When Claudia Camarillo-Beltran starts to play Alejandro Sanz or Laura Pausini in the kitchen, her family knows what is next: the smell of masa, chiles and spices.
“They know once mom puts that Spotify on, it’s time for her to get to business,” Beltran said.
Cooking has always been a family practice for Beltran. Her mother’s family owned a restaurant in Reynosa, where she helped since she was 8 years old.
Beltran’s aunt, Blanca, taught her how to make tamales and created the tradition of making tamales for Christmas.
“I grew up with the mentality that that’s how we show love to your loved ones,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I love the cooking, and since always, like it was every December to get around the table and we all used to help out.”
When Beltran moved to the United States, she stopped cooking tamales until around 2005. By then, she was married, a mother and a college student. She now lives in Mission.
“I started making tamales and I would sell them around the construction areas every Friday,” she said. “That was my paycheck. I would work on them throughout the week, and then on Friday, I would cook them and I would sell them.”
After becoming a teacher, Beltran no longer felt a need to sell her tamales. Instead, the 37-year-old teacher mostly makes them for her family. Every Christmas, her children look forward to her tamales.
“Yes, we can go and buy some, but if it’s Christmas … they don’t like for me to just go and buy tamales. They want for me to make tamales because it’s Christmas,” she said.
Sometimes, Beltran’s 17-year-old and 8-year-old daughters assist her in making the traditional meal. She loves that her daughters have expressed interest in helping but said she needs to remind herself not to be too picky with them.
“I’m very picky and sometimes I think that’s not good because if they’re not making it the way I want to like I tell them, ‘No don’t do it.’ But then if I continue doing that, then the tradition is not gonna be passed on. So I try to keep myself out of that, like, “No, like you need to let ’em do it even though they don’t do it right the first time,’” Beltran said.
Although most of Beltran’s cousins cook, she is the only one who has kept the tradition of Christmas tamales. Not only does she make them for her children but also for family and friends, including her aunt Blanca who says Beltran’s tamales are even better than hers.
“I kind of associate cooking with showing them my love, for the people that I give them food. I feel like when you cook something, it’s so personal. And then when you give it to somebody else, it shows that you really care for that person,” she added.
On Friday morning, Beltran plans to make 25-30 dozen so they are ready for Christmas Day, which she will spend with her four children, her husband, her brother, her father and her mother-in-law.
“I have a Mexican-American family, so my kids enjoy to have turkey and ham on Christmas Eve,” she said. “Then on the 25th, we have the tamales and we have menudo. We’re [a] bicultural family. We try to implement both of our cultures.”
Beltran prepares a variety of tamales from pork, chicken, beans, cream cheese and jalapeño and more. She makes the masa, adds it to the pork fat or whatever filling used and mixes that with spices. After the “hojas” or tamale leaves are covered with masa, she lets the tamales cook for about an hour and sets a timer for every 20 minutes to stir the pot.
“You need to be moving the pot so it’s not always on the same place,” she said. “You need to keep moving it, kind of like for it to be going in a circle. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but that’s just how I was taught and that’s how I do it.”
Beltran and her family also enjoy her homemade salsa for the dish, made from green tomato, chile serrano, cilantro, a dash of cream cheese and avocado mixed with salt and pepper.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Beltran’s relatives are not able to attend Christmas Day with her so she plans on dropping some tamales to them that day instead.
“Even though we’re apart, for me to know that they’re going to have some of my food at the table, means that we’re still together,” she said.
Even though they may be “a lot of work,” Beltran believes keeping family traditions alive provides a bond between generations.
“It gives us a center, gives us something to all have in common. Sometimes the generations change a lot from one to another one, and sometimes … we don’t know what to talk to each other about. But when we keep those traditions alive, we have something in common, even though we all are so different.”