EL PASO — Fresh steaming tamales are sold out of small shacks, directly from vans, and by “tamale ladies” from their homes all along the “Tamale Trail” on the good old Mississippi Delta.
“There is a tradition among some African-Americans in Mississippi, Louisiana, little dots on a map going all the way up to Chicago. They make tamales and make up this trail,” said Dr. Roberto Avant-Mier Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), sitting in his office next to a poster of his book, Rock the Nation: Latin/o Identities and the Latin Rock Diaspora, which demonstrates how Latino music influenced early jazz music.
Avant-Mier recently discovered the Tamale Trail on a website http://www.tamaletrail.com/ where Amy Evans Streeter, oral historian at the University of Mississippi Southern Foodways Alliance, published the discussions of the Tamale Trail. She interviewed over a dozen U.S. southerners, including African-Americans, along the Mississippi delta and recorded stories about their tamale tradition.
He said it sparked his curiosity about how it came about that African-Americans in the South are making and selling tamales, a food typical of the Mexican and Latin American cuisine.
Dr. Maceo Crenshaw Dailey, Jr., the director of African-American studies at UTEP, invited Avant-Mier to speak during the lecture series for African American history month.
This encouraged him to fully enhance his research paper during the fall in preparation for a presentation February 11 to students, faculty and visitors. “I was like I should really develop that tamale paper… So I wrote constantly November through January trying to get it done,” he said, noting that he is considering writing and publishing an article based on his research.
“Why and how do African Americans have tamales? The reason they’re doing it at the University of Mississippi is because they’re doing a history of food of the South, but I was interested in how African Americans having tamales is even possible,” Avant-Mier said.
Dr. Manuel Ramirez, a professor of Mexican-American history, History of the U.S.-Mexico Border and Chicano Studies at UTEP, remembers trying to convince El Pasoans that tamales are prevalent in the African American South after returning from his Ph.D. studies at the University of Mississippi.
“I would tell people back here that there were tamales stands in the Delta, and they would not believe me. So I sent them pictures from the Internet. Then they thought it was actually Mexican people who had these stands and restaurants but it was African-Americans,” says Ramirez.
Ramirez’ experience corresponds with Avant-Mier’s previous research for a book about his fascination with the blues artist Robert Johnson because of his song called “Hot Tamales.”
As he did his research, Avant-Mier wondered, “Why is an African-American man from Mississippi, a blues guy that’s famous, why is he singing about hot tamales?”
He says his book argues that this provides proof of African-Americans’ interaction with Mexicans in the South.
“African Americans and Mexicans in the South were in proximity with each other and that’s why Johnson was probably singing about hot tamales,” Avant-Mier says.