The Communal
National Geographic Magazine

The Communal Table

In Milpa Alta, Mexico, the faithful eat, pray, and celebrate to keep life whole.

Picture of the La Rejunta festival in Milpa Alta

Rituals of faith and family  In the morning calm a carpet of decorative sand is strewn along a street in Milpa Alta to celebrate La Rejunta, one in a yearlong series of events leading up to a January pilgrimage. This borough of Mexico City has more than 700 religious fiestas every year.

Every year for many years the people of Milpa Alta, Mexico, have prepared a meal before Christmas, the magnitude of which would seem to require a miracle. Sixty thousand tamales and 5,000 gallons of hot chocolate are made from scratch in less than a week, not too much and not too little for the thousands who show up for the feast.

The feeding of this multitude is no simple matter. “There is an infinity of things to do,” Virginia Meza Torres says firmly, as if to signal no time to talk. She looks crisp and unruffled in a white piqué blouse. Her husband, Fermín Lara Jiménez, stands next to her on their patio, neatly dressed in a white polo shirt and gray vest. Virginia and Fermín are majordomos, handpicked to organize activities for the annual pilgrimage to the Chalma sanctuary, 59 miles away. They have waited 14 years to receive this sacred duty.

The feast is called La Rejunta, which translates as “the roundup,” and it’s a way to build anticipation for the pilgrimage, when some 20,000 men, women, and children from Milpa Alta walk through the mountains to the ancient place of the holy cave, where a life-size, darkened statue of Jesus, El Señor de Chalma, resides. Before the Spanish conquest indigenous deities with magical powers were worshipped here. Then missionaries visited, the Jesus statue appeared, a miracle was proclaimed, and Chalma became a religious site for Roman Catholics from all around Mexico. Pilgrims from Milpa Alta begin the walk to Chalma on January 3, and the Rejunta meal is a sumptuous quid pro quo for everyone who has donated money, goods, or time to the event.

Virginia is heading to the local offices to get a permit for the procession of icons that will arrive at their house on Sunday. Fermín is driving his black pickup into the countryside in search of dried Indian corn to be ground for atole, a seasonal corn-based drink of chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla that’s nostalgia in a cup for Mexicans. Every step of La Rejunta is a ritual. One year before the event the men go to the forest and collect wood that they pile high near the home of the majordomo so that it will be properly cured before it’s used for open-air cooking. Local farmers grow most of the corn, meat, and vegetables needed as ingredients. No instant mixes or other culinary shortcuts are allowed. Food is so central to life in Milpa Alta that it’s the currency of exchange for work done, love shared, faith renewed. In this town during the days devoted to La Rejunta, poor people feel rich, and whatever hurt or insult life has dealt is forgotten in a world of bounty.

Map of Milpa Alta, Mexico

The volunteers are beginning to arrive, and the majordomos leave their daughter Monserrat Lara Meza in charge. She is a 24-year-old graduate student in biology, but she has put aside her studies to help her parents for the week. She shucks the dried ears of corn and tosses them in a wheelbarrow. By midmorning she has covered the patio wall with carefully arranged stacks. “My parents have been in a state of nerves” since their term began, she says while dropping kernels in a basin. Monserrat explains that her parents kicked off their year as majordomos in May 2013 with a big feast under the huge tarpaulin that still hangs over their patio. Tarps and tents go up all the time across Milpa Alta, often in the early evening, as if a circus had come to town. Every year more than 700 religious fiestas are held in the borough of Milpa Alta, which encompasses 12 villages and towns in the rural southeastern corner of Mexico City. The tarps and booming music let everyone know where to find the action.

Fermín and Virginia will pass the mantle to new majordomos, chosen as they were by a special council, when their 12 months are over. Thrilling as it’s all been, Monserrat isn’t interested in becoming a majordomo herself. Besides, she points out, the waiting list gets longer every year, and all the majordomos have been named through 2046. She wanders down the hill to a shed with a corrugated metal roof to see how the toasting of the corn is going.

Picture of the majordomo praying over a cauldron of food

A prayer before feasting On the day he succeeds Fermín Lara Jiménez as majordomo, Ernesto Alvarado Salazar prays amid the cauldrons of food prepared for a town celebration. Copal, a tree resin used as incense, wafts from a special brazier used in religious rituals.

Milpa Alta means “high cornfield,” and its identity has been connected to agriculture since pre-Hispanic times. Corn was a primary crop here until the 1930s, when farmers switched to the more drought-resistant nopal, the prickly pear cactus that is a staple of Mexican cuisine. Today the region is one of Mexico’s top nopal producers. Another business is the production of barbacoa, slowly cooked, barbecued sheep, made the old way, by placing an entire lamb or sheep in a pit of earthen tiles lined with spiky maguey (agave cactus) leaves. Since the town is located about 17 miles from the center of Mexico City, producers can sell to urban dwellers willing to pay top price.

The borough of Milpa Alta is the poorest in Mexico City, with nearly half the local population living below the poverty line. But those born and raised there, like Juan Carlos Loza Jurado, question the significance of the statistic. What is poverty, he asks, when every member of an extended family, employed or unemployed, can count on a meal every day as well as other forms of support? What is poverty when the town hosts a giddy number of festivities over the course of a year? Loza, an academic with a specialty in rural studies, has looked at his community from both a personal and a scholarly vantage point and views its social cohesion as remarkably strong. “People in Milpa Alta have their own perspective. The environment, the kind of social relations they have, these things make their lives better. People say frequently, We are better off here.”

That sentiment is borne out by the low level of migration to the United States. Traditional values anchor everyday life, and top among these is eating together.

“In my experience there is a glue, a bonding, that comes from the time together at the table,” says Josefina García Jiménez, whose family raises sheep. She often cooks for her nieces and nephews and says, “It feels like I am passing down a tradition, and when it comes their turn to be adults, they will remember what I have done. Here we have time to cook, time to think just what ingredients are needed, time to show your kids through cooking that you love them.”

Like many Mexicans, Josefina is a fan of the sobremesa—a stretch of time after the meal when the entire family, no excuses, stays seated and talks. It can be the time for shamefaced confessions, laughs, gossip. As a child, Loza soaked up stories at the dinner table about witches known as nahuales; his uncles described the nahual’s ability to change shape into a donkey, turkey, or dog. At sobremesa came testimony of miracles and omens, of the pilgrimage in earlier times, when men carried supplies to Chalma on horseback. The table is the place where the history of Milpa Alta is passed on.

Picture of a Last Supper reenactment

The drama of the final meal During Holy Week volunteers reenact the Last Supper in the Church of the Assumption of Maria in Milpa Alta. To evoke authenticity, the table features simply prepared meat instead of more elaborate traditional dishes.

María Eleazar Labastida Rosas has bright red braids threaded with dark lavender ribbons. She’s stirring a large pot of tamale batter under the watchful, stern gaze of the head cook, Catalina Peña Gómez. Doña Cata, as everyone calls her, attunes her senses to the smell of a sauce, the consistency of a paste, and makes her corrections with the confidence of a general. She won’t brook any horsing around where cooking is involved.

Doña Cata is 68, crippled by varicose veins, but she cooks day and night during the final preparations. “I feel love when I cook,” she says. Her manner is tough, but she cries a little as she speaks. “I feel love for God. I ask God for help and for the well-being of all my people.” She raised four children as an unmarried mother, a status that can be harshly judged in small-town Mexico. Until the pain in her legs forced her to quit, she worked as a cook. Now she lives off the money she makes preparing food for parties. But whatever her social position in the outside world, here, directing the show for La Rejunta, she is a person of authority, a woman who commands respect.

María Eleazar, who is cheerful and energetic, ignores Doña Cata’s glare, which she knows is mostly bluff, and continues chatting with the other women, laughing about how Mexican women share recipes with their daughters and daughters-in-law but otherwise jealously guard their culinary secrets. The women trade stories about catastrophes in the kitchen, the result of the wrong mind-set. Anger spoils food, they agree. “Cooking must be done with love,” says María, stopping to tie her braids together. “There are women who cook without love, and it really doesn’t turn out well. If I feel preoccupied, I tell myself, Lock up the problem. And then I cook with love.”

For some of these women, food has also been a bridge to the divine power, a part of a heavenly plan. When white-haired Domitila Laguna Ortega spilled a pot of mole sauce that oozed boiling hot over her legs and onto the kitchen floor, she should by all rights have been harmed. But the firemen who came were startled: Why were there no red marks on her body? For Guillermina Suárez Meza, another volunteer, there was a mysterious multiplication of her shrimp soup served to the pilgrims at Chalma. She made large quantities but was convinced she hadn’t made enough. “I asked God for the food to last. And it replenished. I gave it with all my soul and all my heart, and it multiplied.” Shyly, she casts her amber-colored eyes downward. “Yes, I believe that it could have been a miracle.”

By Friday, Fermín has cinched his waist with a thick leather belt to support his aching back. His vest is speckled with mud. The fires are burning; hundreds of volunteers are fast at work. One of the miracles of this effort is that everyone seems to know his or her part without supervision. They move in a choreography of ease—no one bumps into anyone else, though the workstations are crowded. One of Doña Cata’s culinary lieutenants gravely announces to the women making tamales that chili sauce is leaking out of them. Take more care, she scolds.

The cooking is almost done, but Fermín has done the math. More tamales are needed. The troops reassemble. María of the purple ribbons digs her paddle into the thick cornmeal mixture, beating it quickly to add air. Slowly the lumps disappear, and the mixture is transformed into batter. Doña Cata tastes it. Add more lard, she says without hesitation. More salt. It’s as if each new teaspoonful is part of a ritual that adds a measure of grace, of devotion to God and to one another. The women swaddle the mixture in corn husks and carry the tamales in bins down the hill to the men who will cook them in old oil drums. A straw talisman shaped like a stick man is placed in each drum. The men douse the tamales with tequila or other spirits to ensure good results.

At dawn on Sunday the cooks have crumpled faces, though no one admits to feeling tired. In fact they boast that faith gave them energy to stay up all night. Majordomo Virginia insists that she too feels fine, but it’s clear she’s been run ragged, her white shirt untucked, her face tense and drawn as she throws logs on the fires under the tamales. When the moment to serve comes, the male cooks stand like sentries and count out a specific number of tamales, calculated to correspond to the amount of money each donor has given. The same is done with the atole, which Doña Cata has stirred all night to avoid any lumps. It’s velvet to the tongue. No amount of fatigue would get her to relinquish the job of feeding the crowds that file through all day. “Why would I let someone else take credit for what I have done?”

As she ladles the drink and children cry out in delight, Doña Cata allows herself a smile that spreads into a grin. But she quickly returns to sober-faced focus. There are thousands more cups of atole to serve. And in only a few days the piñatas must be filled with candy for Las Posadas, the nine-day celebration leading up to Christmas Eve. New tarps will dot the town, and the people of Milpa Alta will again yield to the power of food, family, and faith.

Picture of a display of sweet bread

Food on every corner Many in Milpa Alta work in the food business, growing nopal (prickly pear cactus) or selling barbecued meat or mole sauce. The Triangulo Bakery (above) sells sweet bread, known as concha (shell) because of the pattern etched into the loaves.

Victoria Pope is a former deputy editor of the magazine. Carolyn Drake has photographed groups such as China’s Uygurs for National Geographic.

The magazine thanks The Rockefeller Foundation and members of the National Geographic Society for their generous support of this series of articles.