Witches and Tamales

My mother Romilia had a husband before she met my father. She was fifteen, he was twenty-even. They say that another woman was after him in the town, and her mother cursed him for not marrying her daughter. “May he die within the first weeks of their wedding!” Well, he did. Just a few months into their marriage, he became very sick, with his skin turning a rotted color, and lice that bore into his skull. He died of convulsions. My mother was pregnant. She went home to Papa Polo and Martina, and had my older brother, Juancito.

Mamá Romilia found a way to keep on living, learning to work and to make the money count.  She moved to the nation’s capital, San Salvador, to start a store there. She rented a room in a ¨mesón¨ or tenement house.  It was a disgusting place, with “women of the night” keeping the building loud after dark.

It was in the tenement house that my mother’s journey to the United States began. Because it was there that she learned how to make tamales.

On one occasion while she worked outside her store, Romilia came face to face with an older woman  selling ¨starting¨ wood.  She was a native, a Nahuatl. Those were bunches of small pieces of broken, dry sticks that people bought to start their fires.

It was getting dark. My mother asked the old woman if she had a place to sleep that night; the woman said no, but that she would look around. Romilia asked her to wait and in a few minutes she told the woman that she had a place for her.  She hired the woman. After a little while the elder asked, “Doña Romi, have you ever made tamales?”  My Mom much surprised said: ¨Not me.”  “Well,” the wood selling woman said, “I will give you the makings of a tamale recipe that is hard to beat!”

So another enterprise was started for Romilia, who had hardly ever cooked. Now, she and her little country helper cooked every Saturday night, beginning sometime in the afternoon.  Her tamales became famous and were a delicacy that the people in the neighborhood looked forward to buying every Sunday morning. She cooked tamales for ten years, saved the money, and used it to come to the United States.


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