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Photos: Yesid Vargas/AL DÍA News

The tamaleras of South Philly gear up for a savory sacramental season

Like faith, the art of tamal-making is taught from mother to daughter — hand in hand, heart to heart.

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In Philadelphia history, it was immigrant artisans and craftsmen who laid down the stone and mortar of 19th century religious structures at the center of the city’s growing communities.
Today, it is again immigrants who are revitalizing neighborhoods, and if their faith is expressed differently than it once was on the same streets, they are still willing to manifest their devotion to their churches, temples and mosques, through labor.
For Mexican Catholics in South Philly, that labor of love and faith more often than not involves mixing masa, and this month is rich in opportunities:
December 8 is the feast day of the Virgin of Juquila, and immigrants from the eastern states of Mexico pray the rosary together every night for nine nights in advance of the feast day. After prayers? Tamales.
December 12 is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe — Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas — and most of the city’s Mexican Catholics will be celebrating at a 7 p.m. Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas. After Mass? Tamales.
December 16 through 24, Catholics from every Mexican state will again gather, every night for nine nights, for las posadas — a celebration that replicates Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter, rebuffed on every night but the last, Noche Buena. And after las posadas? Tamales.
And then, there is Christmas Day, and more tamales.
Through it all is the labor of the tamaleras — women who cook hundreds of tamales for their churches after a full day of cleaning houses, working at restaurants, or tending to grandchildren— who mark the continuum of spiritual and cultural devotion with the candles guttering on their home altars and the flames dancing under the enormous pots of tamales on their stoves. 

A festive table of plenty

MINERVA — Claritza Villegas, 6, learns to make tamales from her mother, Minerva Rodríguez.
Minerva Rodriguez tells me that from now until the end of the year, her house will fill with tamales nearly every night.
A native of Papantla, Veracruz, who has lived in Philadelphia for the past 15 years, Rodriguez works the early shift at a restaurant and rushes home to be there when her three children get home from school.
She and her youngest, 6-year-old Claritza Villegas, greet us at the door the day Yesid Vargas (AL DÍA’s art director) and I show up to take photographs and do the interview. The room the door opens to is spotlessly clean and spare. The two pieces of furniture that dominate the room are a china cabinet — filled top to bottom with statues of Jesus and the saints and, of course, Our Lady of Guadalupe — and the table on which all the tamal-making ingredients are set out. As it happens, with the bright red and green sauces, deep green banana leaves, and white masa the array replicates the colors of the Mexican flag, and the table seems a more festive than the usual work surface.
Rodriguez is a parishioner of Annunciation B.V.M. and devoted to Guadalupe, and she says though she hasn’t been contacted yet, if the folks at St. Thomas Aquinas ask her to make tamales for Guadalupe’s feast day Mass, of course she will do so.
She makes the tamales in batches of 100 to 150 for church events and to share with her comadres. The batch she’s working when we arrive is smaller — some 25 or so — to be consumed after the rosary prayers that evening, one of the nights of the novena of the Virgin of Juquila.
“I make (tamales) because I love making them,” she says. “I learned mostly from watching my mother make them.”
Her daughter, who is too young to really help, is there to learn an art that varies from region to region, person to person. In fact, just having banana leaf on the table is a telltale of the region Rodriguez is from. The eastern states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, Yucatán and Chiapas traditionally use both banana leaf and corn husks as wrappers for tamales, along with a leaf called hoja santa, which isn’t readily available in Philadelphia and which flavors the masa in a different way.
The whole process — from sauce-making to pre-cooking the pork and chicken fillings, mixing the masa, putting the tamales together and steaming them — takes Rodriguez three to four hours of non-stop work.
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Rodriguez starts with a fine, white corn flour, followed by fresh lard, salt, and chicken broth — all which she adds into the pot without measuring — and mixes with her hands.
“I used to make tamales, but the masa wasn’t right,” she says. “You have to make sure it’s not too thick, and mix it until you see these little air bubbles on the surface that make it look like a sponge.”
Sometimes she cooks the masa — something common to Yucatec and Central American tamales, which gives them a slightly different flavor — but not the day we are there. She quickly spoons enough of the freshly mixed masa to coat two thirds of a corn husk, adds red sauce (made from chile puya and chipotle) and the chicken in the center, and quickly folds the husk into a pocket before standing it up in the tamal pot.
She repeats the process several times with each of the different fillings, then switches to the banana leaf wrappers, outlining the process or passing along tips as she goes. She’s a good teacher, evidence that it was her profession before coming to the United States with her husband to escape the escalating violence in Veracruz.
When she first arrived, she worked at a packing plant where, since most of her coworkers were Latino, she didn’t learn much English. She speaks it better now, she tells me, because at the restaurant her co-workers are English-speakers.
Her husband — Juan Villegas — speaks English better than she because he took classes at St. Thomas Aquinas, every night after work, and their children —13, 10 and 6 — like most citizen children of immigrant parents, are native English speakers.
“I tell her,” she indicates young daughter, “to learn Spanish. I tell her, if you have two languages it will be easier to find a job.”
When the bottom of the pot is filled with tamales, Rodriguez finally puts them on the stove and lets them steam just above the boiling water for about half an hour.
She convinces us not to leave until the tamales are done because it’s a bit of a tamalera superstition that if someone leaves the house with their craving for tamales unsatisfied, the batch on the stove won’t cook properly.
She serves us atole while we wait, and when her husband gets home we talk about how their life has changed in the U.S.
“I cook now,” Villegas says. “When I came here I didn’t know how.” In fact, here he sometimes helps Rodriguez make her tamales.
But what is really apparent about the life they’ve made here is how central their faith is to it. Their best friends in the neighborhood are from the church community — about 10 families with whom they celebrate posadas and get together to pray the rosary. And Villegas lectors at Annunciation’s Spanish Mass.
Then, the interview is done, and so are the tamales. We taste all the different types.
And when we leave, we take a few banana leaf- and corn husk-wrapped devotions with us into the cold.
A red tamal, cooked in banana leaf, fresh from the steamer.

 

Rosa Hernández helps her mother, Concepción Pérez, make tamales while her youngest son plays in the kitchen.

Mothers and other blessings

In 2009, Cardinal Justin Rigali, then the Archbishop of Philadelphia, blessed a marble mosaic shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. The Mexican parishioners of St. Thomas and Annunciation had long worked in concert to see their beloved “Morenita” in Philadelphia’s mother church.
The feast day Mass of Guadalupe that year was extraordinary. A good 2,000 members of the Latino community were in attendance, and each one received a rose, a rosary and prayer card paid for by the two humble, mostly working-class Mexican congregations. There were two mariachi bands at the Mass and every one of the bank of $1-donation candles at the foot of the new shrine were lit.
And, of course, there were tamales afterwards, for everyone who attended.
I remember those tamales — pineapple sweetened ones dyed pink with food coloring and savory, spicy green ones. They were made by Concepción Pérez — la Sra. Conchita as she is known — one of the most renowned tamaleras in South Philly.
We catch up with her at her daughter’s house. The most prominent item in Rosa Hernández’s front room is also a home altar, this one with its image of Guadalupe on the wall and candles lit to San Judas Tadeo, the patron saint of impossible causes.
Pérez, who is originally from the southwestern state of Guerrero, does things a bit differently than Rodriguez when it comes to tamales. To begin with, she cooks them longer — an hour and a half. Plus her masa is thicker, and she only uses corn husks to wrap them. And while she, too, makes green tamales and raja tamales, the day we are there instead of red ones she makes tamales with a dark, smoky-sweet mole sauce with a lingering bite.
She doesn’t focus on the texture of the masa as Rodriguez does, but on how it is seasoned. The lard is crucial, she tells us (“otherwise the tamales will not be right”) and she adds salt and a teaspoon of baking powder to the Maseca corn flour. She lets us taste the raw dough, and it is indeed savory.
“My mother has such sazón,” Hernández says. “She is such a good cook. That sazón is what makes her tamales so good. I make tamales too, but she makes them better.”

Tamales, in some form or another exist in a number of Latin American countries. Colombia and Venezuela have their hallacas, Puerto Rico its pasteles, Guatemala its paches — all wrapped in banana leaf — but Mexican tamales as Pérez makes them are prehispanic in origen. The word itself comes from the Nahuatl language (tamalli) and they are mentioned in the histories compiled by Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan friar and missionary, who arrived in what was then New Spain in 1529.
Before she moved from Mexico 10 years ago, Pérez had a food stand where she sold “elotes” — corn on the cob with mayonnaise, cheese and chile — a great favorite of Mexicans. Here, in addition to the tamales, she’s renowned for the tlacoyos she makes — masa gorditas with beans, chicharrón, nopal cactus, sauce and cotija cheese.
Her expression gets wistful when she talks about the rich diversity of food, musical styles and cultural customs in Mexico, but then she remembers how difficult life had gotten there before she left.
“Where we were, there was a lot of crime,” Pérez says, “and very little work. If you set up a food stand, the delinquents come and extort payment from you. They do that even if you’re in your home.”

“They’ve even kidnapped members of my mother’s family,” Pérez adds. “It’s scary. My husband is from Puebla, and there it’s different. It’s calmer.”
But life isn’t easy in Philadelphia either. Both mother and daughter tell me that even in their neighborhood, people on the street say anti-immigrant things, sometimes even deny them service.
“They close the doors, or they’ll say, ‘I can’t speak Spanish, go away,’” Hernández says.
Despite Hernández’s youngest son scurrying in and out of the kitchen, distracting his mother and asking his grandmother for his favorite type of tamal, the mother and daughter team work fast. They have to, because the batches they make are so big —100 or 200 at a time for local baptisms, for example — and prep work can span two days. 

Pérez made many, many tamales for the first Guadalupe Mass at the Cathedral Basilica, with the thought that the cost of the ingredients was her donation, and the labor in making them, her devotion.
“It was a gift,” Hernández says.
Pérez nods, then adds, “La Virgencita is grateful for it, and it was a work of charity to benefit all those in attendance.”
Unfortunately, although the Vigil Mass for the feast day of Guadalupe will be celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on Friday, Dec. 11 this year (procession at 8 p.m., Mass at 9 p.m.), there won’t be any tamales handed out outside of the Cathedral after the Mass.
Nor in any years to follow, apparently.
“The bishop doesn’t want tamales,” Pérez tells us. “People throw the corn husks wherever, not in the garbage bags, and so the bishop doesn’t want them.”
Still, if you frequent St. Thomas Aquinas’ Spanish-language Masses, there’s always a chance you’ll be able to taste Pérez’s masa masterpieces.
“Doña Luz María took some 30 tamales to St. Thomas about 15 days ago,” Pérez says. “Twice already she’s commissioned me to make tamales. She always asks me to set them aside for her — for church, for meetings....”
Will there be any of her tamales there at the Guadalupe Mass on Dec. 12?
“If Doña Luz María asks for them...,” Pérez answers.

A batch of green, mole and rajas tamales wrapped in corn leaf, ready to go into the pot to steam.
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