Sunday reading for you: The tamale maker

This post, written in 2011, just makes me happy. For a while after I wrote it, I used to think of Yolanda in her kitchen, listening to her Mexican music …

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We wake up at 4am so that by 11am everything will be ready. Because all the tamales we serve are made fresh daily …

Every day of the week including Sundays, Yolanda Garcia, Mexican immigrant, sells tamales on the streets of New York. “Sometimes,” she says,

if I feel really tired, then I rest for the day but normally I rest just one day a month. But sometimes two months pass without rest because I need to work because often my children need money quickly.

Yolanda is the star of a radio documentary made by Deepa Fernandes, an ex-pat Australian who left Sydney to live in West Harlem 11 years ago. Her documentary about the street vendors of New York – “the smallest of small business” – is enthralling, and was recently broadcast on ABC radio.

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Yolanda crossed the border 12 years ago, when she was just 20. She came by herself, and knew no-one when she arrived. She left her children, parents, friends and siblings. “When I arrived,” she says,

I had to live in a subway because I didn’t know anyone. But, soon, I found work cleaning houses, and from there, I started to earn money and could finally rent a room.

Twelve years on, she has a daughter in New York and two cousins, and every morning they make the tamales together.

Well, it is a very long process and elaborate. It is a lot of work, at least 4 or 5 people need to be there to help. First, we need to wash the corn leaf and clean the meat, then we prepare the dough. We also have to make the chilli sauces … We have to do a lot of things. It’s a lot of work.

“If I can make between $50 and $60 every day,” she says, “then I can send it back home to Mexico for my children.” All her children, she tells Fernandes, are studying, including her son, who is in Mexico City.

I have to send money to him because he’s studying business administration and travels to the textile sites and he spends a lot of money on trips. Sometimes a thousand dollars … I work a lot to save the money to send to them.

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What makes Yolanda so compelling is not merely her epic courage and drive, but her frankness, her joie de vivre. She talks about her family at home not understanding how hard life is in the US nor what it takes for her to generate the money she sends them, and complaining that she’s too good to talk to them now. The truth is, she says, she has no time for talking to anyone because of the hours she works. In spite of it all, Yolanda has a secret: the secret to happiness.

Fernandes: “I’m going to tell you something. Every day when I walk by here, I see you with a big smile, I see you happy.”

Yolanda: “Yes, I’m happy! Because I’m here in the United States and, well, because my kids are doing well.”

Fernandes: “But life is not always happy, life can be difficult. But you’re always smiling …”

Yolanda: “The truth is that I’m always happy because God has given me good health to be able to work. From when I wake up at 4am to start making the tamales, I turn on my Mexican music and I cook very happily in the kitchen … “

About sadness she says:

I myself have a big sadness in my life, that my father died in Mexico and I couldn’t go to see him. But I talk to him every day and ask him to help me … I say ‘Papa, I’m here in the street selling, and you have to help me and protect me, Papa.’

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Listening to Yolanda and the other star of the show, a man called James Williams (whom Fernandes says could sell you five of anything you don’t need), is truly enjoyable listening. There’s even a twist of sorts at the end.

For Yolanda, on her $50 or $60 a day, has not only put her children through school, she’s also been building her own future in Mexico.

Eight years ago, I started to build a big salon in Mexico and now it’s all ready. But you see I did most of this work before my kids needed my savings as they grew up. Now, I’m here … waiting till my children finish their studies. And then, I’m outta here! I’ll go back to Mexico where I won’t have to work 14 or 15 hours a day.

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To listen to Deepa Fernandes’s wonderful program, click here.

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5 thoughts on “Sunday reading for you: The tamale maker

  1. This is such an uplifting story, especially since it is about an immigrant woman. Too often these days, immigrants are cast in such a negative way. Here is a hard worker, happy to be in America. These are the stories that should be told when politicians are fighting about immigrants’ rights.

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