Corn, Tamales and Families

If there is one food that comes to mind when I think of Guatemalan cuisine - it would be the tortilla.  There are lots of well-known regional dishes such as Pepian and Kaquik, but it’s the tortilla that you’ll find everywhere - from the streets of Guatemala City to the highland villages in the north to the low-lying towns on the coasts.  Not that big, flat flavorless tortilla you find in Mexico, but the smaller, hand-patted, grilled, delicious, corn version.

Guatemala’s history with the corn used in tortillas goes back to the days of the ancient Maya, who believed that the gods created humans out of corn. They practiced rituals involving corn to express deep gratitude toward the gods and the sacred crop.   Atole, a corn-based drink, is still offered by farming families to the gods in many Mayan Communities.

Today it’s hard to walk down a street at mid-day in Guatemala without catching a whiff of tortillas grilling on a comal - the flat metal “stove-top” used to grill tortillas - parked in the doorway of a tortilleria.  Tortillas are a staple at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Guatemala. Even the popular Guatemalan fast-food chain Pollo Campero has resident local women parked on either side of the entrance selling hot, fresh tortillas to entering customers to enjoy with their fried chicken and fries. I’ve sat at many birth family meetings where the birth family waits patiently after the food has been served, not touching so much as a fork, until Fide or I remember and run out front to buy a stack of tortillas.  Once the tortillas are on the table the meal can commence.

While tortillas are a big part of many Guatemalan meals, for many poor Guatemalans the tortilla (with a bit of salt) IS the meal. Rural Guatemalans rely heavily on corn crops to sustain themselves and many have small plots of corn which they harvest to provide corn to make tortillas and feed their families year round.  Every community has a community corn grinder where women take their shelled corn to be ground into the masa they use to make their tortillas.

On Fide’s recent trip to the Izabal area to deliver food baskets with letters and photos from adoptive families, a group of birth families asked her for a meeting.  At the meeting they wanted to know more about how the new Association works and if there was flexibility in the supplies being provided.  They talked about how the ongoing Central American drought has destroyed the corn crops on which they rely so heavily to feed themselves and their children. (You can read more about the drought in this article from the BBC).   They wanted to know if it was possible to receive corn in place of some of the regular basket supplies on future visits.  

Fide explained about the Association and told them she would be happy to figure out how to replace supplies on her next visit with additional corn.  This made the families happy.

The visit reports that went back to adoptive families shared this news. Several of those families asked if there was something more that could be done sooner for the birth families.  In that spirit, we decided to launch a Crowdrise campaign to raise funds to buy corn for families affected by the drought.  Fide will use any funds we raise to purchase corn and deliver it to families we work with who are impacted by the drought.

If you can help with a donation or by sharing the link to this campaign ( with your friends and family, it will go a long way to help families in Guatemala. And thank you for that!