“It’s an opportunity to get together either with family members that continue those traditions or have new traditions, [and] it gives us that quality time to reminisce about our history and our cultura,” Maria Valenzuela said.
Unwrapping a warm, steaming tamale from the corn husk that tenderly contains it is like opening a small piece of heaven.
There’s a simple reason why tamales are a unique type of comfort food, especially during the holidays: because each one is created with love. However, the attention to detail that goes into making them isn’t as straightforward. Making tamales is an art form as much as it is a personal holiday tradition for many within the Latino community.
Remembering the Past and Embracing the Future
“To me, making tamales goes back to our ancestors and our deep-rooted community and where we came from,” Maria Valenzuela said in an interview with The Copper Courier. “I came from Mexico, and even though everyone in our group may have been born elsewhere, we all share similar traditions because their families didn’t assimilate to the American culture or the American lifestyle diet, so they kept the Hispanic roots.”
On a recent afternoon, Valenzuela was busy making tamales in her kitchen with a group of women. The Phoenix resident was making hundreds of tamales for a charity event for Esperança, a nonprofit that provides health equity for various communities, where she works as the health and wellness program director.
While the women that are helping Valenzuela are not related to each other, their bond is unified by the stories they share and the tamale techniques that the older women share with the new generation of tamale makers.
“I was very little when I first learned how to make tamales,” Valenzuela said, speaking about the first time her mom and sister-in-law invited her to help them with making tamales for Christmas. “I would just help with putting the masa on the hojas [leaves], but if I put too much masa, they would shift me over to counting the tamales.”
It’s All About the Process
That’s the critical part of making tamales. Each person has a unique role in the assembly line because one person certainly can’t do it all, and the process alone takes more than a day to complete. It is a careful procedure, from cooking the meat, which is the most challenging part, to mixing the masa, making the salsa, and then putting it all together on the fragile corn husk.
“Usually it’s the older señoras that are in charge of making the carne because it is more complicated,” Valenzuela said. “But in my household, I try to use the practice of making tamales as an educational experience. I move the women around so they learn each process of making tamales. The younger generation is really eager to learn it all.”
In the past, making tamales was considered a woman’s work—but Valenzuela has seen, through her organization, that men are stepping up to the tradition of making tamales and are enthusiastic about being part of the group.
“During the pandemic, we received some COVID relief money, so we were able to give people in need two meals a day, and we have had a number of male volunteers interested in and helping out with making those meals, including tamales,” Valenzuela said.
This holiday season is the first time since the pandemic began that they have gathered to make tamales as a group.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to get together either with family members that continue those traditions or have new traditions, [and] it gives us that quality time to reminisce about our history and our cultura,” Valenzuela said as she began to cry. “I don’t get to make tamales with my mom anymore.”
Just as new traditions are created each tamale season, so are new recipes. Tamales have evolved from traditional meat-heavy recipes to healthier versions that are just as delicious. Valenzuela’s recipes include vegetarian and vegan tamales.
Making Tamales Is a Business and a Passion
Ana Salazar, the owner of Raul’s Cocina located at the Uptown Farmers Market in central Phoenix, is also known for her vegetarian and vegan tamales.
As a kid, Salazar had a transformative experience when another child tried to make fun of her culture.
“‘Do you know why you eat tamales for Christmas? Because you don’t have any presents to open,'” she recalled him saying.
“I was confused by the comment, and I asked my grandmother, ‘Is he making fun of us?’” Salazar recalled.
“But tamales are like gifts,” she said. “So we turned that negative into a positive.”
Salazar said that for her, making tamales isn’t just a business. Instead, the process of creating tamales is healing for her.
“Tamale-making is very therapeutic for me,” Salazar said. “I have very good memories making tamales with friends and family. As a business, the actual process of making them is a bit different, but it’s so rewarding to get the customer response from the reaction after one bite of joy and satisfaction, the many compliments in their posts on social media, and comparisons to reminding them of their nana’s or mom’s tamales. This keeps me going.”
Valenzuela agrees that making tamales is challenging, but the reward comes in the process and within the shared experience with her community.
“Making tamales is a lot of work,” Valenzuela said, “but at the end of the day … it’s so worth it because it’s an opportunity to gather and learn a new skill and keep our history going.”