Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tortilla Woman

Tortilla Woman understands the need for love, passion and romance. She helps those who deserve it meet these needs. Her discretion and wisdom in such matters is laudable and this is what makes her a folk heroine.
The story Tortilla Woman and accompanying recipes/foodlore are included in the newly released Black Pepper Visions: Original Folktales & Stories You Can Eat (FolkHeart Press 2012).

In the Mexican desert looking for flat rocks to use for cooking special tortillas, Tortilla Woman overheard a young mother scolding the child clinging to the hem of her colorful skirt. The child cried to be carried in her mother’s arms.

“I told you the trip was not easy, but you wanted to come along anyway. Well, here we are and you changed your mind. You can see that my hands are full and that I still need to pick the cactus bark your father likes to chew at night. I have no room for you now, child.”

“Mama, I’m tired.” "The little girl begged.

“If we rest I will not have time to pick enough bark. Your father will be very unhappy.”

“But Mama!” The child pulled on her mother’s skirt.

“Children,” Tortilla Woman gently smiled as she approached them. It had been a long time since she’d come across others on the edge of the desert and she did not want to startle them. Unlike the lizards and other creatures she would sing to announce her arrival, people from the pueblo were no longer familiar with women like her who called the desert home. People just didn’t travel to the desert much anymore. Cactus flowers that blossomed into fruit were no longer important. Neither were the rocks, that and thin enough to quickly cook tortillas that could heal broken hearts. Food was purchased at markets by people who no longer had time for the old ways.

 “What do you want?” The mother dropped the bright pink cactus flowers in her hands and quickly directed her child to stand behind her.

Times had changed since Tortilla Woman was a young woman. Back then the desert outskirts were a playfield for children who followed their mothers as they harvested the cacti and talked to Tortilla Woman about their problems. Too young to help harvest, the children would chase one another around while their mothers filled their baskets with prickly pears and other cactus treats that later would become salsa. Many of the children, now grown up, had moved away from the pueblo to larger villas where they earned money they spent on TV satellite dishes, movies, and batteries for their children’s radios. She knew it was a rarity to come across this mother and child.

Maybe, she thought, they were lost. Just the same she was happy to see them. Anymore she spent her days alone. Preparing the sun-ripened corn which she ground into maize and occasionally traded in the pueblo for firewood, queso, and salsa took all of her time. The only one left of her family to make treasured healing maize, she had little time to have friends. Besides, she knew there were some in the pueblo who believed her, her mother, aunt and grandmother were brujas malas. But these women cast no evil spells. They did not cause the desert streams to flow into pools that drowned the corn fields of others.

“I make maize and tortillas as round and as golden as the sun,” Tortilla Woman smiled and then winked at the young girl.

“What do you want? The child is mine!” The mother’s nostrils flared. Back arched she glared at Tortilla Woman.

“I can see that you are very tired. Because you have brought your daughter along and had to take care of her, you have not been able to collect enough bark for your husband. Will he beat you?” Tortilla Woman pointed to the bruise on the mother’s arm.

“That is no business of yours!” The young mother quickly placed her arm behind her.

“I can help if you will let me. But you must leave your child with me. I can make tortillas so big they will stretch between those two cacti over there, like a blanket overhead. I can make tortillas so small that they are easy for your little one to eat. She can rest in the shade while you gather more bark,” Tortilla Woman spoke slowly. With each word, she exhaled calming puffs of air that helped the mother relax.

The woman was right to be concerned about her child’s safety after all there were wild dogs in the desert that could at a moment’s notice drag the girl away. But Tortilla Woman was not a wild dog any more than she was evil.

“What if I return to find her gone?” The mother squinted.

“You won’t. And if you find her unhappy, she’ll be no different than she is right now,” Tortilla Woman looked the woman straight in the eyes and answered the unasked question. “She will be here when you return.”

Glancing over her shoulder to see her child grinning up at the older woman, the young mother sighed. She kissed her daughter on the forehead.

“I’ll be back soon,” the young mother waved as she left.

“Whenever you like,” Tortilla Woman responded. Then she turned to the child. She was going to build her a lovely place in the shade. The child reached out for the short woman who hugged her and eagerly held her hand.

Tortilla Woman laid out the rocks she had collected and quickly cut the skin of a cactus limb to let its juices mix with the handful of maize she always carried with her. In no time at all she had prepared a tortilla that would stretch between two cacti like a roof over the child. As she worked, she told the girl how she herself had been raised by women who taught her to make special corn cakes. Flat and yellow-white, they were more than just food. She then pinched off a bit of the tortilla roof and made animal shaped tortillas and birds she knew by name. Immediately the child stuffed herself with freshly cooked food and swiftly grew tired.

“Children are like that,” Tortilla Woman wiped down her cooking stones and sat down alongside the girl under the roof’s protective shade. The mother, afraid of what might happen to her daughter, did not stay away for long. Returning, she came upon her child still asleep.

“You kept your word, you can be trusted,” the young mother said. “I must go now. Here, take a few pieces of bark. I want to repay you for your care of my child.” She held out splinters of rugged, dried cactus skin.

“That is not necessary. Bring the girl with you again if you wish. Let her spend the afternoon with me. Her giggles are sweet. That will be payment enough,” Tortilla Woman asked for nothing more.

“Come, wake up. It is time to go home,” the mother nudged the sleeping girl.

“I don’t want to wake up.” The child rubbed her eyes.

“Next time you can stay longer,” the mother promised.

“But I want to stay now,” the child pouted.

“Children,” Tortilla Woman said, then watched the girl and her mother walk away. She knew that the mother and child would be back in a few days because the mother needed the bark. It made her husband happy.

The bruise on the young woman’s arm told her he was the kind of man who hit his wife because she had not provided him with enough after-dinner bark. She knew he would also be surprised, even suspicious of the bark she could provide.

“Where are these from?” he asked that very evening.

In all their time in the same house, she had never before brought home so much bark. She was not going to tell him about Tortilla Woman for he was among those who believed that women like her who live without men were witches.

“Have you been keeping this much from me all along?” He stood ready to strike her again.

“No, good husband, no,” she scrambled to her feet. “What you have said before about me has been true. I have been lazy. I have not picked fast enough,” she lied, her eyes racing quickly over to where the child sat. Her stare demanded the girl to be silent.

“Let this be a lesson, lazy woman.” He struck her one last time, pulled the bark close to his side, and did not strike her again the rest of the evening.

Tortilla Woman knew the young mother would come again soon to the desert’s edge and when she did, Tortilla Woman handed her several tortillas wrapped in cloth. “Serve them with dinner. They are special,” she said.

“Made in the full light of day they are rolled in red pepper sugar before I put them on the stones to cook. They will bring out the sweetness of love for the one who eats them.” Tortilla Woman wanted the husband to care so much for his wife that he would never hit her again.

But, night after night, exhausted from having eaten so much bark, the husband instead would fall asleep without so much as a kind word. He would not move until the morning light reached him. The young mother would wake in the night and wait for the signs of sweetness Tortilla Woman spoke of. She found only his snores. Disappointed, she tried to go back to sleep, but could not.

Frustrated, she decided to throw the remaining tortillas away. Stepping outside she looked up and down the street to be sure it was empty. The last thing she needed was for someone to see her. Word would get back to her husband that she herself might be a bruja. Why else would she be up and about while others slept?

She headed past the well towards the edge of the pueblo, to where it met the jagged desert that stretched for miles. That was where she planned to leave the crusty flat cakes. “Let the dogs take them,” she whispered, unaware that someone else unable to sleep had been watching her every move.

Manuel had gone to the well to cool off. The sweat of dreams that ran him in circles beaded his skin. Even in sleep he had not been able to escape the way he had blinded one of his friends. Not once had he believed that his friend would take his dare. “Touch my novia and you will not see my sweetheart any more,” he had said while drunk, not expecting the other man who was also drunk to take up the challenge.

Standing by the well, Manuel who had returned to the pueblo from a larger city to escape prosecution watched the young mother walk by with the tortillas. It had been a long time since he’d last been close to her.

“Good evening,” he kept his voice low.

“Oh!” the young mother was startled. She hadn’t expected to see anyone or anything other than a lone, stray dog searching for something to eat. For a moment in the darkness, their eyes met. She lowered hers first. Just the sight of him caused her skin to tingle.

“No,” she told herself. She was a married woman and could not allow herself to think about Manuel. Many years before he had been the man she wanted but he had left to find his fortune in one of the larger, fast-growing cities. She had heard at the time that he had had also found himself a novia. She excused herself and continued walking.

Recognizing the footsteps that now followed, the young mother absently reached for a tortilla. Without thinking, she nibbled on its sugary edge. Her pace slowed down; Manuel caught up to her. A thin smile on her lips, she offered a tortilla to him. His fingers brushed hers as he took the offering.

Quietly, they arrived at the edge of town and stepped into the shadows. Kissing, the young mother sensed warmth inside that she had not felt in a very long time. She wanted the night to last forever.

Tortilla Woman did not know when the young mother asked her for more sun-baked sugar tortillas that she was feeding them to Manuel.

“I will be back soon,” there was a leafy shadow over the woman’s eyes. Tortilla Woman assumed the vines of love that were growing inside of the young woman were entwined with her husband’s. She herself had not been with a man. The women of her family only met with men to have children and raising a child was something Tortilla Woman did not want to do on her own. Over the years, long after her thick, raven-black hair turned into thin strands of silver she wound up each day into a bun at the nape of her neck, she contented herself with making tortillas that could feed love and heal the cracks of a broken heart. Still there were times when she wondered how her life might have been had she chosen otherwise.

A few days later, Tortilla Woman again heard childish squeals. She smiled; glad that she and the child were getting to spend more time together. They had already spent many afternoons together and the girl now ran into Tortilla Woman’s arms when she saw her. This time, though, the girl was breathless. Breathing hard, she shook like a mini earthquake.

“What’s this?” Tortilla Woman had been about to ask when she caught sight of the mother clutching the arms of a man whose grin was outlined in specks of red pepper sugar.

“I am here today,” the mother released her hold on the man and took a step forward, “to be with him. Can you watch the child for a while?”

“Ah…” Tortilla Woman nodded. “Do you need a private place?” If so, she could cook them a tortilla big enough to blanket them both while she cared for the child. Taking in a deep breath she pulled in some of the air between the young mother and Manuel. She knew this was not the husband who beat her. Yet there was something about him, about the way he looked down at the ground instead of into Tortilla Woman’s eyes that told her that he was a man whose passion could become dangerous.

“I have only seen him in the dark, when my husband is asleep. I brought him here where you have more than enough light…” Again, the woman stumbled over her words.

Closing her eyes for a moment, Tortilla Woman sighed. If she denied the young mother one hour of time, she may never see the child again. If the child were kept busy, then the young mother would have a chance to get what she wanted and that would be the end of that. Tortilla Woman could feel that the man was getting ready to leave the pueblo again so this one time wouldn’t repeat itself.

Taking the ball of tortilla dough she had prepared for the child, Tortilla Woman flattened it between the palms of her hands. She placed it on the flat rock and pushed its center until it was stretched in all directions. At last it was large enough for her to wrap around the young mother and Manuel. Like the layers of a cocoon, the sheet of cooked corn flour went around and around their bodies. Careful to gather in their legs, Tortilla Woman folded and tucked under the ends so that no part of the couple could be seen. With a gentle push, she rolled the now- stuffed tortilla towards the cactus where the child usually took her nap. She grabbed the child’s hand and walked away.

“She is an adult,” Tortilla Woman thought of the young mother who was now coupled with the man in the tortilla. Glancing back she saw their desire bursting out from the corn shell. Flames of reds, oranges, and yellows were everywhere. Anyone looking up at the sky might think there was a fire somewhere in the desert.

“No!” Tortilla Woman knew that no one must see them. If the lovers were found out, the young mother would surely get more than a beating from her husband. He might even throw her out of the pueblo, denying her access to her own child.

Child in tow, Tortilla Woman went back to where she had baked their tortilla. She quickly cooked one more that she shaped into a roof to shield the cocooned lovers should anyone come looking. It did not take long for the tortilla cocoon to stop rocking back and forth. “Maybe they have fallen asleep,” she said of the quiet that now replaced the passion.

“A nap would be good,” Tortilla Woman was pleased. She believed the young mother would wake up refreshed from such a long sleep. Then she’d be alert and awake for her daughter. At the thought of the child happy because her mother was not tired, she smiled. “Then surely the child will come again tomorrow,” Tortilla Woman hummed.

The e next day Tortilla Woman heard the murmur of voices coming her way. Excited that she would see the child’s wide shining face, she froze when the young mother appeared without her. Instead there was only Manuel.

“Where is the child? I have made her extra animal tortillas,” Tortilla Woman was surprised.

“She is home,” Manuel stepped out in front of the young mother who stood eyes downcast, in his shadow. “We want you to wrap us up again,” he demanded.

“She has agreed,” he spoke to the look of concern in Tortilla Woman’s round, brown face.

“All right,” Tortilla Woman felt the hair on the back of her neck rise. Manuel had changed. No longer a man full of passion, he was telling the young mother she had to lie with him.

“Or else I might tell her husband that we’ve been together,” the man hissed.

Pretending she did not see the invisible vines of love harden into chain that linked the young mother to the man, Tortilla Woman only nodded. Then she set out to flatten another white tortilla. This time, however, she made sure that it had not cooked evenly.

“The man first, always the man first,” Tortilla Woman said. She knew how to make him feel important. Straightening his shoulders he did as she instructed and lay down on the tortilla. Motioning the young mother to be quiet, Tortilla Woman wrapped him up. As she worked, Manuel asked when the young mother was going to join him.

“In due time,” Tortilla Woman hurried, a gleam in her eyes.

“Hey, wait!” Manuel’s muffled cry came through the many layers that now had been rolled around him.

Standing behind the mound, Tortilla Woman signaled for the young mother to help her. Together they pushed the burrito over the edge of a desert ledge. The tortilla rolled down between crevice walls until it landed in a bed of thickly branched cactus. Out of sight it would not be seen by anyone unless they were willing to climb down the steep wall and search through the cactus. And who would know to do that?

“Oh!” The woman, both shocked and relieved, threw her arms around Tortilla Woman who said, “He will feel nothing. In time the tortilla and he will dissolve.”

Tortilla Woman waited many days for the child to arrive again. Still sitting by the stones at night, she ground the last of the corn into fine powder. “Tomorrow she must come.” Angrily, she spoke to the darkness. It was all that had remained of the day. Glancing back over her shoulder, she stared at the cactus where she usually met them. Even in the darkness she could make out the cactus’ browning tips. “Tomorrow,” she repeated herself, “tomorrow the girl will come.”

“Maybe the child is ill and her mother cannot leave her side,” Tortilla Woman told herself as she pushed hard against the kernels of corn she was grinding into maize. After it grew dark she would go into the pueblo and look for them.

Wrapped in a shawl and with a few flat sweet pepper tortillas in hand she left the desert. A small woman, she stayed in the shadows until she neared the young mother’s house. It was low to the ground and offered only one window Tortilla Woman could look into. Breath quickening, she hurried towards the house; the idea of seeing the child excited her. In a rush she moved past the well, the tortillas still bundled in her arms.

“Hey!” She cried out when someone reached out for her. As she fell, the bundle dropped to the ground. “Those are mine!” she said as the man scooped up the tortillas.

Hungry, he ate one.  “I am sorry… I haven’t eaten in a while. Mmmm,” he praised the taste. He had never before eaten such delicious tortillas. “They are sun-filled,” he said with a smile.

“Give them back, they are for the child,” she demanded of the stranger whose gently wrinkled skin was like hers.

“Your child?” And then, before Tortilla Woman could answer, the man handed the tortillas back to her. “Forgive me, senora. I’m a foolish, selfish man. But it has been days since I last ate and much longer than that since I’ve tasted anything as wonderful as this. How can I repay you for what I have eaten? Perhaps the child will need...”

“No, put your money away. My tortillas are free.” They were a gift. No one was supposed to charge for or pay for them other than trade. That’s always the way it had been. “Excuse me, please. I must be on my way now. The girl is…”

“Let me at least walk you to where you are going,” he offered as she raised one arm to point to where the child lived. Tortilla Woman nodded her head. Yes, she would let him walk with her. And there were still tortillas left, enough for the child.

“I am Santiago,” His handsome face could be seen in the darkness.

“I live in the desert,” Tortilla Woman offered little else about herself. She’d never seen this man before. Was he to be trusted?

Outside the young mother’s house, Tortilla Woman thanked Santiago for having escorted her. Then she turned to peer into the window.

“What are you doing?” The man asked.

Tortilla Woman did not bother to answer. Instead she walked to the window and stood on her toes. Nothing. She saw nothing. The house was empty. No husband, no young mother, no little girl.

“They are gone.” Her face had turned white.

“What? Your child? But this is my house and I live alone.” The man, beginning to feel the sweet tortilla’s power, rushed to her side. He reached out for her shoulders, wanting to draw her close to him. “Let me help you find your child,” he peered into her face.

“She is not mine, she belongs to the woman who lived here,” Tortilla Woman stepped out of the man’s embrace. She searched Santiago’s face for a clue.

“They moved back to the pueblo of her husband’s family and gave me this place,” he gently explained. “His mother was dying…” Santiago watched as Tortilla Woman headed back to the desert.

The next morning when she came again to the desert’s edge hoping to see the young mother and child, he was there waiting. Through tears she could not hold back she listened as he asked permission to see her from time to time. She said nothing. Instead she baked a small tortilla to repair the crack she now had in her own heart.

Over time, she found herself enjoying visits with Santiago whose deep brown eyes reminded her of roasted cacao beans before they were ground into paste for chocolate. She liked to hear him talk about his life.

“Where I come from, along the coast, there are people everywhere. Each morning, the marketplace chatter spreads across town. Fish sellers and basket weavers compete to see who can yell the loudest. And there are always people arriving in boats from other lands.” Santiago would talk for hours.

“Buy why did you leave?” Tortilla Woman asked many questions; she liked the sound of his voice.

“I had to,” he stopped talking to look away as though there was something in the distance that captured his attention. “My wife’s father had been dragged down to his death by the ocean’s salty hands. She threw herself into those same waters in order to find him. That place was no longer my home.”

Grief stricken, he had come looking for a family of women who could cure a broken heart. He’d been told to look towards the desert. “I still have not found those women, but I have found you and already my heart grows stronger.”

Tortilla Woman glanced away as he spoke. She did not want him to see her staring at his firm brown face, his deep-set dark eyes.

“Have you ever heard of these women?” Santiago got to his feet. Looking past the square line of his broad shoulders, Tortilla Woman shook her head. “They are all gone now, except for one and she rarely comes out of the desert.”

 “It doesn’t really matter. I find I am happy here. As long as I can see you…” He stepped out in front of Tortilla Woman.

“Yes, well, I must go now to grind more corn,” the words quickly hid her blush.

“Wait! Won’t you let me help?” Santiago called after her. Watching her walk away, he smiled. He knew she would appear again like the delicate cacti blooms that would in time fully reveal themselves.

Red Pepper Sugar
2 handfuls of sugar
2 pinches of dried red chili peppers
Tortillas quartered and fried.
Mix sugar and peppers in a bowl. Sprinkle the mix over the tortillas while they are still warm.


Chili Peppers
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. There is archaeological evidence at sites located in southwestern Ecuador showing that chili peppers were domesticated more than 6000 years ago. Following the arrival of Columbus, chili
peppers spread around the world as both food and medicine.

Here are some of ways different cultures use chili peppers:

Paprikash from Hungary: uses significant amounts of mild, ground, dried chilies, (paprika) in a braised chicken dish

Mole poblano from Mexico: uses several varieties of dried chilies, nuts, spices, and fruits to produce a thick, dark poultry/meat sauce

Puttanesca sauce from Italy: a tomato-based sauce for pasta that includes dried hot chilies


  1. Thank you, Cathy.
    Tortilla Woman is a beautiful folk heroine! Someone I wish we all had access to.