A Preliminary Look At the Globalization of the Tortilla in Mexico

ABSTRACT - This exploratory inquiry qualitatively examines both the cultural significance of the tortilla to Mexican consumers and the manner in which the forces of globalization have altered tortilla production, acquisition, and consumption. Data suggest, overall, that: 1) the sacred Mexican tortilla has been changed significantly by globalization, and 2) that perhaps no product (nor thing), regardless of its cultural significance, is immune to the powerful, transformational forces of the globalization process.


Terrance G. Gabel and Gregory W. Boller (2003) ,"A Preliminary Look At the Globalization of the Tortilla in Mexico", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 135-141.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 135-141


Terrance G. Gabel, Truman State University

Gregory W. Boller, University of Memphis


This exploratory inquiry qualitatively examines both the cultural significance of the tortilla to Mexican consumers and the manner in which the forces of globalization have altered tortilla production, acquisition, and consumption. Data suggest, overall, that: 1) the sacred Mexican tortilla has been changed significantly by globalization, and 2) that perhaps no product (nor thing), regardless of its cultural significance, is immune to the powerful, transformational forces of the globalization process.

The Mayans believed man was created from corn dough, or masa. The Aztecs worshipped corn gods... Although corn is no longer worshipped, it is still considered bad form to throw away a tortilla (Hansen 1988, p. 70).

... wheat and corn have been chosen as two of the indices of development: the eating of wheat bread is among the signs that one has crossed the line between the underdeveloped and the developed; the eating of corn tortillas indicates that on has not... the intended meaning is that in all ways, including even diet and cuisine, Western civilization is superior to the others and that, within it, the North American version is the most nearly perfect... (Paz [1972] 1985, p. 285).

The tortilla is, along with tequila, the most Mexican of all products in Mexico. This exploratory inquiry, drawn from a larger ethnographic and historical study undertaken with a view toward better understanding globalization from a (heretofore lacking) marketing and consumption perspective, examines both: 1) the cultural significance of the tortilla, and 2) the manner in which the powerful forces of globalization have impacted tortilla production, acquisition, and consumption. We begin by discussing the cultural importance of the tortilla in Mexico.


The tortilla is of immeasurable practical and symbolic importance to Mexican consumers. From a practical standpoint, tortilla production is a US$3 billion industry, with Mexico’s nearly 100 million people eating approximately 1 billion tortillasCabout 11 per personCeach day. [These consumption figures come from triangulation of several undocumented sources-mainly radio and television news stories-encountered by one member of the research team while living in Guadalajara, Jalisco (Mexico).] Tortillas are of particular practical importance to Mexico’s poor masses, which can often afford to eat little else than tortillas, beans, and rice. From a symbolic perspective, tortillas, especially corn tortillas, are pride-inspiring symbols of the nation and its people. Moreover, tortillas and the corn they are made of are sacred to indigenous Mexicans (see Wall 1996) and serve as a connection between modern-day Mexicans and their ancestors. [Tortillas were invented, according to Mayan legend, around 10,000 BC when a peasant created the first tortilla and presented it to his hungry king as a gift (http://www.tortilla-info.com/talk.htm [accessed 3/10/00]).]


Globalization, however defined (see: Sklair 1999; Smith 2001), is arguably the most important social phenomenon of our time. The process is most typically viewed as involving increasing borderlessness and compression of life (see: Chase-Dunn, Kawano, and Brewer 1999; Lubbers 1996). This borderlessness and compression results most significantly from: 1) the increasingly global diffusion of economic innovations (e.g., new products, technologies, organizational forms [e.g., transnational corporations {TNCs}], and systems of exchange [e.g., TNC Wal-Mart’s brand of large-scale discount retailing], and 2) the ongoing integration of relatively self-supporting geopolitical regions and their peoples and other resources into a global economic system run by a relatively few increasingly powerful persons (i.e., major TNC executives, large TNC stockholders, and major investment fund managers) whose identities and loyalties are increasingly less associated with any one nation (see: Chase-Dunn 1999; Jones and Venkatesh 1996; Sklair 1999).

Globalization, as viewed from a marketing and consumption perspective, is most typically seen as a naturally occurring, universally beneficial process driven by consumer desire for new products and technologies and higher standards of consumption and living (see: Levitt 1983; Lewis and Harris 1992; Mullen 1993; Mullen, Doney, and Becker 1996). In this widely accepted (i.e., received) vision, TNCs and other marketing entities profit and survive only to the extent that they continually satisfy the dynamic needs and preferences of increasingly knowledgeable, affluent, and demanding consumers on an evermore global scale. The role of political officials is seen as having been reduced to that of a bystanding facilitator whose primary responsibility is to monitor marketplace activity from a safe distance and then intervene only when necessary to serve the best interests of consumers (see Ohmae 1990).

Although agreement exists as to what globalization generally entails, the inner workings f the process remain largely misunderstood. This unfortunate situation has arisen due to: 1) few serious (empirical) attempts being made to understand the macro-level nature and consequences of the process (Lubbers 1998; Nason 1994), and 2) lacking methodological diversity. With regard to the latter shortcoming, researchers in both marketing and consumer research (i.e., Joy and Wallendorf 1996) and sociology (i.e., Dixon and Boswell 1996a, 1996b) call for the conduct of ethnographic and others forms of qualitative inquiry aimed at understanding globalization as manifest at the level of the lived human experience of persons being impacted by the process. The present inquiry heeds this interdisciplinary call for greater methodological diversity by ethnographically and historically examining the manner in which the forces of globalization have impacted the production, acquisition, and, consumption of the tortilla in Mexico. We now turn to a brief discussion of our methodological approach.


Data were collectedCas part of a larger, cross-cultural study of the nature and consequences of globalization in both Mexico and the United StatesCin and around the Southwestern Mexican city of Guadalajara, Jalisco between late 1995 and early 2000. Guadalajara is one of the Mexican Republic’s three major regional centers of business, governmental, industrial, religious, and agricultural activity. The hub of Western Mexico, as Guadalajara is often called, is the nation’s second largest metropolitan area with a population of between six and eight million persons. Culturally, it has been described as "the most Mexican of all cities in the republic" due to its being the home of such distinctive cultural phenomena as tequila, mariachi music, and the jarabe tapatio (i.e., the Mexican hat dance) (Logan 1984, p. 16). Data was collected via a combination of ethnographic and historical techniques. Each approach is discussed below.

The Ethnographic Method

The essence of ethnography is researcher immersion "in the midst of whatever it is they study" (Hill and Stamey 1990, p. 305 [see also: Atkinson and Hammersley 1994]). This immersion results, ideally, in the elucidation of experience as lived in the inquiry’s particular physical and historical context. Also central to ethnographic inquiry is the notion that research activities are guided by an emergent design wherein the researcher’s focus is determined by a real-time understanding of the focal phenomenon as it exists in its natural environment.

One member of the research team spent 12 months ethnographically immersed in Guadalajara. Ten of the 12 months were spent working and living in (as opposed to merely visiting) the area. The vast majority of this period of time was spent living with a lifelong Guadalajara residentCAlejandra (hf, early 30s) [Parenthetical statements following informant name indicate informant ethnicity, gender, and age-in that order. Alejandra is thus a Hispanic female in her early 30s. All informant names are pseudonyms.]Cas a member of a local family (via marriage in the early stages of data collection). Primary means of ethnographic data collection include: 1) interviewing and/or talking informally with 34 Mexican consumers and small business owners being impacted by the forces of globalization [The most consequential of our interviews were two sessions conducted with Nancy (hf, 50s) an owner and operator of a local tortilla bakery and retail store (tortilleria) with more than 30 years of industry experience (also as [a former] grain mill owner and operator).], 2) participant and non-participant observation of globalization-related phenomena, and 3) photography of globalization-related phenomena.

The Historical Method

The historical method is based upon "an intense and all-pervading awareness of change over time" (Fullerton 1986, p. 431). The importance of this awareness and the resultant time- and context-bound nature of reality is embodied in claims that all "social phenomenon must be understood in its historical context" (Tuchman 1994, p. 306). It is held, for example, that although quantitative analysis may effecively demonstrate the existence of otherwise indiscernible patterns/change over time, historical insight, particularly when ethnographically informed, is required to attribute meaning to these patterns (Tuchman 1994). [It should be noted that historical analysis need not be confined to the study of social phenomena of the distant past. Tuchman (1994, p. 313), in this regard, contends that "we all live history" and suggests that researchers should pay greater attention to the historical significance of their own epoques (see also Atkinson and Hammersley 1994).]

Historical data collection in the present inquiry occurs while ethnographically immersed in the Guadalajara research setting. The majority of historical data was collected via extensive daily readings of local and national Mexican newspapers and magazines (which often provides subject matter for [ethnographic] interviews and informal discussion with informants). [These newspapers and magazines are not readily accessible outside Mexico and concern Mexican social, political, and economic issues seldom if ever reported on in mainstream U.S. (Or other non-Mexican) media.] Finally, we employ the historical method to understand relationships between corporate and political actors (central to understanding the spread of globalization in Mexico).

Data Set

Data collection efforts (for the larger study from which the present inquiry is drawn) resulted in the accumulation of over 1,400 pages of fieldnotes, diary text, and translated interview and speech text, as well as 250 local newspapers, more than 400 photographs, and several dozen material artifacts. Data analysis followed the guidelines of Spiggle (1994). The primary analytical operation employed was categorization, a labeling or coding process wherein units of data (e.g., passages of text) are identified as belonging to or being exemplary of some more general phenomenon. One of several categories emerging from our data is the Globalization of Food & Farming. Contained within this category, as its primary component, is what we here term the Globalization of the Tortilla. This phenomenon is discussed below.


We entered Guadalajara thinking that we understood well the cultural significance of the tortilla. We soon learned, at the level of the lived human experience of Mexican consumers, that we were grossly mistaken. We also learned that an intimate understanding of the tortilla’s significance to Mexican consumers is necessary to fully appreciate the manner in and extent to which the forces of globalization have affected the tortilla and those who consume it. We thus first discuss below what was learned about the cultural importance of the tortilla to Mexican consumers. We then present data on the globalization-driven transformation of tortilla production, acquisition, and consumption.

Ethnographic Insight Into the Cultural Significance of the Tortilla

Numerous data incidents exemplify the extent to which tortilla is sacred to the Mexican people. Two incidents, however, stand out as most exemplary. The first (and most exemplary) incident involves the serving of the tortilla to family members. The second involves the making of the tortilla. Both incidents are discussed below.

Serving Tortillas To Family Members. In April of 1997 the immersed researcher and Alejandra traveled to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua to spend several days with the (relatively impoverished/working class) family of Alejandra’s aunt (Rose, hf, 60s) and uncle (Pancho, hm, 60s). Rose on several occasions went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the tortillas being consumed by the guests, relative strangers to her, were both fresh and of the highest possible quality (i.e., either handmade, personally, or made from raw corn at a local tortilleria). She seemed to be truly ashamed that mass-produced tortillas made from processed corn flour even once touched the lips of her guests. Our data suggest that it is as if the tortillas and their presentation were both (symbolically) a part of herself and a mechanism through which she was showing respect and love for her relatives. Consider, in this regard, the following two verbatim excerpts from researcher fieldnotes.

(11 April 1997): ONLY FRESH TORTILLAS WILL DO FOR THE GUESTS: We were eating breakfast this morning when [Rose] came in and saw us making quesadillas with the tortillas left in the refrigerator. She left the house and returned several minutes later with a fresh batch (kilo) saying the new ones were "hot and fresh." A short conversation then ensued, mainly between Alejandra and Rose. The latter said at one point that the new tortillas were "corn" and that the old ones were "Maseca".[Rose here uses the,term Maseca to refer to mass/commercially produced tortillas in general. Maseca is a Mexico-based TNC which manufactures both tortillas and the -mainly corn- flour from which they are made (and is the world=s largest producer of such products [see DePalma 1996]). Maseca is one of the best known of all firms in Mexico but became significantly less Mexican in August of 1996 when more than 20 percent of its parent company, politically connected industrial conglomerate Grupo Gruma, was purchased by U.S.-based global agricultural products TNC Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) (see: Milling and Baking News 1996; PR Newswire 1996).]. She went on to say that the corn ones were better because they were made of fresh corn at a local tortilleria and that the others were made from "harina Maseca" (Maseca’s processed corn flour)... SEEMS SHE WANTED HER GUESTS TO HAVE THE BESTCTHE "MASECA" TORTILLAS JUST WOULD NOT DO!!!!! (original parenthetical statements and emphasis [bracketed text added])

(12 April 1997): MORE ON PRIDE IN SERVING FRESH FOOD AND SHUNNING "MASECA" TORTILLAS: Last night we sat down to eat and were confronted with a steaming pile (3 kilos?) of large, handmade wheat tortillas. The house mother had made them for us. APPEARS THAT TORTILLAS MADE FROM MASECA’S FLOUR SIMPLY AREN=T GOOD ENOUGH TO SERVE GUESTS... The only wheat flour tortillas suitable are those MADE BY HAND. Saw a sack of flour on the table from which I must assume the tortillas were madeCnot Maseca... Note that [Rose]... always stands and watches us eat, ready to serve our every need. She is very proud of her cooking. It is very important to her to please us with fresh food. These people don’t have much but are very proud of what little they do have and of what is "of themselves" (hand or locally made) and in being able to please family members. (original parenthetical statements and emphasis [bracketed text added])

Tortilla Production. Our data suggest that the cultural importance of the tortilla can be seen also with respect to their productionCat least as produced in tortillerias (i.e., small, neighborhood-based, owner-operated tortilla bakeries). As we learned in our interviews of Nancy, it is not just a matter of what the tortilla is made from but how it is madeCthe latter, according to Nancy, is what sets the tortilleria tortilla apart from the mass-produced commercial tortilla. Consider, in this regard, the following passages from transcribed interview text wherein Nancy, without being asked to do so, describes in great detail how tortillas are (lovingly) made at her tortilleria as well as her vision of the production process at Maseca and large Guadalajara-area food retailers such as Wal-Mart and Gigante.

The process is better with hybrid corn. White. Dry... The corn has to be cooked with boiling water and lime... You have to let it rest... the more rest the better the nixtamal [raw, granular corn] is... When it is cooked, the color changes from white into yellow, just a little yellow. When it is cooked... you don’t call it "corn," you call it "nixtamal." Nixtamal is the result of cooking the corn. You call it "nixtamal." (pause 5.0)... The water is thrown away. Like you strain the nixtamal, you strain it, understand? This water you call "nijayote," the leftover water is a yellow water. The water that stays... You strain the nixtamal, that means that the corn is going to be dry, or rinse the pure dry corn, you rinse it very well, with a lot of water... As soon as you have done that you are going to put it in the grain mill and grind it... then the nixtamal goes there when the stones are turning and they are making the final corn/tortilla dough. But with a little water, not on the nixtamal. But you have to add water. So there is a little key that is constantly turning water and from the hopper of the mill this turning the spiral is bringing down corn. Water and corn are ground with the stones... What you receive from the stones is the doug. You make a ball of the dough... It is a person that knows how to make balls of the tortilla dough because you must know how to pick it up and make balls of it. The worker regulates the water because you don’t want it too dry or watery. That means that the dough has to be malleable... It is a very perishable product, understand? It is very difficult toChow do you sayC@to keep in good condition"... Then the dough can last 6 hours. After this time possibly it’s no good anymore... apparently (they [Maseca, Wal-Mart, etc.] think) it is easy to make. They say: "making tortillas is easy." No, no, it is not easy. It is very delicate...

... have you tried one (tortilla) of Wal-Mart?... Or of Gigante?... I bought some once, just once or twice, in Gigante. I no sooner bought them that I had thrown them away (laughing)... I don’t know, maybe it’s the way they make the dough. They get the same flour (that I do). The processing involves pouring the flour into the mixerCput it in there and add water and roll it out (with hands or rolling pin). It is very simple (for them)... They put the dough in the machineCthey say 20 liters of water and 20 kilos of Maseca (corn flour) and that’s it. Sometimes no, sometimes you need more water. The same flour or sometimes less, a little less. You have to try (taste) it. You have to look at it. You have to teach the worker that the dough has to have a certain consistency. Then you can make the tortilla. Also, when you cook it it has to be well done and then you have a very pretty tortilla (laughing)... And it is the same Maseca (flour). And the people ask me: "how do you make them?" (and I say) "The same as Gigante." (the people say) "No, they don’t come out the same"... They think nothing more than of the mechanical (process of making tortillas), understand? (She now speaks as if she is thinking like a Gigante worker as they make tortillas in mass) The sack of flour, 20 liters of water, I mix them and that’s all. Then I put it in the machine and they take what they get. No! (this is not right) because you have to look at the dough and see how it is... because the machine is always of the same temperature, understand? If it has too much water you cannot get the same tortilla. And if it does not have enough water the tortilla is dry... The gas, you regulate the level of heat in order to cook the tortilla. The tortilla has to inflate, inflate well, and be well done. I think they take them off raw, half raw. (original parenthetical statements and emphasis [bracketed text added])

Summary. These two examples suggest that the tortilla is, in Mexico, far more than a thin, round disc made from corn or wheat flour. It is something of and reflective of the person serving or producing it. It is a pride-inspiring mechanism through which Mexican consumers show respect and love for one another and their ancestorsCa tradition dating back perhaps 12,000 years.

The Globalization-Driven Transformation of Tortilla Production, Acquisition, and Consumption

[Data in this section is, unless otherwise noted, based on either the immersed researcher=s observations and personal experience or, most predominantly, our two interviews of Nancy.]

We discuss the globalization of the tortilla in three sections below. We first address consumer preference-based (and sacred) tradition with respect to where tortillas are made and purchased as well as what they are made of. We then discuss the manner in which our data suggest that the powerful forces of globalization have transformed (and profaned) the Mexican tortilla production, acquisition, and consumption landscape. Finally, we address what the future might hold for tortillas and their Mexican consumers.

Preference-Based Tradition. As suggested above, the tortilla industry has traditionally been dominated by small, neighborhood-based tortillerias. These establishments are often connected to the home of the owner/operator and consist of little more than one small room (barely large enough to house the tortilla-making machine) and a counter over which the tortilas are sold. Tortillas are typically made by well-used, low-tech machines which take raw corn or, increasingly, processed corn flour and mix it into a paste, press it out and cut the resultant mixture into the proper size for baking. When finished, the tortillas are wrapped in paperCusually white butcher-like paperCand sold by the steaming kilo to neighborhood residents. The shopping experience at the tortilleria is often highly social in character, with neighbors visiting with one another as they wait in the usually slow-moving line.

The best tortillas are those made from raw white corn eaten as soon as possible after production. This type of tortilla not only tastes better than those made from processed yellow and/or white corn or wheat flour but also holds up far better in a wide variety of traditional Mexican dishes which require that the tortilla be bent, cooked, or served in a moist environment. Consider, in this regard, the following excerpt from fieldnotes documenting a conversation between informants Alejandra and Sandra (hf, 50s).

The maid ("Sandra") was in cleaning the apartment early this evening and Alejandra was making sopa azteca (tortilla soup). I heard the two of them talking and heard the maid say something to the effect of "the Maseca tortillas are not consistent." We had bought a half kilo of Maseca flour tortillas last week at Atemayac [a large, open-air market] and they had gone hard and dry by Wednesday so I had an idea they were saying negative things about the flour tortillas. I asked Alejandra what was said later and she said the maid was telling her that Maseca flour tortillas are no good for sopa azteca (a very traditional Mexican soup) because they get soft/soggy (as they did in ours). She told Alejandra that the real corn tortillas are much stronger and will remain crisp in the dish. She said she could get us some good tortillasCmade from raw cornCthat we could use. (original parenthetical statements and emphasis [bracketed text added])

Globalization-Driven Change. Things have changed in recent years. As one article in a local paper states in its title: "All is Not Well with the Humble Tortilla" (Miller 1996). The bastion of Mexican tradition, culture, and customer preference that is the tortilleria has fallen upon hard times in recent years. According to Nancy, tens of thousands of tortillerias, including two of hers, have been forced out of business in just the last five to ten years (see also http://www.american.edu/projects/mandala/TED/tortilla.htm [accessed 3/10/00]). At the same time, more and more tortillasCof lower and lower qualityCare being mass-produced by TNCs (e.g., Maseca/ADM) and sold at large chain retail outlets (e.g., Wal-Mart, Gigante, Aurrera, Superama, and Bodega [the last three of which are owned by Cifra, Wal-Mart’s Mexican joint venture partner]). Our data suggest that this change in the tortilla (production and sales) landscape has very little to do with consumer preference and much to do with governmental regulation which favors the interests of foreign commodities marketers (e.g., ADM), TNC corn-flour and tortilla producers (e.g., Maseca/ADM), and elite stockholders heavily invested in these (heavily traded) firms. Our data suggest, specifically, that the Mexican government, in an effort to better integrate Mexico into the global economic system, has both: 1) restricted the ability of tortilla makers to produce the types of tortillas preferred by most customers and 2) influenced the content and nature of the tortilla retailing landscape. Each issue is addressed below.

Nancy explained to us that she now has no choice but to produce tortillas made almost exclusively from (relatively inferior) Maseca corn flour. This situation has evolved over the course of the last 25 or so years and involves both governmental mandate as well as the (government-influenced) high cost of raw, white corn. With regard to the former, Nancy explained to us that the tortilla industry first began to move in the direction of its current, transformed state in 970s under the presidency of Luis Echeverria. Grain mills such as the one she then ran were required, for the first time, to buy all their corn from Conasupo, a governmental agency involved in distributing and regulating the price of agricultural products. In the beginning, Conasupo sold the mills a relatively inconsistent, unreliable mixture of white and yellow corn of both Mexican and U.S. origin. Mill owners who refused to deal with the inferior raw material were shut down and/or had their supplies of white corn confiscated. [Nancy=s (former) mill was once shut down by the government for 15 days. At the same time the government confiscated a large quantity of corn she and her husband were holding in their mill.] Due to government-imposed price ceilings, the tortilla producers had no choice but to use the lower-priced but inferior mixture of ground white and yellow corn (that the mills were forced to produce).

Tortilleria owners such as Nancy face much the same situation today, with the main difference being that they are now virtually forced to purchase Maseca corn flour in order not only to turn a profit but survive. Nancy explains the situation as follows.

Now I use Maseca (flour)... Yes, right now the dough of the nixtamal [raw corn]... is more expensive than the dough obtained from the flour. One ton of Maseca gives you two tons of dough. The ton is costing 1,350 pesos (approx. US$ 171). The ton comes with transportation and everything. Then, if it gives you 2 tons of the dough, the dough costs you about 70 Mexican cents (8.8 US cents) per kilo of dough and the kilo of dough of the mill costs 1 peso (12 US cents) or 1 peso and 10 Mexican cents (14 US cents), 40 Mexican cents more expensive or 30Cit depends on what they want to sell it to you for. But the mills continue to get subsidies, till now they are subsidized. They have their allotment and now the allotments have been reduced since [former Mexican President] Salinas de Gortari began to reduce the allotments to the mills. Now when Salinas de Gortari came in he reduced (the subsidized allotment) almost 50% or 60%... then the mills began to get to more Maseca (corn flour). (original parenthetical statements [bracketed text added]).

Nancy further explained that Maseca has manipulated the quality of the flour it sells the tortillerias so that they must buy a higher, more costly grade of flour in order to produce tortillas of acceptable quality. According to Nancy:

I began to work with Maseca 4 years ago. They had 3 classes of flour, the extra fine, the normal, and another of lesser quality, the regular. The normal was acceptable, it was very good, white and everything. They didn=t make the price higher... So then the regular flour begins to be of a lower quality. So we were obligated to buy a better quality at a higher price. But we didn=t make the price higher for the tortillas. They... made the quality of the corn less so we had to buy a higher quality (flour) at a higher price for the same flour that we were buying like normal. Now they say this is better, but the price is higher. We were forced to change from one flour to another because the flour that they were selling us at one price doesn=t have the same quality. We must buy another quality in order to produce the tortilla... The price [I sell at] cannot be raised... But Maseca can make changes in the production of the flour, understand?... They put yellow corn, more yellow corn and the flour is not good for working and making the tortillas. (original parenthetical statements [bracketed text added]).

The current situation appears to have been putCforcedCinto place in 1990 when the Mexican government of then President Salinas signed an agreement with Maseca Chairman (and longtime friend of the Salinas family) Roberto Gonzalez Barreda in which the amount of raw corn that would be given by the government to tortillerias was frozen. The agreement also stipulated that all growth in market demand (above the set allotment) would be filled by using corn flour, then produced only by Masec and the government (see DePalma 1996).

The situation as it now stands is that essentially the only tortillas which tortillerias can produce at a profit, given the government’s (selectively enforced) price ceiling of 1.7 pesos per kilo [This price ceiling is selectively enforced in that it, according to Nancy and as supported by several well-publicized tortilleria closures is enforced almost exclusively with respect to the operations of tortillerias-and not at large retail chain outlets.] are those made from corn or wheat flour produced by Maseca (and, to a much lesser extent, several other companies). The higher-quality and preferred tortillas made from raw white corn are now seldom produced. Further, as tortillerias have closed their doors by the thousands more and more tortillas are being manufactured by Maseca and several other agribusiness and food retailing TNCs. These inferior tortillas are sold in all types of retail outlets but in the largest volume in large food retailers such as Wal-Mart, Gigante, and Aurerra. Our data suggests, however, that it is at times hard to find a corn tortilla in these establishments. Consider here the following incident documented in researcher fieldnotes.

WENT TO WAL-MART FOR GROCERY SHOPPING WITH ALEJANDRA... Noticed when we were walking up that there was a big Mision (Maseca/ADM) tortilla display and a delivery truck set up right outside the store’s main entry... We passed by the display with the intention of buying tortillas inside the store... THERE WERE NO CORN TORTILLAS EITHER INSIDE OR OUTSIDE THE STORE--ONLY WHEAT... THERE WERE HUNDREDS OF PACKAGES OF WHEAT FLOUR TORTILLAS, MOST OF THEM--THE MASECA/ADM BRANDS FOR 2 FOR 1 (250 grams for 1.95 pesos). (original parenthetical statements) [One possible explanation for the unavailability of corn-based tortillas and the abundance of wheat-based tortillas is that Maseca/ADM is attempting to force Mexican consumers to at least try its wheat tortillas. This assertion is based on claims that one of ADM=s primary motivations for entering into partnership with Maseca was to find a new market for products made from (abundantly held) wheat (see: Milling and Baking News 1996; PR Newswire 1996).]

Many of our informants feel that the quality of these mass-produced, plastic-packaged, flour-based tortillas at best pales in comparison with those made in tortillerias (from either raw corn or, more commonly now, corn flour). According to Lourdes (hf, early 50s):

... in recent years we have tortillas sold in an envelope [plastic bag]... [they] last days [and] are cold and old... They are not good quality... [They are] sold in plastic bags, [are] days old and taste like the plastic bag they are in. These tortillas are getting a lot of advertisement, particularly on TV. It takes only a couple of times to realize how bad they are... (bracketed text added for clarity)

Consistent with the views of informants is the perspective of a Mexico City tortilleria owner who contends that his customers tell him that Maseca corn flour "tastes like dirt" (DePalma 1996). On top of bad taste and texture, the store-bought, massed-produced flour tortillas are typically priced far higher than their better-quality counterparts made in tortillerias. Quoting from fieldnotes:

MASECA TORTILLAS IN WAL-MART COST 3 TIMES WHAT FRESH TORTILLAS DO AT THE TORTILLERIAS (4.5 pesos vs. 1.5 pesos [20 US cents vs. 60 US cents] for a kilo)... This may sound like "bickering over pennies" but it makes a big difference when you consume a lotCit is THE main food for manyCand your annual income is the equivalent of US$ 2,000 or 3,000 and you have a family to feed. (original parenthetical statements and bracketed text)

The Possible Future. Our data suggest that the Mexican tortilla industry is again changing. This second metamorphosis regards most significantly the reintroduction into the marketplace of higher-quality tortillas and, with them, a higher level of consumer choice. This apparent transformation, however, like the previous one, appears to favor the interests of large food TNCs and their major investors. Our data also suggest that this change will benefit mainly (the relatively few) consumers of relatively high socioeconomic status.

Data from our discussions with Nancy and our extensive (in situ) reading of Mexican newspapers indicate that Maseca/ADM and other firms (of lesser significance) are in the process of making available to the public tortillas made from higher quality materials which have a longer shelf life and, in some instances, will be enriched with vitamins and minerals. [Nancy informs us that she feels it would be extremely difficult to incorporate soy proteins and various talked-about vitamins and minerals into tortillas. She expressed the opinion that it could be done but that the resulting tortillas will likely be even less desirable in texture and durability when compared to those currently mass produced by Maseca/ADM and other large manufacturers.] These "super" or "luxury" tortillas are to be sold, at least initially, in relatively small markets and boutiques to a decidedly upscale clientele (see: Carrillo 1996; Miller 1996; The News 1996). Ironically, if this vision of the industry’s future plays itself out, what will have happened is that the same TNCs which were instrumental in restricting consumer choice (and running many small competitors out of business) to their advantage will profit (again) by reintroducing the same (obsolete but preferred) products and a higher level of choice back into the marketplace. These firms, most notably Maseca/ADM, will have taken overCrecreatedCthe high-quality product domain once specialized in by those same firms that have been squeezed out of the industry picture.


Our data suggest a three-phase, globalization-driven evolution of the Mexican tortilla industry. Phase one is characterized by high-quality, preferred products being available at the preferred type of retail outlet. Phase two, beginning in the 1970s and still in operation today, involves: 1) increased governmental intervention, 2) the expanded presence of large agricultural and retailing TNCs, 3) competitive shakeout (of smaller, lesser efficient producers and retailers), and 4) restricted consumer choice. Phase three, presently in development, is characterized by large TNC dominance and increased levels of consumer choice (for consumers in upscale market segments). Results of this globalization of the tortilla industry include: 1) greater profit potential for large agribusiness TNCs, 2) higher potential return on investment for major shareholders in these TNCs, and 3) restriction of consumer choice (for the majority of Mexicans) with respect to type of product/tortilla and, to a lesser extent, retail outlet. [This assertion, particularly with regard to the restriction of consumer choice in the context of type of product/tortilla, is supported by the recent discovery that transgenic (i.e., genetically modified) corn has mysteriously introgressed into and contaminated Mexico=s corn supply in key growing areas of the country (see: Quist and Chapela 2001; Ruiz-Marrero 2002; Zarembo 2002). This introgression and contamination, manifest in the presence of Starlink corn-a product of biotech TNC Aventis, which was recently purchased by chemical and pharmaceutical giant Bayer-threatens to both sicken persons consumer product made form Mexican corn (i.e., tortillas) and kill off some indigenous types of corn unique to Mexican growing regions (see: Ruiz-Marrero 2002; Zarembo 2002).]

Suggested, overall, is the notion that no product nor industry, however culturally important to a group of consumers, is immune to change at the hands of the powerful forces of globalization. The sacred Mexican tortilla has been changedCglobalizedCwith regard to: 1) the manner in which (and from what materials) it is produced, 2) from whom it is acquired, and 3) the manner in which it is consumed (as mass-produced flour tortillas cannot, in some instances, be used for the same purposes as can raw corn-based tortillas).

In conclusion, our data, collected at the level of the lived human experience of persons being impacted by the forces of globalization, stands in diametric opposition to the foundational tenets of globalization in marketing and consumer research. Our data suggest, in this regard, that globalization is not a naturally occurring, universally beneficial process driven by consumer desire for new products and technologies and higher standards of consumption and living. The globalization that emerges from our data is, instead, a process by which consumer choice is increasingly limited to a set of alternatives best allowing (agribusiness) TNC executives and major stockholders to maximize their personal and collective wealth. This radical divergence between the received disciplinary view and our data, is a result, in our opinion, of the received view of globalization being: 1) significantly removed from reality as lived by the vast majority of Mexican consumers, and 2) based on highly aggregated, average-based data which averages away critical place- and person-specific detail. Future research is required to assess the veracity of this assertion. It should do this by facilitating better understanding of both the cultural importance of the tortilla to Mexican consumers and the manner in which the forces of globalization will inevitably continue to alter tortilla production, acquisition, and consumption throughout the Mexico Republic. Future research should also address the consequences of this alteration for Mexican consumers.


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Terrance G. Gabel, Truman State University
Gregory W. Boller, University of Memphis


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30 | 2003

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