremzen found women who, no matter how proud they were of their tortillas, wanted a different future for their daughters.

The book cover of NATIONAL DISH featuring an illustrated grid depicting the national dishes of various locations, including ramen, pizza, mole,
National Dish is available now.

Feminist and Marxist scholar Silvia Federici argues that housework being seen as an act of love is “one of the most pervasive manipulations” of capitalism. As she writes in Wages Against Housework, even the most exploited workers earn wages, which acknowledge the labor done, and enter the workers into a social contract that allows them to withhold labor if they need to. But housework, including home cooking, is seen as natural, fulfilling work for women, a representation of home and love and family. And if women complain, “we are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle.”

In National Dish, von Bremzen explores the question of nationality through cuisine. What a “national dish” is depends on the concept of nationhood. Who is included and who isn’t? Whose work is valued? What story does the nation want to tell about itself? Traditions become romanticized and fetishized as these dishes are not just enjoyed within the country, but exported and advertised for profit.

But the fact is, many culinary traditions around the world are traditions of home cooking that were built on this unacknowledged labor. The tortilla is the backbone of food tourism in Mexico, which, as von Bremzen writes, requires Indigenous women’s labor, expertise, and, ultimately, subjugation. I spoke to von Bremzen about the value of tradition, the realities of labor, and whether or not we can create a world in which traditional foodways and liberation coexist.

Eater: What differentiates a national dish from something that is simply common or beloved in a certain country or region?

Anya von Bremzen: The idea of a national dish is completely constructed. You had male French gastronomes, like [gastronomical writer] Curnonsky, going around France and picking all these dishes. It’s usually dudes that want these canons. So it’s only later, with the development of the bourgeois cuisine, that we’ll get our domestic goddesses and their kitchen bibles. These narratives certainly ignore all the Indigenous people. Who owns the narrative is always affected by class and race. On top of that, you have all these institutions pushing products and national brands to global consumers. So Korea decides to elevate kimchi, and Thailand promotes pad thai. None of it is accidental.

What were the conditions that made maize and tortillas a national dish of Mexico?

It almost happened despite itself. From the time the colonists arrive in Mexico, they’re planting massive amounts of wheat and pushing the maize farmers to the margins. And from that time on, and really until the mid-20th century, the tortilla is associated with backwardness, Indigeneity, and lack of progress, where bread symbolizes whiteness.

But the Indigenous peasants are still making tortillas, and farming survives. And then it really becomes celebrated as something amazing with NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994]. There’s a scare of GMO contamination from U.S. maize, and there are grassroots protests happening against NAFTA. And this is against the backdrop of the Zapatistas protecting Indigenous culture. That’s when you get the slogan “Sin maíz no hay país” — “Without maize there’s no country.”

It appeals to patriotic consumerism, which is also a very important part of creating a national dish and a national cuisine. The idea of Buy Local. But you had these cataclysmic events threatening the heart of Mexico — this invasion, essentially.

Your cuisine doesn’t feel as important unless someone is trying to take it away from you.

You have this globalization and the advent of neoliberal economies in the ’90s. You have it all over the world. So you get all these protectionist organizations and mechanisms, like the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. It’s this urge to say, “This is our patrimony,” and make rules around it. Something is being taken away from you, by globalization, by wars, by NAFTA, by trade agreements that are transnational. And you have this push to defend it.

When did you first start thinking that traditional tortilla production work might not be great for the women doing it?

The first time I lifted the metate. I’m trying to learn how to make tortillas with one of the great local cooks in Oaxaca, and she’s making this taquito del sal, just one of the most basic things. And this was a moment for me in the book to say, Wow, this is such an amazing dish, let’s celebrate it. And instead I’m thinking, Oh, my god, is this what women have to do? Every day?

We’re talking about handmade tortilla production. They do the nixtamal, and they put it to a boil, and they take it to the molino. The molinos are usually run by men, and sometimes they don’t show up, so the women have to wait around. Then you take it home from the mill, and you have to do the metate again for a really smooth dough, which leads to back and knee injuries. And then you start slapping tortillas, and for hours you’re inhaling wood smoke and burning your fingers. When you look at the hands of the Indigenous women, they’re just scarred. I start asking women, “Is the tortilla slavery or empowerment?” And the answers are really surprising, because so many people — so many women — say slavery.

It’s complicated because it’s also empowerment in the family. I asked why they don’t just go and buy the tortillas from professional bakeries, and they said, “My family won’t eat tortillas made by another woman.” So in a way, it’s kind of family power. But on the other hand, they don’t have the time to go to school or do anything outside the home. I asked one question to all the women: “Would you want this for your daughters?” And they all say no — “I’ll do it, but I want my daughter to go to school.”

I talked to a political scientist, Dr. Gloria Zafra, who wrote Mujer, Trabajo y Salud en Oaxaca. And she says, yeah, it’s slavery. But also, what are the women supposed to do? This is grueling labor, but at least 10 women banding together and making and selling tortillas, they’re working for themselves. It’s still a better model for them than working in a shop, where they will probably be discriminated against. I also spoke to activist Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza. She’s trying to get the whole family involved in tortilla production, and get the men to gather firewood at least. She said, “We can’t abandon the tortilla. The women want to make it. But we have to give them respect, we have to try to empower them in other ways. And we have to get the whole community involved.”

As an American, so much of what I hear about food tourism in Mexico is about how life-changing and special a traditionally made tortilla is. As you were saying before, there’s this impetus for the country to promote this national dish and entice people to visit and buy it.

The paradox is not just for the foreign tourists. In Mexico, there’s a whole celebration of heirloom corn for making tortillas. What does it do to the price of the tortilla? Right now, it’s like 10 cents. If it goes up, local people won’t be able to afford it. We’re obsessed with eco-consumerism. And we want to buy well-sourced spices and all this stuff. But once it leaves the community, and it becomes an international object of handcrafted devotion, what happens to the local economies? We think that buying an expensive, heirloom thing will contribute to a local economy, but it creates this false sense of actually doing something for society, when all you’re doing is perpetuating consumerism.

I don’t know what the answer is for how we can help from here. Because it’s really on the level of regional legislation. But suddenly, all of Mexico wants to eat it. There won’t be enough for the Indigenous communities. So what do you do?

Have you seen other national or regionally important dishes around the world that have such a physical and detrimental effect on the people who make them? Or were tortillas really a specific case?

I think pizzas are really backbreaking. But they’re made by professionals, by men, and they’re charging 15 euros for a pizza. And ramen is hard to make, but you have these specialized restaurants where yuppies go. It’s $10, versus nothing for the tortilla. You do have these restaurants now where they charge whatever they want for a basket of tortillas, but how much are they paying maize producers? It’s not more than anyone else. You have chefs in Mexico City who are making a lot of money and getting a lot of PR by saying, “Oh, I’m using all these Indigenous ingredients” and they’re not paying Indigenous people any better than any local producer does.

And as you said, it’s not like the solution for outsiders is to pay more, because it’s hard to know where that money is actually going.

The global fame of the tortilla is helping in some ways. But in other ways that creates more inequality, because suddenly, certain farmers are being promoted but others are not, and they’re making the same thing. There’s jealousy and complications. The solution is to fight for these people’s rights.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.