By Cara Strickland
There was something rhythmic about the process. I started with an empty corn husk resting on the palm of my hand. Wordlessly, I took one of the spatulas and scooped some freshly made masa into the husk, spreading it evenly (though still not as quickly or deftly as the others around the kitchen table). Next, I spooned some of the pork filling onto the masa as I had been taught, before rolling and folding the tamale to go in the large steamer.
We worked quickly, making a seemingly endless line of tamales, but I didn’t mind. For the first time on this trip, I felt comfortable in my skin. No one was looking at me, or asking me questions. There was no one gazing adoringly into my eyes, which is its own kind of strain. I was alone, even in the crowded kitchen, with the meat, the masa, the husks.
After months of long distance dating, I was visiting my boyfriend and his family for New Year’s. We hadn’t seen each other since we’d decided to take our relationship beyond friendship, and we were still a little awkward with one another, trying to connect what we found on the phone and Skype with what it felt like to be in the same room. We had waited to say “I love you” until we could say it face to face, and now we were taking every opportunity to hold hands and whisper it to each other. We’d started talking seriously about marriage.
On the surface, this sounds like a lovely, romantic story. But it’s not.
My boyfriend’s family hated me with a passion that was inexplicable to me at the time. Even before they met me, there was a coldness, a desire to control certain aspects of our fledgling college relationship. I learned only through time that their brand of conservative Christian was different than my then-conservative Christianity. It wasn’t about me, really. But that didn’t help my bruised heart, trying desperately to stay open.
On New Year’s Day, we all piled into my boyfriend’s family’s van and drove to his grandmother’s house. Every year on this day, according to tradition, everyone gathered to make tamales.
At first, I stuck close to my boyfriend. I’d met his dad’s side of the family (a group of atheists with an ailing granny, who were nothing but lovely to me), but I was nervous about his mother’s family, especially considering that they’d produced her.
But after a few too many chips of delicious guacamole, I was pulled into the kitchen, given a spoon, a spatula and some rudimentary training, and was left alone.
Still, when I find myself in uncomfortable situations, I start doing the dishes, mixing drinks, or setting crackers on a plate. I like to have a job I don’t have to think about, and the invisibility it affords.
But even though I was invisible as I scooped and spooned and rolled and folded, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I belonged, even there in that hostile kitchen, where they’ve probably long ago forgotten my name.