Patriarch Jorge Cortez introduces four generations of his family on stage at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts center for La Gran Tamalada. Credit: Robert Rivard

La Gran Tamalada at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on the city’s Westside is a tradition that dates back nearly a decade, but the dozens of families and friends who would turn out for the seasonal gathering grew to an audience of hundreds last year when Cariño Cortez and four generations of her family of Mi Tierra fame took over.

Saturday’s tamal-making festival filled the theater, crowded the lobby, and spilled out into the street. Next year, Cariño told me, the Guadalupe probably will stage the event at Market Square, where this year’s crowd of 400 can double in size.

Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Gran Tamalada with The Cortez Family from Rivard Report on Vimeo.

With the Cortez family, learning is a hands-on event. All four generations took to the stage to demonstrate their technique while Cariño kept up a running conversation with audience members, invited questions, offered tips, and on occasion, gave way to Don Jorge, the familiar family patriarch in his trademark red apron and straw hat, who had his own microphone and advice to disperse on making the perfect tamal.

“More men are joining in this great Mexican family tradition,” Cariño said before opening the program. “But the best tamales have always been made by the hands of the family matriarch. She is the one who knows by touch if the masa is just right, and she is the one who passes down her secrets to the next generation and the next generation, and usually, the family gathers in the kitchen of the matriarch, so she rules.”

Guadalupe Cultural Arts Executive Director Cristina Ballí with Cariño Cortez.
Guadalupe Cultural Arts Executive Director Cristina Ballí with Cariño Cortez.

You say tamale. I say tamal. We both say tamales.

“Tamal is correct, but most people say tamale, and everyone says tamales,” said Pete Cortez, Cariño’s brother. “It’s correct however you say it. Tamale has entered the English vernacular, so that makes it correct.”

The best plate of tamales I ever ate was the first plate offered by a friend in Brownsville in the mid-1970s when I lived on the border. They were a mix of venison and pork, tamales de venado, and they were indescribably good, like nothing I had eaten. It’s my goal to host a tamalada at Casa Maeckle-Rivard after hunting season to see how close I can come to that first venison tamal.

Monika Maeckle and Ashley Cortez making tamales at the Guadalupe.
Monika Maeckle and Ashley Cortez making tamales at the Guadalupe. Credit: Robert Rivard

My wife, Monika, is an empanada artist, always in the hunt for discos at whatever H-E-B we visit. She knows the stores that carry them regularly, which ones have them every now and then, and which stores never stock them. More than one store manager has heard her plea for year-around stocking.

She fills her empanadas with venison, pork and turkey, all harvested at our ranch, and mixes in a cornucopia of sautéed vegetables. Her vegetarian empanadas are equally delicious.

I’ve agreed to learn how to make empanadas with her instead of just watching and eating, and in return, she has agreed to help host a tamalada with me in our home. We both know that means she will end up doing the best work, and so it was at the Guadalupe as flights of audience members lined up at long tables festively decorated for Christmas and busy with all the necessary ingredients. I watched children and husbands make their first tamales with some hesitation and a little friendly instruction, while most of the women set to work and began expertly turning out one tamal after another.

We missed the Mi Tierra tamales served at the start of the program, so we left starving. We made it no farther than a few blocks before wheeling into Pho viet Huong at 921 El Paso St. for steaming bowls of pho. Traditional Vietnamese pho includes Thai chilis, but this was the Westside. My pho with brisket came with fresh green slices of jalapeñ0, a perfectly sharp and filling finish to the afternoon.

The Guadalupe is showing signs of great programming vigor since the arrival of new Director Cristina Ballí. She and her staff are raising funds from longtime members and recruiting new members to help them earn a $100,000 grant from the Kronkosky Foundation. If you want to support the Guadalupe’s return to its former glory, click here to join and donate.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.