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Coronavirus Pandemic Affects Traditional Tamale Season On U.S.-Mexico Border

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This time of year is tamales season, and nowhere is the holiday tradition more beloved than along our southern border. But this year in Texas, COVID is affecting who makes tamales and how people get them. Angela Kocherga, of member station KTEP, reports from El Paso.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: The phone rings nonstop, and a line stretches out the door at Bowie Bakery in El Paso. The shop allows three customers inside at a time, as a COVID precaution. The bakery is busier than usual this holiday season.

FRED LOPEZ: We're buying red tamales for the office. We figured we'd spread some holiday cheer.

KOCHERGA: Fred Lopez ordered some traditional red chile pork tamales for his engineering firm.

LOPEZ: So everybody's working from home. But today, people are stopping by to pick up some things for the holidays. So we figured we'd surprise them with tamales.

KOCHERGA: Takeout tamales might be the only way many El Pasoans get their supply this year, mainly because of the toll COVID has taken on the tradition.

JUAN CARLOS FAVELA: A lot of people, especially older people, have died or have had to be quarantined from the whole family.

KOCHERGA: That's Juan Carlos Favela. He says they were the keepers of the recipes. Favela own La Primera Tortilla Factory, a family-run business that sells masa, the cornmeal dough for tamales.

FAVELA: In fact, I have had a couple of customers call and ask for recipes on how to do the tamales because of their grandmas, their mothers passing away and stating that now, they're going to have to do them by themselves.

BENJAMIN ALIRE SAENZ: We've lost their voices as they watched over us. Those voices are the voices of our ancestors.

KOCHERGA: Author and poet Benjamin Alire Saenz lives in El Paso. He has fond childhood memories of making tamales with his family just across the state line in rural New Mexico. His brothers and sisters continued the tamale-making tradition after his mother died a few years ago.

SAENZ: She left us her wisdom. And part of that wisdom is in the making of tamales because you will get together and then tell stories. And we can't even get together and tell those stories at this moment.

KOCHERGA: COVID has only accelerated the modern-day trend of busy families buying tamales. Stuffing all those corn husks with masa and fillings is labor intensive.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello.

KOCHERGA: Lupita's Tamales has been in business for 35 years. The line is always long during the holidays, but this year, it's even longer. Tamales sales are a bright spot for restaurants that are struggling because of COVID, says owner America Sanchez.

AMERICA SANCHEZ: Well, we do want to keep the business, and we want to keep it going for the families here, you know, and everybody that works here. And also for them to have something good to eat as well.

KOCHERGA: Teresa Cordell was one of those in line at Lupita's picking out her favorites.

TERESA CORDELL: Some red, some green and some turkey tails - (speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: She used to make tamales with her children, when they were living at home.

CORDELL: Believe it or not, we switched it over to brisket with red chile barbecue.

KOCHERGA: And that's the thing about tamales, especially during the time of COVID - the recipes and the memories are more important now than ever before.

For NPR News, I'm Angela Kocherga in El Paso. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.