Friday, October 10, 2008

Mass and masa

I am making tamales.

The process requires a peculiar combination of skills -- half culinary, half assembly-line -- that I find deeply satisfying. Tamales, you see, mean family.

We traditionally make them on holy days and those special occasions when family, and those who might as well be family, gather. I cook the cornmeal masa and all the savory or sweet fillings. My daughter and Anna spoon and ladle, and fold the combination into their corn-husk or banana-leaf wrappers. My husband and my brother are charged with multiple duties: soaking the husks, warming the leaves over a stove burner so the oils come to the surface, cutting string and strips of leaf, and finally, tying the little bundles together before lowering them into a pot that fits 50 to 100 at once.

Someone always forgets to put an ingredient into a couple of the tamales during assembly. Another forgets what type of tie indicates which flavor of tamal and mixes up a few. Or thinks he does. I’ve been known to run out of an ingredient two-thirds of the way through and have to improvise wildly to finish the batch.

But during the time it takes to put the tamales together, and the hours it takes for the steaming bundles to fill the house with their enticing aroma, we have a great time. There is always lively conversation and good-natured teasing; epiphanies and mea culpas large and small; shared joys, and sorrows, too.

But today I am making tamales alone, as I have done for the past three years, in anticipation of an October gathering of family which none of my actual family attends. Sunday, Oct. 12 at 2 p.m. the Hispanic Heritage Mass will be celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. Every year the event draws hundreds to fill the 19th-century edifice with music, colorful traditional outfits, and prayers like I remember them from my childhood -- electrifyingly heartfelt and in Spanish.

I have a defining memory for each year’s Mass. In 2005, I carried a banner with the image of Our Lady of the Rosary that had been laid out on our kitchen table for weeks while my daughter and I painted it.

2006 was the year I was asked to be a lector -- not for my quality of voice or Spanish diction, you understand, but because I wear the heavily embroidered Guatemalan huipiles inherited from my mother that one of the organizers of the event just loves.

Last year, for the first time, I experienced this particular Mass more simply, as one of many sitting in the pews. After the Mass, I milled about among the throng of people I didn’t know. We treated each other with great warmth and ease – exactly like a family who gathers once a year for something important. At one point, looking around, my eyes threatened to fill with tears. I’ve always understood intellectually the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” but I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t often feel it so viscerally.

This year, I’m afraid I’ll remember the Mass for a different reason. Some of the organizers believe attendance will be much lower than usual because those who are undocumented are scared to gather publicly, even at church.

This year has been one of escalating fear for them. The largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workplace raid in U.S. history took place in Pottsville, Iowa in May. Nearly 400 people were arrested. Most recently, on Oct. 8, another 300 people were detained at their workplace, this time in Greensville, S.C., (read about the raid at:,8599,1848211,00.html).

Some of those detained will have violated immigration laws knowingly, but some will not have made that choice for themselves. Some may be eligible for U visas, or T visas, or qualify for temporary protective status because of crisis conditions in their homeland -- but most likely don’t know it. Almost all will be asked to sign a voluntary deportation order --not understanding that doing so will waive their ability to appeal the deportation -- which will mean that they will never again be allowed to enter the U.S. legally.

Many will be separated, temporarily or permanently, from their young and adolescent children, who may be U.S. citizens. (A publication that outlines some of the rights and options available to the undocumented is available from:

Also among those detained and kept from their families for hours are lawfully present immigrants. At the Greensville raid they were allegedly given a different color wristband than the undocumented once their status was determined by the ICE.

The zeal to rout the undocumented doesn’t leave us untouched. Our Church insists that the undocumented be treated humanely and with the dignity due every human being ( as does that commandment I felt so forcefully at last year’s Hispanic Heritage Mass.

But we are often taken to task for our concern. Every time an article about immigration appears in an issue of the Catholic Standard & Times, I get to read letters to the editor expressing outrage that the article appeared at all. Sometimes I get to read letters from people who find it offensive that we publish a bilingual page, or that the Archdiocese makes an effort to have Masses in Spanish and reaches out to Latinos regardless of immigration status. Once I even got to read a letter that said the sender wouldn’t be contributing to Catholic Charities that year because a young Latino boy was pictured on the promotional poster.

It illustrates something most native-born and permanent resident Latinos feel intimately -- that the discourse about immigration has become less about documents and more about impugning our ethnicity and heritage.

Which brings me back to this year’s Hispanic Heritage Mass. I will miss the voices that because of fear won’t be raised with mine in the Cathedral Basilica, but I am hoping that new voices -- the voices of those who are willing to stand with their human family regardless of status or background -- will decide to join in this celebration of our shared faith.

Afterwards there will be tamales in the offing -- born of multiple distinct ingredients and transformed by pressure into one cohesive and marvelous whole.

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