All six of my aunts made the migration from different corners of the United States. In the end, Tío Pancho was fine, and the hours of driving and waiting reconnected the family. I took along a hand-held tape recorder, because I knew the trip would yield stories - bits of my family history that I needed to document before they slipped away. As we said our good-byes, my Tío Ruperto prayed that good fortune would bring us all back together again for a wedding, birth, or quinceñera - but not a funeral.

My family isn't different from many other families, in that we aren't able to visit with each other often, outside of holidays and family ceremonies. Tío Ruperto's prayer will soon be answered at the next ceremony that brings us together - Thanksgiving, when we gather to make tamales. On one of my tapes, Tía Irma describes the family tradition she has facilitated in her household since her children were old enough to hold spoons:

"We all had a job. Bob learned how to spread, and the boys learned how to fill. We made tamales, but we made it a family thing ... like sharing a meal. But you're not eating them, you're making them, and that's part of ... That's our thing, you know? Part of the culture, I guess. I remember when I was younger: You were little, and we would go to Mexico, and we would stand around the table - mainly the women - but we would stand around the table, and we would be making tamales, and we would be talking. And it was just part of - I don't know how to explain it - just part of who we were ..."

The custom of making tamales is a big part of who many South Texans are. The act is more than food preparation: It is a family bonding experience where talk is half the tradition. Historically, only women are involved, but my tías and younger generations are turning the tide by enlisting the help of any males lying around the house. With the holidays the most popular time for tamaladas - traditional tamale-making gatherings - San Antonio is readying its hojas.

"I think a lot of times I associate it with Christmas, because that was what we shared at Christmas time. You know, I heard somebody say a joke - and it might kind of sound bad - but the joke was: 'Why do Mexicans make tamales for Christmas?' And they said: 'Because it was the only thing they have to unwrap.' And you know, that may sound sad and it may hurt you, but you know what? I think that was one of the best parts of unwrapping at Christmas - the tamales that you guys shared, that we shared in making. Not only in putting the food together, but in what we shared while we were making them. You know? The talking. Just the sharing that we did. I think that's a big part of our culture ..."

Local playwright Alicia Mena recognized and recorded the cultural importance of tamales in her play, Las Nuevas Tamaleras, which premiered in San Antonio in 1993, and has since become a local holiday tradition of its own. Mena penned the script as a tribute to the women in her family. "When my mother died, I realized how much I had taken for granted, how quickly our traditions can disappear as our parents and grandparents pass away and we become more integrated into the mainstream," Mena explains. Her play follows three contemporary Latinas through their comical attempt at making tamales for the first time. The spirits of two experienced tamaleras, Doña Mercedes and Doña Juanita, appear to guide the young women. The tamalada grows more complicated when the cooks from different generations can't seem to agree on the recipe for the perfect tamal.

"Some of the 'Mexican food' that's eaten here in the United States is Americanized ...

"In March, when I was in the Valley, we went across `to Mexico` and we got a cheese. That cheese was so great. I brought one home, and I made gorditas and tostadas. The food tastes so different. You wouldn't think that something so minute would make a difference ..."

Each generation brings change, and my family is no exception. Tía Irma has already perfected meatless tamales for the vegetarians in my family. Some things, however, she will never change.

click to enlarge culture_tamali1_330jpg
Sandra Vasquez from Corpus Christi spreads masa onto corn husks during a recent tamale-making demonstra-tion at the Central Library.Photo by Mark Greenberg

"Do you remember? You were with us when we were in San Antonio at the market. They have that little machine that spreads the masa on the hojas? There's a video with it, and I remember the boys saying: 'Mom, look. You need one of those spreaders!' I remember standing there looking at it. I looked at the price of the spreader, and it was some outrageous amount. There was an `Anglo` American couple standing there, and I said, 'For that price, I'll just keep using my spoon.' And they laughed. But you know, I have also thought about that since then, and I thought, 'You know, that spoon is part of my culture.' That spoon is part of it. I can't imagine buying a spreader to spread the masa on the corn husks ..."

I was tempted to take Tía to the recent Central Public Library "¡Tamalada!" last week to meet Sandra Vásquez of Mex-Sales Company, the inventor of the "Más Tamales" Masa Spreader. But Tía didn't need the instruction, and I didn't need to instigate an argument over the spreader. (For locals not lucky enough to have a tía to guide them in tamale making, Los Colorines Mexican Restaurant's "La Gran Tamalada" offers a class on Saturday, November 30.)

"I feel sad that I didn't teach my children to speak Spanish, because I'm afraid that my language, and then maybe a part of our culture, will die with me. When I die, it will be gone, as far as my branch of this tree is concerned ..."

One part of Tía Irma's culture that will not die is the tamalada tradition. This year, she will lead the family into the kitchen with the addition of her son's new fiancée, Diana. Although Diana is not of Mexican descent, Tía Irma is eager to share her history with the next generation, in hopes that it will one day embrace that history as its own.

7 & 8pm Thursday-Saturday
3 & 4:30pm Sunday
Opens Friday, November 29
Through Sunday, December 15
$15 adults ($13 advance), $10 seniors & students ($8 advance)
Jump-Start Performance Company
108 Blue Star, Blue Star Arts Complex

Saturday, November 30
$25 (ingredients, utensils,
clean-up provided)
Los Colorines Mexican Restaurant
1831 Fredericksburg Road

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