There is a phantom tortilla truck that drives through Greenfield, coming two hours from Santa Maria to deliver fresh yellow corn tortillas to the indigenous Oaxacan community that lives here – and otherwise has to make do with factory-processed, pre-packaged tortillas. Depending on who you ask, it comes Friday and Tuesday. Or Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Some say it goes door to door. Others, in the right place at the right time, call their friends to tell them that the truck (or is it a van?) has arrived.
Families living in Greenfield buy up to 500 tortillas a week (about 20 tortillas per meal), according to Eulogio Solano, an indigenous Mixtec immigrant from Mexico. Sitting around a table with three city officials, he explains his plans to open his own tortilleria downtown – and put the mysterious Santa Maria truck out of business.
If all goes well, Solano may trade in his grueling job harvesting broccoli and become the first indigenous business owner in Greenfield. For a group relegated to the bottom rung of the Central Valley’s farm hierarchy for the past decade, Solano’s enterprise is both a practical and symbolic step up. City officials, interested in helping indigenous Oaxacans move up from the fields and off government assistance, plan to give Solano one of Greenfield’s first business loans to get his project going.
“Everyone knows the saying, give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime,” says April Wooden, the city’s Economic Development Manager. “In Greenfield, it's not even teach a man to fish. It's let a man fish. They have great ideas, we just need to help them put them into action.”
Funded by the city redevelopment agency’s new small business program, the full loan, up to $50,000, could be forgiven if the business generates a new job for every $25,000 of debt. In the meantime, the city is investing staff time to help Solano find a location, choose equipment, and train him on financial and business matters.
At first, Solano hopes the business will provide a small measure of relief during the winter months of unemployment, after the local harvests of grapes, broccoli, and lettuce.
“It’s very difficult,” Solano said in Spanish. Some men and families move to Oregon, Arizona and other states to find temporary work. Others save up over the year and buy staples such as corn flour, rice, and beans. Still others apply for food stamps on behalf of their U.S.-born children or live on donations from the nearby Salinas food bank. The business will be a small operation, creating about five full time jobs by the end of the first year, with plans to double by the end of five years.
City officials and community members hope the tortilleria will be the first of several homegrown indigenous businesses. The city is also considering helping indigenous women make a business out of their traditional weavings and handicrafts, creating a local farmers’ market to sell their creations, teaching them to use computers and office machines, and even helping set up an interstate distribution network.
“We want to create self-sufficiency,” Wooden said. “This is the implementation of a vision that's going to give other people in the community the belief and confidence that they can do something similar.”
The city program is the only lifeline for the prospective immigrant business owners, many of whom are undocumented. Because of their status, they can’t secure loans through most private banks or from the federal government’s Small Business Administration. In contrast, the Greenfield City Council plans to create its own lending guidelines for city-sponsored loans that will be open to all its residents, Wooden said.
Though Solano expects to attract a range of customers, his tortilleria will cater to Mixtecs and Triquis in particular. Accustomed to growing their own food or buying in local markets in Mexico, indigenous Oaxacans are suspicious of packaged and canned foods.
At a community meeting on early childhood education in Salinas, where Solano translated between Spanish and Mixteco for the Mixtec attendees, he gestured toward his plate of cold cut sandwiches and macaroni salad.
“This is not what we eat,” he said.
Nor are the tortillas sold in Greenfield stores. At the Carniceria La Barata, a small grocery on the city’s main drag, stacks of yellow corn tortillas shipped from Watsonville and Salinas factories line several shelves.
In the bulk section, store owner Cain Herrera takes a handful of whole corn kernels from a bin, each the size of a horse’s tooth. “This is what their tortillas are made from. There are no preservatives and it’s more natural.”
At the city hall meeting with Solano, Wooden, Mayor Pro Tem Yolanda Teneyuque, and housing programs coordinator Francisco Casas, enthusiasm grew as the tortilleria’s potential for success became clearer.
“This is so exciting, this is so exciting,” Casas said when he realized the equipment could be rented out in the bakery’s off hours to others who wanted to grind chiles or make tamales.
Wooden added that the natural tortillas would likely appeal to health-conscious palates of San Francisco Bay Area foodies, raising prospects for wide distribution and business growth.
“I just see history being done,” Teneyuque said at the end of the meeting.
Solano sat calmly, his hands folded on the table as an uncharacteristic smile broke his normally stoic expression.
“I’m pleased,” he said. “We’re happy with the authorities. We never thought we would get to this place. Gracias a Dios.”
©2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism