I was playing guitar when Tiny Hector (my nickname for Hector’s nephew) walked into my room and presented me with a large banana leaf. The women were busy preparing a large batch of tamales and were going to wrap this mix of ground corn, chicken, and fruit with large banana leaves. I asked Hector (his real name) if he had been helping the women wrap the 300 tamales that they had planned to make that evening. His response was a presentation of the leaf to me, so I took it from him, looked it over, smiled, and then gave it back. He put some of it in his mouth, and proceeded to tear up the rest into tiny pieces.
I suppose this is how Tiny Hector helps when the women are working. I love this kid. He’s so sincere, so honest, and he doesn’t speak much of any language. Most of the family here speaks Spanish and Tz’utujil. (Tz’utujil is one of the local Mayan languages – I’ll write more on this later.) If nothing else, Tiny Hector provides a respite from the hard work during the nine hour marathon needed to prepare 300 tamales.
From what I understood with my limited Spanish, the women were making tamales for a special day of celebration. Twelve women had gathered from the local church at our house, and had been working all day to make these tamales. The Cortez family was excited for me to try tamales. Apparently, everyone loves tamales in Guatemala, and sometimes they get together to make them for special occasions. Hector asked me if it was ok that the women would be working on the tamales outside my room. He said they may be up late. I told him it wouldn’t bother me. So the women labored while I slept.
The next morning, at breakfast I asked Flori where Hector was. She said he was sleeping; he was up late last night. I asked her how late she and the women stayed up to make the tamales. She said she went to bed at 3:00 and woke up at 5:30 to begin the house work. “Wow,” I thought, “these women are so dedicated.”
Later, at lunch, I was talking about all the tomale making with Hector. He said he slept in because he was up late at night and up early in the morning to deliver some of the food to a local church and to drop the rest of the food off at his church. I asked, “Oh, so the tamales are for a celebration tonight at your church? You usually have church on a Tuesday, right.” He said that they did, but tonight was special. Tonight his brother was going to speak.
I made a new friend at church recently, his name is Nicholas, and he’s a farmer. He stands about 5’1” and wears black cowboy boots. The very first night I attended, he was the first person to greet me. He has a big family and has been very involved in the church. I asked Nicholas, “Is there always a dinner after church?” Nicholas responded, “No, tonight is a special celebration.”
I find it funny that since I don’t know how to speak Spanish well, I find myself gathering clues most of the time and trying to assemble a complete story. Very often, I ask the same questions, and with repeated answers, I eventually get the picture. Somehow, I still didn’t know why today was a big day.
The service proceeded as normal, and when the Pastor was finishing his message, he asked Hector’s brother to come up and say a few words. Hector’s brother is really involved in the church, as I’ve seen his name on the main board a few times as a deacon or a greeter.
Hector started talking about his past. He talked about his family and his job and how there was a period where things weren’t good. I gathered that some really bad things had happened, really bad, and as he humbly told his story, tears started to fall from his eyes. He had to pause to continue, but at the points where he thanked his family for their loyalty and their trust, he could barely speak.
The pastor came back up and put his arm around him and asked if people wanted to come forward to pray with the family. I felt like I was witnessing a very important event in the history of the church, in the history of Hector’s family, and something uniquely special about this community. It was a humble gathering, and hugs and kisses were exchanged by the family in front of the church. No pomp and circumstance, no loud music, just a community of people standing in the middle of the church happy to celebrate a man that came home.
The pastor announced that the youth would serve the church, the whole church. Regulars, full-fledged members, and people who just happened to walk in that night. Everyone would be fed.
As the youth were coming out to serve everyone, I asked Nicholas to explain to me what tonight was about. He said that Hector’s brother was in a really bad place in his life, but a year ago on this day, he walked back into the church and turned his back on a lifestyle that had damaged his family. It was the anniversary of him becoming a Christian, of him coming home.
I keep having these moments where I feel like time slows down and all the Spanish clues I’ve gathered throughout the day are now forming a cohesive picture.
The women were up late.
The women labored while I slept.
The women stayed up until 3:00am to make over 300 tamales.
The men stayed up til 3:00 as well.
The men got up again at 4:30 to deliver the food.
They made over 300 tamales for their family, their friends, and for strangers.
For an entire day, a community labored to celebrate a man who came home. They thought it proper to have a banquet, but not just for the family. Everyone. Anyone. Anyone who walked in that door of the church got fed. Anyone with dirty clothes or dirty hands. Anyone who had already eaten that evening, and anyone that hadn’t yet eaten that day.
They all labored while I slept.
I couldn’t believe it.
Tiny Hector stood in my room with a banana leaf in hand smiling at me, wanting me to join in.
Tiny Hector is Hector’s brothers son.
Tiny Hector labored while I slept to celebrate his dad coming home.
Even now, as I write this. A heavy emotional weight pulls at my heart. All this kindness and sincerity. All the humble workers. All the ordinary people making food to eat. The lack of pomp and circumstance. The lack of applause. The lack of tables as we ate our food . . . we all ate the tamales in our laps.
It’s all so heavy in my heart.
And probably the best thing is what happened when we got home. After three hours of celebration, we returned home. Hector’s dad asked me if I had ever eaten a tamale before. I said I hadn’t, but I really, really liked them. He asked how many I ate today. I told him I ate four.
He opened up his mouth (which was missing six front teeth) and put his hands on his belly and laughed a big hearty full-bellied laugh.
“I had eight,” he said.
Somehow, it was clear to me that this was the last puzzle piece of this story. The one that seemed to make everything fit together. The family labored while I slept so that everyone could celebrate, and anyone could eat. After all, eating is for family and for friends, and for foreigners. And when you eat tamales, those delicious tamales, the goal is to eat until you’re full, until the entire family is full.
The labor had been completed. We celebrated and ate until our bellies were full, and now it was time to rest, for everyone to rest.
I went back to my room and set down my things. I found a tiny piece of a banana leaf and set it on my desk, and I smiled as I turned out the light.