I always say that my household is stuck in the 1950s and is the most prototypical stereotype of the coveted nuclear family from the Boomer era. No, my parents are not Boomers themselves; my dad and mom were born in 1967 and 1968, respectively, so they grew up during the sexual revolution and were teenagers during the… well… complete craziness that constituted the ‘80s. However, my family seems to adhere quite closely to traditional, generally-frowned-upon gender roles. My mom is a stay-at-home mom — the only career she ever wanted since she was young — who actually enjoys cooking and cleaning, and my dad is a successful entrepreneur (he owns a construction company and, before you ask, yes, we are the most textbook Jersey-Italians ever) who provides for us and loves a warm dinner on the table when he gets home from work. Don’t get me wrong: no one is forced to fall into these roles in my house, my mom simply loves taking care of my dad in a traditional wifely manner and my dad loves supporting his family — with the exception of when I ask for Gucci things for Christmas and he rolls his eyes at me. Because of the way that I was raised, I always believed that the woman should be the cook of the household. However, as I entered college and became exposed to much more liberal ideals than what I grew up around in my small town, I discovered that my feminism deviated quite a bit from others’ and that this mainly stemmed from my differing opinion on the “woman in the kitchen” stereotype.
There is just something about women cooking that presents the most difficult, paradoxical oxymoron to modern liberal feminists: we like it when women cook — there is nothing as nostalgic or comforting or delicious as mom’s home-cooking, right? — but we hate that the women are the household cooks. In American feminism, we ask why it is that the woman can’t be the one demanding a warm meal from her husband when she gets home from work rather than the other way around. But what I have struggled with coming to understand about widespread feminism is why it has to be a demand… why can’t women just like to cook? In many cultures including my own Italian heritage, it is not just a normalcy but a privilege for the women to cook together: it is a bonding experience, a time to gossip and have girl-talk without men to interfere. Similar to the way we think of Italian nonnas spilling the tea (as in gossiping, not actually spilling physical tea) while making pasta, Mexican women for generations have bonded over and derived an empowerment of sorts from getting together and making tamales.
So consider the idea that maybe “women in the kitchen” is not always an antiquated display of misogyny and patriarchy, but a way that those women can find their voices, be themselves, and eat good.
Tamal-making represents a type of feminism that those unfamiliar with Mexican culture and tradition might simply misunderstand. Admittedly, until a few months ago, I too was entirely unaware of the female bonding that went into making tamales; learning about Mexican foodways in this class showed me how similar this feminine Mexican tradition is to what I have always loved most about my own Italian heritage. It is fundamental that these types of traditions that bring people together — especially women — be kept alive, although they might seem “outdated,” because there are endless generations of girls that should be allowed the opportunity to find themselves and find their feminine strength while spreading some masa.
Making tamales is a difficult and tediously long task, which is why the preparation of tamales is considered just as much of a social event as it is a day of food preparation. These ceremonial tamal-making gatherings are called las tamaladas and bring women together that may otherwise have nothing in common. Even more so than the delicious food that is being prepared, it is the value of unity amongst women that makes las tamaladas so important, especially for the younger generations of girls who are present assisting their mothers:
“When we are together, we are like equals. No one is better. Making tamales is a good time to show children how good it is to be in union with each other. …. To help each other. Even if one is poor, one is obligated to help a less fortunate person. I like the feeling of unity, not only with my mother and family, but with the other people who have been invited.”(de La Peña Brown 70)
Learning to help the less fortunate, ignoring social hierarchies and structures and pre-established notions of who is better than who, opening oneself up to others outside of family members — aren’t these great qualities that everyone should be teaching their children? Considering una tamalada in this regard, rather than recognizing it as simply a long day of work for women just to feed men in the end, one cannot help but recognize that having these “women in the kitchen” might actually be more beneficial than it is damaging. Making tamales is not only a prime opportunity to teach unity and the importance of helping others, but also teamwork and patience. Taking this perfect opportunity that everyone gets to enjoy — because who doesn’t enjoy tamales? — away might actually be counterintuitive to progress.
Despite the way in which feminine food preparation — las tamaladas, for example, notably a feminine noun — is deeply ingrained in Mexican culture, Mexican women are actually proven to be not as subservient to men as we in America might believe them to be. Rather, Mexican women choose to be good wives and mothers simply because they want to be, not because they are forced to be — because those feminine values are important to indigenous culture — and still actively assert their womanhood. Even the most “disadvantaged” women [“indigenous women, who form the largest feminine group in Mexico, [who] cannot read or write” (Gamio 121)] are still strong women in their own rights. In fact, “there are fewer servile women than should exist in proportion to [Mexico’s] illiterate population, because not all illiterate women are servile … they preserve the great heritage of pre-Columbian habits, tendencies, and education more faithfully than their men do. They are not, therefore, servile but women worthy of consideration by their contemporaries” (Gamio 121). Although this form of feminism might be unfamiliar and seem slightly backwards to the modern American woman — after all, isn’t the first step to autonomy literacy? — it does not make it invalid. Removing these “pre-Columbian habits” and cooking traditions like las tamaladas would be taking away from the proud womanhood that Mexican women grew up to know and embrace. If illiterate and non-traditionally-feminist Mexican women are worthy of consideration by their Mexican male contemporaries, they are absolutely worthy of recognition and praise from their fellow women everywhere.
Tamal-making and women in the kitchen is not just something that I — a devout believer in home-cooked meals and being “wifey” material — am striving to find purpose in. Since the Spanish conquered Mexico, native women have used food and their cooking skills to redefine and declare their agency against the misogynist patriarchies of Europe. Like all indigenous Mexicans during Spanish rule, women also felt a sense of pride in their true heritage and wanted to be Mexican — not Spanish — and thus, “women began to imagine their own national community in the familiar terms of the kitchen, rather than as an alien political entity formulated by men … Women used cuisine as a means of defining a uniquely religious version of the national identity” (Pilcher 67). Ultimately, the way that indigenous Mexican women rebelled against Spanish conquistadors — and have continued to rebel against oppressive men through modern day — was in the kitchen. Female gatherings centered around food preparation like las tamaladas worked then and continue to work today as a driving force of feminism as well as a way for women to claim and feel pride in their identities — female, Mexican, indigenous, mother, wife… you name it. Indigenous Mexican women found power in food and cooking throughout history, and dismissing these practices today as “outdated” or “anti-feminist” or “controlled by the patriarchy” is simply unjust for those women who look forward to una tamalada as a time to be unapologetically themselves, unapologetically feminine without a man’s influence, in the same way that women in America hold signs of uteruses and march through city streets to revel in their own power.
It should be noted that this power does not just come in the form of feminine strength and personal identity, but also as real, viable opportunities for economic opportunity and financial security. For women, when making tamales is not a social gathering or a family event, it is often a means to make a living. Street vendors, in particular tamal carts, which are almost always manned by women (if not, you can still count on the fact that those tamales were meticulously crafted by women), have been hotly contested in recent times and compared to a form of unwilling servitude in which women must slave away without any personal benefits.
Although this type of labor undoubtedly presents many social and economic concerns regarding immigrant workers, believing that women are in no way benefiting from their work selling tamales out of food carts is another oversight by Americans who are unable to grasp the food-adjacent feminism of Mexican women. For women who work as street vendors, their “participation in the informal economy is not an economic activity of last resort or a survival strategy as a result of lack of opportunities in the formal economy. It is a complex, systematic way in which the vendors claim and reconfigure space and place through the agency they carve out in the urban landscape” (Muñoz 142). Considering women as autonomous agents in occupation of selling tamales on the street rather than unwilling participants greatly shifts the dynamic of what “women in the kitchen” represents. It is a personal choice for prosperity, economic freedom, and financial independence — not forced adherence to gender roles.
The positive aspects also extend to young Mexican girls who assist their parents running food carts. A study done in 2013 focusing on the long term effects on adolescent girls who work at carts selling tamales and other similar “street foods” found that, although hypothesized to negatively impact these young girls, doing such work actually contested gender roles “rather than bringing to light yet another instance of women’s and girls’ oppression” and “the research suggests better life opportunities for the girls” (Estrada 161). Although exposing adolescents to the corrupt and polluted street-life is contradictory to the widespread admiration of virginity in many Latinx cultures including Mexican [“Mexican immigrant parents restricted their daughters’ spatial mobility, keeping them home ‘on lockdown’ (like a prison) while boys were allowed to roam the streets. Many Latino parents believe that protecting their daughters’ virginity is important” (Estrada 145)], these young women are able to learn work ethic, financial responsibility, and how to provide for themselves by preparing and selling tamales out of a cart — ultimately, this is a path toward female independence.
So, okay, women cooking dinner for their husbands is very different from teenage girls working crazy hours selling food on the street, but the moral still stands. Women cooking with one another — especially in the form of making tamales and bonding at las tamaladas — is an important form of female empowerment for Mexican women. “Woke” Americans might think having women cook is misogynistic and oppressive, but welcoming someone into your home to make tamales together is one of the most endearing forms of acceptance and encouragement amongst Mexican women. It is a way for women of multiple generations and from far distances to connect; when a few researchers from Rutgers University visited a Mexican woman named Alma’s home in Vermont to make tamales, they note that “with great excitement, and under the watchful eye of her young daughter, she showed us the dried herbs, candies, packaged foods, and other small gifts that had been sent by her sister” (Mares 182). Tamales are a way for Alma to connect with both her sister and her daughter, to show her daughter how to be a woman and be a strong one, and how to make a tamal properly. The same goes for many Mexican women, and many other women across many different cultures.
So why should we be immediately jumping to the conclusion that women cooking is a bad thing? Like most things in life, it is simply about choice. Feminism is supposed to be about liberating women from the oppressive chains that the patriarchy has placed upon them for much of history — but who’s to say which is the correct and incorrect way to do so? No, women aren’t meant to be kept in the kitchen and women are good for a lot more than making sandwiches (or, in this case, tamales), but if it is in the kitchen that they find their strength — at una tamalada, spreading masa and gossiping with other women of all ages — then so be it.