Wire services / El Universal - Mar 12, 2007
Corn market squeezes nation's poorest
Rising maize prices threaten the traditional way of life in a Oaxaca village
SAN MATEO DE MACUILXO'CHITL, Oax. - With the price of corn soaring,
this town's livelihood is at risk. Women who have sold tortillas for
generations can no longer turn a profit, while their husbands and
family members are leaving to try their luck in the United States.
The community of Macuilxo'chitl, which means "five flowers" in
Na'huatl, has 2,865 residents. For decades, roughly 1,000 of them
have earned a living by making tortillas and selling them in the
markets of Oaxaca City, the state capital.
But in January, the price of tortillas spiked. Analysts have blamed a
global increase in demand for corn to produce ethanol, an alternative
motor fuel and gasoline additive. As a result, the cornflour used to
make tortillas has become more expensive, and it's harder to sell the
tortillas at higher prices.
Mari'a de la Cruz Torres, known as Do~a Maricruz, has been making
tortillas for 40 years. She said that this year the price of corn has
risen more than she can ever remember.
"It's 5 pesos per kilo - and 4.25 pesos at least for white corn," she
said. "There's no more profit; it's barely enough (to pay) for what
we're going to eat tomorrow."
Every day, Do~a Maricruz and her daughters have to prepare 44 pounds
of corn to make 200 tortillas. They depend on the proceeds to buy
food to eat the following day.
In a town where many are impoverished even in the best of times, the
rise in cornflour prices has convinced many to undertake the long,
perilous trek to the United States as illegal immigrants.
"We don't think we're going to make tortillas to eat anymore, be
cause there's no profit in selling them," said Paulina, a tortilla
maker whose daughter-in-law left months ago to work as a maid in the
In Macuilxo'chitl, as in much of Mexico, the tortillas are made by
hand with white corn. These regional variations of the nation staple
are known as "tlayudas" and measure up to nearly 12 inches in
diameter and are baked and toasted in mud stoves.
"I started making tlayudas in 1952 at 12 years old, and with the
(profit) I made, I sent my seven children to school - but I could
only pay for elementary school," Do~a Maricruz said.
According to the family, it is not just the price of corn that has
made their lives difficult, but rising prices across the board.
Her daughter Rufina Torres said that this year they have been "ruined
... (because the prices of) corn rose, flour rose, firewood rose and
even car fare."
"I think it'd be better if we worked as employees in a house. There,
we'd eat every day (in ex change for) washing dishes and clothes,"
Though corn is grown in the area, years of falling prices have
resulted as subsidized surplus corn has been imported from the United
States. This forced many local men to abandon their fields and head
north of the Ri'o Grande to find work. So the community's losses from
the price surge are not balanced by corresponding gains from growing
With the jump in corn prices, it now costs double what it used to
cost to turn it into flour, and every day they burn 100 pesos
(US$9.08) of wood to cook the tlayudas - in addition to the 18 pesos
passengers are charged to travel in a truck to Oaxaca city 30 minutes
away to bring the tortillas to market.
Once there, the women face customers who constantly haggle over the price.
"If we make them more expensive, they won't buy them," said Rufina.
"Since they don't make tortillas, they don't know how much it costs."
Rufina gave EFE a summary of her workday: At 4 a.m., her sister goes
to the mill to get in line to grind the corn. An hour later, she
returns home to stoke the fire in the stove, the interior of which is
coated with lime so the tortillas won't stick.
The flour is ground and mixed for four hours. A bit of water is added
periodically to the meal to keep its consistency soft so the
tortillas do not tear or break apart.
Afterwards the meal is rolled and cut into large thin circles.
Then they are put into the stove, where they are cooked for several
minutes and turned from time to time. Later the finished product is
placed in a basket made of palm leaves.
The tortilla-makers head to the city to sell their wares. When they
return home it's time to prepare for the same routine the next day.
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