September 30, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 41°F


Tortillas illustrate U.S.-Mexico trade

I’ve been living the good life in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

A small city in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, San Cristóbal de las Casas is the meeting place of many cultures and political ideologies. Both mestizos and indigenous people live here; U.S. backpackers and European tourists flock to its hostels; and scholars know it as the urban stronghold of the radical Zapatista movement.

While this makes for an exciting atmosphere, I feel slightly uncomfortable when I think about my position as a privileged student from the U.S. As such, I am a consumer. I spend money on food, gawk at the surroundings and take pictures. Local women and children follow me in the hopes that I will buy their crafts and candy.

However, this is only my third week here, and I’m still skating the surface of this temporary life. The superficial layer of my experience will dissolve as time passes — and if I pay attention.

The transition already began in a café when I was accidentally served a crepa instead of a sandwich. The price for my meal was five pesos higher than I expected, and it took a moment before I realized why.

Crepas are made from tortillas instead of bread, and tortilla prices have been rising steadily since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. NAFTA reduces trade regulations between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Despite the fact that Mexico can produce more than enough corn for the market demand within its borders, the U.S. has been dumping corn onto the Mexican market.

Fortunately, NAFTA did allow Mexico to limit the amount of tax-free corn it imports from the U.S., as well as place a moratorium on the importation of genetically modified seeds.

However, in the last year alone, tortilla prices jumped 14 percent. The Mexican government said the jump is because of price increases in U.S. corn and the demand of a growing biofuel industry. Critics call the situation an artificial crisis created by U.S. corn companies and Mexican right-wing officials who want to force further reduction of trade regulations.

If the critics are right, this plan seems to be working. The Mexican government recently approved a 200 million ton increase in tax-free corn imports from the U.S. It may then be forced to repeal the moratorium on genetically modified seeds. If that repeal occurs, it can have devastating effects on the genetic diversity and stability of Mexican-bred corn.

Sara E. Howard is a junior journalism and politics major. E-mail her at