Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Somerton Tamale Festival Full Of Hispanic Culture, Tradition

Stephanie Sanchez

Somerton-For many Latino families, preparing and enjoying tamales for the holidays is an annual cultural tradition.

Hands-on preparation brings together family and friends to make sometimes hundreds of tamales of all flavors and tastes to share over the holiday season.

Arizona State University alumni in southwestern Arizona have seized on that collective tradition to host an annual fundraiser in Somerton each December.  The festival attracts thousands and as KAWC’s Stephanie Sanchez tells us, they eat a lot of tamales.

The corn dough for tamales is called masa.  In her Somerton kitchen, Aracely Mesa likes to add a blended paste of salt and hot and mild chili peppers for flavor.

Mesa is making tamales for the 9th Annual Somerton Tamale festival.  Her goal?

“This year I want to do at least 300 dozens,” Mesa said.

That’s 3,600 from Mesa’s kitchen alone, and she’s just one of 44 tamale vendors bringing their own family recipes and flavors to the December 19th event.

“Cause I’ve seen tamales of shrimp that I saw last year. I don’t know how they did,” Mesa said. “I saw tamales de chiles rellenos, strawberry and mango. I didn’t taste them. I heard people that liked them and I heard people that didn’t like them.”

Tamale flavors vary by culture, region and personal taste.  In Latin America, some wrap their tamales in corn husks, other use banana leaves.  Some are sweet while others are spicy, but tamales are often stuffed with shredded pork, beef or chicken and some contain surprise bites of cheese, jalapeno pepper or olive.

Some recipes are quite unique.  Mesa’s is special to her and her family, because it was her mother’s, who passed away last year, and it’s not your typical tamale.

“So if you’ll see a Tamal, it’s masa and spinach all over it and pieces of cheese throughout the tamal,” Mesa said. “A lot of American, a lot of snowbirds….a lot of white people. They love it! Lets be honest….like they love it!”

“There’s a lot of people that just see the red like in the meat ‘oh it’s spicy were not going to eat it’ but the spinach tamales. They love it,” she said.

Arizona State University alumni in Yuma, El Diablito, seized on the idea of community and culture with an annual street festival dedicated to tamales.  Last year 30,000 invaded Main Street in the border town of Somerton, helping raise thousands of dollars to send local kids to ASU. 

“We’ve gone from one scholarship to now we give out 14 scholarships of $2,000 (each) so it’s been great,” El Diablito Chapter Vice President Jose Moreno said. “ We’ve also moved into giving a full time scholarship. We partnership with some entities from ASU “Los Diablos” where are giving out two full scholarships so it’s just been growing.”

“Beyond that we also moved into our community where we support local individuals or organization that are geared towards education,” he said.

And the festival is good for the local economy too.  ASU takes a portion of the sales for scholarships, but vendors like Aracely Mesa take home most of the profits.  Moreno said that’s just how they planned it.

“It’s a win-win situation not just for organization. We’re very thankful for the community that shows up and supports but we also put a lot of money in people’s hands in time for Christmas,” Moreno said. “It’s over a $100,000 that goes back to the tamale vendors. All that work definitely pays off at that event.”

And it is a lot of work.  Back in Mesa’s Somerton kitchen, Aracely prepares tamales the way her mother taught her.

She starts by washing the fresh corn husks she will use to wrap the tamales.  She takes a spoonful of her spiced masa from a bowl, spreads it onto the corn husk and adds meat-chicken, pork, or beef. She adds a slice of jalapeno pepper, an olive and a slice of potato.  She then folds the corn husk, wrapping the filling in masa to make a perfect tamale.

Making dozens of tamales is time-consuming, but part of the tradition of tamale-making is getting help from family and friends.

“Every weekend we make 50 dozen or something we end up eating two or three dozen cause my family is always here,” Mesa said. “My aunts and everybody were doing it all day so in order for us to not cook anything else we make some and we eat some.”

Mesa already has hundreds of tamales prepared for the festival, waiting in the freezers of her and another family member.  She said some friends told her she didn’t have to come to the festival this year, almost a year to the day after her mother’s death.

“My mom would kill me if I were not to do it,” Mesa said. “My mom started since it all started. The first year she did about 100 dozens, she was completely sold out.”

The Somerton Tamales festival is Saturday on Main Street.

Credit Stephanie Sanchez
Aracely Mesa continues her late mother's tamale recipes for the 9th annual Somerton Tamale Festival.

Related Content