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Eating Christmas: 'Tamales Y Santos'

This month, The Show is bringing you “Eating Christmas” — a typically live storytelling event that has had to adapt, like so much in life, to COVID-19. The Show is sharing four original essays about the holidays and food this month, one every Thursday.

Last week, we heard about the vengeance of a 5-year-old. Today’s story is decidedly more wholesome — both in terms of the story’s focus on family tradition, and the fact that no one loses their head.

Felipe Carranza is the principal at Encanto Elementary School. And this is his “Eating Christmas” essay: “Tamales Y Santos."

'Tamales y Santos' by Felipe Carranza

I open the steaming pot of tamales and immediately my glasses fog up. They are all lined up in a symmetrical spiral pattern. Packed side to side like disciplined soldiers, difficult to tell them apart. I help my mom remove the pot from the stove. It is so large it eclipses the burners. I look at her and notice how small she has gotten. For a moment the chatter, laughter and slamming of doors by running children stands still. I am transported to our tiny adobe kitchen in Mexico with the dirt floor. I am 8 years old, and I see my mom’s gentle smile as she pauses to look at me, her hands busily making tortillas. She puckers her lips and blows into a metal cylinder to keep the fire from going out. The tortillas start to stack up. Like frisbees, they are tossed into the air on a pile that begins to grow. My mom’s dark braids frame her face. The fire gives her a glow similar to those saints in church who never answer our prayers. I am leaning against the tiny kitchen’s door, and she signals at me with her almond eyes to get a tortilla before I start my chores for the day.

My sister’s contagious laugh brings me back to my mom’s kitchen that now is bursting with family. She notices I am surveying her and asks “¿Qué pasó?” I nod my head with a twinkle in my eyes. My mom and I have a secret language that is expressed in minute body gestures, nods and smiles. Like all my siblings, I think I am the favorite child.  I can tell she is happy to have all of her adult children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered. Everyone is waiting with anticipation to start sampling the freshly made tamales. My mom has a stack of plates and immediately starts to distribute them to her waiting guest. I grab one and remove the cornhusk the tamal is wrapped in. Like a thoughtful gift from a loved one, I open it gently. I prefer tamales when they are freshly made, the masa semisoft and red, chili aroma rising with the steam.  

Soon red-stained cornhusks start to pile up in the trash can and you can find tamales everywhere. On counters, on tables and in bags that are labeled with names, ready to take home. When everyone is full and when consuming another tamal creates discomfort rather than joy, my mom asks my older brother to gather everyone around the nativity scene she has created.  Porcelain Mary and Joseph stand looking down at baby Jesus with his cracked foot.  They look tired, and Joseph has a missing hand.  My mom has had this nativity scene that she bought at a yard sale for years.  The animals and the three wise kings it originally came with have been replaced but don’t seem to match — either they are too big or too small, or painted the wrong color. There is no Christmas tree nor present to be seen. My mom outlawed this some time ago, stating that those kinds of material things displease God, and it takes away from the meaning of Christmas. This has been refreshing, as I don’t have to worry about buying presents for anyone in my large family.  Although I do get a small gift for my dad as he was born on Christmas.

It can be difficult to begin praying the rosary as there are conversations and movement everywhere. My brother wrangles everyone and when we finally start, silence falls and all you hear is my mom’s voice echoing as she prays, and we all respond while making the sign of the cross across our forehead: “En el nombre del Padre y del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo.” The back and forth Santa Marías and Padre Nuestros creates a harmonizing chant. My mom moves the bright beads wrapped around her now twisted arthritic hands slowly. I glance up to a sea of brown-haired bowed heads lowered in prayer. It appears that we have multiplied over the years and continue to grow. I am surprised at how even after two generations in the United States, everyone is able to recite the rosary and pray in unison. You can tell the prayer is ending because my mom starts to pray “La Letanía de la Santa Virgen.” She closes her eyes and like in a trance fluctuates her voices.

“Señor, ten piedad
Cristo, ten piedad
Señor, ten piedad
Cristo, óyenos.”

We all respond in a chorus: “Cristo, escúchanos.”  

After 45 minutes, the rosary is over.  My mom begins to thank everyone and encourages the continued value of family, respect and love. She looks around the room and begins to tear up. Her face full of wrinkles like cracks on the dry earth. I don’t recognize her. This is not my mom from my memories — the one that would bathe me in a bucket and gently dry me with a worn rag. Her strong, normal hands picking me up so I would not touch the ground, because I didn’t like to feel dirt on my bare feet. That giant of a woman I had to look up at when she spoke, her thick, dark, silky hair cascading down her back. This new mom is slower and has more time to talk. She laughs more, prays more and looks out the window more. 

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.