Doing the Christmas wrap

Helena Rodriguez: PNT Staff Writer

For 30 years the Garcia family has been making tamales year-round for customers at the two local restaurants they’ve owned, and once a year, this business trade becomes a Christmas tradition and labor of love for their own family and friends.

In the weeks before Christmas, sisters Joann Estrada, Gloria Holguin, Eileen Urioste and her daughter, Angela, their sister-in-law Elvia Garcia and cousin Tammy Salas, get together to do the traditional Hispanic holiday wrap – the age-old custom of making tamales.

They form an assembly line in Eileen’s kitchen and keep this holiday tradition alive that began in their family five generations ago in Encino with their great grandmother Augustina Madril.

“Making tamales is a tradition that has been in our family for years, from both of my grandmothers, Aurora Garcia and Augustina,” Josie said. “I’m proud of my daughters and how they have kept on doing this.”

Josie and her sister Aurora Flores, began La Hacienda restaurant in north Portales in the 1970s, and then Josie and her son started El Rancho restaurant and operated that from 1989 until June of 2004 when they passed it on to their children, Ruben Garcia and his wife Sara, and grandson Joey Garcia.

The Garcia girls are now experts in the field of spreading masa across cornhusks and carefully wrapping them into little bundles stuffed with chile meat. They set aside at least two days each Christmas season to make anywhere from 30 to 50 dozen tamales.

“You never rush tamales!” Elvia cautioned. “If you rush, then something will come out wrong.”

For that reason, the sisters begin the long and somewhat complicated process by cleaning out the red chile and cornhusks which the tamales will be wrapped in. They also ground the chile themselves.

Most of the preparation work is done on the first day and then the second day, usually about a six-hour span, is spent spreading the masa (or dough) out, wrapping the chile mixture into little presents and then steaming them. The tamales are then frozen until Christmas, or, as Eileen said, sometimes they freeze them raw and then later on they just have to take them out of the freezer and steam them.

“Making tamales is a big job; it’s a lot of work, but it doesn’t seem so big when we are here together,” Eileen said. “We reminisce and talk a lot and that makes it go by fast. I remember when we were younger and after midnight mass we’d all go to my grandma Dolores Garcia’s house to eat tamales and empanadas.”

The women agreed that it may be a struggle to keep the tamale-making tradition alive in their family because they all said that their children do not know as much about tamale-making as they did when they were their ages.

“Kids get so bored today and with videogames, cell phones and everything, that keeps them occupied,” Elvia said. “But then again, you’ll get one or two who like to learn and they are the ones who will keep the tradition going.”

Although the task of making tamales is time-consuming and detailed, Eileen said that with patience anyone can learn to make tamales.

“It’s like making tortillas. We can give you the ingredients and all the measurements, but it’s a matter of doing it over and over until you get it right,” Eileen said. But Eileen also admitted that she and her sisters have an advantage, having been involved in the restaurant business most of their lives. “We’re known for our food. We don’t have the gift of making arts and crafts or singing, our gift is cooking.”

Elvia also pointed out, “There’s a lot of love that goes into making tamales because we all do it together. For that reason we find it gratifying and in the end, it makes it all worth it.”

Once the tamales are completed, fortunate family and friends will receive tamales, along with baked goods such as empanadas, as gifts.

Tamales are a traditional Christmas staple in many Hispanic and Southwest homes, and these wrapped bundles have an advantage during the holidays. According to Joann. “If we don’t have any gifts for Christmas, we always have tamales to unwrap. There are very few people who don’t like tamales,” she said.

Elvia said her husband likes to eat his tamales with lemons and lime and Angela said she knows people who eat them with ketchup.

Regardless of how people eat their tamales, one thing is for sure, they are small gifts with big tastes that come in their own holiday wrapping paper.

“My grandparents would cut a little slice of the cornhusk to use to tie into a bow around the tamales,” Joann said.