Here are the basic ingredients for writing a tamale story: a kitchen table, indigenous maize metaphors, forced-sounding Spanglish. Cue the stock characters: the prima who went to college (only one!), the goody-goody prima, the crazy one, a raunchy tia and Grandma. The main ingredient is family tension emphasized — or cured — by spending time with las mujeres. It usually goes like that, but not always.
Our grandmother was the only one we wanted to teach us how to make tamales. When she cooked dinner, we could actually taste the hours she spent slicing the zucchini and plucking garden herbs for the broiled chicken. I worried that her culinary devotion would translate into me and my cousins grinding corn from the cob and dipping our hands in warm pig fat to make tamale masa from scratch. But Grandma appreciated modern convenience. She bought prepared dough from the local panaderia and added special ingredients to make the masa hers.
We only made tamales together twice. I don’t remember what memory belongs to what time, but I do remember the story.
It was an uneventful December day, 70 degrees, sunny. But that’s not dramatic enough. The day we made tamales, let’s say there were theatrical Santa Ana winds, a mauve and cyan sky. Ashes from a nearby wildfire — Southern California snowflakes — dusted our windows.
Grandma, with her still strong hands, worked her special ingredients into the masa, and my mom poured two glasses of wine. She was smiling. After laughing at Grandma’s joke about beating the masa “like a man’s will,” we heard the wind knock over a table. The crash frightened the primas who were walking up the steps to our house. The wine bottles in their bags clinked.
Once my cousins were inside, once Grandma gave them affectionate belly-fat pinches, we set up our stations. We arranged ourselves clockwise around the kitchen table in order of alpha-tamale making-ness. First came Desi, followed by her sister Jackie. If my sister Melissa lived in California, she would have been next to Desi. Marisa was next, then Mirna, then me. Desi and Jackie had the most experience and made full, thick and cheesy tamales. Marisa spread perfect balls of masa that became perfectly shaped rectangles tied off with a perfect corn husk bow. Mirna told funny stories and kept our wine glasses full with something expensive and well selected. I was instructed to “just grate the cheese.”
While the tamales cooked in a giant olla, my mom and Grandma told stories about picking cotton, infidelity and death. My favorite story was the one about the crazy Texas cousin who was forced to wear mittens so he wouldn’t scratch off his own face. If anyone questioned the veracity of the stories, Grandma would remind us that she remembered the day she was born, so of course she remembered the color of the knitted yarn of primo‘s mittens and the shape of the scratches on his face. By the time we hit a serious note in the conversation — when someone asked Grandma about the cotton fields or what New York City was like during the 1940s — the timer rang and the look in her eyes would tell us, Now, it’s time to enjoy.
When the winds died down and the tamales were done, my cousins and I warmed ourselves by the backyard birria hole turned bonfire to eat the misshapen tamales. We learned that fat tamales aren’t always tastier; cheese sprinkled on the outer husk does not make an innovative tamale, it just makes a mess (“no son enchiladas, mija!”); and the tamales at the bottom of the olla are the best. Those were the ones made before the fifth wine bottle was uncorked.
We rubbed our full stomachs and passed around our own version of family secrets and skeletons. Considering the hulking tzompantli in our family closet, these skeletons were nothing but salmon bones.
There was wind at the grave site, a slight gloom, too much sun. Memory changes it. As it does Valentine’s Day, when the diagnosis was only 4 months old and Grandma asked me to take her to the ocean. We laid the blanket on the sand and sat.
“Stay here,” she said and rubbed my shoulder to indicate it was not personal. At the shoreline, the sea gulls and sandpipers lined up around her and picked at tiny crabs around her feet. Her hands were wet when she returned. She said she asked the ocean to take it away. We sat in silence for a few minutes, then packed up.
At our steak lunch, I saw the peeling. Her sunburn lasted until May. I know it was the chemo mostly that turned her skin into papel picado, but in my mind, the guilt for not cutting the beach visit from 30 minutes to 10 turns the sun into a fierce fireball and my grandma’s skin to tissue paper.
Last year, instead of making tamales, my mom was on the phone canceling the cable, the credit cards, the subscriptions. “Deceased” is a word that is as lacking in mysticism or hope as the bleating bulldozer dumping dirt over her wood coffin. It’s one of those words that refers only to the body, not to the soul or to the impact of a life. It’s one of those words that reminds us we are living inside fleshy machines that require diligent care and lots of water.
It would be a tribute to Grandma to have all the primas and tias in the kitchen the next time we make tamales. Considering that attending her burial resulted in un-funeral-related tears and tantrums, it might take some time. But it will happen. Even the bones of our ancestors disintegrate.
When it does happen, and there are new wedding rings, babies and rival college sweat shirts, we will encircle the kitchen table, wine glasses uncouthly filled to the top, and talk about the time the Santa Anas blew and it snowed in Los Angeles.
Marytza Rubio grew up in Santa Ana with dozens of primas and a couple of primos. This essay was adapted from a longer piece in the online literary magazine Kweli Journal.