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First Impressions

Holiday Tamales, Wrapped in Love

December 25, 1997|JENNIFER TORRES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For some people, the holiday season conjures up images of flustered shopping and miles of shiny gift wrap. I get a different picture. It is of red chili stains on my sweater and dried masa--dough--in my hair. "Tamale day" is, for me, as much a part of Christmas as greeting cards and colored lights. It is laughter and it is home.

On the day designated by my grandmother, my mother and I are running late. It is tradition. While we are on the road, she searches the radio for Christmas music, "to get me in the mood," she says. I roll my eyes, probably, but I have waited all year for her festive sentiment.

Finally, arriving at my grandparents' house in El Monte, we walk in to find them standing over the kitchen counter. My Abuela's arms are lost in a thick flour mixture. "I don't know what you thought we'd do with 15 pounds," Grandma mutters. Grandpa looks on, nearly laughing, and the napkin under his red chili burrito appears almost bloodstained. Before long, I am holding one of my own.

Our work begins as Grandma brings a bowl of wet hojas (corn husks) to the table. Awkwardly spreading the masa and spooning the meat, I realize that I am a conglomerate, shaped by everyone sitting around me. I cherish our shared experiences, and I am grateful that my Mexican predecessors have met the challenge of maintaining cultural identity in this "melting pot."

My grandmother is our overseer in this task. She will not sit down, and I marvel at the way she can expertly fold a tamale in one hand. She asks me about school and about work and then, "Mija, when do you sleep?" But before she can go on, her attention is diverted. My mother and godmother are flicking masa at each other, squealing. They remind me of the children I watch at day care after school. There is joy in loyalty and dedication, so I laugh with them until we are eventually reprimanded for making a mess on the kitchen table.

Sifting through the bowl of hojas, looking for a large one to work with, I enjoy the buzz of conversation behind me. It is sweetly dizzying. By now my aunt and young cousins have arrived. One of the children hops boisterously around me. "What are you doing, Jenni? I wanna do it! Can I come to your house? Will you sing me a song on your piano?" She has found a voice in this cacophony.

The day ends quietly. As my mother and I leave, my grandmother is still standing over the table, scraping masa into a few more husks, filling them with whatever can be found in the refrigerator.

We will be back in the morning to eat. Now, tired with laughter, I survey yet another ruined T-shirt, and fingernails gritty with masaharina. The kitchen is equally messy, and I smirk, knowing that I have eaten or spilled more than I have made.

It doesn't matter, though, because it wasn't really about the tamales anyway.

* Jennifer Torres is a senior at Alverno High School in Sierra Madre.

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