Stacy Mérida watches as her aunt, Nivia Mérida, fills two banana leaves with masa dough, chicken and mole, a sauce common in Guatemalan tamales. The 2-year-old rests her chin on the kitchen table with her arms crossed before her.
“Tamales,” Stacy says, pointing at a large pot filled with the wrapped dishes.
“Tamales,” her aunt repeats with a tender smile.
Mérida, 27, stands in her Bradenton kitchen on a recent Thursday afternoon. She’s preparing chicken tamales made with masa and a special mole sauce she learned to make as a young girl growing up in Guatemala.
Guatemalan mole, Mérida explains, is made from liquefied guajillo chiles, ancho chiles, tomatoes, onions, sesame, cinnamon and more. With a spoon she drizzles the brownish-red sauce on each tamale.
I have become accustomed to life here. I feel more lived-in here than in Guatemala. Sometimes I tell my siblings and husband if we should leave and they tell me ‘You won’t get used to life there again. You’re used to life here.’
Nivia Mérida on life in the United States
Mérida is originally from San Marcos, a city in northwestern Guatemala on the Pacific Ocean and along the Guatemala-Mexico border. Like many who hail from Latin America, Mérida learned to make tamales at a young age.
The wrapped dish holds great significance across cultures — it is ubiquitous on holidays, birthdays and religious celebrations. Preparing a batch of tamales takes time and great patience. It is during these hours that women catch up on life and family members bond.
Mérida was 10 when she began learning how to make tamales from her mother, Emilia Mérida Pojol. Guatemalan tamales are known for their large size and are typically wrapped in banana leaves. Mérida’s mother would always wrap hers in what’s known as green “maxan” leaves as opposed to corn husks, a popular choice for Mexican tamales.
“She would always say ‘Look, mi hija (my daughter), this is how you make tamales. One day when you’re older, if you want to make them, here’s how you do it,’” Mérida recalls in Spanish. “She would show me the ingredients and say ‘Look, these are ancho chiles, these are guajillo chiles.’”
The young Mérida, or Palomita as everyone calls her, slowly internalized the list of ingredients. She watched as her mother pieced tamales together in the small kitchen of their white cement home. Her mother always used two banana leaves to wrap them closed, a habit Mérida says stayed with her when she arrived in Bradenton a decade ago.
“In Guatemala, it’s a tradition to make tamales for Christmas. I would watch my mom, how she made it, and I began to learn,” she says. “I remember my mom would put so many ingredients that you can also find here … you just have to start collecting them slowly.”
Mérida’s husband, William Bautista, observes his wife as she works on a new batch of tamales. He likes them because they’re traditional.
“I feel good when I eat them because they help me remember Guatemala,” he says.
I feel good when I eat them because they help me remember Guatemala.
William Bautista on wife Nivia Mérida’s tamales
After leaving her family’s home for the United States with a cousin, Mérida moved to Bradenton, where three of her siblings were already settled. There was a lot she had to learn on her own — navigating her way around stores and learning where to find what she needed is just one example.
Mérida and her husband live with relatives and don’t have children of their own, but help look after their two nieces. The sisters Stacy and Angie, 6, have their pink bicycles parked in the couple’s living room, and stickers with their names on the wall.
“When there are parties, we spend time together,” Mérida says of her family in Bradenton. “Even when there is no party, we also spend time together.”
Mérida’s five other siblings live in Guatemala. It’s been years, she says, since she’s seen them. Mérida says she talks to them twice a week, but calls her parents daily to check on them. Mérida tells them how work is going, if the family has eaten or if anyone is sick.
“Sometimes they ask me and, so they won’t worry, I say I’m fine,” she says. “When I talk to them, I feel good because I know I’m hearing them every day. Though I can’t see them, I can hear them when they talk to me. I hear that they’re OK and... when they’re not, I can also hear that.”
After all these years, Mérida says she’s grown accustomed to life here.
“Sometimes, I tell my siblings and husband if we should leave and they tell me ‘You won’t get used to life there again,’” she says. “‘You’re used to life here.’”
They arrive here with aspirations for a better life, but remain tied to the countries they left through memories, stories and special recipes. In Manatee County, many hold onto tamales, a dish they learned to make as children in Latin America.
Believed to date back as early as 7000 B.C., the tamale is generally made of corn-based dough and filled with meats, cheeses or just about anything the heart desires. But the dish’s influence stretches far beyond that.
The tamale is a tradition deeply embedded in the fabric of family life, birthdays and other celebrations — a kind of culinary portal to one’s roots. It’s both a reminder of where one came from and a lesson to pass on to the next generation.
In this special InDepth series, we meet three Bradenton women with very personal stories about the tamale and what it means to them. Sunday: We explored the roots of Honduran and Mexican tamales. Today: Guatemalan tamales.