Written by Daniel Gonzales
Photography by Robin Zielinski
AS THE SMELLS OF ROASTING GREEN CHILE begin to disappear from the atmosphere that surrounds our beautiful city, and the air starts getting a little bit crisper, we know that holiday season is just around the corner. This time of year, is filled with treasured memories from the past and those that are on the horizon. When our families gather, we get a chance to catch up on the past year’s events, marriages, new babies, new jobs, or even just catching up with a cousin you haven’t seen in years.
The traditions that bond us as young individuals, those that are passed down from generation to generation, are the reasons we gather together affectionately year after year. One tradition that is woven throughout the fabric of New Mexican culture is that of the ”family tamale day.” This is the day the entire family gathers and becomes part of an assembly line that creates the holiday delicacies everyone seems to enjoy.
On this particular day, I was able to infiltrate the Cuaron family tamale day that has been going on for decades and over six generations. Willito Cuaron, owner and proprietor of local food truck Willito’s Street Grill and coordinator of the Cuaron’s family tamale day, says he has been gathering with his family for this day for as long as he can remember. “My mom started teaching me to cook when I was young,” says Willito, “but I really learned to cook for large groups during my 27 years in the National Guard.”
The matriarch of the family, Stella Cuaron, begins by grabbing hold of my elbow and showing me the nuts and bolts of the operation. She directs me into the kitchen where her daughter, Penny, and daughter-in-law, Debbie, are soaking the corn husks in warm water. (This is done to make the husks pliable for rolling). “There is a smooth side of the husk and a rigid one, you have to make sure you spread your masa on the smooth side, otherwise the tamale will stick to the husk.” Stella educates me on the proper technique while pushing my fingers across the husk to make sure I understand.
The next place Stella directs me to is the garage through the door connecting to the kitchen. “This is where the magic happens,” she tells me with a smile on her face. As the door opens, I see picnic tables lined up with different family members sitting side-by-side. Some spoon the masa to the husk, others are ladeling the red chile meat down the middle of the masa, or rolling the tamale to completion before putting it in the steam pot.
“This year,” Willito chimes in, “we used over 250 pounds of pork, and over 110 pounds of masa.” The family all pitches in either chile, pork, or masa to the cause. The gorgeous red velvety sea of chile is conjoined with the pull apart tender meat the night before the gathering, so as to be the right temperature for the construction of the tamales the day after.
“We are always finding different reasons to get together as a family,” adds Diane, as her sisters, nieces, nephews, and brother-in-laws are laughing in the background. “There is nothing more important than family to us. It’s a joy to get together every year, we all look forward to this day.”
Stella again leads me, this time to the final two phases of the tamale process before they get bagged. (Not counting the sweets platter, I hit on the way to the last two phases.) In the corner of the garage, near the door, there are two large steam pots atop propane burners that are filled with the fruits of the Cuaron family’s labor. Just as we get near, two of the men grab the handles of the cauldron and walk it to the backyard where they remove the finished cornhusk wrapped delights onto cooling racks.
The tamales need to cool down before they enter the dozens of bags that will be handed out to the different family members. (Although, for quality control, I found myself testing out a few of the tamales as they came freshly steamed out of the pot).
The tamale making process was fascinating to watch and very well coordinated, but the laughter and smiles, and especially the warm hospitality I felt in the Cuaron home, were what really made this day special.
There are 63 members of this family with four generations represented in this home on this day, the eldest being Willie M. Cuaron, who is 86, the proud patriarch of his family and a veteran of the Korean War. The youngest, Alyssa, is three-years-old. They made just over 120 dozen tamales and more smiles than could be counted. The tradition this family is continuing is much more meaningful than the delicious food shared among one another. It is connectivity and love that is representative of the true tradition of the season.
Happy holidays Las Cruces! Here’s to your family celebrating with as much love and joy as the Cuaron Family.
Visit LasCrucesMagazine.com/Tamales to meet another Las Cruces family that treasures this traditional holiday gathering.