My family never made tamales during Christmas. In fact, we never made tamales. While it’s a tradition that's commonly associated with Mexican families in the United States, it’s actually not as common as you might think. More often than not, preparing tamales is a task relegated to small street vendors; when I would visit my cousins in Queretaro (a state three hours away from Mexico City), we would flock to the little corner puesto on Sunday mornings for fresh handmade tamales.
For people in my native Mexico City, tamales are an on-the-go breakfast picked up from whatever local tamalero happens to post up near their place of work. These tamale stands become a rare meeting ground for people of all professions — accountants, hairdressers, janitors. The wafts of steam in the midst of the bustling city can be seen from afar as you hear shouts of “tamales, tamales” beckoning the hungry morning workers. It’s a metropolitan morning scene common in a vibrant city known for its street-food culture.
I recently found myself standing next to a bus stop on a muggy Los Angeles morning, my stomach churning. Yet again, I didn’t wake up in time to cook breakfast before rushing to work. Thankfully, I live in another global city where I don’t need a homemade breakfast. In front of me is a familiar sight: a tamalero. In the midst of the chaos of morning L.A. traffic, I spot a makeshift puesto on the sidewalk: a cooler, two Igloo beverage jugs and a chair. I get in line behind two hungry-looking women ordering their breakfast.
The menu is basic and familiar, consisting of two items only: tamales, of course — chicken with red or green salsa or the vegetarian option of cheese and grilled chiles — and champurrado, a drink traditionally consumed during holidays that’s basically a thicker Mexican hot chocolate (the thickness comes from the corn flour incorporated into the chocolate, milk and cinnamon mixture). I order the champurrado and the spiciest of the tamales, chicken in salsa verde.
As he opens his cooler and steam oozes out into the early-morning din, Marcos, the tamalero, tells me he has been doing this DIY gig for three years. He quickly wraps the tamal in a paper plate and plastic bag, then opens the Igloo jug and into a styrofoam cup pours the thick, delicious, chocolate elixir. The spicy cinnamon smell wafts across the sidewalk.
Marcos, along with his wife and 15 of their extended family members, leave their homes in South L.A. and for three hours every morning position themselves at different bus stops along heavily traveled Venice Boulevard.
All of these tamaleros hail from the Mexican state of Puebla, and they all use the same delicious tamale recipe. Like many of L.A.’s other street vendors, they live with the daily possibility that their livelihoods can be taken away by the routine health department sweeps (Marcos' wife has had her stand confiscated four times, he says).
Need, resilience and a strong family network motivates them to keep going, to repurchase everything if it’s taken and to continue their daily grind of providing tamales to the morning herd. Not only do they offer sustenance to hungry commuters, they also serve up a much-needed dose of familiarity to L.A.’s hard-working immigrant community.
Marcos hands over my $3 breakfast, and my stomach rumbles at the sight of a little piece of my homeland right here in Los Angeles. My bus arrives, and I can’t wait to get to work. Once at my desk, I unwrap the tamal and savor its perfection. It is incredibly flavorful; the salsa verde is spicy as it should be, herbal from the hefty amount of cilantro, and there's just the right amount of tanginess from the tomatillos. The chicken is perfectly salted, and the masa is moist and earthy.
Cleansing my palate with the thick sweetness of the champurrado (who needs coffee when you have this stuff?), I feel the morning hunger pangs vanish. I feel connected to a city and a life I left nearly two decades ago. This simple but much-needed sustenance not only feeds morning commuters but also connects us to a culture we wish to keep alive wherever we may settle.