Stay-at-home mom finds comfort in homemade Mexican tamales

Juanita Hernandez, originally from Mexico, cooks her tamales in her Bradenton home. She has a large pot which she mixes the masa to just the right consistency before putting in the tamales. Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald

Juanita Hernandez, originally from Mexico, cooks her tamales in her Bradenton home. She has a large pot which she mixes the masa to just the right consistency before putting in the tamales.
Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald

(This story, the second of a three-part series on the tamale tradition, originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)

BRADENTON — A telenovela can be heard in the background as Juanita Hernandez prepares tamales in her small kitchen. The process is a solitary one, so sounds comfort her.

It’s a recent Friday afternoon, and Hernandez has already made dozens of tamales. They are neatly stacked in two pots on her kitchen table — one of chicken, the other pork.

“This is how you whip the masa, look,” Hernandez says in Spanish, bending down to retrieve a large aluminum pot with wet corn-based dough inside. “It’s hard to make.”

Hernandez, 45, places the pot on a stool and begins to whip the dough commonly known as masa with her right hand. The masa is made with corn flour, chicken broth and oil. You have to keep stirring it like this, she says as she picks some up with her cupped hand.

Like other Latinos, the tamale is deeply embedded in Mexico’s culture.

“For us Mexicans, it’s custom to give out tamales in church when there are big celebrations,” Hernandez says. “It’s custom to hand them out to people.”

Mexican tamales are generally wrapped in corn husks and often include either a red or green sauce. As a young girl, Hernandez says, she observed women come together to whip the masa dough in a long tub. They’d sit on the floor and work toward the perfect consistency — one of many steps in the long tamale-making process. Hernandez kept her distance so as not to interfere.

“My mom would say, ‘You’re too young’ when I was 11 or 12,” Hernandez recalls, adding that young children often try to play with the masa dough and don’t treat it as they should. “But when I was 13, she said, ‘Now you can learn.’”

Hernandez came to the United States in 1997 and landed in Missouri, where she lived five years until she left for Bradenton. Her children, 16-year-old Hugo Trejo and 13-year-old Daisy Trejo, were born here.

As a stay-at-home mother of two, Hernandez says her days are filled with errands, cooking, laundry, cleaning and looking after her family. She makes tamales for her husband and children and sometimes for sale, but not as frequently as she used to in Mexico.

In Mexico tamales are made for every party, Hernandez says, and her entire family would spend a lot of time together for celebrations.

Here in Manatee County, besides her husband and two children, Hernandez has her brother and sister. She keeps them close and organizes get-togethers over tamales when she can.

“If you don’t have family here, it’s even more sad. There are days when you would like to return,” she says of Mexico. “Everyone has that same feeling of wanting to go see your family again (in their native countries). … If you don’t have family here, you feel more alone. Even though we don’t see each other every day, we do see each other. It’s not as it would be if you were alone here.”

Hernandez’s son, Hugo Trejo, enjoys his mother’s tamales. His favorite kind has tomatoes, jalapeño skins and cheese. The 16-year-old says he sometimes helps his mother by taking the pot in which the tamales are steamed outside for cooking. The tamales she prepares make him think of one thing: love.

“Love, by putting her effort into the tamales,” he says. “The tamales make me feel like I’m in a different world.”

Though Hernandez usually works on the bulk of the tamale-making process alone, she’s content.

“Whenever I see tamales, I feel good because I remember the parties, I remember all that happened in them,” she says. “It’s beautiful to remember.”

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