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Column: In Oxnard, a tamale festival persists

Last Tuesday morning, Yolanda Pina and Liliana Soria set up a table, a pop-up tent and a banner that read “Oxnard Tamale Festival”. The logo featured a Bearded Tamale wearing a Santa hat while racing in a Volkswagen Beetle. They settled in outside Ocho Regiones Restaurant, the venue for the grand finale of the final installment of the city’s 14-year fiesta celebrating Latin American food.

In 2019, the Tamale Festival drew over 10,000 people to downtown Oxnard. Nowhere near that many eaters were coming today.

Construction blocked one side of Ocho Regiones. The narrow streets of La Colonia, the historic district where Oaxaca’s restaurant is located, made parking almost impossible. A presale campaign by the city attracted just 41 purchases from a $ 10 box of four tamales.

This was the second year in a row that Oxnard had relegated its tamale party to a takeout format due to COVID-19.

Francisco Vega with Yolanda Pina, left, recreation coordinator with the city of Oxnard, gives a selection of tamales to Maria Chavez at the Ocho Regiones restaurant in Oxnard.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Pina, who helped organize the event almost from the start, tried to put a positive spin on the day.

“It’s amazing to know that tamales have been around for 9,000 years and continue here,” said the longtime Oxnard resident, who has given her age “a quinceañera times three.”

Then she fell silent. “These places are losing money,” Pina said. “We want to give it back to them. “

Tamale festivals bloom across Southern California this weekend, from Indio to Long Beach, Placentia to the Alhambra. Everything in person.

Organizers of the city-hosted Oxnard Tamale festival have refused to return to normal.

Sara Cook grabs her selection of tamales ordered from Ocho Regiones restaurant in Oxnard.

Sara Cook grabs her selection of tamales ordered from Ocho Regiones restaurant in Oxnard.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Four months ago, they decided to repeat last year’s version of inviting four restaurants over four weeks to sell their takeaway tamales. Pina and her team weren’t particularly happy with the decision, but no one regretted it.

Oxnard was devastated by the coronavirus. Its 416 deaths from COVID-19 represent 35% of Ventura County’s total, even though the city only has 24% of Ventura County’s population.

So when Oxnard looked at the COVID-19 statistics before them in July and tried to predict what they might look like during the winter we are in now, the decision to only make take out “was a no-brainer.” said Jessy Tapia, a recreation supervisor for the city and Pina’s boss.

“We were very injured,” said the 33-year-old. “We are still in pain. Tamales is one of the biggest things of the season. But having a festival in person right now just so people could get together didn’t feel right to me. We must respect the creators and the community.

Corundas tamales in the center surrounded by Uchepo tamales

Corundas in the center surrounded by uchepos. Both are tamales from the Mexican state of Michoacán and were part of the Ocho Regiones restaurant’s tamale sample in Oxnard.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Now, as the Omicron variant soars across the world, Oxnard’s decision not to host his tamale festival in person no longer seems too prudent; it’s downright prophetic.

“I haven’t heard any complaints about our way of doing things,” said fellow Tapia supervisor, Marisue Eastlake. “Who doesn’t like a tamale?” “

In Ocho Regiones’ kitchen, Francisco and Griselda Vega ruled over steaming pots that contained the 200 tamales they were going to sell that day. The husband and wife team attended the festival for the first time last year and won the trophy for best tamale, which features a chef wearing a toque and holding a knife in one hand and a fish in the other – but no tamales in sight.

In addition to Oaxacan tamales wrapped in banana leaves, the Vegas also offered two types unique to the Michoacán native of Griselda: triangle-shaped corundas and salty-sweet uchepos.

People pass by the Ocho Regiones restaurant

People walk past the Ocho Regiones restaurant in Oxnard, which participates in the 14th annual Oxnard Tamale festival reimagined.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“Americans love those in Oaxaca. Mexicans who are not from Oaxaca think they are, well, interesting, ”Griselda, 30, said with a chuckle. “I hope they like the tamales where I’m from.”

“A lot of people don’t know them because they didn’t grow up with them,” replied Francisco, 32. “But their minds change once they try them.”

I asked him how 2021 went for Ocho Regiones.

“It has been good,” he said. “But today will help.”

Eleven in the morning, the official start time for sales. There were no clients. While they waited for someone, anyone to introduce themselves, Pina and her colleagues talked – what else? – tamales.

Peppers of different colors

Ingredients for tamales at Ocho Regiones restaurant.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

She said one of her favorite things about the Oxnard Tamale festival is her willingness to include her namesake from all parts of Latin America, not just the little ones wrapped in corn husks from the north and south. central Mexico which served as a de facto tamale in the south. California since the days of the missions. Pina and others began to recall the past of tamales: Tex-Mex style ones stuffed with refried beans, hallacas from Venezuela, humility from Ecuador.

“I remember the Guatemalans,” Eastlake said. “One of the seniors I work with was so excited to be able to eat homemade tamales from his home country, I thought he was going to cry.”

“I get my own tamale education this way,” added Pina. “I only grew up on pork, but that’s because my dad was from Jalisco.”

“I don’t know how to make tamales,” admitted Soria, 30. “My mother is not there tia in the family that makes them.

“I have to show you, then,” Pina retorted. “I do mine with breasts!” “

Suddenly the first customer of the day arrived.

Sara Cook, an employee of UC Santa Barbara, came to Soria for her order. She entered Ocho Regiones and left with two bags. “It’s very convenient,” the masked man, 39, said. “We have to adapt and grow and change in these times, and they made it work.”

Next, Jeffrey Carranza, Office Director of the Oxnard School District. “You can’t think of a Latin Christmas without tamales,” the 32-year-old said. “You will unwrap the presents, then you will unwrap the tamales. “

“I want to support Oxnard so that was a great way to do it,” said Leslie Mendez, a Wells Fargo employee who stopped by during her lunch break.

Customers poured in over the next three hours. They double parked, or flagged their dangers in red zones, or stayed in the middle of the street while someone rushed for their meal. Every time someone came, Pina would shout “¡Una more!” in Las Vegas.

White or Latino, old or young, white collar or worker, Oxnard showed up for his Tamale festival.

“There’s a part of me that says, ‘It’s not a tamale!’ 65-year-old Maricela Ramirez joked. She was holding four bags. “I still want them like my mom used to do. But it’s great to explore the different regions. And it’s great to see how diverse Oxnard is, even among us Latinos.

After the lunch hour rush had cooled, I placed my order. The corunda was the size of a mega-wonton but was succulent; both Oaxacan tamales were sweet and spectacular. The real star was ukepo, hard to find in restaurants in Southern California despite our great michoacano population. The order came with small cups of four condiments: mole negro, jocoque (a more salty type of cream), and red and green salsas that were burning.

I had planned to eat only bites of each tamale before heading home; I ate them all within minutes.

“The idea was not to cancel the Tamale festival, ever,” Tapia said before she left. “It’s about helping the community, and the tamales do it. “

“But I hope I hit some wood, we’ll get back to normal next year,” said Pina.

“I hope, I hope in God,” said Eastlake, “this is the last time like this.”

Los Angeles Times

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