My family’s stories come wrapped in tamales. Making tamales at Christmas, I learned what it takes to make a good filling. I learned the secrets wrapped in masa and cornhusks. I learned what filled up my mama.
Each year, as the Texas air chills, we assemble four generations of family for our annual tamalada. My sisters, my aunts, my cousins, my mother, my grandmother, my daughter and I gather. Family fills my kitchen. We are an aproned army guided by women. We carry on a tradition that dates back centuries, to the Aztecs and Mayans, to the generations before us.
Our tamales bear our signature in corn masa; a soft, moist dough spread like thick, golden paint on a cornhusk. The masa is filled with just the right amount of pork, beans, chicken, cheese or peppers. The tamale is then wrapped in water-softened cornhusks and steamed. When we’d fill our tamales, my grandmother would say “never too much, never too little.” The balance between the inside filling and the outside layer is the secret in each tamale.
Joined by friends and family, our kitchen packs a revolving crew of cooks, choppers, spreaders, fillers and wrappers. Tejano music mingles with Christmas carols. We visit the markets on the East side of Austin to procure pig’s heads with bulging eyes and rubbery snouts to boil into a diced filling.
Gossip and stories of our family fill the hours. My 90-year old grandmother Maria works among us. Her body has slowed but her critiques have not. Our tamale matriarch, she sits in her signature white winter cap like a Mexican Ms. Claus, vetoing or blessing our work. My mother is the tamale artist-in-residence now. She is our guide in passing on the craft of all her mother taught her.
For the hours we are bound together making tamales, I stare at mama’s hands. They are the hands of an expert, trained to take the heat. Over and over, I watch her spread the masa on the cornhusk with the backside of a spoon. I watch the hands that look like mine, all knuckles and rough edges.
As a girl, I remember thinking mama’s hands didn’t match her tiny, pretty body. They were working hands, smart and strong and certain. I wondered how God could fit so much working and knowing of things into a person that small, just four foot eleven of her. To me, Mama knew things and she did things. She was brave and beautiful and busy doing things in a time when a Mexican girl wasn’t supposed to be. I was drawn to her – the mystery and ceaseless movement of her.
I remember her like one of those Texas tornados, always spinning, always working, quiet and fierce at the center. When she wasn’t working, mama was having babies. It was as if each of her five children ushered in a new mama. A wife, a real estate investor, a cook, a restaurant owner, a teacher, a hospice worker, a mom to everyone – these were the titles next to my mother. Mama was busy and inward, filled by an unspoken world of responsibility, but I would listen to her pans sing. I could tell how happy mama was by the sounds of her pans.
Each year, when we make tamales together, my Mama is happy. I see her face light up warm and deep rose, hovering over her oldest pots filled with her spices and scents and stories.
My mother once recalled to me making tamales when she was a little girl. Back then they made their tamales outside. They steamed them over an open fire pit in a huge black cauldron piled high with a delicious teepee of cornhusks. Her family saved or bartered for the ingredients needed from wherever they could manage.
Mom grew up a migrant worker, picking cotton and crops and living by the seasons with her brothers and sisters. After one too many seasons of migrant tents and pneumonia, her father Leopoldo joined a construction crew and moved the family to Austin. Mom’s family didn’t plan on going back to the migrant fields. She and all of her siblings learned English, worked and earned their way into Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees in the State of Texas.
Mama worked her way through elementary school where they changed her name from Maria to Mary. They changed her name, but not her filling. Mama was filled with masa and meat, strong and thick. She steered our family through births and through deaths, through colleges and through cancers, through promotions and through prison. She never missed a Christmas of making tamales. She tucked her tears and joys and truths tight in those tamales.
Over generations, people have tried to simplify tamale making with shortcuts and updates: pork shoulder instead of pig’s head, ready-made masa, and fancy tamale trucks with your choice of gourmet fillings. When I suggest we try them, my mother gently entertains and dismisses most of it. The making of Mom’s tamales is a labor of love. There is a truth wrapped in them that doesn’t leave room for shortcuts.
We now make tamales in my home, surrounded by family and new friends of all shades and colors that know there is some magic in tamales. For the hours it takes to make our tamales, the secrets of our women are revealed. Every time I wrap tamales, as my knees go weak and my back grows tired, I continue on. That is what tamale making is – an assembly line of continuity and strength and love. It is a meditation and a prayer and a ritual all at the same time.
Over the hours I sit together with my mother to make tamales, stirring chiles and removing seeds, boiling meat that has simmered in pots that bear the patina of loss and love, I stare with reverence at mama. I look over the counter at her like I did when I was a girl watching her make her silent, soulful magic.
In those moments, I feel the cord that runs through us. It is a fiber. It is a connection. It is a knowing that the same blood and strength and magic that runs through her hands runs in mine.
This is my Christmas gift each year from my mother. I am cradled and wrapped and strengthened in the stories of my family, of her tamales. This is her legacy to me, one made of cornhusk and grit and love.