Bonded by Masa

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I’m a Detroit resident now, but when I lived close to my family in California, we tried our best every year to make time for a tamalada, a holiday tamale-making gathering and culinary ritual that reconnected us to our ancestral ways of communing. In years past, the tamalada was always held at my aunt’s house. One by one, cousins (and maybe a significant other) would step into her home in Northridge in the San Fernando Valley to the aroma of freshly pounded masa and chile colorado simmering on the stovetop.

The tamalada requires teamwork. It’s a repetitive process — fill, fold, steam — and each step lends itself to the next. Much like meditation or yoga forces one’s mind to focus on the present, slapping a couple hundred husks with identical layers of masa is a practice in Mexican mindfulness. So too is the comfort in knowing that everyone plays their own special part: Whether applying the masa to the husks or folding the husks into neat, Christmas-like packages, with so many steps and considerations to factor in, the act of making tamales is best done in a group.

Tamales have played an essential role in Indigenous foodways throughout much of the Americas since long before the Spanish first landed in the Western Hemisphere. Comprised of nixtamalized masa filled with meat, beans, cheese, or even sweets like strawberries or raisins, and wrapped in a corn husk — or banana leaf — that’s steamed in a large pot, they’re mostly made during the Christmas holiday season as a group effort, otherwise known as a tamalada. My mother says that the preparation of the chile colorado filling was a collaborative effort between my grandparents when they were still alive. My grandma would stay up all night tending to the slow-cooking pork, while my Gramps was in charge of the flavoring. “He was a chef at the Brown Derby, after all,” my mom would always mention, referring to the famed, historic Los Angeles restaurant where he worked after serving in World War II. We would all nod appreciatively, even though we’d heard this story 1,000 times. That’s part of the tradition, too, a reminder that the tamalada is as much about the centuries-old therapeutic practice of making something together as it is about the tamales themselves. For my family, the tamalada has remained one of the most enduring forms of therapy we’ve been able to sustain, even if it does not involve laying on a couch ruminating over past traumas to a shrink.

For older generations, including my Mexican American grandparents, Al and Mary Diaz, concepts around mental health weren’t always readily discussed (see SNL’s Pedro Pascal “Protective Mom” sketch). Some blame the Catholic Church for this — after all, if you have a problem, it’s nothing that God can’t fix. Others say it’s a lack of access, or having to work too many hours every week so that their kids could grow up and have a better life than the one they were handed.

It’s not like we don’t have anything worth talking to a therapist about. I’ve been in therapy off and on for the past five years, taking time to unpack how generational trauma informs how we in minority groups move about in the world and within our own families. My abuelos were both born and raised in Texas. My grandpa’s family moved to Los Angeles around 1939, when he was still in high school. When my grandma first enrolled in elementary school, she spoke only Spanish and was held back grades as a result. They both served in World War II; my grandfather was sent to Normandy to fight for the Army, and my grandmother remained stateside while serving in the Navy. According to my mother, around 1951, when my grandparents tried to buy a home in a new Valley subdivision, a realtor took one look at my grandmother’s walnut complexion and subtly Indigenous features and claimed all the homes were spoken for. They eventually settled for a more modest ranch-style home in the less affluent Mission Hills, but the effect of this kind of discrimination has rippled through the generations.

Scarred from both childhood traumas and more recent indignities, they abandoned elements of themselves just to survive and protect their family. They refused to teach my mom and her sisters Spanish, fearing it could expose them to the same kind of humiliation my grandmother had endured. My mom says her father impressed upon her the idea that, “To be successful, you have to have command of the English language.” And so names were anglicized. Church was optional. In other words, my cousins, sister, and I are second- (and in some cases, third-) generation no sabo kids.

While assimilating has afforded us opportunities my grandparents could never have dreamed of — college degrees, careers built on passion and not of necessity or scarcity — it has come at a cost. In Mexican society, multigenerational families have traditionally lived under one roof. In my family’s version of the American Dream, we’re spread apart across the entirety of the West Coast, Texas, and now Detroit. Some of us have turned to alcohol or substance abuse at various times to cope with unmanaged emotions. Others have turned to the silent treatment whenever someone falls out of line and acts out in ways that make them uncomfortable.

But whatever my family may lack in emotional maturity or bilingual ability, our tamaladas give us a chance to reunite with relatives and express our love through a tradition that has endured, despite how the harmful legacy of colonialism has threatened to destroy our culture. We may have had to give up parts of ourselves for the sake of blending in, but tamales remain one of the few vestiges of our identities that have sustained through time. The tamalada, like life, can get real chaotic real quick. It’s messy, and with all of the steps involved, if you don’t have a strong assembly line, the result can be a batch of inconsistent tamales: some misshapen, some mostly just masa, some with so much filling that it’s hard to seal closed. What this means is that, for these few hours at least, everyone has to agree to cast any interpersonal gripes aside for the greater, delicious good. You can’t control what the person next to you is going to do or say. But you can control your own station, and maybe lead by example to get the job done as a family.

On the day of the tamalada, once everyone’s in their place, our sometimes rigid tendencies begin to dissipate like the steam from the pot on the stovetop. It might start with the playful elbowing of a sibling or cousin. “You sure you wanna use that much masa? It’s gonna explode that way.” Maybe your sister’s in a mood because she would rather be at her wealthy boyfriend’s family’s house right now and so is just going through the motions. With time, she’ll see how her slacking ways are impacting the quality of the entire batch, which will nudge her into the spirit.

Then, of course, there’s the art of the folding. Do you get fancy and use a thread of leftover husk to tie the tamal closed like a pretty bow? Do you make ’em slender, like cigars, easy to digest several in one sitting? Do you make them thick, like sturdy, masa-filled memory-foam pillows?

Me? I prefer masa duty. It’s an art form all its own and the one step that makes the difference between a dysfunctional tamal and one that stands the test of the hours-long journey toward creation.

After our fingers have thoroughly turned to raisins from the assembly process, our aprons are sufficiently smeared with masa, and the tamales have finished their requisite steam in the giant pot on the stove, it’s time to dole out the goods in tall Ziploc bags to everyone who participated. For the slackers — because there will be slackers — it’s also time to contend with the moral quandary of deciding how many tamales they actually think they deserve to take home. After all, did they really participate, or were they more preoccupied with posting tamalada pics to their Instagram stories, thus dragging down the rest?

But more than just for stocking our freezers, making tamales as a family allows us to communicate things to each other — about respect, lending a hand, acknowledging each other’s humanity — in a way that words could never do justice. When one family member is floundering, we can offer support shoulder to shoulder, with the flick of a bit of masa from a spatula instead of with judgment or a sour facial expression.

This is what I’ve needed lately. When my mom moved to Detroit in 2021, I knew that the many years of distance, both geographically and emotionally, had driven a wedge in our relationship that would require work to repair. So this year, even without the extended West Coast family, I decided to organize my own tamalada and invited a couple members of my found Detroit family to join in on the fun.

Maybe 30 minutes before guests were supposed to arrive at my casita, I was hyperventilating in my bedroom. My mom was in the kitchen, calmly dicing up tomatoes to use for chips and salsa, seemingly oblivious to my mini panic attack. Meanwhile, my own anxiety — an amalgamation of abandonment issues, crippling imposter syndrome, and fits of anger — was skyrocketing. Would we be able to taste the difference if each tamal hadn’t been touched by at least three branches of our Diaz family tree? Would it matter if it felt a little forced to be in this tiny, Midwestern apartment kitchen with no counter space, trying to do justice for a centuries-old family tradition? Would I be able to get my shit together in time for when my friends arrived? I took a few deep breaths, set an intention that everything would be okay, and returned to the kitchen to finish getting ready.

Let the therapy begin.

This time, my mom was the one who stayed up all night tending to the pork. She also came through with the queso and rajas (cheese and jalapenos) that she prepped at her apartment. My friends seemed to know just when to arrive, because right before becoming immobilized by another panic attack, they were at my door, smiles on their faces, ready to get into it. We were all almost immediately lulled into a calm state through the repetition of the process. Before we knew it, we had torn through 10 pounds of masa and an entire pork butt’s worth of chile colorado, all while laughing and gossiping. My friends were each sent home with bulging bags of tamales for later. We’re already talking about what we’ll do for next year.

Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.

Copy edited by Kelli Pate.

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