April Valencia has been a longtime friend and source of inspiration for Canyon. Founder of Masa Memory, her colorful hand-pressed tortillas are instantly recognizable. Spend time with her — and it’s most likely to be in or around a kitchen — and you can feel her love of food. It’s palpable, and it’s holistic. The intention behind her creations stems from her own personal history and the ancestral lineages that came before her, giving them a level of depth and integrity that brings whole new meaning to food, tradition and place.
Canyon: Do you have a daily ritual? Has it changed over time?
April: I am a ritual person in the sense that I always have one, but it is often changing. When I’m in Oaxaca my ritual becomes the ocean, in Mexico city it is a run in my favorite park every morning, in LA: it is my kitchen.
If I had to pick one ritual for life, it would be cooking. There isn’t a day I am not in the kitchen cooking. Because I am always cooking for other people it is so important that I find a little time, in the kitchen everyday, that is just for me.
Canyon: You’ve called many places home over the years. How do you notice your life shifting based on where you’re waking up each morning?
April: I decided early on in life that home wasn’t so much about a place as it was a feeling. The feeling of home inside of myself, the freedom of moving around and the feeling of home I experienced with friends. There was a long period in my life where I didn’t have a home for years. I traveled the world and without living anywhere longer than two months. Instead of a house, apartment or belongings, home became a collection of experiences, places and people.
Now, what has changed so much for me is having a physical space to call my own…my home is a part of me! At this phase in my life, having a home-base in LA and Mexico City, make me feel more free.
There is an evident shift in my life based on what city I wake up in… My days in Mexico City move with an ease I live for. Wake up and get coffee at a friend's cafe, walk the city, run the park… the days seems to move me rather than my planning the day. In Oaxaca city or in the Yucatan, I have more of a schedule: to be at the farms early, to meet with our Masa Memory collaborators - but it’s also about following the rhythm of a city right? Oaxaca, LA and Mexico City are such different places and I like to honor the pace of life shared by the locals and community around me wherever I am.
Canyon: How did Masa Memory come about? And what’s at the heart of the business, for you?
April: Masa Memory feels as if it were always living inside of me. Moving to LA and having a home-base, after being nomadic, definitely helped foster a space for Masa Memory to bloom. During the pandemic, I started making food to-go for my clients. Many of them requested that I make tortillas as well and from there, everything happened really fast for Masa Memory. One weekend I had five orders of tortillas and the next weekend there were over one hundred.
After my pop-up restaurant in Brooklyn, I thought, “Okay April, no more of this food life.” - but my heart always returns to an endless love for cooking, for Mexican food and for tortillas. Cooking is my joy and my way of honoring my own family food traditions and we also creating new ones. My little sister works for me and I love when she says, “we are in the tortilla business.” I know we will pass down this tradition to our own children.
The heart of Masa Memory is storytelling and it is very important for me that Masa Memory honors and shares the story of Family Food Traditions, while honoring ancestral farming practices and the beautiful origin story of Maiz.
Canyon: Why is soil so important?
April: Soil is life!
How we treat the land and the soil, will live on inside of the food we eat. Soil is a home for seeds, which turn into the food we eat. Everything inside of that soil is soaked up like a sponge by a growing seed. What kind of home do you want your food grown in? This is an important question everyone must think about. Soil gets tired in the same way humans do. The land can’t be over-farmed or it will lose crucial nutrients. Soil that has been tilled and farmed too many times, without crop rotation, becomes depleted. The farmers I work with in Mexico and Arizona all believe in the soul of soil and so do I. You can feel the difference standing on land where the farmers care for the soil and land where the soil is treated with pesticides and overworked.
The health of soil directly affects the health of humans. This is why Milpa farmers in Mexico take such good care of the land, because they know what they put into the soil will affect their families, the jungle next to their farms and the water supply. Soil teaches us that we are all connected.
Canyon: You mentioned how, at one point, you hit a period of overwhelm, or burnout, that ultimately spurred a new direction for you. How did that difficult moment catalyze into one that brought clarity for you?
April: Last year, I felt too busy - running my small business, flirting with the idea of having a restaurant again, cooking for my private clients and consulting on several projects. I decided it was time for a switch up. Where was my joy? This is a practice I’m still learning to apply to my life - it can feel really good and sometimes addicting to be “busy” - but busy doesn’t necessarily mean productive. That has been a huge realization. Right now for me, it is all about having time. Having more time to do what I love in this life, as well as to run my business.
With any business, especially a new business, there is always the pressure to grow - coming from either within yourself or the outside world. We are told growing bigger and faster is the only way for success… and for some, that might be true. For me, it is about doing it in a way where I could still enjoy my life. I want to cook dinners with friends, go surf, paint, walk the park in Mexico City, read a book in the afternoon, go swim in the ocean and watch sunsets. Success to me is the sweet spot of knowing there is work to do, so much life to enjoy and enough time to do both. I’ve had a few big moments of clarity in my life and I am on the verge of a new one. Each one informs the next “aha moment.”
Canyon: Do you have any advice for people experiencing overwhelm or burnout, based on your experience?
April: For me, it is not about how much I can load on myself anymore. This doesn’t make me stronger or smarter, it is about what I can say no to, so I can give the next YES my best!
I have learned that life is a constant practice of finding your own sweet spot. Nothing is worth sacrificing our health and happiness. Turn down the noise and advice dial of everyone around you. Too much advice and seeking answers externally, can bring a lot more confusion. Experience is our greatest teacher. Sometimes we slip… say yes to too much or put ourselves last. It is all about a good pause, forgiving ourselves and looking forward. You’ve got this! Our body knows what we need.
Canyon: Finally, we talked about finding new life in things we might have taken for granted or overlooked earlier in life. What have some of these things been for you, and can this teach us anything about the process of discovering and paying homage to traditions?
April: Yes, seeds and soil… I studied bio-chemistry in college and planned to be a botanist. ( still plan to!) I felt aware of the power of plants, understood the life cycle of a seed and knew that it was crucial to have “good” soil for a seed to grow. For a short period, I studied how plants and trees communicate with each other and was convinced I understood nature, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized our powerful relationship and responsibility to soil. The health of seeds and soil directly affects to the health of humans. I had missed what it meant to be connected to the food we eat. This awareness changed everything for me. I was spending a month studying permaculture on a farm in Costa Rica when the realization kicked in: in my years of studying, I had overlooked the power of seeds and soil.
Supporting and working alongside farmers dedicated to traditional farming practices, seed conservation and growing ancestral food in a way that keeps the land healthy, is one of my processes of paying homage to tradition. When my plants in the garden flower, offering their seeds back, saving those seeds to plant again next year brings me back into connection with the entire tradition of growing food and caring for my little patch of land. Caring for the land inherently means caring for humans.