Holiday tradition: for one family it boils down to tamales

A family changes, but their holiday tradition remains the same.

My grandmother and her eleven brothers and sisters came from Yuma, Arizona, a town bordering Mexico and “the iceberg lettuce capital of the world.” They were “border people,” and the Mexican culture, namely the food, slipped into our DNA as naturally as chips into salsa.

In the 1940s, when the family relocated to LA for the war effort, most landed in Venice, with its ocean air and rich Mexican-American culture. In the ‘70s, my immediate family moved to the Valley. By then, cousins had spread across the city like stars in an Arizona sky. But it was always the Mexican food that brought us together for birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, funerals … the elders enjoying a smoke, telling stories, telling jokes while kids ran wild, eating watermelon and taquitos.

The Yuma generation passed, along with the conventions of their time. Gone were the days when families lived in the same house, neighborhood and city. Gone were our bridge nights, poker tables, and vast yards studded with folding chairs topped by aunties and uncles, with stories of the Yuma days traditions blowing away like sand in a Venice breeze. We needed reunification—a way to pass stories to the next generation, to keep the family alive. The answer was tamales.

Tamales are a timeless tradition for many Mexican families; a special occasion meal because of the work involved in preparation. For most, they’re a Christmas treat. For us, making tamales is a rebirth and a women-only event—aprons and all.

“We can’t bring back the past, but we can hold memories like
sand in our hands, tightly, so it doesn’t blow away.”

“Tamale Day” started 35 years ago when a Mexican cousin-in-law came to our house with her daughter. She taught us everything we needed to know about making tamales and had strict quality control.

Our crowd got a bit bawdy and the daughter learned a little too much about the facts of life. They never joined us again.

And so it began: On any given December day, my sister and cousin Debbie make the early morning trek to Carrillo’s in Canoga Park, standing in line for the best masa (corn paste) in town. My mom makes red chili, and everyone brings a shredded chicken.

Driving from as far as Northern Arizona, the women of my extended family gather in my mom’s kitchen, each taking a task: huskers, spreaders, fillers, baggers and cleanup. We form an assembly line of sorts and work without a break until we have hundreds of tamales, always more than the previous year.

Chatter centers on stories of the past, events in the coming year and gossip … culminating in a lunchtime feast replete with beer, beans, shellroni salad (a rogue addition, but family tradition nonetheless), fresh tortillas and the spoils of our labor. Everyone is packed up and on their way by midday, when time stands still until next year, when we meet again.

Our numbers go up and down, as does our weight. We age. We have babies.

Some have passed, others have joined. And “Tamale Day” continues; the one time a year we can count on seeing each other to reconnect and keep the family alive.

We can’t bring back the past, but we can hold memories like sand in our hands, tightly, so it doesn’t blow away. We can pass family traditions to the ones who come next, wrapped with a ribbon like a holiday gift … wrapped in a cornhusk like a Christmas tamale.


Kathleen Laccinole is a freelance writer based in Sherman Oaks. For more of her work, go to kathleenlaccinole.com or pcharlottelindsay.com.

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