In the Mazahua culture, the remnant of the umbilical cord of a newborn girl is thrown into the stove as a symbol of her responsibility of maintaining the family unity, both through reproduction and through the livelihood related to the preparation of tortillas and other traditional foods . Following the cultural tradition of assigning gender roles, three factors were found over the totality of the 36 interviews conducted. The first one is the woman-to-woman transmission of knowledge about the preparation of tortillas in the same family. The second factor is the cultural legitimacy of expanding their knowledge into public spaces. Being an exclusively female assignment, it did not result in family conflicts when some of them, in addition to making tortillas for self-consumption and in community Fiestas, also went to the marketplaces to sell them thus contributing to the family income. Finally, the third factor is their access to native maize varieties. Their experience has helped women develop an extensive knowledge of the use and handling of different varieties. This knowledge is vital for the understanding and conservation of the native maize diversity .
In general, trade carried out by women in local markets is restricted to the surroundings of the community of origin, in order not to “neglect” household responsibilities . These same conditions of ethnicity and class (difficulties in accessing the means of subsistence) are observed in our study, where, addition, the analysis of gender inequalities is intertwined (childless or with children, age and sex of descendants, care of economic dependents). The most notable of these is the double workload that happens when women acquire new social responsibilities by taking over the head of the household without neglecting household chores and parenting duties. Table 1 shows that 13 of the 36 women interviewed are heads of their household. To accomplish all their tasks, these women have relied on mutual support, mainly from fellow vendors, mothers, daughters, and sisters. This sisterhood strategy guarantees, in a way, their participation and permanence in these markets. In comparison, those who contribute to income but are not head of their household have fewer such support networks on which to rely, as the husbands may not consider tortilla-selling as an essential or helpful household support activity .
It is nonetheless common for indigenous merchant women to trade and barter wild harvest produce such as mushrooms, edible and medicinal plants, agricultural leftovers, and maize-based products, along with selling tortillas. Moreover, tortillas not sold by the end of the day may serve as barter to secure other products they need. It is worth noting that male merchants can usually sell at more distant places, and also products not necessarily derived from maize diversity .
Women at La Placita often sell tortillas sitting on the sidewalk, without minimum safety conditions. They usually sit in small groups of three to four women as an implicit socialization strategy in these small spaces. Many of them are in the “empty nest” stage of the family life cycle. In contrast, women who sell at the Travelling Tianguis and the Municipality Market are usually in the “consolidation” stage of the family life cycle. The differences between these women are manifested in female support networks that help out with the care of children under the age of 11. As those who sell at the Travelling Tianguis lack these support networks, they have opted to sell only one day per week to reconcile their commercial ventures with their household and parenting activities, even if this means a reduction in income.
Age marks a specific cultural and social context that defines the insertion into a specific market type (Table 1). In the case of the sellers at La Placita, the average age is 57 years. These women grew up in a time when, although all children had access to secular, compulsory, and free primary education (established in 1867), families favored giving boys better educational opportunities, as they were considered to be the future earners . This explains why 11 of the 16 interviewed women did not complete their primary education. A low education level is a factor that limits their opportunities for finding better spaces at the marketplaces to sell their products. Hence, women over 55 years of age not having finished basic education were found to sell on the sidewalk.
In the case of the Traveling Tianguis, women were 41 years old on average, and all of them had completed elementary school. In turn, at the Municipality Market women were 38 years old on average, with higher levels of education.
The access to education for a greater number of women generates positive and significant relationships. Still, women are not yet concretely engaged in local political participation where they can influence decision making, at least in the areas where they work.
Inequalities relative to class among women is the access to land to grow their own maize. More than half of the interviewed women (located mainly at La Placita and at the Travelling Tianguis) indicated that they do not own agricultural land, but that their husbands do and can decide what type of maize to plant (see Table 2, Types of tortillas). This option has allowed many women to prepare tortillas at a perceived lower price for a greater profit margin.
Although they consider it an “advantage” over the women that must buy maize, it is a misleading advantage, as they do not consider the costs of growing maize on their property. Women who do not have direct or indirect access to land or to maize production must buy maize in regional markets. Ordinarily, they look for hybrids produced in intensive systems, as they are cheaper than native maize varieties .
Paradoxically, until the restrictions on activities due to the pandemic were set in place, the women who earned the highest income were those who sold at a permanent store and bought this hybrid maize. On average, they made the biggest sales volume, and hired at least one employee. They also had the capacity to pay the monthly rent of the store, the land use fees collected by the Municipality Market administration, and other expenses such as gas, water, and electricity. In contrast, women who produce tortillas at home and sell them at La Placita generally use biomass fuels (wood and garbage), which represents the lowest rung on the energy ladder. Admittedly, fuel inequality and the use of inefficient technologies is an understudied indicator of energy poverty .
Table 2 summarizes the different tortilla sales strategies by marketplace, highlighting some inequalities related to the acquisition of corn flour, as well as the preparation and sale of handmade tortillas.
During first period COVID-19 pandemic
Throughout 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to put in place extraordinary health, social, and economic measures to reduce the massive spread and lethality of SARS-CoV2 . Among these measures is the classification of activities by importance to the wellbeing of societies, giving functionality to some occupations, reorganizing others, and canceling those perceived as less necessary during confinement. Mexico established these emergent actions on March 23rd, as the country entered the most challenging quarantine period. One of the government-dictated measures was that the food sector would remain classified as an essential activity; accordingly, the food systems would continue to operate in their entirety , including all permanent marketplaces. On the other hand, the opening of tianguis was left to the interpretation of local (municipal) governments. These measures changed over the course of the pandemic and adjusted to the social, economic, and political demands of society to cope with the different waves of COVID-19 infection rates in Mexico.
The second phase of this study was conducted precisely after the first measures were implemented. They kept the population in restrictive confinement (June to August 2020). The municipal government of Ixtlahuaca did not allow the Travelling Tianguis to continue operating during the first 3 months of the quarantine period in Mexico (March to May 2020). By contrast the La Placita and Municipal Markets did not stop their commercial activities during the entire period.
This situation did not translate into greater advantages for the women who continued to sell their tortillas in La Placita. Before the pandemic, we observe that they experience very significant inequalities marked by old social structures. Their lives are lived in subordination because of their gender, class, ethnicity, age, and family life circle. Recent studies have shown that the predominance of norms, values and cultural beliefs regulating the social structures in traditional communities, are factors that undergo few or no transformation in the relations and roles of gender when facing economic crises or instability [31, 39].
Under such rigid structure, the conditions of vulnerability in which many Mazahua women live (low levels of education, limited access to economic resources, empty nest, energy poverty) [5, 37], become also determinant factors in reducing the possibilities to react with coping strategies when faced with the scenario of uncertainty that the pandemic brought about in its initial stage of confinement. Nevertheless, depending on the type of market where they sell their tortillas and the food needs of their households, it was viable to identify who had more room for maneuver to continue their work. For example, the women selling at La Placita did not develop alternative strategies to the production and sale of tortillas that would provide them with other means of sustenance. In consequence, they risked continuing to sell every day at the marketplace and on the sidewalks, despite the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection that this represented.
During this timeframe (March–July) the poorest and oldest women experienced a marginal increase in tortilla sales, since the restrictions that conditioned them before the pandemic (production capacity and mobility, related to the weight of their baskets) continued to persist and briefly acted in their favor.
Those who do not produce their own maize were forced to increase the price of handmade tortillas by 30% (Table 2). This was because the price of hybrid maize has also increased, despite policies that aim to guarantee the supply of this basic grain at affordable prices during this time of health crisis. The price of gas and electricity has also risen, compromising the livelihood of these women at Municipality Market, who sacrifice profit margins to remain competitive, especially in the light of the fact that the price of industrialized corn flour tortillas has not increased.
On the other hand, who have school-age children have experienced other limitations that have subjected them to further class and family life cycle (reproductive period). For example, they encountered drastically reduced times at their disposal for the preparation and selling of tortillas. Some even had to abandon this activity altogether, particularly if the burden of household activities (chores and care of children or family members suffering from COVID-19) had increased. Indeed, online education and at-home learning, means they now must devote more time to their children’s learning, which restricts the ability to leave home to earn a living. As a result, many have impoverished themselves and gone into debt to have access to computers, cell phones, internet, and electricity. These debts increase with the purchase of medicines and expenses for private medical consultations to treat infected family members or themselves.
It would have been expected that women established in the Municipal Market would have faced this restrictive period with better performance due to their economic capabilities. However, they have been unable to either sustain the cost of renting and nor securing jobs. The municipal administration has not stopped collecting fees. This has subjected sellers to a new economic crisis, with debts accumulating. Some have been threatened by the marketplace management with not renewing selling permits, or even canceling valid ones.
Among the limitations of this study, besides the challenge of doing field work amid mobility restrictions, is that it was not possible to investigate an emerging market that took on importance. The sale from door of door is in fact the least explored market that appears to be a more recurrent strategy in the region of Central Mexico in the face of the health crisis.
Although this market was not analyzed due to its own mobility dynamics from door to door, two women who previously had their stalls in the Traveling Tianguis, they resorted to selling their tortillas in this mode to be able to obtain an income and cover the new expenses that increased at home (the cost of the internet or the purchase of electronics for online learning, medications, etc.).
Tortillas are essential in the Mexican food, and they are part of the eating habits of most people in the Mexican society, besides, the tortillas are used to prepare a great variety of Mexican (patrimonial) dishes [9, 10]. Many rural women who cook them, saw the opportunity to enter this market during periods of restricted mobility to acquire the handmade tortillas or industrial made tortillas in fixed establishments. Thanks to this emerging feminine strategy, it is highly possible that women are contributing to the food security of many rural households in Mexico, especially in the face of restriction and low mobility .
Certainly, food anthropology has been interest to analyze the markets where the rural and poor women sell the traditional tortillas: on the sidewalks of the cities’ streets and in the markets of Mexico , as well as from house to house . In this past decade, the attentiveness has been accentuated since Mexican food was declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO .
A few studies show that in this large-scale cultural movement, it is the chefs promoting the Mexican cuisine at the international level who have benefited from the work, experience, knowledge, and vulnerability conditions experienced by women who produce tortillas by hand in such kitchens as employees with the lowest staff salaries, as well as by the direct or indirect purchase of those tortillas at much lower prices than in the formal market . Even so, women prefer to accept this reality than not to earn a living.
Government decisions to slow down the country's economy in order to contain the contagion did not completely stop the informal economy , where a large part of the sale of food takes place on the streets, including ethnic foods such as corn tortillas. It would be worth asking if economic rationality is really part of these emerging feminine strategies, because these women take the risks of contagion to carry and sell this food on the streets and at people’s homes.
At the beginning of the quarantine and the mobility restrictions, the intermediaries in the sale of tortillas disappeared in the markets researched. This along with the closure of the Traveling Tianguis meant a twofold blow for women that used to sell their tortillas there. In this context, these women had no income during the 3 months the market was closed. The lack of any other source of income, supplies, health services, the lack of ability to access financial resources, among other means to acquire corn or sow it, have reduced the possibilities of returning and recovering their spaces to sell in this market, which was rehabilitated since the month of August in 2020. Coupled with the increase in the prices of inputs, it is inferred that their return will demand long-term indebtedness and pre-existing gender inequalities in rural areas will deepen.