Not even a global pandemic can stop the ancient tradition of the tamalada, when families gather to make tamales, celebrating the living history of Latin American culture through maíz.

“The practice of using corn is at least 7,000 years old, so it’s a millennial practice,” said Lilliana Saldaña, associate professor of Mexican American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It’s a part of our civilizational culture, our ancestral culture.”

While last year’s seasonal La Gran Tamalada event drew thousands to Market Square, restrictions on large public gatherings have moved this year’s celebration online. The Saturday event is the culmination of the three-part virtual 2020 Tamal Institute, created in 2018 by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center to explore the history and tradition of the staple food through research, educational events, and public celebrations.

The first virtual event in October, Los Tamales de Nuestros Antepasados, focused on ancestral recipes and featured a cooking demonstration by Saldaña. The second took place Nov. 2 in celebration of Día de los Muertos, and La Gran Tamalada, the third installment, will highlight tamale-making as an essential part of San Antonio holiday traditions.

All three events are available for viewing on Facebook and YouTube through the City of San Antonio World Heritage Office, co-sponsor of the event with the UTSA Libraries Special Collections and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

People commonly gather to make tamales for Día de los Muertos, Christmas, New Year’s, Three Kings Day, and Día de la Candelaria in February, Saldaña said, though “people make tamales throughout the entire year.”

Despite pandemic social-distancing preventing many families from gathering, “being able to keep and sustain this is such a part of our identity,” Saldaña said of moving the events online.

La Gran Tamalada started small, with a public presentation in 2008 at the Guadalupe Center by Ellen Riojas Clark and Carmen Tafolla based on Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization, the book they co-published in 2011.

The event became so popular that it eventually outgrew the Guadalupe, said Executive Director Cristina Ballí, finally moving to Historic Market Square in 2017 with the help of La Familia Cortez Restaurants.

The following year, Ballí established the Tamal Institute at the Guadalupe, drawing on the concept behind an agave festival she attended in Marfa.

“It involved presentations, lectures, panel discussions, on all aspects of the agave … not just the culinary, but the environmental, the political, the economic aspects of the agave” and the borderland region, she said.

Guadalupe Theater Executive Director Cristina Ballí speaks before the film screening of "Santa Muerte: A Folk Saint in Texas" at the Guadalupe Theater.
Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Executive Director Cristina Ballí. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Ballí envisioned a similar multidisciplinary event in San Antonio, with the culture and history of the ubiquitous tamale as its focus.

“There’s just so many aspects of tamales that could be explored, and there is so much expertise out there,” Ballí said of scholars and chefs in the city, including Saldaña, chef Elizabeth Johnson, chef Johnny Hernandez, the Cortez family, and many others who have contributed to the institute’s events.

Another key source for the Gran Tamalada is the Mexican cookbook collection of the UTSA Libraries Special Collections, which contains recipes dating back to 1789. Though the collections are currently closed to the public due to the pandemic, Assistant Dean Amy Rushing said many recipes for tamales and other traditional Mexican foods are freely available to the public through its digitized collection and special downloadable e-book releases.

Started in 2001 with a donation of 500 books collected by librarian Laurie Gruenbeck, “it’s the largest Mexican cookbook collection in the country” at more than 2,000 volumes, Rushing said, and it continues to grow through new acquisitions.

The much-honored culinary anthropologist Diana Kennedy in 2019 donated her significant archives to the UTSA collection, Rushing noted, and notable local chefs such as Rico Torres of Mixtli restaurant have tapped them for inspiration. Other guest chefs and cooks have used Kennedy’s and other historical recipes for past Gran Tamaladas.

While Saldaña drew upon her own family history for her Oct. 16 cooking demonstration, she updated her Michoacán grandmother Maria’s pork and chile colorado recipe with a vegan version featuring mushrooms, with avocado oil in place of lard.

Lilliana’s mushroom tamales. Credit: Courtesy / Lilliana Saldaña – COSA World Heritage Office

Diabetes in the family is one reason she decided to apply modern knowledge of how food affects health to the old family traditions, Saldaña said. “It’s something that I’ve been very committed to doing,” she said, while endeavoring to “preserve our indigenous foodways … and to heal our communities through the recovery of foods and our relationship to food and the land.”

Ballí said she prefers using pastured pork, chicken, and lard, and non-GMO corn, which might sound wholly modern but actually recalls the way her farming grandparents made tamales.

“My mom sometimes makes them with olive oil instead of lard. People put lots of different spins and variations” on their recipes, she said.

Both Ballí and Saldaña said a tamalada is an intergenerational activity, with whole families traditionally involved in the labor. As a child, she didn’t consider her task of spreading masa on the tamales as a fun activity. “It was a chore,” she admitted. But later she came to understand the value of keeping the tradition alive.

Being stuck at home might even create a new opportunity for learning, she said. “If people are looking for activities to do at home, this is a good time to learn how to make tamales, or practice making tamales. It’s a great activity to do at home, and it’s a great activity to do with children.”

Perhaps best of all, Ballí said, engaging in La Gran Tamalada at home can produce delicious leftovers. Extras can go into the freezer, she said. “They’re really good, practical fast food for toddlers and young children.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...