The phone is ringing off the hook and people are lined up outside of Bowie Bakery in West El Paso. The shop is only allowing three customers inside at a time as a COVID-19 precaution. With Christmas around the corner, the bakery is even busier than usual this holiday season.
“So we’re buying red tamales for the office. We figured we’d spread some holiday cheer for our 14 employees,” Fred Lopez said as he was paying for his order.
Everyone at his engineering firm is working from home but they were stopping by the office briefly on this day. “We figured we’d surprise them with tamales,” Lopez said. Drive-by tamales might be the only way some El Pasoans get their tamales this year. The pandemic has taken a toll on the family tradition.
“A lot of people, especially older people, have died or have had to be quarantined from the whole family and those people were usually the ones that kind of brought the whole family together,” said Juan Carlos Favela, owner of La Primera Tortilla Factory.
His father started the business and now it is run by Favela and his siblings. The tortilla factory in Sunland Park sells masa, the cornmeal dough for tamales, this time of year.
“In fact, we had a couple of customers call and ask for recipes for how to do the tamales because their grandmas, their mothers passed away, stating now they’re going to have to do them by themselves,” Favela said.
Many of the elders who died from COVID-19 were also the keepers of the family recipes and the impetus for Christmas gatherings.
“We lost their voices as they watched over us. Those voices are the voices of our ancestors. And they didn’t have to go. We didn’t expect them to go,” said author and poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
He lives in El Paso and has fond childhood memories growing up making tamales with his family just across the state line in rural New Mexico. His brothers and sisters continued the tamale-making tradition after his mother died a few years ago.
“She left us her wisdom and part of that wisdom is in the making of tamales because people would get together and they would tell stories. And we can’t even get together and tell those stories,” Sáenz said.
By limiting family gatherings, COVID has accelerated the modern-day trend of busy families buying tamales rather than making them at home. Stuffing all those corn husks with masa and fillings by hand is labor intensive.
Tamales Lupita in Canutillo has been doing that work for 35 years. Lines are always long during the holidays, but this year they’re even longer. Tamale sales are a bright spot for struggling restaurants coping with the economic impact of COVID-10.
“We do want to keep the business and keep it going for the families and everybody who works here,” said America Sanchez), whose family owns Tamales Lupita.
Teresa Cordell was picking up a couple of dozen tamales and a side order at Lupita’s. “Some red, some green and some turkey tails, colitas de pavo,” Cordell said.
She used to make her own tamales when her kids were living at home. “Believe it or not, we switched it over to brisket with red chile barbecue,” Cordell said.
That’s the thing about tamales; the recipes and memories are as unique as the families who make them.
Cover photo: People line up outside Tamales Lupita in Canutillo. The lines grow longer the closer it gets to Christmas. (Angela Kocherga/El Paso Matters)