By Sharon Sullivan
Roasting red chilis permeate the air at Child and Migrant Services’ Hospitality Center where the radio is tuned to Spanish language music. It’s tamale-making day and Maria Lopez bustles around the center’s kitchen and dining room supervising the dozen volunteers who came to help wrap tamales for the next four to five hours.
Lopez arrives at the center at 7 a.m. to begin cooking the chicken and pork. After she sautés the vegetables, roasts the chili, and mixes huge mounds of masa, all the ingredients are ready. Huge stainless-steel bowls of red chili masa, pans of cooked, shredded meat, and presoaked cornhusks are placed on the long dining room tables where the helpers gather to fill cornhusks with the prepared ingredients for three different types of tamales: chicken, pork and vegan. Once assembled, the tamales are steamed for an hour and a half.
Tamale sales provide a small but steady stream of income for CMS, a nonprofit organization founded in Palisade, Colorado, in 1954 to provide basic services to migrant farmworkers who come mostly from Mexico and Central America to care for and harvest crops grown in Palisade. “I think of our tamales as a little cornhusk-wrapped ambassador for our program,” CMS executive director Karalyn Dorn says.
Lopez is known as “Summer Maria” because she returns to her home in Mexico each winter. While she’s out of the country, permanent resident Maria Frausto, referred to as “Winter Maria,” takes over the cooking of tamales. Batches of 400 are made at a time, then placed in the freezer to sell to community members over the next month.
Making tamales of any quantity is time consuming, so a few years ago Dorn sought the assistance of students enrolled in Collbran Job Corps, an education and career technical training program for at-risk youth ages 16 to 24. Seventeen-year old Daniel Terrones is always one of the first students to sign up each month to come help wrap tamales. “It’s part of my culture,” he says. “My family does this. I grew up eating homemade tamales.”
Christi Laird, the health services manager at Job Corps, brings seven students with her each time – there’s always a waiting list of those who want to come. Oftentimes the youth spend their own money to purchase tamales to bring back to Collbran. Local community members also volunteer to help wrap tamales. “It’s labor-intensive; it takes a village to make them,” Laird says.
CMS is primarily supported by donations, grants and an annual outdoor concert in July at Grande River Vineyards in Palisade. Local residents as well as farmworkers and their families – including children – dance together on the grassy lawn in front of the stage to the music of Denver-based salsa band Quemando. Plates of homemade tamales, beans, rice and salsa are for sale before and during the concert, as well as wine by the glass or the bottle.
Tamales can be purchased at CMS’s hospitality center, 721 Peach Avenue, Monday through Thursday, 12 to 6 p.m. and by appointment. Tamales can also be ordered online at www.migrantservicesgv.org or by calling 970-464-5226 for limited delivery to a central Grand Junction location. The cost is $17 per dozen.