How Ericka Sanchez Found Belonging in Tamaladas

At a tamalada, the expectation is to contribute. The reward is belonging, connection, and warm tamales right out of the steamer.

Ericka Sanchez tamalada

Simply Recipes / Ericka Sanchez

In our Mexican home, La Navidad (or “Christmas” in Spanish), isn’t La Navidad without a giant steamer on the stovetop filled to the brim with tamales. This isn’t just a one-day affair. The tamales are made during a gathering called a tamalada, an almost month-long celebration that starts on December 12th for Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe and ends on January 6th for Día de Reyes. During that time, we gather with family and friends for biblical reenactments, piñatas, midnight mass, mariachis, and of course, a lot of tamales.

A tamalada marks the start of the holiday season and is a harbinger of good things to come. Its unique purpose is to make as many tamales as possible. The kitchen becomes the focal point for the month, and every member in attendance is assigned a specific duty to help make tamales. Even as a child, this systematic assembly line never felt like a chore. We all understood that making tamales is a labor of love that requires time, patience, and everyone’s help. Though there was an expectation to contribute and work hard, the mood was always joyful—we made tamales for holiday parties, but the tamalada was a party in itself.

Tamales on a dinner table

Simply Recipes / Ericka Sanchez

As a seven-year-old living in Coahuila, Mexico, I was the designated corn husk cleaner and soaker at my family’s tamalada. While the pork and chicken fillings bubbled on the stove top and the masa was churned and seasoned, I stood over two metal tubs—one filled with dry corn husks and the other with warm water. The tubs were so big, I could easily jump into one for a bubble bath. But these tubs were strictly used to clean and soak the corn husks for the tamales.

I scrubbed each husk with a small broom-like root brush, rubbing off any debris, and meticulously plucked off rogue strands of corn silk. Then, I inspected each for tears and holes, and the husks were sorted into a good pile and a bad pile. The clean husks that passed my inspection were then submerged in the tub with warm water to soak for a few hours. I’d weigh them down with the biggest lava rock molcajete I could find, shifting it around as the husks were picked one by one for filling by the adults. I eyed the tamales-making assembly line, and made sure we never ran out of clean, soaked husks.

Tamales on a dinner table

Simply Recipes / Ericka Sanchez

In between cleaning and soaking the corn husks, I also lined the steamers with the not-so-perfect husks—where the tamales would be tucked into for cooking. Even though I was given the tasks often delegated to the youngest person in attendance, I sensed that my job was essential because it was where the assembling of tamales began.

While I worked, giant pots and colorful bowls slowly crowded the table, some filled with red chile-spiced masa, others with sweet masa for dessert tamales. My teenage cousins, who were promoted from husk soakers to masa spreaders, scooped masa onto the wet husks. One spread the masa as if she were “laying bricks with cement,” my tia criticized.

The red chile pork and green chile chicken fillings could only be made by my grandmother—it was the most prestigious job. Its preparation began at dawn with the recipe en la mente, “in her mind,” as she quietly worked to have the fillings ready for when the rest of the tamale-assembling crew arrived. Then, while we worked, she walked around and inspected, only stepping in when we didn’t spread the masa or fold the husk to her liking.

"I cannot elicit a more joyous and comforting memory than my family’s tradition of making tamales together."

This labor of love—mundane and simple tasks that felt magical in the moment—took hours. The kitchen buzzed with bursts of laughter and mumbled gossip followed by furtive giggles. Los Panchos’ boleros played on the radio at the same time a telenovela dramatically streamed on the television in the background. Children ran around the nativity set and slippers shuffled all around me. My grandmother, mother, and tias argued about the masa—was it salted enough or too salty?—and whose filling turned out best. Friendly arguments that were never settled.

The kitchen was a steam room, the windows sweated with condensation from the steamers and our hands danced across the table until the last tamale was assembled and cooked. Only then would we be rewarded with a hot tamale right out of the steamer. I cannot elicit a more joyous and comforting memory than my family’s tradition of making tamales together. Sharing in the responsibilities gave me a sense of belonging and unyielding connection to my family.

Now I live in the United States and our tamaladas aren’t quite the same. My grandmother passed away in 1989 and most family members stayed in Mexico. Still, I prepare tamales for the holidays with the same pride and enthusiasm as my grandmother did. My 14-year-old son, now the husk cleaner and soaker, takes his job as seriously as I did. Some holidays, my kitchen bustles as it did back in Mexico. Other years, it’s quieter. But no matter the size of the crowd, our tradition of making a lot of tamales and connections continues.