In 1975, 17-year-old Cesario “Chayo” Covarrubias left his hometown of Momax, Zacatecas, to join his brothers in East Los Angeles. In Mexico, the Covarrubia family raised corn, tobacco, and beans. But in the United States, the family business was tortillas
Chayos hermanos worked at El Toreo, a tortilla factory on Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights. His first job with them was to count tortillas when they came down the production line, to make sure each packet of corn contained three dozen tortillas and each flour bag had 12. Covarrubias was given more and more responsibilities until he left El Toreo in 1987, when it closed for La Fortaleza in East LA, the largest tortilla factory in Eastside.
But Covarrubias stayed there only a year before jumping to the smaller La Princesita nearby.
“I asked the owner of La Fortaleza for a week’s vacation,” explains the 63-year-old Covarrubias about the sound of the machine and the hissing steam at La Princesita’s facilities off Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard. “He said it was fine, but he would not give me paid leave. So then my brother told me to join him at La Princesita and ask Pancho for a job, ”he said, referring to La Princesita’s legendary founder, the late Francisco Ramirez.
“So I asked Pancho if he would pay for my vacation,” Covarrubias continues, “and he had no problem with that. Later, La Fortaleza asked me to return, and I said ‘You had your chance!’
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Covarrubias has been with La Princesita ever since. He is now their production manager, who is responsible for repairing all the machines to ensure that their corn and flour tortillas retain their delicious taste.
He is also one of only three people whom the Ramirez family leaves to perhaps their most important job: preparing the stones that grind La Princesita’s corn into masa.
“Just call me a picapiedras [a Flinstone], ”Says the greedy Covarrubias with a laugh.
We climb a staircase to the roof of La Princesitas. On a table were Covarrubias’ tools of the day: a small circular saw, a flat-blade screwdriver connected to an air hose and about a dozen smooth, 60-pound millstones made of basalt, the porous volcanic stone that has served as Mexico’s base for grinding corn in millennia. Every week, Covarrubias lays a new pair of stones in La Princesitas molino (mill) to ensure that the masa comes out perfect for making corn tortillas: not too grainy, not too smooth.
“If you cut it too much, the masa does not grind properly,” Covarrubias explains, putting on some goggles. “The tortillas are rotating. Production destroys. So I have to get my cuts right. ”
Covarrubias took over the preparation of La Princesitas millstone about 15 years ago when his predecessor retired. “He never formally taught me,” Covarrubias said. “I just wanted to see how people would do it. I never went to school, not even as a morrillo [youngster]! ”
He grabs a millstone and buffers lightly off the top “to remove the shiny.” With his saw, Covarrubias then makes deep, slightly parallel grooves, starting from a hole in the middle and going up about three-quarters up the millstone. In the last quarter, Covarrubia’s make thinner lines. He cuts multiples of each into a crossed pattern that ends up resembling a Mesoamerican sunbeam.
I ask if he should make that pattern for optimal grinding. “No, that’s how I learned it,” he says. “Other people do their way, and that’s fine. What matters is how deep the cuts are and how sharp they are. ”
The outer grooves are as thin as a line drawn with a pencil; the inner ones are big and sharp enough where you can cut yourself if you swipe your finger across, but dull enough so that the groove does not cut you if you just press it.
Each stone takes from about half an hour to an hour to prepare, depending on its end use (stones are cut in different ways depending on the production, like tortilla chips or masa for tamales). Covarrubias remembers when people would use hammers and screwdrivers to make millstones, “and it would take longer, but not so much longer, and it would not be that much harder.”
After the first cuts, Covarrubias then uses the pneumatic screwdriver to make deeper grooves. When they are to his liking, he uses the air hose to blow off any remaining pebbles or sediment.
He looks at the finished product and smiles. “There is a philosopher!” Covarrubias grins. It was sharp now.
La Princesita’s current millstone still has about a day left, so I can not see Covarrubias installing its latest creation in the factory’s molino. But he lets me see the current ones to explain how a good millstone works. He opens the molino so I can see two stones pressed against each other. A small loop pours nixtamalized corn in the middle. When they grind, the corn kernels go through the small space between the millstones and the masa oozes out and falls into a container.
“You need the masa to feel rubbery, with not a single corn kernel,” says Covarrubias. “La masa te dice [The masa tells you]. ”
Covarrubias knows he will not be there forever, so he tries to find an apprentice among the workers of La Princesita; no one has risen yet.
“What he does is art,” said La Princesita president Monica Ramirez, who runs the business with her siblings. “It’s great. He knows how to do it like our ancestors, but someone else has to learn.”
“Who knows? Maybe one day this industry will not need anyone to prepare the rocks anymore,” Covarrubia replies half seriously and half jokingly. “Everything is electronic. But at that point I will not be here anymore.”
Then he apologizes to himself. It’s his last day before he sets off on his annual two-week vacation. Paid.
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