When I think back on my childhood, I remember it being my younger sister, my mom, my dad, and Sandra. Our house was loud with laughter, English and Spanish mixing in the air, delicious food, and lots of love. We all had our spots at the dinner table, and I remember Sandra, a very petite woman, oftentimes smacking the table, pointing at my dad, and laughing with such enthusiasm. She would wave one hand in the air and make her index and middle finger slap together* as she giggled. My mom would laugh hard right alongside her with tears rolling down her face, and my sister and I would try to match the volume.
* I had to google this hand gesture and found out it’s called “chanin-chanin”, which is finger slapping and in Guatemalan culture. It is used after you deliver a burn to someone you’re teasing, or also used to indicate that the other person needs to hurry up.
Sandra is my mother’s aunt. I guess technically she is our great aunt. But we just called her Sandra. She lived with us for a good chunk of our childhood, and she was the only family my mom had in the states. Both women were born and raised in Guatemala and found themselves in the great state of Minnesota. For my mom, it was because she followed her love, and for my great aunt it was for refuge.
Sandra was the youngest of seven children and my mother was the oldest of eight causing them to have a relationship more like cousins than the traditional aunt and niece relationship. My mom rarely spoke Spanish with us but always did with Sandra. Sandra had a thick accent when she spoke English and she was always a good sport when we teased her for giving up and speaking Spanglish instead. Although my sister and I didn’t speak her language, we understood each other and many times our conversations were using both languages simultaneously.
Around Christmastime, Sandra would start to gather supplies to make traditional Guatemalan tamales. I didn’t know until I was older that there was a difference between Guatemalan and Mexican tamales, which Minnesotans are more familiar with. Guatemalan tamales are moist and bursting with flavor. They have a red sauce, pork or chicken, a green olive, a slice of red pepper, raisins, and dates, and are all buried in a package of corn masa wrapped in a banana leaf, which gives the otherwise dense masa its moisture. Mexican tamales are also delicious but tend to be spicier, drier in texture, and wrapped in a corn husk.
As a family, we would pile in the tiny car and drive from the suburbs to West St. Paul to the only decently-stocked mercado in the area: El Burrito. We filled the shopping cart with masa, banana leaves, and other unrelated supplies like platanos, chorizo, queso fresco, and pan dulce.
When Sandra made tamales, it wasn’t just one afternoon of cooking and then enjoying a lovely dinner. No, this was a production! She only made this authentic meal once a year, and she made sure we were fully stocked. She took over the entire kitchen and dining table for the whole weekend. She had stations set up with pots full of cooked pork and sauce, and stacks of banana leaves, and tin foil. I remember so much tin foil.
First, she would take the tinfoil, put a banana leaf on top, add a huge spoonful of masa, tuck in a couple of pieces of pork, 1 green olive, 1 slice of bell pepper, a couple raisins and dates, and some sauce. Then she wrapped the banana leaf like a little present and wrapped it again in tinfoil. These little gifts were boiled in huge pots on the stovetop for hours! Just tons of pots of boiling aluminum foil.
She made hundreds! We ate tamales for days and filled the chest freezer with hundreds more. I was always upset when she would share some with my dad’s family. She would take a few from our stash and hand them a bag of tinfoil bundles. Even though I really didn’t want to share, these Minnesotans I called family knew how to appreciate the gold they were just given. They treated it like the true delicacy that it was.
It was always a slightly sad moment when we would pull the last few from the chest freezer a few months later. But we tried to remember that there would be another day when Sandra would whip up a frenzy in the kitchen making more deliciousness. Until one year, she said it was her last.
After 8 or 9 years of having my loud and hilarious aunt live with us, she moved out and got her own little apartment. She didn’t live far away, but she worked hard and slept on her days off. Just like my mom missed her family back home, Sandra deeply missed hers.
About a year ago my mom brought Sandra, her daughter, and her grandson to visit our new home in Rochester. I rarely see her, and this was a wonderful surprise. Although we kind of feel like strangers now, we were able to tease each other like family and reminisce about old stories.
I don’t blame her for quitting her tamale-making marathons. Now that I have to cook most meals I. Am. Over. It. I have sometimes toyed with the idea of attempting to make tamales on my own, but then I am quickly overwhelmed by the whole production. I want my husband and son to one day experience the chaos and deliciousness of tamales at Christmas time.
We shall see; maybe I will call Sandra up and try to squeeze some tips out of her in between laughing sessions.
Note: one of my favorite children’s books growing up was Too Much Tamales by Gary Soto which is a cute and slightly suspenseful picture book about making tamales for Christmas.