Since 2009, in the Pátzcuaro-Zirahuén region of Michoacán, Red Tsiri (“tsiri” is the Purépecha word for maize) has attempted to recover the gastronomic, cultural and agricultural wealth represented by local varieties of organic maize and the peasant lifestyle that supports it. Through the sale of artisanal tortillas, it attempts to give added value to landrace maize, which would not otherwise have a market.
We wanted to meet the people behind this experience:
Carmen Patricio Chávez– Red Tsiri coordinator and GIRA field technician
Carmen, a native of San Francisco Uricho in the municipality of Erongarícuaro, is the third of 12 brothers and sisters, six women and six men. Slim, with an engaging smile, and even, white teeth, she is proud of having completed a degree in educational psychology, in which she graduated earlier this year at the age of 38.
Her life took a turn when she was a teenager and began looking after a couple’s small child. “I saw that the man cooked and washed the dishes, and that nothing happened to him,” she says wryly. For Carmen, who comes from a background where gender roles are clearly marked, this was the beginning of a process of emancipation. Being with this couple meant an escape from home, in which she was called “lazy” for not wanting to make tortillas three times a day and serve her brothers at mealtimes.
The couple also had a greenhouse she helped out with and several books she read, although in the beginning she was unable to grasp the meaning of the words due to her lack of experience.
From her position in Red Tsiri, she stresses the reappraisal of milpa farmers’ and tortilla producers’ work:
“I come from a peasant family. Together with my brothers, I was raised on a maize field and for us it was a sign of poverty. We did not want to go on working in the countryside because it meant you were poor and had no money. Now, however, I can see that we are able to produce our own food. It is a question of re-evaluating everything and realizing the importance of being well organized. That way you can do a lot”.
Marta Astier– Researcher at the Center for Research on Environmental Geography, UNAM. Red Tsiri sponsor and adviser
The idea of Red Tsiri began to take shape in Marta Astier’s head when, during her research on the wealth of landrace maize in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, she detected a micro-industry that was also run by women. Approximately 200 tortilla workshops turn maize into tortillas, gorditas, tamales, atole (maize gruel) and other products. The problem with these products is that when they are put on the market, there is no way to differentiate them from the others that are often made from corn from elsewhere and grown with agrochemicals.
“The idea of a project like Red Tsiri was precisely to stand out in the market, to have a type of certification that would let consumers know that what they are eating is made from landrace maize and in particular, that it has been organically produced and processed”.
In their work, Marta and her colleagues are aware of the crucial role consumers play in the valuation and preservation of biodiversity. Accordingly, they continually strive to differentiate Red Tsiri products from other tortillas made by mechanical machines, for example.
The academic ends her interview with an invitation to eat a “milpa diet”. “It’s a diet that doesn’t contribute to global warming and is based on ancient products: a good tortilla made from ecologically-produced landrace maize, quelites (wild greens), beans, squash, huitlacoche or corn smut, nopales, a glass of water with pinole (roasted ground maize) and uchepos (tamales made in Michoacán). Bon appétit”.
Elodia Cortés Pérez – a tortilla maker from San Francisco Uricho, Erongarícuaro
“For me, making tortillas and being able to make a living from that is a source of pride because you should not be ashamed of your roots or what your mother taught you. I think that nowadays, very few people know how to make tortillas or enjoy doing so,” says Elodia, one of the tortilla makers in Red Tsiri.
Unlike those made with tortilla machines, handmade tortillas are the result of an artisanal process that takes two days.
Elodia begins by preparing the limed corn kernels early in the morning so that they have time to cool during the day. In the evening, she takes the dough to a mill that charges 10 pesos for grinding a bucket of nixtamalized corn and when she gets home, she rolls out the dough so that it does not spoil overnight.
“The next day, I get up at three o’clock in the morning to start the fire to begin making tortillas. I knead the dough, put it on the grinding stone and start making tortillas that I throw onto a griddle placed on a wood-fired stove.
At the end, she divides the tortillas into piles of twelve, puts them in bags, and seals them, marking each package with her signature.
Francisco Rodríguez Sánchez – landrace maize producer
Francisco Rodríguez, a farmer aged 32, obtained a degree in Sustainable Development at the Intercultural Indigenous University of Michoacán and has combined this new information, with the knowledge he inherited from his ancestors, in a half hectare maize field parcel called El Serrano, in the municipality of Erongarícuaro.
“The milpa system has three or more elements: corn, beans and squash,” he explains while showing us his plot of land, “and sometimes peas and fava beans too. But it always has maize, beans and squash”.
“I work with various types of maize, all landraces. I have blue maize, red pozole maize, white pozole maize, and a type of white maize that is exclusively for fodder; I also have another kind of white maize for pozole. I use these varieties because they give me the security of having a good harvest.”
He produces blue and red maize exclusively for Red Tsiri. This deal suits him because he has also built up a relationship of trust with this network. They pay him three or four times what he would get if he sold his maize through conventional channels.
“At harvest time, the middlemen come in and pay whatever they feel like,” he complains. “This year they paid 2.80 per kilo, and to top it off their scales were fixed. So they steal up to 50 percent of your production; if your bag weighs 50 kilos, they tell you it weighed 25 or 30 at most. But Red Tsiri does things differently. They paid me 7 pesos a kilo for blue maize and 11 pesos for red pozole maize”.