Mateo Herrera makes each tortilla with methodical care. The West El Paso restaurant where he works is closed on Mondays, so he has the kitchen to himself and his metal tray of bolitas – balls of masa awaiting their turn on the manual tortilla press.
The corn tortillas gently puff up on the comal, where Herrera flips and pats them with his deft fingertips. Once cooked, they go into a terracotta container to stay warm. He finds this kind of work relaxing – serenity in the repetition.
The longtime restaurant chef is making tortillas for La Puerta del Sol, a project he launched in fall 2022 to bring ancestral foods of the Chihuahuan Desert into people’s homes. La Puerta del Sol offers online subscriptions for tortillas and sometimes other foods, such as tamales and atole, made with corn from De Colores, a farm located between El Paso and Las Cruces.
Herrera wants people to nurture their connection with maize and learn about the region by sourcing local ingredients in his products and sharing stories about this essential food. While he and his 7-year-old daughter Auryn bond through the steps of making nixtamal – the foundation for masa, or corn dough – he understands many families don’t have the time to make nixtamal, he said.
No two tortillas from La Puerta del Sol are identical. Holding a handmade tortilla is like holding a map – a topography of crevices, uneven edges and specks of yellow and brown that chart at least 7,000 years of nourishment from the time farmers in present-day Mexico planted maize for the first time. People carried that maize north to what’s now the United States.
He named his tortillería La Puerta del Sol in honor of El Paso and its history as the doorway between the two counties.
“All these memories from all these families, people that cross over daily and for generations, are stored here and they permeate this area,” he said. “It’s the feeling of being a border town.”
Unlocking the colors and flavors of corn
Golden stalks of Mexican June corn greet the blue sky over Berino, a small farming community in southern New Mexico about 15 miles north of El Paso.
Yvonne Diaz, founder of De Colores farms, stomped through the corn field she maintains with Antonio Lara, a retired chemistry professor at New Mexico State University. The fallen leaves crunched with each step beneath her hiking boots as she explained the timing for harvest. There was a freeze overnight, but the midday sun now warmed the plants. When the husks of corn lean down from weight, they’re ready or close to ready to harvest, she said.
Tolerant to hot, semi-arid environments like the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts, this white corn gets its name because farmers can plant it as late as June. Also known as Yoeme Vatchi, for the Yoeme people who began cultivating it in Sonora, this crop almost went extinct when hybrid corn varieties took over in the 1930s and 1940s, according to a USDA report.
But Yoeme Vatchi survived, and a three-acre patch can be found off Berino Road.
Diaz grew up in El Paso and farming connects her to her family roots in Durango, a state in northwestern Mexico. Her great-grandfather farmed corn, beans and oats on an ejido, communal land established during the Mexican Revolution. Her family has worked with maize for generations, and her uncles in Durango still make nixtamal for their gordita restaurant every day.
Nixtamalization, a process for preparing maize, was invented by Mesoamericans more than 3,500 years ago.
Today, Herrera and his daughter transform corn into nixtamal by scraping off the dried kernels from cobs, then cooking and steeping the kernels in water and cal, a powdered calcium hydroxide he sources from Mexico. After the kernels swell in a 10-hour soak, they rinse off the outer layer of the now-softened maize. From here they can use the kernels whole in dishes like pozole and menudo. Or they can mill the kernels in their tabletop molinito that Herrera fitted with volcanic stone grinding wheels. The nixtamal can now be used to make masa.
Along with enhancing the corn’s flavor and aroma, nixtamalization also offers health benefits by improving the plant’s nutritional profile – imparting calcium from the cal, and unlocking vitamins A and B3.
Herrera said he works with De Colores Farms to support local businesses and “keep the money here” in the community. He also makes tortillas from Isleta blue corn, which Lara and Diaz grow in Las Cruces.
“It’s interesting to see all the colors that food can come in that we’re deprived of,” Diaz said. “I had no idea in the vegetable world that black radishes existed. It’s amazing to me to learn about different varieties of crops we don’t get to see in grocery stores.”
Landrace maize like Isleta blue and Mexican June carry more genetic diversity than genetically modified or hybrid varieties. The ears vary in size. Sometimes the white corn picks up shades of pale pink, while the blue corn can vary between purple and red hues, Diaz said. When people think of corn, they typically only think of the yellow sweet corn in grocery stores, she said.
Finding wholesale customers for De Colores corn has been challenging, she admitted – partly because of their lack of marketing, partly because people aren’t familiar with what to do with dry corn, she said. It’s easier to sell the vegetables she grows throughout the year for organizations, including Desert Spoon Food Hub in El Paso, that distribute weekly produce boxes.
“When we make pozole or soups, we are used to getting corn from a can where it’s already processed,” Diaz said. “There is a loss of tradition in working with raw corn, which Mateo (Herrera) is trying to bring back with his nixtamalization class, bringing awareness back to corn’s various uses.”
Resurgence of heirloom corn tortillas
As she made her way through Mexican June stalks, she twisted off a few ears, unfurling the husks from the firm, toothy kernels to inspect for disease or worm damage. For the past few years, she and her workers have saved seeds from the healthiest ears to plant the following season.
Saving seeds that are more disease resistant and other regenerative farming practices, like crop rotation, helps her reduce or completely avoid using organic pesticides. Most farms in the United States do not look like this, she said.
Diaz works on Lara’s farmland, which spans about 18 acres in Berino. That’s a fraction of the average U.S. corn farm, which expanded to 725 acres in 2017, according to the USDA. The majority of U.S. corn grows in massive fields in the Midwest, but only a sliver of those crops feed people. Most of what’s grown is genetically modified dent corn for ethanol and livestock feed. A smaller portion is processed into products for human consumption, such as corn starch and high-fructose corn syrup.
The homogeneity extends to tortillas, where choice is often only an illusion. GRUMA, the global juggernaut of mass produced corn products, owns the two biggest tortilla brands in the United States: Mission and Guerrero. It also supplies Maseca, its brand of masa harina, to other tortilla brands.
Herrera doesn’t fault people for eating Maseca products; that’s what the U.S. food system has made cheap, plentiful and accessible. He believes it’s more important that people can access cultural foods – like tortillas, tamales and champurrado – than to not eat them at all, even if they’re made from the “bastardization of corn,” he said.
He does, however, see a resurgent interest in tortillas made from fresh masa.
Companies like Masienda in the United States and Tamomex in Mexico have popularized Mexican landrace and heirloom maize, bringing them to a wider audience via restaurants, including Elemi and Taconeta in Downtown El Paso, which make their tortillas in-house.
Herrera came up with La Puerta del Sol to make fresh tortillas available at home, too. They shouldn’t be reserved for only special occasions or dining out, which many people can’t afford on a regular basis, he said.
And rather than sourcing corn from Mexico, he prefers to introduce people to the taste of locally grown maize – varieties that have a long history in the Southwest and have adapted to the desert. Herrera makes his tortillas with no preservatives – just blue and white corn from De Colores, water, cal and a small amount of honey mesquite foraged in the Guadalupe Mountains. He suggests eating them within five days, or freezing them to eat later.
La Puerta del Sol offers monthly subscriptions for weekly deliveries of one or two dozen tortillas, starting at $37 per month. A two-week trial subscription at $20 for a weekly shipment of a dozen tortillas is also available. Herrera also sells food at pop-up events and hosts workshops where people can learn about different aspects of maize, such as how to make nixtamal.
The flexibility of an online shop appeals to him more than a brick-and-mortar shop. The pandemic forced him to rethink his career. Suddenly, his old lifestyle of hustling long hours in the kitchen – with the dream of one day owning his own restaurant – didn’t seem so attractive anymore.
“I would gladly push tortillas out of a kitchen for the rest of my life if that means that I get to pick my daughter up every day from school and I get to cook her dinner and I get to see her grow up,” he said. “She gets to help wash the corn and she knows where it’s coming from, and she’s connecting with foods.”
‘We prayed with the corn’
Herrera has worked in restaurants since he was a teenager, washing dishes before making his way to Los Angeles for culinary school. He described his life as more fast-paced then – 20 years old, watching the TV show “Top Chef,” and working at Wolfgang Puck Catering, where he cooked for the Hollywood elite at Kodak Theater as it was named then.
After spending his 20s in Los Angeles and then a stint in Austin, he returned to El Paso in 2015. By then, his admiration of celebrity chefs had waned. A traditional healer in Austin got him thinking about food in a different way.
“He was a person that told me food is medicine,” Herrera said. “And for me, as an Indigenous person, that really hit home.”
While working in restaurants in El Paso, he started a side project cooking with native ingredients, such as maize, nopales and mesquite. These low-glycemic foods can help balance a diet that’s overpowered by high-glycemic foods, which include white bread and potatoes.
When 2020 came, the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shut down his plans. But nothing prepared him for what came next.
His partner, Auryn’s mother, died unexpectedly that year – a wound that still pains him to talk about.
To break the news to Auryn, Herrera drove her to the familiar corn field in Berino. He felt drawn to what he described as the motherly energy of maize. This corn nourished Auryn when she was a baby, when Herrera made atole for her. Now, in a time of loss, it would bestow spiritual nourishment.
“Out there in those fields is where I told my daughter,” he said. “We sat, we prayed with the corn, we cried. This corn is special, it’s not just corn, you know?”
Mexican American and Indigenous scholars, from Roberto Cintli Rodríguez to Robin Wall Kimmerer, describe the relationship between maize and people as reciprocal.
In the Mayan story of creation, deities pounded yellow and white maize to form the first humans from corn meal. In return, corn owes its transformation over thousands of years to the people who sow its seed, care for its soil, tend to its growth, and after harvest, save new seeds for the next generation.
“For me,” Herrera said, “these foods are a bridge to connecting us to our ancestors … as well as looking to the future, when these foods will still be here and continue making those connections.”
These foods are like relatives, Herrera said. So when he and his daughter walk through the corn fields, they walk among family.