As Mexicans have done for centuries, Mikaela Serrano always counted on the humble tortilla when her resources ran low. But the 60-year-old housewife...

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TLAXCALA, Mexico — As Mexicans have done for centuries, Mikaela Serrano always counted on the humble tortilla when her resources ran low. But the 60-year-old housewife is now being forced to skip meals, even the most basic dish of a tortilla with salt.

A surge in international corn prices, the highest in 10 years, spurred partly by the growing ethanol industry, has caused huge spikes in the price of corn tortillas, a core ingredient in Mexico’s diet and, some would say, the nation’s very soul.

The emotions behind the crisis spilled onto the streets Wednesday when an estimated 75,000 government opponents rallied in Mexico City to protest the rising prices of tortillas and other household necessities. Labor unions and leftist groups also plan a “Day Without a Tortilla” on Friday as a show of defiance against major tortilla firms.

Riding high in opinion polls because of his early assault on drug trafficking, new President Felipe Calderón suddenly appeared weak and too cozy with powerful business interests that dominate the tortilla market.

“The public expects that certain things are sacred. You don’t play with the tortilla,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a historian at El Colegio de Mexico. “You can play with the price of oil. That’s easy. But not the tortilla.”

The Mexicans are a people created from corn, according to Mayan legend. Now they feel powerless before the whims of a globalized corn market. “The tortilla is our sacred bread,” Serrano said. The average Mexican eats about four tortillas a day, according to government figures. A congressional study found that the poorest Mexicans, not surprisingly, were most hurt by spikes in tortilla prices. Meanwhile, multinational companies have flourished from soaring corn prices.

“Somebody is getting rich,” said Jacinta Mendez, 54, who was trying to sell tortillas in the market in Tlaxcala, a central Mexican city named for the word for corn tortilla in Nahuatl, a Mayan language.

Calderón, who won a contested election in July by a razor-thin margin, has tried damage control by signing a voluntary agreement with key producers and retailers to stabilize prices. The Mexican government also agreed to import more corn in the hope that added supply would reduce prices.

The Mexican corn industry relies on small plots producing woefully low yields of white corn, the building block of the tortilla. Experts also blame Mexico for allowing certain companies to exert a near-monopoly on corn supplies.

The supply of yellow corn has decreased because a growing share has been diverted to the burgeoning ethanol industry, said Ricardo Celma, director of the nonprofit U.S. Grains Council’s Mexico office.

Even though tortillas use white corn, those prices are indexed to yellow corn, causing a ripple effect here.