A Tamal Tradition

Unfolding a Treasured Guatemalan Dish

In the early 1980s, as the Guatemalan Civil War raged, Miriam Maldonado and her husband, Louis, packed themselves into a car with eight of their countrymen and headed for the U.S. border. The previous decade had seen military coups, the annulment of the nation’s constitution, and untold thousands of illegal executions. The Maldonados were looking not only for a better life, but also for survival.

They carried their passports and some clothing. There was little room for anything else. They drove for a week across Mexico, stopping only to sleep and buy tacos from roadside vendors. They crossed the border at Tijuana, posing as tourists. It’s hard to imagine now, but they were admitted with barely a second glance. “It was easier then,” Miriam says. “People didn’t care so much about immigrants. They understood why we came.”

The Maldonados made their way to San Diego, then to Los Angeles. From there, Miriam’s brother-in-law drove them across the country to his adopted city of Cleveland—an exotic-seeming place of wood houses, smoky factories, and winter. Some of the family’s earliest photos in their new land show them standing, agape, in knee-deep snow.

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Children came. To support their growing family, the Maldonados worked under the table. Louis did odd jobs for friends and neighbors, while Miriam cleaned houses. It wasn’t an easy life, but it felt far safer than the guerrilla warfare and military dictators they’d left behind in Guatemala. Any fear of arrest or deportation faded for good in 1986, when—in another action that’s hard to fathom in today’s political climate—then-President Ronald Reagan signed an immigration bill allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. The Maldonados were among nearly 3,000,000 people who took advantage of the law, allowing them to take more permanent jobs.

Through it all, food became the Maldonados’ most enduring tie to their homeland. It was the humble, yet complex, tamal that captured their own bittersweet sentiments about a place they both missed and mourned—for its beauty and traditions, for its chaos and bloodshed.

Miriam cooks her tamales mostly for special occasions—birthdays, weddings, and most of all, Christmas. Their production is an all-day affair: the thawing of banana leaves, the boiling of masa (corn flour) and pork, the slow simmering of sauce. “It helps us remember where we come from,” Miriam says. “It’s a connection.”

Her own family adores them, but she’s also gained a reputation for being among the best tamales cooks in Cleveland. At the holidays, she makes as many as 250 tamales for customers, mostly Guatemalans, but also housecleaning clients to whom she’s given free samples over the years. She works out of the kitchen of her house on Cleveland’s Near West Side, where the family has lived for 30 years. On a recent late-summer morning in the kitchen, her movements are efficient, quiet, and meditative. They create an air of serenity that seems to permeate the household: Everything is in order. Tamales are on the way.

Her granddaughter and two grandnieces flit in to ask for spoonfuls of rich masa mixture, which Miriam provides. Fluffy, the family’s tiny Maltese, sits patiently on the floor, waiting for a spill. When it never happens, he rolls over on his back for a belly rub. “I remember her doing this from when I was a baby,” says her daughter Nancy, who also serves as her mother’s translator. (Miriam speaks English, but feels more comfortable communicating through Nancy.) “It’s always been quite nice to have in the house—the smells, the sounds.”

When the first batch of tamales is finished, Miriam offers one for sampling, unwrapping the banana leaves to reveal the steaming meat-and-corn-flour interior. The salty, sweet, fatty mixture is almost immediately filling, the kind of food for which the term “stick to your ribs” was invented.

“When she cooks them, it’s a feeling,” says Nancy. “Everybody gets happy. We’re thinking about how a tradition came from one country a long time ago and ended up here.”

She pauses.

“That,” she laughs, “and eating delicious food.”