Thousands of families, locals, and out-of-towners bundled up in coats, sweaters, and scarves showed up to the Pearl Saturday despite the frosty temperature and pouring rain. Not even foggy car windows and deep puddles filled with rainwater could deter the hungry and the cold craving a traditional holiday staple: the tamale.

The Tamales! Holiday Festival at the Pearl has become an annual tradition for many San Antonians, especially those eager to get into the holiday spirit. As individuals walked around the Pearl and took shelter from the rain in the parking lot under U.S. Highway 281 on Saturday, they came upon countless booths serving not only tamales, but also chocolate caliente, green and red pork pozole, tacos, corn in a cup, and more.

The event offered countless options for visitors wanting to sample a variety of tamales, and live music by bands like Mariachi Las Alteñas, Los Inocentes, and Max Baca & Los Texmaniacs made for the perfect ambiance to dig into some delicious carnitas or sip on some chocolate.

Que rico!

Let me tell you, there wasn’t a frown in sight. Being from Mexico, the smells and flavors from the steaming pots transported me back to the streets of Guadalajara. Seeing people walk through the booths despite weather so cold you could see everyone’s breath, made me smile. A warm tortilla or a tamal, after all, is the perfect way to beat the cold.

“Tamales feel like Christmas to me,” said 29-year-old Carley Espensen, who first came to the tamale festival at the Pearl two years ago. “Regardless of the rain, it’s awesome that everyone’s just here ready to celebrate. I knew everything was going to be delicious.”

Lupita Rivero and Silvia Alcaraz, sisters and owners of Cocina Heritage, told the Rivard Report that the event is a perfect opportunity for vendors to get their name out there.

“The fact that it’s free and open to the public, and that each booth gets to sell their tamales really helps the vendors,” Rivero said. “The Pearl provides the booths and permits, water, and even prints out the menus.”

Cocina Heritage workers pull out fresh tamales.
Cocina Heritage workers pull out fresh tamales. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Alcaraz and Rivero said they made around 2,000 tamales for the event.

“In this situation, I think (vendors) are really winning and not losing,” Alcaraz said. “Not to mention that it’s an opportunity for us to be promoted nationally and internationally. I just got interviewed by a guy from Toronto.”

She added that the festival is not only a way to promote the Pearl, but the city of San Antonio as well.

The sisters – originally from Guanajuato, Mexico – consider themselves culinary anthropologists, as they try to retain the tradition of their home country by ensuring they make their tamales through the process of nixtamalization. They also enlightened me on the difference between tamales made with a corn husk and tamales made with banana leaf.

“It’s all in the taste,” Rivero said. “If you use a corn husk, the tamale has more of a maiz essence and it’s more puffy. The ones made with banana leaf are more firm.”

Even though I grew up with tamales, Rivero reminded me that even the slightest detail changes the taste of a tamal.

“The tamales made from banana leaf mostly hail from the Southern part of Mexico and the coasts,” she added, “whereas the corn leaf tamales are mostly from Central Mexico.”

The group Bahia de San Antonio perform at the Tamale Festival.
The group Bahia de San Antonio perform at the Tamale Festival. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

With Christmas just around the corner, cool weather breezing through, and festive holiday lights gracing San Antonio, I’ve started to feel a little homesick. I miss my country, its people, and the food. For many, tamales are synonymous with the holidays, but for me, there was a deeper meaning to the festival. Drinking a cup of hot chocolate made with authentic cacao from Chiapas, and cutting open a tamale stuffed with tangy cochinita pibil made me feel at home.

That, to me, is one of the beauties of San Antonio: it’s a home away from home. Not just for me, but for thousands of people from across the country and even all over the world who somehow ended up here and decided to make it their workplace, their playground, their residence, their home.

Rocío Guenther has called San Antonio home for more than a decade. Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, she bridges two countries, two cultures, and two languages. Rocío has demonstrated experience in...