Tamales Aren't From New Mexico?

November 1, 2022


Paying respect to history and our heritage on this first day of Dia de los Muertos

Last night, after passing the baton onto to Chelsea who took our two youngest trick-or-treating, I ran back home to put the goats away in their pen; slice and spice 50 tortillas into strips, which I then sprinkled with Tajín and toasted to serve as condiments to place atop tonight’s pozole; and then I ascended back up to my office where I caught up on corporate work and put the finishing touches on our Farmers/Ranchers Western SARE grant proposal before hitting “submit.”

These few hours were representative of what has been perhaps the busiest weeks of 2022 for us here at Hacienda Dominguez & Chelezo Farms.

Thus, by 11 PM I was ready to simply do nothing. I chose to veg on the PBS Dia de los Muertos special, which was promoted with the caption, “Enjoy a cultural and musical celebration of a wonderful, ancient tradition.”

Being that it was a production of the Public Broadcasting Service, I was fully expecting to be schooled with a little history, a touch of culture and/or insights into the “ancient tradition.”

However, what I witnessed was merely a musical showcase featuring Ozomatli, Flor de Toloache and Los Lobos. There was no accompanying documentary about this important annual celebration, which has its roots in honoring our dearly departed.

Granted, a resident of Los Angeles, Doña Lorenza got her token two minutes to “explain her preparations for Dia de los Muertos” as an interlude between musical sets, but it felt like lip service.

Instead, what I skimmed through, with the slide of the streaming scroll, was the commercialization of a tradition that offers Mexican families a chance to pay homage to their ancestry and dearly departed once every year.

In addition to the stage performances, there were a number of staged revelers in elaborate costumes inspired by the iconic calacas y calaveras (painted skulls and bones) associated with this day, as well as a number of dancers dressed in full indigenous regalia topped by the glorious “penacho,” the feathered headdress associated with the last Aztec emperor, Moctezuma II, before his downfall with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Admittedly, the fanfare was spectacular and I felt I should appreciate the recognition that this lovely Mexican tradition has received of late. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that the American adaptation dismisses and diminishes its sacredness.

Much like many Americans believe that “Cinco de Mayo” is Mexican Independence Day and take advantage by partaking in the extended margarita happy hours, I fear that Dia de los Muertos is likewise bound to be gentrified, which one might argue is simply modern-day colonization - that is the usurping and commercialization of old-country and “ethnic” neighborhoods, values and traditions.

Ironically, Mexico’s actual Independence Day is celebrated on September 16 in honor of their decolonization (declaration of independence) from Spain. Likewise, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua also have independence days on September 15 and Chile has its day on September 18.

Hence, on this first of two days of Dia de los Muertos, it behooves me to share a little history and the original intentions of this tradition.

Los Días de Los Muertos (The Days of the Dead) originated in the modern-day State of Oaxaca in Mexico among the Indigenous peoples there before the arrival of Don Hernán Cortés, a Spanish, Catholic conquistador in April 1519, and the subsequent subjugation of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec celebration was held during the month of Miccailhuitontli and presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Lady of the Dead, pronounced “Mee-tech-ah-see-wha-tull.”

Caroline Dodds Pennock, the UK’s sole Aztec historian, states that "the exact date is unknown but it has been speculated that the idea originated with the Olmecs, possibly as long as 3000 years ago," adding that this concept was passed to other Indigenous cultures such as the Toltec, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztec. Zapotec and Mixtec influence remains strong in Oaxaca. The ancient Mexica (Aztecs) celebrated a number of feast days in honor of the dead, among the most prominent being Miccailhuitontli, or the “Feast of the Little Dead Ones,” on November 1st and Miccailhuitl, or “Feast of the Adult Dead” on November 2nd.

El Día de Los Muertos of today remains an occasion celebrated over two days, on the 1st and 2nd of November. Via its transition through Spanish colonization, it became associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but it ultimately evolved to have a much less solemn tone and is portrayed as a holiday of joyful celebration, rather than mourning. The holiday involves family and friends gathering to pay respects and to their dearly departed. The celebrations can take a humorous tone, as celebrants remember funny events and anecdotes about the departed. Traditions connected with the holiday include honoring the deceased using calaveras and the Aztec Marigold flowers known as cempazuchitzl, building home altars called ofrendas with photos, favorite foods and objects associated with the departed.

As we contemplate the evolution of this sacred Mexican tradition, it is important to note a bit of history that has become integral to our visualization of the tradition, as it is celebrated today.

Jose Guadalupe Posada was a Mexican printmaker whose political cartoons often featured skulls and skeletons. He worked during the rule of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, who was driven out of office by the Mexican revolution of 1911.

Posada’s most famous work was the Calavera de la Catrina (the Skull of Catrina), a skeleton in a fancy hat. The image mocked Mexicans who copied fancy European styles, but were dead to ancient traditions. It provided a link between the contemporary Mexican culture at the turn of the twentieth century and the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl. In essence, the story of this popular costume demonstrates that the struggle to preserve history, as well as understand and respect our origins is a universal phenomenon.

Likewise, the tamales we offered at last year’s celebration and the pozole we have made for tonight’s gathering serve as symbols of culture, cuisine and community, which makes it important to understand where they came from.

There are those who believe that both these dishes are actually “New Mexican” or “Spanish,” but the truth is that tamales were part of indigenous cultures in the Americas long before any conquistador touched their native soil. Many historians date tamales back to the Aztecs 8,000 years ago, which makes a lot of sense if you consider that corn, the main ingredient in the masa, was originally domesticated in Mexico 9,000 years ago.


Likewise, pozole originated with the Aztecs and other indigenous tribes in Mesoamerica. The savory dish’s name comes from the Nahuatl word pozolli. Historical texts state that back then the pozole was made with sacrificed human flesh, to be eaten on special occasions. Tonight’s pozole was made with a sacrificed pig, which by the way, the Spanish duly get credit for introducing to the americas.

So, whether it is food, rituals or people, please let my little missive here serve as a gentle reminder that honoring our heritage and history is vital to respecting our shared humanity. Respect your dearly deceased by honoring them with an altar and sharing stories, songs and poems about their lives on this day, and do not be swayed by the trend of turning this into just another lazy and luxurious American holiday.