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Arizona Storytellers: John Avila

KJZZ partners with the Arizona Republic to bring you the Arizona Storytellers series. We record the live events and share them with you on the radio. Storytellers share stories about our community or the life events that have shaped them.

John Avila went to prison at 21 years old for a DUI. He says it felt like his life was over. John only had two-and-a-half years, but a conversation with a man with three consecutive life sentences put things in perspective. He was surprised by how clean the inmates kept their space inside the prison. And he says that the food also surprised him — the food that the inmates made, not the food from the chow hall.

One of the things that I learned how to make and a lot of my friends, my homies, would make were tamales. Prison tamales are totally different than what you would expect. But they’re the same too, you know? Because they taste so similar. What we do is we kind of reverse it — we use chips, like the nacho cheese chips like Doritos is a perfect example. So what we do is we add a broth to it, we’ll crush up the Doritos and kind of make the chips back into a masa again. Then you can order shredded beef in the commissary and then we add the shredded beef and then chili and stuff like that. To be honest, they're awesome. And they don't take all day to make. I can make them in like 10, 15 minutes. I’ll feed all you guys.

It took my mind out of that prison and it took me right back to home where when I was a kid, you know, my nana would make her tamales. When I got out I started, you know, I wanted to share that with people. Like “Hey, look what we used to make,” and “I swear it’s not going to kill you.”

When people started eating them and tasting them and they said they loved it and it kind of blew their minds just like it did mine. People started telling me, “Hey, man, you can sell these.” So it was around the pandemic and restaurants were closed, mobile food trucks were everywhere, and so I decided, you know what, why not let me try it. I started a mobile food cart, and I sell prison food.

I was kind of surprised and got mixed reactions. Online it was one thing but in person people were really intrigued. Whether it was their family member who had been locked up and they had talked about prison tamales or the nachos or whatever.

One day I was shooting a Tik Tok video, and I don't know nothing about Tik Tok. But one of my neighbors she was an ASU student. It was the end of semester and they're all film film students. So I come out there, and I'm talking to my neighbor, and I said, “Hey, I got a bunch of prison tamales inside you guys want to try them?” and they were like, “Hell, yeah.” So I brought them out and they loved them.

One of the guys he became a really good friend of mine. His name is Brad. He comes up to me after right before he leaves and says, “I’d like to work with you in some way, you know, film a commercial or show you how to do a Tik Tok video.” And I was like, “Yeah, cool, man.” We exchanged information, and I didn't really think much about it.

Couple months later he hits me up and he's like, “Hey man, you got anything you want to shoot?” And tell him, “Well, we're having a reunion in my neighborhood, and I'm going to be making tamales if you want to do some shooting there that be cool.” So he did he comes by and he shot it on a 16 mm film. It was real grainy and just looks old school. He ended up getting me involved in the "Undoing Time" exhibit for ASU Art Museum, so we did a little voice over of me making the tamales at this event and he ended up submitting it into some film festivals.

People don't hear about stuff like this. You know when you see reality TV shows you see the drugs or the fights or the guards but it is nothing like the food. Food is important in there, and it is just totally different than dining at a restaurant I guarantee you.

Now that I'm out, I mean I was locked up with chefs, artists, people that went to college, people that dropped out, gangsters, you know. We're all in this one spot but the one thing we want to do is get our minds out of there and food did that. So, yeah, we're not bad people, we're just normal people. Stop by the food cart one of these days, and I might be your next best meal.

→  Hear more from the Arizona Storytellers Project