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Education

Making Tamales Is A Christmas Tradition For San Antonio's De Zavala Elementary

Bilingual teacher Yvonne Velasco, right, helps fourth-grader Nimzy Ballinas spread masa on a corn husk to make a tamale at De Zavala Elementary Dec. 21, 2017.
Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
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Bilingual teacher Yvonne Velasco, right, helps fourth-grader Nimzy Ballinas spread masa on a corn husk to make a tamale at De Zavala Elementary.

Every Christmas for more than 25 years, De Zavala Elementary in the San Antonio Independent School District has invited families to celebrate the holidays a bit early by making tamales together.

This year the school’s fourth graders carried on the tradition.

In the hallway outside their classrooms, the students lined up at a long table spread with corn husks, masa dough and pork carnita, and bilingual teacher Yvonne Velasco showed them what to do: spread the masa on half the corn husk, or hoja, add a little meat, then roll the husk up and fold up the ends.

“Miss Velasco, she does not know how to do it like her mom does, which is putting the hoja on the hand,” Velasco told the students with a laugh. “I put it on the table. I call it cheating, but I cheat all the time.

The students’ happy chatter filled the hallway as they got to work, with Velasco coaching them and helping them fix mistakes.

Fourth-grader Israel Malagόn said he has tamales at his grandma's house every Christmas.

“They’re delicious and yummy,” he said. “You can just smell it once it’s done.”

Velasco got up early to buy the masa, and she and her mother made the carnita over the weekend. But she’s quick to give credit to her fellow teachers for their help —especially Carmen Rubio, who retired three years ago.

“(Rubio) is the person who started it all,” Velasco said.

Retired teacher Carmen Rubio places freshly rolled tamales on a tray to be steamed at De Zavala Elementary Dec. 21, 2017.
Credit Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
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Retired teacher Carmen Rubio places freshly rolled tamales on a tray to be steamed at De Zavala Elementary.

Rubio and the school’s other bilingual teachers started De Zavala’s tamale-making tradition in the early 1990s. Now she volunteers as the school’s art teacher, and she comes back to help make tamales every year. This year, she and a handful of parents gathered the tamales into a big pot for steaming.

“This is my home,” Rubio said.

While making tamales can help the students learn about measurements and following steps, Rubio and Velasco said the event is really about celebrating the students’ culture. Most of the students at De Zavala, a school west of downtown, are Hispanic.

“We just want them to always have that because I have those memories, and I want them to continue on like that,” Velasco said.

Once the work was done, the tamales became lunch, which was one more way for the students, parents and teachers -- about 100 in all -- to continue their celebration.

Camille Phillips can be contacted at camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille