Family lore in a tamale

DORIANE RAIMAN / LA TIMES / MCT The Dora Gonzalez method of rolling your own . . . tamales, that is.
DORIANE RAIMAN / LA TIMES / MCT The Dora Gonzalez method of rolling your own . . . tamales, that is.
Posted: January 17, 2014

LOS ANGELES - "There's a rhythm to it, the way she works the masa," Cynthia Gonzalez said quietly. Her mother, Dora, carefully stirred a large pot of masa for tamales over the stove. It was as smooth as custard and lightly fragrant as it began to bubble.

Salvadoran tamales are Dora's specialty. They are also tradition. Along with other family specialties, the tamales have been passed down from mother to daughter for generations until now.

Cynthia, Dora's only daughter, never had any interest in cooking. But she's coming around. "It wasn't my passion to be in the kitchen," Cynthia said. "Since I was little, I was told women were supposed to be in the kitchen. And I was so against that. Why can't women do other things?

"I loved to write."

A poet, Cynthia has been writing and performing her work since 2006. Her first book, Suspendidos en el Tiempo, was released in 2010. A second book is due out next year. She was raised in South Los Angeles, and much of her work weaves imagery from a sometimes rough childhood and her Salvadoran culture. And from the brutality of El Salvador's civil war.

Cynthia's father was an engineering student when the war began. He had only one semester left when his school was shut down, the military targeting students as guerrillas. "They were killing all the students," she said. Her father eventually fled to the United States.

Pregnant with Cynthia, Dora stayed behind but only for a little while. Shortly after Cynthia was born, soldiers searched the small back room in which they were living, looking for guerrilleros.

"The soldiers would take even young kids away," Cynthia said. "You either joined the military or the guerrilleros: whoever got you first. They even took my uncle."

Dora left El Salvador with her daughter, not yet a year old, in 1980. As the bus drove away, Dora saw bodies hanging from trees along the road.

As she spoke, Cynthia mounded fresh masa in a banana leaf, topping it with a little chicken and sauce, an olive, a few garbanzo beans and capers - all under her mother's watchful eye.

"My mom has always been reserved, quiet," Cynthia said. "My father has always been political. About human and civil rights." Her father also was an early supporter of Cynthia's work, going to one of her first performances.

The rest of the family was a harder sell, particularly Cynthia's mother and grandmother. " 'You shouldn't talk about those things,' they'd say. It was a fear of 'what if?' Can this - the civil war, soldiers coming - happen again? Even here [in the United States]?"

In January 2009, Cynthia was invited to perform her work. Cynthia's grandmother, despite her failing health, and her mother reluctantly agreed to come. They sat in the back of the packed auditorium. After the performance, they were crying with pride.

Cynthia's grandmother died only a few months later.

"Food is carrying on the legacy," Cynthia said. "Mom doesn't want to share her stories - it can be hard for her - but she does it her own way through tamales. It's not only carrying on the tradition but also memories of her childhood and the bonds she had with these women [in her family]. Women got together to cook but also to share stories. They laugh, they cry."

Cynthia carefully folded a banana leaf over the masa and stacked the tamales in the steamer pot. "It's a hell of a process," Cynthia said, laughing. "It's intimidating with this woman here."

Leaning in toward her mother, Cynthia said softly, "I want to make her proud."

Recently, Dora has been sick. "My mom and I were talking about this earlier this year, and she wants to know who will carry [the recipes] on," Cynthia said.

After the tamales were steamed, mother and daughter retired to the kitchen table to sample their work. They were soon joined by Cynthia's aunt, the three sharing pictures and catching up on family news.

"I do like the kitchen," Cynthia admitted. "But I have yet to learn all the traditional things. Like poetry, cooking is healing."

comments powered by Disqus