In the village back in Guatemala where she grew up, Lesly Lopez remembers grinding corn into masa was a daily activity. It’s the same in many villages across Central and South America. Masa is the maize dough used to create tamales, tortillas and other staples of Latin American meals.
The most important thing to know about grinding corn for masa, Lopez says, is to check the calibration of the grinding stones to make sure the texture is just right for the intended task — a finer grind for tortillas, slightly coarser for tamales.
Nowadays Lopez helps grind around 300 pounds of corn a week at South Philly Barbacoa, the buzzworthy Mexican restaurant in Philly’s historic Italian Market, where owners Cristina Martinez and husband Ben Miller are outspoken advocates for undocumented workers. You can even catch them talking about their advocacy work on a 2020 episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
As of 2017, 1.9 million undocumented people in the U.S. hailed from Central America, and undocumented workers make up around 5% of the labor force in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. Many work in the restaurant industry — around 10% according to Pew, and maybe as much as 40% of restaurant workers in NYC and L.A. are undocumented according to One Fair Wage.
As hard as the pandemic hit those undocumented workers, they were mostly excluded from unemployment insurance and most other common forms of emergency public assistance. Some states filled in the gap, notably New York with its unprecedented $2.1 billion Excluded Workers Fund — which has since run out of money.
For the next expansion of its work in support of undocumented workers, South Philly Barbacoa is incubating and spinning off Masa Cooperativa, a worker-owned masa processing cooperative. It’s still early, but they are already selling masa to individuals and restaurants in Philly and as far as Boston. Over the past few months, they’ve visited farmers in their region to establish business partners who can plant the heirloom varieties of corn they want to purchase. And they’re making moves to secure the space and storage capacity to process at least six acres of that corn this fall.
“The majority of the restaurants around here use a factory-made tortilla,” Lopez says. “This is a good product, we should be able to sell it.”
Demand for higher-quality, more authentically made masa is on the rise, according to food magazine Bon Appetit. It reports that more affordable, tabletop-sized masa grinding equipment is now available and many people want to move away from genetically modified foods. Some high-end, masa-oriented restaurants are importing traditional corn varieties from Mexico, considered more flavorful and often more colorful, and grinding masa onsite like South Philly Barbacoa.
Masa Cooperativa sees potential for identifying which corn varieties can be grown closer to its home in Philly. South Philly Barbacoa has been acquiring corn from two farmers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about 90 minutes’ drive away.
Corn, after all, is a human invention, which scientists believe indigenous people first created in Mexico. Eventually indigenous people all across what are now North and South America cultivated thousands of heirloom varieties that each worked best for the climate and soils where they lived. The worker-owned Masa is partnering with the Rodale Institute, an organic farm about 90 minutes northwest of Philly, to identify the best strains for what they need and to supply 1.75 acres of corn for this year’s growing season.
The impetus for all this work came from South Philly Barbacoa’s explorations into conversion to a worker-owned cooperative. The restaurant and some of its workers previously participated in a worker-owned cooperative incubator of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (which Next City has covered). But it hasn’t worked out yet, in part because of the lack of workable financing.
Buying an existing business as a worker-owned cooperative is more challenging compared with a traditional buyer (another entrepreneur or an investor). One of the most common options out there to finance the acquisition of a business is getting a federally guaranteed small business loan. But the rules around the Small Business Administration’s loan guarantee program basically make it impossible for cooperatives to access. There are some proposals floating around to change those rules, but Congress has yet to take action.
According to Miller, a bumper crop of corn in 2018 helped spark a new plan. The restaurant started selling its extra masa to retail customers. That got everyone thinking: Maybe they could line up some local farmers to grow even more and higher-quality corn that they could process and sell. Were it not for the pandemic, 2021 might have been the first year they bought, stored, processed and sold their own masa, Miller says.
Lopez says she’s never had her own business and never considered launching one before, but so far she has enjoyed doing it as a cooperative with her co-workers — particularly going out to visit with small farmers to recruit them as business partners.
“It reminded me of home to see and feel and experience that,” Lopez says.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.