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In front of their houses in Antigua, women make tortillas and grill them on a comal, releasing the smell of cooked corn in the air. I came to the Guatemalan city to exhibit a project based on stingless bee products and Latin American corn at the X Congreso Mesoamericano Sobre Abejas Nativas, but the traditions surrounding this plant that was first domesticated in this region around 10,000 years ago kept catching my attention. I aimed to continue researching uses of maize, as well as learning more about la piedra de moler, a grinding stone used in making corn masa for tortillas.
It is impossible not fall in love with the horizon in Antigua, beautifully surrounded by the Volcán de Agua (inactive), Volcán Acatenango (last erupted in 1972), and Volcán de Fuego, famous for being almost constantly active at a low amounts of steam and gas being expelled daily (last erupted June 2018). I spent a week exploring the country’s former capital and the surrounding pueblos, though my first visit was to El Mercado, an enormous market in the center of the city where the staples of the Guatemalan diet cereals, beans, and corn become evident. In the labyrinth of perfumes and smiley faces, an abundance of corn husks prevailed. Generally used to encase foods to be steamed or baked, such as as tamales, these husks impart a delicious flavor of the plant that is impossible to forget.
On the outskirts of Antigua, in the main plaza of San Pedro, I came upon a little tienda selling atole blanco. A traditional salty beverage, it can be drunk for breakfast, lunch, and even dinner, though most often it is taken in the early morning by campesinos before they get to work. It’s made of maíz blanco (white corn), frijoles (beans), salt, if desired, and dried and pepitas (ground pumpkin seeds). If you prefer it sweeter, there’s atole dulce, which is made with yellow corn instead of white.
I carried on until Ciudad Vieja, the second Spanish capital of Guatemala, where I was pleased to find what I was looking for inside a tienda called Los Tres Tiempos. Inside were two women: one was baking tortillas on a traditional wood oven, while the other was using the grinding stone to prepare the masa. According to oral traditions, the utensil has three legs symbolizing childhood, youth, and the old age of Guatemalan women, and is believed to originate from the village of Nahualá. Excited by the discovery, I was enchanted to see the women in action: the hands crushing the masa, the crackling of wood in the oven, and the temporary sculptures created by the working of the dough.
In San Antonio, I had a chance encounter with a woman while she was leaving her house with a big basket filled with cooked corn. She was of few words but kind and open to share her knowledge. Dressed in typical clothing, she was heading to an electric mill to make her masa, as is her process. “First you buy the corn, then you cook it, after that you grind it, and finally you knead it.” When I mentioned the grinding stone she looked down and explained that fewer use it with the prevalence machine mills, which are faster and require less effort. The piedra de moler, or metate, is more likely to be found in rural communities.
Lago Atitlán, with its expansive blue and its volcanic origin, surrounded by lush vegetation and Mayan communities, is the deepest lake in Central America. In the village of San Juan-La Laguna, I met the painter Aliix Mendosa in his quaint atelier, where you can sense his interest for his country’s traditions, especially as they relate to corn. He recounted how every kind of maize has its value: the rojo represents the sun, the blood, and the East; the negro represents the West, the night, the darkness, and the descanso (rest); the blanco represents the North, the color of teeth ,and human bones; the amarillo represents the South, the woman, the fertility, abundance, and maturity.
As Aliix recalled, it was interesting how these colors are also present in Guatemala’s Bandera de Los Pueblos (Flag of Indigenous Peoples), representing the four main groups present in his country: Xinca, Garífuna, Maya, and Ladino. Over time this palette has been associated with the skin colors of the inhabitants of the world: red corn represents all the Indigenous people in the world, yellow represent people from Asia, white from Europe, and black from Africa. I was mind blown by el misto, a multi-color variety of corn that Aliix defined as the heart of maize. It is very difficult and rare to find, because it is the result of wind pollination through several small crops fields. For this reason, it is considered a special gift from mother nature and, when people find it, they keep it as a sign of good luck.
In Chichicastenango, the best market in the whole country according to many, tortillas are made from all the colors of Guatemalan corn: red, white, yellow, and black. It is hard to be disappointed: once you arrive, you are infected by the market’s energy. Here, I found a group of young girls concentrated on preparing tortillas and happily playing around their grills. I asked if I could join them and they taught me to turn the masa into a tortilla and grill it on the comal.
In the Popul Voh, the Mayan Book of Community, we are taught that the first humans were made from white and yellow corn. It’s a sacred plant that connects Guatemalans with the past. Progress can be a double-edged sword. For all of the good it can bring, it sometimes takes us away and make us forget our culture and traditions. During my research into Guatemala corn, it became clear that many traditions are being forgotten in easier, modern methods of tortilla making. Still, I was delighted to find people proud and enthusiastic to follow the art of nixtamalization, to grinding corn by hand, to maintain the knowledge of local corn varieties, and preserve the memories of those that came before them.