The children's book has become a play that uses a Mexican ritual to promote the beauty of bilingualism and expose the evils of prejudice.
December 15, 2007
By Sandy Banks
The playbill that landed on my desk touting an East Los Angeles Christmas production featured a familiar drawing -- a clutch of brown-skinned children staring wide-eyed at a plate piled high with tamales.
It brought back memories from 10 years ago, when the book "Too Many Tamales" -- a gift to my family from a Mexican American friend -- briefly joined "The Night Before Christmas" as a favorite holiday book with my then-young daughters.
The story line is simple: A little girl named Maria secretly tries on her mother's diamond ring, then loses it while helping make Christmas tamales.
Afraid to tell, she and her cousins devour the tamales in search of the diamond, but fail to find it. Maria confesses, the ring turns up, mom offers forgiveness and the entire extended family pitches in to make a new batch of tamales.
We knew nothing of tamales, but my girls loved the bright drawings, the drama and the fact that Maria's mother -- unlike their own -- didn't get mad at her troublemaking daughter.
Nursing my holiday memories, I headed last Sunday to Teatro Carmen Zapata -- a small theater inside a dreary building that used to house the city's Lincoln Heights jail -- to watch the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts' stage version of this Christmas fable.
When "Too Many Tamales" was published 14 years ago, it was one of the first children's books about Latinos in the United States to reach a wide American audience.
It introduces a Mexican holiday ritual -- the making of tamales at Christmas, a tradition as familiar to Angelenos of every stripe as the birthday party piñata.
Critics praised the slim volume as a realistic portrayal of a modern Latino family. Local bookstores couldn't keep it in stock; its popularity spread by word of mouth among Mexican Americans hungry for a literary link to holiday traditions.
Author Gary Soto, a Fresno poet, wrote it at the urging of his agent, who thought the uplifting tale might be a big seller. "It was just a sweet story intended to make people feel good, instead of what we see about Latinos in the newspapers daily," Soto told me.
Over time, it became much more. Teachers began reading it to their classes, children told their parents about it. And the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts began staging annual holiday productions, turning "Too Many Tamales" into a sort of instant classic.
The play veers from the story's simple premise in ways that might seem eye-opening to some. It's no predictable "hard-working immigrant family" saga. Imagine the Huxtable family with Spanish accents and Target shopping bags.
Maria's mom is busy climbing the corporate ladder. Her grandma is a diamond-wearing, Lexus-driving silver-haired diva, with a country club membership.
Her tia Rosa is married to a guitar-playing gabacho, whose well-meaning WASP-y father crashes Christmas Eve dinner, drawing good-natured complaints from Maria's parents because he "knows nothing about our traditions. He doesn't even like our food!"
Performed through December -- in Spanish one week and English the next -- the play is laced with subtle commercials promoting the beauty of bilingualism and the evils of prejudice.
It's also sophisticated, charming and laugh-out-loud funny, full of clever topical cultural references.
"Tonito" loves Grandma's homemade tamales enough to lick his fingers after eating them. "You know him as Mayor Villaraigosa," Grandma says, in an aside to the audience.
I'd heard from friends that the play has become an annual holiday touchstone, a sort of "Nutcracker Suite" for local Mexican Americans. So I expected to be the lone black face in the audience.
What was I thinking? This is Los Angeles, after all. Even tamales are multicultural.
Behind me sat the Brownies from West Covina, a mix of ribbons, braids and curls. Across the way was a white family from Woodland Hills, puzzling through the play's Spanish-language portions.
In front of me, a mom scolded her rambunctious young son in Spanish, trying to get him to settle down.
Director and actor Alejandra Flores said the play's popularity has surprised even its promoters. "We thought we were going to stop after 10 years," she said, "but when we made the announcement last year, we heard from so many people . . . 'No, you can't! This is our tradition.' "
Michelle Rodriguez was one of those. "It was my favorite book when I was little," said the 19-year-old from La Puente. For once, it was the Christmas she knew in print. "I could relate to those kids eating the tamales, trying to get out of trouble with the mom."
Susan Hamersky, the Woodland Hills woman attending with her family at the invitation of a friend, saw herself in the Anglo father-in-law, and his awkward attempts to grasp a foreign culture. She described herself as "a plain old American," married to a man whose family is from Estonia. Their traditional Christmas Eve meal features "something called blood sausages."
From the look on her face when she described the meal, I think she wished for just that night that her husband's family were Mexican.
Source: Los Angeles Times