Making Tortillas in Guatemala

Working with the editors at Ceramics Monthly to publish my article on the women potters (see previous post) was an interesting learning process. They were looking for a reporter style article and asked me questions which moved me in that direction, so I contacted friends in Guatemala for quotes and details. Usually, though, I write more descriptive stories with a personal interest. So here are some additional pieces from the original story (an excerpt from my book).

The village of San Luis Jilotepeque was a long day trip from my home in the capital, to visit the women potters, almost four hours. As we drove northeast towards Chiqimula and the Honduras border, the volcanoes ringing Guatemala City and Antigua could be seen rising over the panorama from these distant hills, swallowing the cities below in their blue haze. The landscape slowly faded to the less verdant browns of eastern Guatemala, an area prone to drought. With the agricultural yield low, many of the villagers suffer from poverty and hunger, struggling to survive on barely productive farms.

Volcanoes on the horizon

Before the turnoff from the main highway we stopped for papusas, fried corn tortillas filled with cheese or meat. When I pointed to a coconut from a pile, a young man deftly chopped open the tip with a machete, leaving a hole the ideal size to fit a straw inside, and handed it back to me with a flourish.

The artisans met at the home of Juana, one of the leaders of the pottery cooperative. The small building was built from crumbling unpainted brick, like crude cinderblocks, covered with an equally colorless tiled roof. It housed a few rooms of adobe brick and dirt floors, no plaster or painted walls, but was kept clean and orderly, though sparsely furnished. A sheet of blue plastic tacked across one wall served as a backdrop where photos and other mementos were pinned or taped. The house was open on one side, all rooms opening onto a courtyard area. In lieu of doors, sheets hung over the bedroom and bathroom to afford some privacy. Buckets of water sat in the bathroom equipped with a plastic tub, used to pour water down the toilet to flush. A television incongruously blared in the living room, keeping a couple of boys spellbound, and stereo components were arranged on a shelf, items purchased from the money Juana’s husband sent back from the United States.

Potter’s house

During the day, as the visitors and potters met to make design decisions and decorate greenware, we learned more about each other’s lives. I asked about their families and how long they had been making pots. One of the women wondered why I wanted to live in Guatemala, when so many of them want to go to my country for a better life. No response I could give would make sense to her, but I answered that I was teaching at an American school in the capital for a few years and I loved getting to know her beautiful country. And why was I not married? And where were my children?

Flory, Juana’s daughter, a recent graduate hoping to find work locally as a teacher, busily attended to all the other household tasks while the artists worked. Every day, she made about fifty tortillas for lunch and fifty more for dinner. First, she washed the corn and took it to a man in town who, for a few coins, rough ground the kernels into corn flour.

Washing the corn

A half hour later she returned, then cleaned and lit a wood fire under the comal, a stone grill. Ash from the comal would later be used in firing the pottery. She kneaded the flour on a black flat stone, pulled off a handful at a time, rhythmically slapped and patted it into shape, then placed it on the comal. Shaping one hundred tortillas a day surely must be the rhythm of her life, as with so many other women in that land.

Tortillas on the comal

I made a few poor attempts at patting tortillas into pancake disks, while Flory tried to suppress her bubbly giggles. But despite my experience with forming clay, these were hopelessly misshapen blobs. I couldn’t get them anywhere near as thin as hers without ripping. We traded the sandwiches and lunch snacks we had brought for her light, airy, fresh tortillas with white goat cheese and black bean frijoles. We definitely got the better end of the deal.

The rhythm of life

Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

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