“There’s a rhythm to it, the way she works the masa,” Cynthia Gonzalez says quietly. Her mother, Dora, carefully stirs a large pot of masa for tamales over the stove. It’s smooth as custard and lightly fragrant as it begins to bubble.
Salvadoran tamales are Dora’s specialty. She’s taken more than 100 requests from family and friends already this season.
They are also tradition. Along with other family specialties, the tamales have been passed down, mother to daughter, for generations until now.
Cynthia, Dora’s only daughter, had never had any interest in cooking.
“It wasn’t my passion to be in the kitchen,” she says. “Since I was little, I was told women were supposed to be in the kitchen. And I was so against that. Why can’t women do other things?
“I loved to write.”
A poet, Cynthia has been writing and performing her work since 2006; her first book, “Suspendidos en el Tiempo,” was released in 2010. A second book is due out next year. Raised in the Vermont Square neighborhood of South Los Angeles, much of her work weaves imagery from a sometimes rough childhood and her Salvadoran culture.
And much of her poetry draws from the brutality of El Salvador’s civil war. Cynthia’s father was an engineering student at the start of the war. With only one semester left, his school was shut down, the military targeting students as guerrillas. “They were killing all the students,” she says. Her father was eventually forced to flee to the United States.
Pregnant with Cynthia, Dora stayed behind, but only for a little while. Shortly after Cynthia was born, soldiers searched the small back room in which they were living. “ ‘Does a guerrillero live here? We heard a guerrillero lived here,’ they said. The soldiers would take even young kids away. You either joined the military or the guerrilleros — whoever got you first. They even took my uncle.” Cynthia shakes her head.
Dora left El Salvador with her daughter, not yet a year old, in 1980. As the bus drove away, Dora remembers seeing bodies hanging from trees along the road.
“I found my safety in poetry,” Cynthia says. She’s moved to the kitchen counter. Her mother watching at her side, Cynthia mounds fresh masa in a banana leaf, topping it with a little chicken and sauce, an olive, a few garbanzo beans and capers.
“My mom has always been reserved, quiet,” Cynthia says. “My father has always been political. About human and civil rights.” Her father was an early supporter of Cynthia’s work, going to one of her first performances.
The rest of the family was a harder sell, particularly Cynthia’s mother and grandmother. “‘You shouldn’t talk about those things,’ they’d say. It was a fear of ‘what if?’ Can this — the civil war, soldiers coming — happen again? Even here [in the United States]?”
In January 2009, Cynthia was invited to perform her work at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Cynthia’s grandmother, despite her failing health, and her mother reluctantly agreed to come, and they sat in the back of the packed auditorium. After the performance, they were crying. “We are so proud of you,” they said. Cynthia’s grandmother died only a few months later.
“Food is carrying on the legacy,” Cynthia says of her mother. “Mom doesn’t want to share her stories — it can be hard for her — but she does it her own way through tamales. It’s not only carrying on the tradition but also memories of her childhood and the bonds she had with these women [in her family]. Women got together to cook but also to share stories. They laugh, they cry.”
Cynthia carefully folds a banana leaf over the masa and stacks the tamales in the steamer pot. “It’s a hell of a process,” Cynthia says. “It’s intimidating with this woman here.” She laughs. Actually, Cynthia admits, her mother is much more patient as a teacher than was her grandmother, known for a fiery temper and a penchant for throwing imperfect food in anger. Leaning in toward her mother, Cynthia says softly, “I want to make her proud.”
Recently, Cynthia’s mother has been sick. “My mom and I were talking about this earlier this year, and she wants to know who will carry [the recipes] on.”
After the tamales are steamed, mother and daughter retire to the kitchen table to sample their work. Dora pours a cup of coffee, Cynthia grabs a Coke. They’re soon joined by Cynthia’s aunt, the three sharing pictures and catching up on family news.
“I do like the kitchen,” Cynthia admits. “But I have yet to learn all the traditional things.
“Like poetry, cooking is healing.”