The young tortillera painted on the outside of so many Mexican and Central American restaurants in L.A. is like the Mona Lisa of masa, her dark, braided hair cascading down a traditional peasant blouse. She is typically on her knees as she leans over a metate (grinding stone) or cooks tortillas on a comal (griddle). A common subject in many costumbrismos—artistic depictions of everyday life—the tortillera has a back story that’s more Bettie Page than Betty Crocker. “Pre-Hispanic Mexicans [from the 15th century] carved images of women with large hips and breasts grinding corn on the metate,” says Jeffrey M. Pilcher, author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. As more Latinos immigrated to the United States, this image of sexuality and fertility became a stereotype. “Female street vendors were called ‘chile queens’ and seen as sexually dangerous,” says Pilcher, “just as their chile could burn your mouth.” An 1885 painting of a stoic tortillera can be found in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, but the renderings around town prove that the caricature has been reclaimed as popular DIY advertising.
Villalobos Market, East Hollywood
This storefront of the Villalobos Market in East Hollywood is covered in paintings. The walls behind the bus stop feature happy women carrying fruit and vegetables from the market, coaxing you into their kitchens.
Painted on the side of what was once Los Cobanos, a Silver Lake pupusa spot that has closed, this tortillera outlived the tortillas she was making. The space is now a ramen restaurant; she is located in between the eatery and a shoe repair store.
Antojitos Guatemaltecos Restaurant, MacArthur Park
The most welcoming of the tortilleras I spotted, this young lady flips her tortillas happily on the side of Antojitos Guatemaltecos Restaurant, a mom-and-pop stop in MacArthur Park, as busy traffic rushes from downtown to Koreatown. Best seen from the sidewalk, she would be easy to miss from a car window.
The Yanira Cordona Mexsal Food Truck
I spotted these ladies while biking around town looking for tortilleras. I pulled up to a light and—BOOM—these women were staring back at me. My favorite thing about this depiction of the tortillera is that it is photorealistic and shows a history of the tradition. It includes some dudes, too.
Plaza Market, Westlake
In this market mural, the tortilleras of the past are depicted alongside modern grocery store women.