Bursts of laughter echoed through the García home as the two sisters recalled their most memorable tamale making experience. “Liz, do you remember the time Joe was turning the masa forever?” recalled Olga Velasquez. Her sister, Liz García giggled and then explained. “One year our mom had me get the masa ready. Well, I thought I had put enough manteca in the masa, so I had my husband, Joe kneading the masa so that it would rise. And he was working hard on that masa!” Velasquez jumped in and added, “And he would stop after a while and tell Liz ‘Are sure we don’t need to add any more manteca? – I think we need more’, but we just kept telling him ‘no’ and that he just needed to keep at it, that it took time.”
The sisters continued explaining that they repeatedly checked the masa to see if it was ready.
“The trick is to take a little piece of masa and put it in a glass of water, if it floats then the masa is ready,” explained García. So, Joe continued for almost an hour turning the masa over and over again, and anyone who has ever had the difficult task of turning the masa knows how strenuous it is. When their mom arrived she tested the masa, feeling the texture, then told her daughters, “He’s right we need more manteca!” García laughed again, at the memory of the sight of her husband over-working himself, “Joe still remembers that too!”
The sisters have been part of the tamale making tradition, helping their mother diligently every year since they were little girls. This sacred tradition is one that was held in the highest esteem by family matriarch, Olga Pizarro. After her passing in 2014, the family is adamant in preserving the tradition of making tamales by hand by teaching their children, grandchildren and future generations of the family.
Their large family of six siblings are scattered between Colorado, California and México. The sisters recalled that their mother would frequently travel back and forth to each destination visiting all of her children. García added, “But mom would always come back here (to Colorado) every year to make tamales.”
“It was always my mom’s tradition to make tamales on Christmas Eve, but I broke that tradition some years ago, and now we make tamales a few days before Christmas,” said García. “It’s easier for all of us that way, since we all have families of our own now.”
“It’s important because you are learning something special. Basically, it comes down to the recipe, because everyone has their own recipe and their own way of doing it. Once you pass on the tradition to your children, they can pass it on to their children and so on.”
In their family, the women utilize this time as a way to bond and spend valuable time together to create dozens of mouth watering and individually wrapped memories. García continued, “This is important to us, because it brings us together as a family every year. It’s our tradition – our ancestors have been doing it before us, so we carry that tradition.”
Tamale making has been an important Latino tradition carried on from one generation to the next for several hundred years and will most likely continue for another several hundred years. For García and Velasquez’s family, it’s a tradition they hold dear to their heart and they have no intention of letting it wither away to a lonely memory.
“It’s important because you are learning something special. Basically, it comes down to the recipe, because everyone has their own recipe and their own way of doing it. Once you pass on the tradition to your children, they can pass it on to their children and so on,” explained Velasquez on the importance of holiday tamale making. “I want my daughter to learn and say to her kids ‘this is my grandma’s recipe’. When my children are grown I hope to go to my daughter’s house and make tamales with her and my sons’ families.”
Cover Photo: Liz García guides her niece Belén, as she learns to prepare the masa for tamales. / Liz García guía a su sobrina Belén, mientras aprende a preparar la masa para tamales.
by Cristina Frésquez
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