Last summer, we sent off our first Ruta Maya Coffee Scholarship recipient, Andres Garza, to study Maya and Colonial Heritage in Guatemala and Belize with the Bridging Cultures in Latin America program led by The Mesoamerica Center at The University of Texas at Austin. Students in the program travel extensively throughout Guatemala and Belize, experiencing archaeological sites, museums, villages, cooperative businesses, natural reserves, and protected ecosystems, all the while living with a local family for a truly authentic experience. In the essay below, Andres shares his experience at Casa Herrera, The Mesoamerica Center's premier academic research center located in the heart of Antigua, where he focused his studies around the central theme of "maize."
Maize Stories in Guatemala
Words and images by Andres Garza, Senior Anthropology Student at The University of Texas at Austin
This is not the story of corn, or maize, but rather some small stories that I encountered during my time in Guatemala. Why? My focus was corn, Mesoamerica is the home of corn, my home is Mexico, and one rumor claims corn originates there, while others say Guatemala. Regardless, I wanted to get close to home, get close to home through food, and corn was my entry to observing interactions around me.
One of my first encounters was early on. I agreed to meet up with a few classmates at a yellow church and hunger was beating me, so I quickly run into a restaurant to grab a bite. A chicken and avocado torta. The tortilla was handmade and I sat to just take in this reminder of home. I had forgotten the distinct flavors from being around mediocre store-bought tortillas. I eat quickly, in admiration, and go sit outside the church. Maya women sat and laughed while they weaved. They sit in front of a small food cart, waiting for customers. A kid buys a grilled elote, he hands it to his mother, tosses popcorn on the floor. Pigeons circle around. This got me to think of the terms paloma, palomita. Pigeon meaning paloma, popcorn meaning palomita. Speculating if there was a lexical connection for the words, any documented historical aspect. There wasn’t. The kid ran around with the palomas, he got tired after a bit. He sits close to me, with his elote back in hand, he looks at me.
The home in which I stayed in did not make their own tortillas by hand. You walk out of their home, and on the very corner to cross the street there is an open-door mini market where they sell tortillas los tres tiempos-the three times of day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Two young girls, I always saw slapping balls of corn flour on their hands, the rhythm of their shaping resonates as I walk down the street each morning to school. The family bought their tortillas from them, kept them for a few days and rather than what I imagined most did, toss them on the comal to reheat them, they would toss them in a small oven. They came out slightly dry, with a bit of a crunch, they were nice. I took a cooking course while there, in hopes of learning more about corn, as corn is an essential staple of Guatemaltecan cuisine. There I learned of atole, a thick beverage made from corn flour and water. Served warm, we made it two ways. Sweet or savory. One infused with chile, lime, salt, and the other with cinnamon and sugar. I made tortillas by hand, though not entirely. I used pre-ground masa with limewater which gives corn its benefits through the process of nixtamalization. My tortillas didn’t come out round.
I met a chef one of my last days in Antigua. He had this small open-air space and there was no one in the restaurant. He did a contemporary take on Guatemalan cuisine. We spoke as he served me, he explained each dish to me. I asked him about everything related to corn. He told me he’d show me and asked me to come by the next day. I did, and he took me to the local market. I watched him select the corn he used for different items, white corn for tamales, black corn for tortillas. Maya women laughed with him as he had me try spicy chilis. He spoke of molecular gastronomy, the deciphering of this process of nixtamalization. He gave me a book on the anthropology of food in Guatemala, a gift to learn more about the culture he fell in love with.
Late in the trip, our whole class was shown how to make tortillas by hand by a small collective of Maya women. This time, we are shown the process of nixtamalization using ground limestone and adding that into the water where you soak it, cook it. We grind the corn by hand rather than using pre-ground corn using a metate, a tool similar to a giant mortar and pestle that uses arm strength to grind down. Slowly adding water to get to a firm, but moist consistency. Again, my tortillas didn’t come out round. One of the women tells me of how early they must wake up to make tortillas for breakfast. One of the tour guides jokes that he eats so many, that women eat less because they know the labor it takes to make them. He recalls of his childhood punishment being the grinding of the corn. They recommend us to rub some homemade coconut oil and add a pinch of salt to the tortillas, eat them as is. They were good, despite mine not being round.
Some days I went to the market alone, sitting alone, drifting or drinking cheap coffee rich in flavor. Many tortillerias with mothers sitting on short plastic chairs, talking. Daughters, nieces, young girls stand and at times silent, at times laughing, sounds of forming the tortilla, gently hitting it from one hand to the next. Young baby boy on a Saturday morning sits on the floor unwrapping the tamale from the banana leaf, takes a bite too big while too hot, opens his mouth and a chunk of red falls on his lap. His mother comes. In ancient artwork, people bring offerings to the Maize god, many times, tamales. Feeding him himself.
Read more about Andres' adventures on The University of Texas' official study abroad website, linked below.