Collective owned by Pennsylvania immigrants provides corn for tortillas

The seeds of Masa Cooperativa were planted at South Philly Barbacoa. (Photo: Google Maps)

The seeds of Masa Cooperativa were planted at South Philly Barbacoa. (Photo: Google Maps)

Kneeling on the tile of the People’s Kitchen in South Philadelphia, Carmen Guerrero leaned her whole body into the stone.

This is how she had learned to make corn masa for tortillas with her mother in Mexico. And it is how she learned the craft from her grandmother, pressing down the midnight-blue corn with a crackle like the crunching of leaves, working the grain over and over with a rounded stone across a porous lava table called a metate. Wetted with the palm of her hand, the corn-masa dough took on the satisfying consistency of potter’s clay.

Centuries before Columbus, this is also how it was done.

“You see? You have to use muscles!” she said, laughing as an onlooker attempted to take over the grind.

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For Guerrero, the corn is more than just corn: It is a once-severed link to the past, and the means to a livelihood. The event at community restaurant People’s Kitchen on Nov. 18 was an open house for a new worker-owned collective called Masa Cooperativa, designed to give undocumented immigrants a legal way to profit from their labor.

Using rare varieties of indigenous corn thought lost for generations, the members of Masa Cooperativa make and sell corn masa to local restaurants and at special events beginning in January, which they will announce on Masa Cooperativa’s Facebook page.

The six members of the collective also help harvest the corn, from farms in nearby Berks and Lancaster Counties or in the backyards of the collective’s members.

“I’m so proud, because of my roots as an Indigenous person, Aztec and Mayan,” Guerrero said. “I remember how my grandparents and my parents worked. And I remember it was very hard. But I’m very proud about doing this.”

Guerrero’s presence at the public event was in some ways an act of courage. She is herself an undocumented immigrant.

She was kidnapped in Mexico on Christmas Eve of 1999. Though she was released two days later, she no longer felt safe in the place where she grew up. And so she fled north, to an unfamiliar country she had never intended to call home.

She’d owned a food distribution company in Mexico City. But in Pennsylvania, she had no legal means of finding employment. Like many in her situation, she instead worked long hours at low wages, cleaning hotel rooms or washing dishes at restaurants.

Guerrero still can’t file employment papers. But there’s a loophole of sorts. The same way Belgians own Budweiser, she can legally own a business in the United States and profit from it.

“What I came to understand after talking to immigration attorneys is that to be a business owner, you don’t have to have any sort of legal immigration status,” said Ben Miller, co-owner of renowned taqueria South Philly Barbacoa and one of six founders of Masa Cooperativa. “And that’s not a law that’s going to change anytime soon. Because there are billionaire investors in other countries that open up factories in the United States. And they’re not going to be barred from making money from their business.”

Worker-owned cooperatives, often more associated with organic grocery stores and left-leaning cafes, are increasingly becoming a means for immigrants and other underserved groups to take ownership of their work and avoid exploitation of their vulnerable legal status — particularly in areas such as New York and the West Coast that have organizations in place to help cooperatives organize.

“It’s not a safe harbor for their immigration status. But as far as earning a living … we’re trying to change the narrative from immigrants taking jobs to immigrants creating jobs,” said Charlotte Tsui, an attorney for Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, which provides legal services for nonprofits and community organizations. She stresses that businesses formed by undocumented immigrants must pay taxes, same as any other business.

One of the main barriers to immigrants becoming self-employed, said Tsui, is that many don’t know the option is available to them.

“There’s an element of wanting to encourage other undocumented workers to not be afraid to create a means of livelihood for themselves,” Tsui said.

Forging an immigrant-owned tortilla cooperative

The seeds of Masa Cooperativa were planted at South Philly Barbacoa.

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Cristina Martinez, chef and co-owner of the famed taqueria, is an undocumented immigrant who’d lost her job as a pastry chef after her work status was discovered. She started her own barbacoa business from her kitchen, before expanding into a full-service restaurant in 2015.

South Philly Barbacoa’s whole-animal butchery and fresh-masa tortillas, along with Martinez’s story, propelled the restaurant onto documentary series Chef’s Table and into the pages of Bon Appetit. That success became, in part, a proof of concept for the Cooperativa.

Hard work has always been the secret to delicious tortillas. The same way a world-class sandwich begins with fresh-baked bread, a taco can only be as good as its wrapper.

From the beginning South Philly Barbacoa was one of few places in Pennsylvania to make tortillas according to old and laborious traditions, from fresh corn that must first undergo a process called nixtamalization, cooked with an alkaline substance called lime that helps soften its kernels and release the nutrients buried within.

But the overwhelming majority of tortillas served in United States restaurants are stamped out in a factory. Even among taquerias that press their own corn tortillas, versions made with fresh masa can be difficult to find. Instead, most tortillas are made from industrial flour.

What goes missing is texture, and flavor: the telltale soft give and light chew with each bite, the encompassing aroma of grain, the surprising complexity of heirloom corn that’s been softened and gently slipped from its hulls. By comparison, a supermarket tortilla might as well be a hot dog bun.

“The tortilla that’s fresh off of the flattop is kind of incomparable to anything, you know?” Miller said.

A few years ago, South Philly Barbacoa ended up with a bumper crop of corn from local farmers — and began selling extra masa that they didn’t need for the restaurant’s own tacos and quesadillas.

From there, the notion took hold: What if corn masa could became its own business, owned and run by undocumented workers who could create a source of income that wasn’t perilous? From conception, it took more than three years to pull the Masa Cooperativa together as an equal partnership among activists and undocumented immigrants.

“The democratic thing takes a longer time, you know?” Miller said. “It’s also more complicated in terms of accounting and taxes and bylaws and all this other stuff that we really had to study, and then also just building relationships with farmers and getting the space together.”

With its official launch at the People’s Kitchen, the Cooperativa is now gathering customers. Some travel from as far away as Boston for heirloom corn masa, said Miller. Others are closer to home.

“The masa is really good. Like, it’s the best tortilla you will ever have. You can taste the fresh corn,” said Sofia DeLeon, owner of Guatemalan street food spot El Merkury, who has bought South Philly’s corn masa for special batches of tortillas she advertises on Instagram. “It’s like the difference between organic salad made in season, and salad made with ingredients that are out of season. It’s just a lot fresher. And the flavors are stronger.”

Reviving indigenous Lenape corn

On a 333-acre experimantal farm plot at the Rodale Insitute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, farmer Daniel Kemper picks an ear of landrace corn.

The flavors of that corn masa have deep roots in local soil.

On an experimental 333-acre patch of land in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, this November, Rodale Institute farmer Daniel Kemper tromped through chilly fields of landrace corn on what would turn out to be the final harvest of the year. Autumn wind had already blown many browning stalks flat against the landscape.

“You see those ears that are hanging down? You know that those are gonna be good ones, because they’re gonna have a weight to them,” he said, pointing where he was already walking. He ran his fingers across the outside of one husk, feeling the kernels beneath.

“So this is very smooth when I rub my thumb over top of it. This is a good one,” he said. He yanked up the ear, snapping it down briskly to release it from its stalk, opening out the curtains of its husk to admire the lush, mammoth, white-gold kernels.

“Really, really nice! This is big stuff. No fertilizers, no chemicals,” he said, with evident pride. As part of Rodale’s mission to expand organic farming, farmers in Pennsylvania can approach Kemper with a pet project they want to experiment with: novel varieties, new growing techniques.

When Martinez and Miller approached the Institute this year, Kemper had already seen their restaurant on TV.

“I was like, “Oh. My. God. Barbacoa is here,’” Kemper said.

The proposal was simple. Rather than import corn from Mexico, or try to grow corn not suited to Pennsylvania’s chillier climate, they hoped to resurrect ancient varieties grown by Indigenous Lenape and Mohawk tribes. Some varieties had never been grown commercially, or thought lost for generations.

Though native Mohawk Red corn had long been grown by the Akwesasne Mohawk of New York, by 2016 only two lone cobs were known to exist. But thanks to a seedkeeper named Rowen White, the seeds had been saved.

Meanwhile, a Lenape tribal elder named Nora Thompson Dean had preserved seeds for indigenous blue Sehapsing and white Puhwem corn.

Though it was already late in the season, Kemper jumped at the idea of planting the ancient corn varieties. A native purple variety was nonetheless seeded too late, and remained too soft to harvest by season’s end.

But the Sehapsing, Mohawk and Puhwem turned into a viable crop. In autumn, Guerrero and Miller and other members of the Cooperativa arrived to help with the harvest. Kemper plans to turn over 3 acres to indigenous corn next year, selling the crop to the Cooperativa for their corn masa.

In the meantime, said Guerrero, her immediate goals for the Cooperativa are to make it self-sustaining for her and for other immigrants, selling to Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Grinding by hand is not a viable option for the quantities of corn they have planned, and for now, the Cooperativa still must borrow a corn grinder from South Philly Barbacoa and use it in nearby People’s Kitchen. She hopes the Cooperativa can soon buy its own to become truly independent.

“We would like to have a place of our own where we can grind our own masa, all of the necessities to own our own business. In the long future we would like a garden to plant our own corn. We want to grow the business and nourish the community in a healthy way,” she said.

“We need to recover our roots. That is the plan.”

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