It's almost noon and a silver-haired man walks into the El Moncayo mill to order two kilos of masa. He says his wife is waiting for him at home to prepare the tortillas that will go along with the machaca and chilorio that she cooked earlier for their lunch.
"She knows to make tortillas by hand but doesn't like to use the tortillería's masa, since they get too flaky," he adds as Don Ignacio Jesus—a.k.a. Nachito, the owner of one of the few mills left in Mexico City—hands him his order.
"Nachito, please bless it," asks the customer. The 55-year-old complies by taking a small flask from his jacket and pouring a bit of holy water on top of the masa. He then says a little prayer and does the sign of the cross on top of the man's head. The client gratefully leaves.
Watching Nachito bless the masa for some of his clients shouldn't surprise first-time customers. You just need to look around the walls covered with images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the Last Supper, as well as the Bible quotes written among them. Since 1999, Don Ignacio has officially been a soldier of Christ.
El Moncayo is a small establishment, built around 70 years ago over the Tlalpan ruins—the remains of a small town called Santa Úrsula Coapa, south of Mexico City. Every day, Nachito sells around 500 kilos of masa and over 600 kilos of corn specially brought from Sinaloa. With the help of his younger son, he works from 7 AM to 7 PM each day to supply every street vendor in town.
His clients are convinced that this nixtamalized corn masa has a nicer flavor and texture than the masa made with regular corn flour. These people are the ones that helped prevent El Moncayo from closing during the so-called "tortilla wars" in the 90s, when the government cut the subsidies on corn flour production for the tortillerías.
"It was a difficult time. Many mill workers closed down their businesses and there were tortillerías everywhere, and all of them worked with flour because it was the cheaper option," Nachito remembers. "We closed down the three tortillerías that we had and kept the mill open. What helped us get through those times was the quality of our product. A mill worker is a craftsman; every single one of them gives the nixtamal a special touch, and that's what determines the quality of the masa. The grains' origin is also important, but we actually add quality: It's how you move the nixmatal, the quantity of lime you add, and the exact amount of heat you give to it. That's why people go to a certain mill and not the next."
Some clients not only look for quality masa, but also find it important to pray with Nachito. They give testimony on how that has helped them with a health issue, or to find a job, or to improve a relationship. In fact, sometimes they don't even go there to purchase anything, but just to get a blessing.
Nachito comes from a religious family. Since he was a child, the miller felt that his true calling was religion, but even though he is very knowledgeable about Catholicism, he never wanted to be a priest and preferred to have a family. Now his mill is some kind of personal temple that he shares with the faithful that come to him as one of Christ's soldiers.
At the back of the mill, near some bags of corn, there is an altar with candles that people leave to show their gratitude. Next to one of Nachito's two scales, there is a small statue of Saint Augustus and the sacred heart. He talks about both of them with a smile on his face. "Everything that I have, this business and everything else, is the fruit of the labor of God."
He has three assistants in his business. Manuel, who's 20 years old, turns on a giant boiler to start the nixtamalization process; then he adds the grains into a giant tub to wash them and to eliminate impurities. At this point, the brothers Omar and Eduardo step in; once the mixture is clean, they take it in buckets to the mills, where a couple of volcanic stone wheels grind the grains into masa. Nachito is present during the whole process to calibrate anything that's necessary.
Little Eduardo is enthusiastic about his labor and loves to get the leftover masa to play with. He and his brother go early in the morning to learn the trade. His family and Nachito's have a lifelong relationship, the kind that is common between families in small towns.
Among all the images on the walls, Nachito has a special place for one that illustrates a corncob with a crucifix in the middle; it was a present from on old customer. "After all, corn is a nutritious food. It was just a part of our ancestors' meals as it is for us. But you also need to feed yourself spiritually, and that comes from the heavens," says the miller with a smile on his face.
This article originally appeared in Spanish on MUNCHIES ES.