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Christmas tamales tradition keeps family connected to Mexican roots

Elodia Esquinca prepares tamales next to her daughter, Arlin Aldaba, in Aurora, Ill. on December 16, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

A couple weeks before Christmas, six young women lined up in aprons in their grandma’s brightly lit Aurora home, washed their hands and formed an assembly line to make their family’s traditional holiday meal — tamales.

The woman in charge, Elodia Esquinca, wore an apron with the word “Jefa” prominently sewn on.

Esquinca, the matriarch and “chief” of the bunch, finally got the chance to teach her granddaughters, ranging in ages from 17 to 33, to learn how to make the traditional Mexican dish she’s always made for them.

It was a scene familiar to many Mexican-Americans with Spanish-speaking immigrant grandparents and their English-speaking grandchildren. While new generations stretch the family’s story beyond its immigrant origins, the younger and older generations are working together to ensure that not all traditions fall through the cracks.

“When you’re younger you don’t really appreciate those things,” one of Esquinca’s granddaughters, Isabella Ospina, 20, said during the tamale-making lesson. “You kind of want to grow apart from those traditions, but as you get older you see the importance.”

A few of Elodia Esquinca’s granddaughters crowd around her as she demonstrates how to make a tamale in Aurora on Dec. 16, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Esquinca, speaking softly in Spanish, demonstrated to the younger women the way the masa –– the dough –– is spread onto the softened corn husk, filled with meat and carefully folded into the familiar form of a single “tamal.”

“So that you all can see, you fold it so the inside doesn’t come out, like this,” Esquinca said working in her kitchen.

As Esquinca continued with the demonstration, her granddaughters recalled how they sometimes deemed their grandmother’s meals too spicy and how they were once dared to eat a hot pepper for $20.

“I ate a gordita [masa often stuffed with meat or cheese ] with chile; I shed a tear, though,” said 17-year-old Carolina Ospina.

Esquinca’s mother taught her how to make tamales when she was 9 and lived on a ranch in Durango, Mexico, with 12 siblings.

When she moved to Chicago to find work in 1972, Esquinca left seven children behind. After a few years working at a laundromat, she saved enough money to bring her three girls and four boys to live with her on the North Side.

Elodia Esquinca (center) sits with a few of her granddaughters: Isabella Ospina, Adilene Esquinca, Evelyn Sandoval and Carolina Ospina (top left to right), Mariana Aldaba (bottom left) and Griselda Valadez (bottom right) in Aurora on Dec. 16, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Esquinca doesn’t speak English, but she can understand her granddaughters and has no problem chiding them with their culinary skills. Walking down the tamal production line, Esquinca laughed as she touched up their tamales.

“This one is backwards,” Esquinca said, correcting Carolina Ospina’s first attempt.

“Así?” Carolina Ospina asked, showing Esquinca what she, her sisters and cousins produced. “Like this?”

The Ospinas mother, Arlin Aldaba, said English was not allowed to be spoken in the house while she and her siblings were growing up in Andersonville.

But unlike her daughters, Aldaba never learned how to make tamales.

“I was just lazy and didn’t want to learn,” she said.

Still, Aldaba said keeping her daughters connected to their Mexican heritage was important while raising them in a majority-white Naperville.

Leaving the city in search of better schools came with a trade-off, she said.

“My girls went to school with thermoses full of fideo or beans and would trade foods for the peanut butter and jelly. They wanted to eat what their friends were eating,” Aldaba said. “Growing up in Naperville, you know you kind of lose those traditions because you want to be like the other kids, you want to fit in.”

The Ospinas and their other sister Adilene Esquinca said dealing with microaggressions by their peers made them feel like outsiders.

“It’s just kind of the little things that really catalyzed the rest of the whitewashing of our behavior,” Adilene Esquinca, 23, said as she and the other aspiring cooks used 10 pounds of the masa to make more than 100 tamales.

“As we’re older, and are more comfortable being more pronounced about our Mexican heritage, we’re putting more value on my grandma’s traditions.”

Evelyn Sandoval and Mariana Aldaba, two of Elodia Esquinca’s granddaughters, crowd around her as she places prepared tamales in a pot in on Dec. 16, 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

When Elodia Esquinca was asked if she notices her granddaughters inquiring more about their culture, she let out a laugh.

“Well, they’re asking more for the food,” she said. “But it makes me happy that they want to learn this.”