CHICAGO — Christmas was simple when I was a chamaco in California. My mom would stuff my sisters and me into the too-small, rusty, brown Chevy, and Dad would drive south for two hours until we crossed the border into Tijuana to spend the holidays with our abuelos, who always greeted us with mountains of tamales.
My abuelo Adolfo was a tamalero, selling tamales on the streets of Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad neighborhood. He would get up at 5 a.m. and fire up the giant tamale pot on the stove, the scuffle of his slippers across the linoleum floor waking me up. I would meet him in the kitchen where he served me a plate of tamales with a glass of milk. This was my secret breakfast before my official breakfast when everyone else woke up.
He filled his cart with warm tamales and before leaving on his route would kneel to my height so that I could give him my bendición. With my small fingers I formed the sign of the cross and blessed my abuelo so that he would sell all his tamales.
It’s been years since my abuelos passed away. My parents are the abuelos now, while my sisters and I are the adults coordinating Christmas gatherings. If we want tamales, we often must make them ourselves.
Some knowledge was passed down to us. We know that mixing corn and lard isn’t just about incorporating ingredients; it’s a science. By mixing we are trapping air in the masa. The air turns into steam when heated and the tamales cook evenly inside and out, resulting in fluffy, silky, moist tamales. We know that you stack tamales vertically inside the pot so that the steam circulates evenly. If some of your tamales are dry and flaky while others are raw, it’s most likely that you’re stacking them wrong inside the steamer.
We make delicious tamales, but the cooking is laborious. Some years we skip making them and instead place a big order with a street vendor. We don’t feel guilty about buying ready-made tamales—after all, our abuelo was a street vendor, so patronizing tamale vendors on Christmas is as sacred to my family as making masa.
This Christmas Is Different
Ask Mexicans in Chicago where they get their masa for tamales and most will say El Milagro. With multiple locations in the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village, El Milagro is a Chicago institution. There’s been little reason to second guess where to purchase masa in Chicago until this year.
The El Milagro workers began organizing after 85 of their coworkers tested positive for COVID-19, staging walkouts and holding press conferences by September of 2021. In November they held a Día de los Muertos vigil for the five coworkers killed by the virus. The El Milagro workers are not just demanding a safer work environment during the pandemic, but also fighting against stagnant low wages while production quotas have increased.
On Tuesday, El Milagro workers gathered outside one of the tortillería's Chicago locations for a #DiaDeLosMuertos vigil in honor of five coworkers who died from COVID-19. (Reporting by @TootieAlvarez)#Chicago #DiaDeMuertos #labor #immigranthttps://t.co/RhJgqTDjWr
— Latino Rebels (@latinorebels) November 3, 2021
So far, the El Milagro workers have not called for a boycott, so technically you can still patronize El Milagro and be in solidarity with the workers. From an organizing perspective, you can have your tamal and eat it too. But beyond the solidarity loopholes, does it still feel good to eat a tamal made with masa from a company that exploits Latino workers, most of them immigrants?
For the first time in my life, I’m experiencing a moral crisis concerning my tamales. Should I feed a business that would have mistreated my own abuelo? Is it still Christmas in Chicago if you don’t bundle up and brave the notorious winter while patiently waiting on some sidewalk on Blue Island Avenue or 26th Street for your turn to purchase masa by the pound?
Maybe This Christmas Is Not So Different
Long before El Milagro became the legendary institution it is today, Chicagoans were already one with the tamal. In Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano tells the story of Robert H. Putnam, founder of the California Chicken Tamale Co., who deployed an army of tamale vendors to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “A couple of months into Putnam’s reign, four hundred of his tamale men organized themselves into a union, demanding an increase in wages,” Arellano writes. So just as tamales in Chicago predate El Milagro, the fight for worker rights is nothing new.
The tamal’s controversial history extends beyond Chicago. We know that agriculture was central to the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations, and of all Mesoamerican crops, none was more important than corn. It’s why throughout the various glyphs of the Maya and the codices of the Aztec there are depictions of the maize god alongside depictions of tamales. However, it would be incorrect to assume that tamales have been revered by Mexicans for over 500 years.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Spanish colonization of Mesoamerica attempted to eradicate Indigenous culture, including its cuisine. After Spain retreated to Europe and Mexico declared its independence, tension brewed between the supposedly “inferior” Indigenous corn and the “superior” European wheat.
“Porfirian elites had come to view popular cuisine not only as unfashionable, but also as a positive menace to society,” writes Jeffrey M. Pilcher in Tamales or Timbales: Cuisine and the Formation of Mexican National Identity, 1821-1911. “Using language from the newly developed science of nutrition, engineer Francisco Bulnes attributed Indian backwardness to the supposed inadequacy of maize-based diets. Psychologist Julio Guerrero went further, stating that criminal behavior resulted from the ‘abominable’ foods eaten by the lower classes.”
Following the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, Mexican intellectuals worked to form a new national identity. Politicians, muralists, and writers promoted the mestizo, a person of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry, as the true modern Mexican. It’s within this context that Mexican pride in corn, tortillas, and tamales emerges. In other words, pride in Mexican food is only about 100 years old.
Being a Good Mexican This Christmas
What do I make of my abuelo selling tamales in Tijuana? Was he upholding an Indigenous tradition with over 500 years of history? Or was he a savvy entrepreneur exploiting a young nation’s identity crisis? Are they mutually exclusive?
And what about me: can I buy masa from El Milagro knowing they mistreat my neighbors and still be a good Mexican this Christmas? The answer is maybe, and so for that reason I won’t be shopping at El Milagro this Christmas, but I won’t judge anyone if they do.
After all the history of tamales is complicated. The history of Mexicans is complicated. And while traditions are not pure, they don’t have to be.
Arturo “Tootie” Alvarez is based in Chicago. He trucks. He writes. Not at the same time. Twitter: @TootieAlvarez