Yes, come with me to the tortillería (tortilla shop) located at Madero and Hidalgo in La Paz, Mexico, and meet Nora, tortillera (tortilla-maker) extraordinaire. I recently spent two weeks in the capital of the State of Baja California Sur working on my spoken Spanish at Se Habla…La Paz, a school founded by Juli Goff, an American expat who managed to turn the derelict old house she bought when she first moved from Arizona into a graceful and efficient place of learning. I had signed up for two hours of individual conversation a day (boy, was that intensive) and on my way to school every morning, I passed the tortillería SudCalifornia on calle Madero. Even before the rich smell of baking tortillas reached my nostrils, I could hear the rhythmic slapping of the dough from one hand to the other.
Now one thing you need to know is that until that day I had never met a flour tortilla I even remotely liked. Corn tortillas, yes. Flour tortillas, no, thank you. To me, a flour tortilla was the epitome of boring (no taste, flexible cardboard consistency) and, what’s more, made out of ingredients I didn’t care to put in my body, let alone feed to my family (look at the list on the back of a bag of flour tortillas at the supermarket). But Christine, the owner of the house we had rented, said that people came from all over the city to buy Nora’s tortillas. Made with milk and requesón (a type of ricotta cheese), they were the best in town.
That half-convinced me. The smell did the rest. I went in and bought a stack. With sliced avocado and farm-fresh queso del valle (a Mexican cheese that doesn’t melt and slices easily), we had them for dinner on our first night in the old house around the corner.
The next day, I waved and said buenos dias as I walked past the open doorway on my way to school. Nora waved back with a big smile. The day after when I waved again, she beckoned me in and gave me a warm tortilla to eat on the way.
After a few days of waving and going in to purchase the occasional tortillas, I mustered the courage tell Nora about my blog and ask if she would consent to an entrevista (an interview). Her eyes grew round with surprise but it didn’t take her long to agree. We picked a day where she knew she wouldn’t be too busy and off I went, excited and a bit apprehensive at the thought of my first interview in Spanish. I shouldn’t have worried because, when the day came, Nora immediately put me at ease. As it turned out, she spoke paceño, a local version of Spanish that I encountered elsewhere in the city and grew more accustomed to as the days went by. Oddly it uses many French words that are a legacy from the time when Jacques Cousteau led oceanographic research in the area, drawing a large number of French scientists. Don’t think being French helped though! I didn’t recognize any of these words. Marcela, my instructor, who is herself from La Paz, later told me she wasn’t surprised because many had been shortened beyond recognition and the accent did the rest… But Nora was kind enough to repeat what I didn’t get right away and we got along fine.
Before I forget, I must tell you that Nora asked her boss about the interview and that her boss gave permission, provided I mentioned her by name. So allow me to specify that the tortillería belongs to the señora Cecilia Contreras Martínez who also owns a restaurant in town and that the recipe for the tortillas is hers.
Nora makes about 500 tortillas a day, more on Christmas Day (the busiest day of the year). Generally speaking winter is the best season (the lower the temperature, the more tortillas people seem to buy) but the tortillería is open year-round. Her biggest customers are the Americans (both the tourists and the retirees who have made La Paz their home) and the visitors from Mexico City. But she also caters to local people. There was an old man I saw a couple of times. When he heard I was interested in bread, he said that it was too bad I couldn’t see the farm where he grew up. It has a big outdoor oven and he had wonderful memories of the bread he ate as a child. Nora chirped in that she too know how to make bread and actually loved doing it although she doesn’t have time these days.
No kidding! The tortillería is open every day of the week, including Saturdays and Sundays, and Nora is its only employee. She works from 6:30 AM to about 10 PM (I suppose she closes shop a bit earlier if she runs out of dough). She has been making tortillas since she was a little girl. At her house, the recipe (which she inherited from her mom) is slightly different as it uses manteca de puerco (lard) instead of vegetable shortening but the other ingredients are pretty much the same: butter, milk, and requesón.
People buy tortillas by weight. The bags displayed on the counter weigh about one kilo (a bit over two pounds).
One kilo costs 40 pesos (US$ 2.20 at today’s exchange rate). To put things into perspective, the minimum wage in La Paz is set at MXN $8.10 per hour, which translates to about MXN $65 a day (US $3.50). No wonder foreigners and big city visitors form the bulk of the customer base.
But I wasn’t even thinking about standard of living and median income as I stood listening to Nora and taking notes. I was mulling over what she had just said: she had started working at the tortillería over two years earlier after her mother passed away (she had been caring for her at home) and hadn’t had a day off since. Not even a Sunday. Now my eyes were the ones growing wider! She was very cheerful about it too. She loves her job and is both glad and proud to have it. She may have a day off soon or she may not. I didn’t have the feeling she would ask for one or that it would ever become an issue. When I discussed it later with my instructor, Marcela was just as matter-of-fact. Yes, some people work eight hours a day for minimum wage and they have weekends off and paid vacation days. Others sign contracts that guarantee them better wages but in exchange they give up their time-off. That’s the way it goes.
Nora was born in the barrio (the neighborhood) but now lives further away. She commutes back and forth on public transportation. She gets to bed by 11 PM and is up by 5 AM, day in and day out. Mixed elsewhere in batches of 10 kilos in a big mixer, the dough is delivered to her three times a day. Her job is to flatten and bake it. But as any baker’s job, hers requires a sharp eye for the dough. Sometimes the person who mixes it inadvertently uses too much flour and the dough is stiff. It will require more resting time (the dough usually needs to rest twice forty minutes) and more work. Other times the culprit may be the temperature. As it happens, quite often using the old tortilla press in the back isn’t enough. The circle of dough doesn’t spread to the required diameter. She must then re-press each and every tortilla between her two hands (hence the rhythmic noise coming from the store). When they are the right size, the tortillas are baked at medium temperature on a plancha and flipped as necessary.
Nora has a daughter who has access to a computer and a sister who knows some English. She said that between the three of them they should be able to find my blog one day and read the post. I hope they do. Back home I find myself thinking of Nora quite often. I know where she is every minute of every day. I also know she has many, many friends. I have seen several of them. On my last day in La Paz, when I went in to say good bye and bring her a little souvenir, she had heart-shaped lipstick kisses on both cheeks. She enveloped me in a bear hug. Maybe I had red lipstick kisses on my cheeks too as I went on my way. I didn’t check.