Eating to Dream: A Tortillería in Oaxaca

In the following excerpts from a conversation in December, Ramírez Leyva, a Mixtec restaurant owner in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca, calls for a profound rethinking of the market-based models of profit and trade that lie at the heart of capitalist understandings of food policy.

Deborah Poole and Benjamín Alonso Rascón

Like other Latin Americans, Mexicans today face the threat of severe food shortages. To understand the causes of the food crisis in Mexico, we must look at the ill-conceived agricultural and trade policies championed by the country’s elites. NAFTA, for example, has benefited northern agribusinesses with favorable trade and labor conditions, while abandoning the small peasant and indigenous producers who formed the backbone of the Mexican Revolution. While Mexican tomatoes cross the border with relative ease, Mexican agricultural laborers face severe restrictions and receive only minimum or sub-minimum wages for the work they perform in orchards and fields in California, Texas, and Oregon. The situation is so severely skewed in favor of large producers that it is actually cheaper for Oaxacans to go to Wal-Mart and buy an apple picked by “illegal” Oaxacans in far-off Oregon than it is to buy the more flavorful and virtually organic “creole apples” grown locally.

To understand the challenge of rethinking food and the food crisis on a different political register from that historically offered by the liberal state, we met with Amado Ramírez Leyva, a Mixtec restaurant owner in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca. Ramírez gives little credence to the idea that the food crisis can be dealt with through government policies and programs. Instead, he, like many other Oaxacans, calls for a thorough revaluation of the social relations through which food is produced and consumed. His philosophy of politics and food goes beyond the immediate question of how to solve the shortage of food in the current moment. Rather, Ramírez sees food as a crucial site of sociality where politics emerges as an ethical position that informs social relations in daily life, as well as in popular struggles for social justice.

Ramírez’s starting point for advancing this philosophy is his restaurant Itanoni, located in the city’s Colonia Reforma (www.itanoni.com.mx). In the following excerpts from a conversation in December, Ramírez calls for a profound rethinking of the market-based models of profit and trade that lie at the heart of capitalist understandings of food policy. Although the opinions presented here are his, the Itanoni restaurant is just one of many collective initiatives through which rural and urban Oaxacans are working to promote rooftop gardens, indigenous seed varieties, and traditional agricultural technologies.

Itanoni opened for business on October 12, 2002. We began as basically a tortillería, selling tortillas made in the traditional manner from maíz criollo [indigenous or “heirloom” varieties of corn]. Still today, we choose to call ourselves a tortillería and snack bar, because we want to reclaim the role of the tortillería as a site for the generation of food and sustenance. A tortilla is not an elaborate sort of food, it is simple. The tortilla, by definition, is a provocation.

The impetus behind Itanoni is to provide a point of contact between two worlds that have existed alongside each other for many centuries. What are these two worlds? One is the urban world of the consumers. The other is the world of corn producers, a whole universe that has been marginalized since the arrival of the Spanish. Who knows, maybe it was even more marginalized with the Spaniards then now? But the important point is that, politically speaking, what is required is a point of contact, of dialogue between these two worlds. In this respect, the Zapatista movement has been a crucial point of contact between these two worlds.

The urban, industrial world is in profound crisis. People go around looking for short-term remedies, for patches that can be used to fix the financial crisis. This is the most absurd of all—these people don’t produce any food yet they have turned everyone’s world all upside down! The other big crisis is the food crisis. The quantity of land under cultivation has not increased. It could be increased, yet it has not because food production depends on the whims of a speculative market. In this respect, the same thing is happening in the world of food as in the financial world. Because it is the market that rules.

But what is the other world, the world of the corn producers? The negative aspect of this world is the low level of production, and also the fact that people no longer believe in what they have. In this world, the crisis makes itself felt in the fact that people no longer believe. In Oaxaca food offers a marvelous space for social dialogue and exchange. When there is a fiesta, everyone is invited. Because the way to communicate and to eliminate social differences (nivelarse) is through food. Food is in this respect a powerful space for dialogue and for re-creating ourselves. Not only is it a space of dialogue between two human worlds; it is also a space that joins human and non-human worlds, vegetable, animal, and mineral worlds.

So why did Itanoni begin to construct this space through corn? Itanoni is a Mixtec word that means “corn flower.” Corn is a very special food. Every country and every culture in the world has grown through three things: a cereal, a technology, and a wine or alcoholic drink. Europe has wheat, Asia rice, and in our Americas we have corn. But the world of corn is special for the following reason: Corn is a human invention. There are ancestral forms of wheat and rice. But what science has identified as the ancestor of corn is a grass: teosintle. It is a grass from which corn emerged only as a result of an exchange between this grass and humans. In this respect, corn is the product of a dialogue between the human and the vegetable worlds. Humans may have evolved naturally, but corn could not have been created unless humans started to converse with teosintle. To understand this is to understand the world in a very different way.

OK. So we have a system in which the urban world dominates. There are two routes through which we can solve this conflict between the two worlds. One is to reinforce the market system. I believe we will not succeed in changing anything if we follow this route because it is a deadly system. Are we going to nurse the market in its final days? It is easier to begin building a different world. To believe in this new world we must begin to dream. In the past, corn taught us to be humans. Today, at a time when the market rules, what we believe is that corn can help us once again to recuperate our humanity.

At Itanoni we work creole corn through two types of cooperatives. No one else produces for us. We follow the model of peasant production in which the same family produces, stores, processes, and consumes the corn. Itanoni follows this model, but in an urban world, in the form of a restaurant. Our cooperative members are independent, family-based producers. We are not interested in working with commercial producers because to build a different world we must reinvent everything. So we started out producing our own corn, then beans, and later carrots and all the other inputs for the restaurant.

And now Itanoni has transformed itself into a structure that is based on a principle of food autonomy. In Europe and the United States people are also working with the principle of local production. I think that each area of the world, each people must reinvent itself according to its own experiences and histories, not to return to the past—there is no point in returning to the past only in order to remain there. There is only one reason to return to the past, and that is so that we can improve the present and reinvent the future. I am not interested in creating an economic structure in which I gain and others lose. We have to reinvent our economic models. In Itanoni, for example, we had to reinvent a new system of cost accounting and administration in order to sustain our collective dream. In this way, we reinvent the world, but we start very small.

We know that we are part of a new movement. I have been personally inspired by the Zapatista movement. I don’t know exactly what they are doing, but I know that they are working to build something different and new. The same thing goes for our restaurant. Today all of us need to have our dream. Each of us needs to reinvent ourselves. The only thing I know is that this new world we build is going to be diverse. Transnational [agribusiness] envisions a world based on homogenization, but what we think about is global diversity. In this way, through thinking and acting, we work out from each corn variety, from each family, from each group to give life to our dreams.


Deborah Poole is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Program in Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Benjamín Alonso Rascón is an independent communicator who works with the alternative radio station Radio Bemba (radiobemba.org). In 2007 he received Mexico’s National Journalism Award for his radio coverage of the previous year’s uprising in Oaxaca.

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