“Machos don’t like making tortillas, it’s usually only taught to women,” said Margarita Benitez, who has cooked up quesadillas and tlacoyos in the Juarez neighborhood for 40 years.
As the sun rises in Mexico City and rush hour arrives, thousands of stalls offering breakfast spring up in the streets. Vendors of tamales stand next to lumbering aluminum pots, serving hot, sweet maiz atole; women tend coals burning in small metal stoves heating quesadillas on hotplates; baskets of sweet breads balance on cargo bicycles on street corners.
Throughout the day, some stalls disappear and others emerge in their place. In the afternoon, women make quesadillas before making way for men dispatching sandwiches. Taco stands operate into the night.
Margarita Benitez has been preparing food in Mexico’s Juarez neighborhood for 40 years, starting as a child with her mother. Now 48, she lives in the village of Santiago Tianguistenco, in the hilly northeast beyond the edge of the megacity. The trip from the village to the city center takes about 90 minutes.
“We start preparing the food at 4:30 in the morning,” said Benitez. “I only work two days a week because I share the stall with my two sisters. That way I can take care of my son the other days.”
The dishes she sells are the same ones made for communal events in her village where large quantities of food are made for religious and other gatherings.
“Tlacoyos are more difficult than quesadillas because you can make the tortillas with hand press, while tlacoyos you have to shape by hand,” adds Benitez. The hand-sized tlacoyo maiz cakes are made from tortilla dough and filled with bean paste or cheese. French and Indian ex-pats in the rapidly gentrifying Juarez like the stall’s vegetarian offerings, but the shredded pork and beef and pressed pork rind still sell the most.
“On a good day we can make a 1,000 pesos profit,” said Benitez, “but it varies a lot and usually it’s closer to 400.” She noted that men rarely make quesadillas because it requires making tortillas, typically considered women’s work. “Machos don’t like making tortillas, it’s usually only taught to women” she added, smiling. “In our village, men work in the fields.”
In the city center, another woman from Santiago Tianguistenco sets up her stand of quesadillas and tlacoyos on dilapidated street corner. Lucero Montes de Oca has been preparing food in the street for 14 years. She had been a housewife but needed income to pay for her children’s’ schooling, learning the business out of necessity via her mother-in-law and an aunt.
According to the 50-year-old Montes de Oca, a person who wishes to set up a street stall will typically make a payment of 2,000 pesos to a street leader to set up shop and afterwards pay quotas of 250 to 300 pesos per week. The leaders of vendor have civil society organization which in turn have agreements with local governments. “We always work during the day, at night it would be dangerous,” said Montes de Oca. “I have taught my daughters to cook and make tortillas. It is more something which is passed on from mother to daughter.”
Rosa Juarez Sanchez, 59, who runs Quesadillas San Juan—a little shop in front of Mexico’s San Juan market—doesn’t need to work weekends. She cooks and manages a lively handful of mostly female relatives who all have other jobs during the week. She’s also a trial lawyer. “My mother Amparo Sanchez started this business, then she died and it passed to my sister Elvia. When she died it fell to me to continue it,” said Juarez. “This stall has been the basis of many things for my family and for me, even being a trial lawyer isn’t as steady a job as you might think when you’re not part of an important firm.”
According to Juarez, a woman typically makes between 400 and 500 pesos a day making quesadillas, “I think women do this kind of cooking more often because it is more intricate. Men are more practical, they go straight to the point. That is why they are usually more in food preparation jobs which are more simple like grilling and cutting meat,” observes Juarez.
Several hours after Quesadillas San Juan has closed, a crew of men set up a large stall in a dark street in front of a ruined church in Mexico City’s old newspaper district. “I like working at night, there’s less traffic and noise,” said Felix Hernandez de la Cruz, 37, who works making tacos at this stand Los Bigos. He has been working here for 15 years since he came as migrant from Veracruz.
Los Bigos serves various pre-cooked dishes such as chilaquiles, which are prepared by women from the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca before the stand is set up in the evening. On weekends they can sell up to 50 kilos of tortillas. Six families live from the income of the stand and Hernandez says a taquero can make between 250 and 350 pesos a night.
“It is easy to learn how to prepare tacos, all you have to do is learn how to chop the meat and make sure the portions are always the same,” says Hernandez. “Sometimes clients are drunk and can be difficult, there have even been clients with guns, so I think insecurity is one of the reasons why few women work with tacos at night.”
Martin Alejandro Hernandez, 27, serves tacos al pastor at El Pastorcito, close to the city’s eastern bus station. He worked for 10 years in different jobs in the restaurant to make it to the position of pastorero, the person in charge of the delicate job of tender the vertical cylinder of skewered pork rotating before a gas flame. “It’s hard work standing in the heat of the grill, I think that’s why there are [fewer] women working as pastoreros,” says Hernandez. “I like working at night because it allows me to do other activities in the afternoon.”
The most difficult part of being a good pastorero is the ability to cut thin strips off the cylinder so that all the meat in the taco is cooked to same degree. While doing this the taquero must tend to the symmetry of the rotating cylinder and its distance from the flame. According to Hernandez a good pastorero can make between 2,800 to 3,500 pesos a week.
But different styles of tacos each have their own difficulty, says the taquero; working a grill well requires agility and speed, while working the low-temperature fired suadero implies knowing when and how to move the different cuts of meat around. “Once I have enough experience I would like to start my own restaurant,” says Hernandez.
Rigoberto Juarez, 60, cooks and dispatches tacos in Los Cocuyos, a hole in the wall of Mexico City’s baroque historical center. He has been working in this stall specializing in suadero for 24 years. Juarez started as an assistant in the 45-year-old stall where he first learned how to clean the plates, cut the onions and parsley, and make the salsas. Then, over the years, he learned to cook suadero, which consists of different beef cuts from the flank sirloin of a cow accompanied by tongue, spiced longaniza sausage, tripe, and brain in a shallow aluminum vessel with a dome in the middle on which meat can be perched above the low-temperature oil half-filling the tub.
Skill in shifting the slow-cooking meat around over the dome and through the oil is what has made Los Cocuyos a destination for celebrity chefs in recent times. “It’s a question of stirring things around and trying to find the right point,” says Juarez. “But it is hard work. The body doesn’t get used to working at night. Many of the clients are coming out of bars. But if they didn’t we wouldn’t have many clients either.”