Staple of Life

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Dr. Reuben Naranjo Jr., Tohono O’odham, received his Ph.D. in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona in 2011, writing his dissertation on: Hua A’aga: Basket Stories from the Field, the Tohono O’odham Community of A:L Pi’ichkin (Pitiquito), Sonora Mexico. Dr. Naranjo shared his thoughts, experiences and knowledge of the “Cemait” or tortilla in the context of Tohono O’odham culture with BorderLore:

Bread, even in the Bible, commands special respect in all cultures. Would you help put the meaning of “daily bread” in O’odham culture in context for our readers and also explain the term “sobaquera”?

Dr. Naranjo: Bread and tortillas in the context of Tohono O’odham culture are two different means of comestible survival. One is ancient, the other assimilated into the culture post contact with non Natives. I am unaware of any ritualized behavior or ideation relative to bread among the Tohono O’odham.

The tortilla “sobaquera” is a term first invented by the Sonoran Mexican mestizo population. Sobaco, if you were unaware, is the Spanish term for “armpit.” The O’odham and Sonoran tortillas that are enormous and almost paper thin are considered to be “Tortillas sobaqueras” because of the diameter of the tortilla that reaches almost to the “armpit” during the tortilla making process. Sonoran Tohono O’odham would refer to them in this way but American Tohono O’odham would not.

Dr. Maribel Alvarez provides additional notation on the term “sobaquera” (see the following, included in the book by Paula Morton, The Tortilla: A Cultural History, UNM Press, 2014):

Sonoran Flour Tortillas: What’s in a Name?
In Sonora, Mexico the curious word “sobaquera” is frequently used to refer to the extra-large wheat flour tortillas that are prepared and consumed in the northern regions of the country. Despite the popularity of the term, significant controversy exists among Sonorenses about the origins and desirability of the term. Step into the bustling municipal market or stop by any roadside food stand and you will hear ordinary working-class Sonorans utilizing the word liberally. Bring up the term, however, among the educated and the elite and you risk a severe admonition about the pejorative and prejudicial implications attached to one of the state’s most iconic foodways. The preferred appellative is “tortilla de agua” (water-based flour tortilla). The disdain for the term “sobaquera” derives partly from the association with the word “sobaco” (street slang for armpit). One interpretation posits that the movement required to stretch the dough in order to produce the large, paper-thin tortilla goes beyond the tortilla-maker’s hands all the way to her arm and shoulder — more specifically, the Sonoran flour tortilla demands a kind of sweeping motion that exposes the maker’s armpit over the comal or stove. For some, however, the armpit (especially its vulgar street name) is associated with a lack of hygiene. It is widely believed that the Mexican TV animator Raul Velasco (an Ed Sullivan-like presenter) coined the term when he traveled to Sonora to film a special segment for his highly popular Sunday variety show “Siempre en Domingo” sometime in the early 1980s. Sonorans have always embraced a strong and proud regional identity, particularly vis-à-vis the cultural and political hegemony of Central Mexico. Many in Sonora find it all too predictable and biased that a Central Mexican figure would have named with a term of vulgarity one of the state’s most valued culinary traditions. There is another possible explanation for the term “sobaquera” that has little to do with these culture wars. A “sobaquera” is also a Spanish term for a leather bag or holster. Some believe that the word became attached to tortillas as early as the 1700s when travel on horse across Sonora’s rugged rural terrain required that the early cowboys carry along nourishment to last for several days. The large bread substitutes were folded easily and carried in the “sobaqueras” alongside guns and beef jerky (“carne seca”), another Sonoran delicacy.”

In the O’odham family, is the tortilla made for special occasions or as part of “daily bread”?

Dr. Naranjo: In times past, the process of tortilla making was a daily activity. For feasts, celebrations and the holidays it is the center of the community or familial dining room table experience. Everyone always looks for the presence of cecemait or tortillas because an O’odham feast or dinner without it is not an O’odham dining experience.

Photo of a Tohono O'odham woman, 1894, making flour tortillas al fresco
Photo of a Tohono O’odham woman, 1894, making flour tortillas al fresco, Pitiquito Sonora. William J. McGee and W. Dinwiddie (UOFA special collections photo). Dr. Naranjo has yet to find any other citation, anywhere, for the making of the flour tortilla by Mexican women for this time period. Photo from collection

Is there an “art” for tortilla making, with special recipes, utensils and hand processes passed through families? And are there unique material culture elements used by O’odham families in tortilla making?

Dr. Naranjo: I can answer parts of this question. O’odham peoples draw a line between some Mexican made tortillas recipes and O’odham made cecemait (Tortillas) simply for the incorporation of baking powder into the white flour masa recipe. My mother always told me that some Mexican Americans put baking powder in the white flour masa recipe while O’odham peoples do not. The O’odham used to make a kind of small and thick wheat based tortilla that were and are called “wakial cecemait,” or cowboy tortillas. They were brown and thick and they received their name from the O’odham cowboys who when rounding up cattle would make them at their camp sites. Not many people make them anymore as the white flour tortilla is much more desired than the hardy wheat flour tortillas known as Cowboy tortillas.

Would you give us the benefit of your research, and provide us with a brief historical context for tortilla making in the O’odham community? What are the earliest sources you have located in your research?

Dr. Naranjo: In the early 1900s Jeanette Woodruff, field matron for the Papago Indian Agency, organized a Sonoran tortilla making demo for students and faculty at the UofA. She used Tohono O’odham women from the Tucson Indian village to demonstrate the art of the Mexican tortilla. Why would a University of Arizona student club choose Papago or Tohono O’odham women to demonstrate “Mexican” tortilla making, if there were potentially other Mexican hispanic folk available to demonstrate as well? My educated opinion would be that because all Mexican hispanic peoples in this area of the modern southwest were migrants to this area, from the south or Mexico, much of that population brought with them the art and process of corn tortilla making and had yet to completely assimilate the flour tortilla into the Mexican mestizo diet. It is common knowledge that as one approaches Mexico City, flour tortillas become harder and harder to find. To be fair, there were in all probability some Mexican mestizos living in the southwest that probably made flour tortillas but the corn tortilla was still pretty much the norm. I know in Sonora, my Tohono O’odham relatives would say that when things got tough they would revert to corn tortillas instead of the white flour. I thought that comment to be quite interesting. I would never have equated corn tortilla making with poverty in this area of the world.

Tortilla making is a food symbolic of many ethnic identities in our region. Would you help us understand and blend the O’odham place in our region’s special passion for this specialty food?

Dr. Naranjo: That it is. For Tohono O’odham aka Papagos or Pimas Altas the tortilla-making process is an ancient one. Ignaz Pfefferkorn described it in his Sonora: A Description of the Province, and Maria Antonio Benz, a German Jesuit mentions it in his Piman Vocabulario. Both of these references if memory serves me are from the 18th century. The latter is unpublished and located in the Bancroft Library. Note, there is no indication, to the best of my knowledge, that O’odham peoples were using flour or corn in their 18th century recipes although Drs. Bernard L Fontana and James Griffith have stated that the flour tortilla was probably invented by the Pimans or O’odham people, within the mission system, shortly after the introduction of wheat into the O’odham culture and community. We have to recall that Sonora, the province, was probably 95% Native American in the 1700s. Mexican mestizos would eventually begin to migrate slowly towards the northwest or Southwest as we know it today bringing along with them the art of corn tortilla making.

The act of flour tortilla-making is not nor has it ever been exclusive to the Mexican mestizo populations. Some Mexican mestizo scholars might argue that because of their indigenous roots that their voice is a unique one, in that tortilla making was part of all Nahuatl-Mexica-Aztec cultures. In reality, corn tortilla or tortilla making was common throughout the Mesoamerican regions and I would argue that it extends all the way up to the Hopi, who make a kind of tortilla that is a liquid-based, blue corn sort of “masa” and is cooked on a stone comal in the same way tortillas have always been made. They call it Piki. The Hopi are Uto-Nahuatl speaking peoples as are the Tohono O’odham.

Tortilla by Paula E. Morton
Author Paula E.Morton’s Tortilla: A Cultural History, University of New Mexico Press (October 2014 paperback, ISBN 978-0-8263-5214-9)


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