“Torteando”: The Power of Food – and Gender Roles?

A powerful blog post from Kacie, an alumna of our Latin America Gap Fall Semester 2018. Follow her blog at http://herbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Making tortillas is not going to the store, buying a plastic wrapped pack, and warming them up on the stove. Making tortillas is hundreds of years of history and culture. It is the crop planted on every landowner’s property turned into the sound of slapping hands and women’s lilting voices calling for every meal. It’s a single ingredient – corn – turned to a dough, molded into a sphere, and tossed into a perfect circle before being placed on the hot caldera – all with only well-practiced hands.

In my Guatemalan family’s home, it is a sacred routine each member knows well. Before a meal – breakfast, lunch, dinner – Abuelito is outside, chopping away to keep a stocked wood pile; the two year old twins trade off between running to carry one piece of wood at a time to the kitchen where they will heat the fire beneath the caldera and yelling “HOLA” and wandering after whoever strikes their interest at the moment (quite often, a blonde girl napping in her room is very interesting); the eleven year old boy can be found likely coercing two foreign girls into a game of soccer, or just as likely, following one of the twins in to wake said napping girl.
And in the kitchen, the women – could be anyone, Abuelita, one of her various daughters (we’re still working on a count), or maybe one of the young girls if they aren’t helping one of their moms (more family tree questions) at work.
Tonight, that scene was altered somewhat, with the addition of one American girl and one German girl (hi Pauline) in the kitchen. Tonight, we were welcomed into participating in this piece of the culture.
As we walked out to the kitchen, we were greeted by one of our Abuelita’s daughters, 26 years old and mother to the two year old twins and eleven year old boy.
(If you do the math, she was 15 when she had wild Charlie. I cannot imagine freshman me being responsible for another little human – and she was only a year older than the girls we’ve befriended here now. The difference in lives is rattling.)
We walked in, eyes wide, expecting magic as we gathered around the hot plate.
I wouldn’t say we were disappointed, but it did not look like anything special as she grabbed some dough, tossed it a bit, and just set the newly formed tortilla on the plancha in less than ten seconds. No big, exciting process.
So the two of us casually picked up some dough, and as soon as we went to repeat those motions that had appeared so effortless when put into practice by the smiling Guatemalan woman, we realized: it is magic. As put into words taught by the German girl to the English girl – Heilige scheiße. This is hard.
However, that magic made it all the more fun. The kitchen was filled with laughter as we attempted to replicate the perfect circle example given to us. Another one of Abuelita’s daughters passed through and exclaimed, “¡Ah, torteando!”. I immediately smiled, because tortillas had wiggled their way so deep into this culture that they had actually become their own verb. The laughter drew in Charlie, ever-curious and always looking for a laugh, it was no surprise to us that he would want to participate. But rather than waltzing in and joining in the fiasco that was us “tortilla-ing”, the young boy stayed in the doorway to the kitchen. Pauline asked him if he wanted to get in on the fun; both of us expecting an enthusiastic yes, we were a little taken aback at Charlie’s hesitation followed by his mom telling us, no, he doesn’t want to. Making tortillas is for the women. I had to pause for a second to realize that she was serious, and while I felt a little offended for the generations of instilled gender roles (a topic to explore more another time – the presence of gender roles in this culture is striking for a girl from a very liberal city in California), for the most part I was honestly just sad Charlie had to miss out on the fun.

To no fault of our teacher, by the end of the batch of corn dough we had a stack of two seemingly cookie cutter tortillas (both made by – you guessed it – not the foreigners) and a selection of misshapen, dwarf, randomly holed tortillas, if you could call them that at that point. We apologized to our family for the unfortunate looking corn creations that would accompany dinner that night, and with laughter in their eyes they still happily ate our masterpieces and indulged our claims at being “profesionales”.