The Hot Issue Bedeviling Arizona’s New Governor: Tamales

Milagros Cruz and her wife Alexandra Herrera talk while Cruz prepares tamales in Phoenix, on April 23, 2023.(Caitlin O

Milagros Cruz and her wife Alexandra Herrera talk while Cruz prepares tamales in Phoenix, on April 23, 2023.(Caitlin O

PHOENIX — Milagros Cruz was down to her last $75 and sleeping in a car when she heard her mother’s voice guiding her in a dream: My girl, make tamales.

Arizona did not make it easy. Although the state promotes itself as a low-tax, low-regulation haven for private enterprise, it does not allow the sale of perishable foods made at home. So for years, a thriving economy of working-class, mostly Latina home cooks has operated underground, selling tacos, tres leches cakes and chile-dusted corn illegally from living rooms and outside laundromats and soccer games.

Cruz, 41, sells her pillowy green chile and pork tamales near a Phoenix auto parts store and worries about getting cited under a state law that punishes home cooks who break the rules with a $500 fine and six months in jail. She said she would gladly operate legally if she could, but the state offered no way for her to do so.

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This month, Republicans who control the state’s fractious Legislature came together with Democrats in a moment of unusual bipartisan accord to try to change all that. They passed a bill that would let Arizona’s home cooks register with the state to legally sell perishable foods like salsas and tamales.

But Katie Hobbs, the state’s new Democratic governor, vetoed the measure last week, citing concerns about the potential for foodborne illnesses, as well as rats and insects in home kitchens.

Her veto set off a ferocious culinary and cultural backlash from the Capitol to kitchens across Arizona, offering a political lesson for the new governor: Do not mess with the tamale makers.

“I respect our governor — I voted for our governor — but this veto, I do not agree with,” said Imelda Hartley, who started her culinary career making tamales from home and now runs her Happy Tamales business in a commercial kitchen. “It’s hurting our Latino community,” Hartley said of the veto.

She said cooking from home was the only realistic choice for immigrants, many of them living in the country without legal permission, who wanted to get a toehold in running a food business. A cook can book time in a shared commercial kitchen more cheaply than renting an entire restaurant or buying a food truck, but Hartley said some of those shared spaces had long waiting lists and could be hard to reach without a car.

Republicans, who slammed Hobbs for preserving restrictions on small businesses, tried unsuccessfully to override her veto Tuesday, with a rally featuring food vendors outside the Capitol and “Free the Tamales” stickers. But most Democrats stood by the governor, with one Democratic lawmaker deriding the override effort as Republican “pandering” to Latino voters.

Christian Slater, a spokesperson for the governor, said Hobbs would work with lawmakers to balance the interests of small businesses with public health concerns.

The governor’s Democratic allies have applauded her for vetoing or promising to veto other Republican bills, including efforts to limit transgender rights, restrict discussions of race in schools and weaken abortion rights. But some Democrats have also criticized her for killing what is widely being called the “tamale bill.”

They said her move was a slap in the face of Latino constituents who voted for Hobbs and whose support was crucial in a politically fractured state that is about 32% Latino. Critics said her veto would hurt the working-class immigrants that Hobbs had championed during her campaign.

“We should not criminalize poor people for trying to put food on the table,” said state Rep. Alma Hernandez, one of five Democrats who voted to override the veto Tuesday. “That is just absurd.”

Hernandez said she felt personally connected to the issue. Her mother had worked as a biochemist in Mexico, but after immigrating to the United States and after Hernandez’s father was injured on his construction job, she said her mother had to start a new career out of the family’s kitchen.

“She used to be the Cake Lady,” Hernandez said. “If she didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have had gas to move our car. We wouldn’t have been able to put food on the table. I’m so proud of that, and I’m so glad she did it.”

Under Arizona’s tamale bill (or “tamal bill,” to use the Spanish spelling), home cooks making perishable foods who take a $10 online food safety class, register with the state and label their foods could join the roughly 15,000 people who are already registered as part of Arizona’s legal “cottage food” industry, selling homemade tortillas, cookies, roasted nuts and other foods that do not need refrigeration. Several tamale vendors said they would gladly register with the state if they could.

Informal food businesses are an economic lifeline for thousands of people across the country, many of them women living in the country without legal permission: mango vendors in New York City, boiled-peanut stands along Georgia highways, bacon-wrapped hot-dog stands outside Los Angeles sporting events, and many others.

But it is precarious work, and vendors say they worry about being fined or reported to authorities. In 2019, a woman selling churros in New York City was handcuffed by the police, and last year, a Texas county health department confiscated 25 dozen tamales that a couple was selling illegally from the back of their car.

“I always worry about being cited,” said Javier Lara, 48, who works at a countertop maker and on weekends sells green chile tamales from his kitchen in Phoenix, using a recipe his grandmother taught him. “I make minimum wage; I’ve got to make extra money. Anything I can do to survive in this world.”

Every year, he said he makes a six-hour pilgrimage to Hatch, New Mexico, to buy 300 pounds of green chiles, then spends days afterward peeling and seeding them by hand. Every week, as orders pour in from his Facebook page and over the phone, Lara said, he spreads masa dough onto hundreds of corn husks, adds a bit of meat, cheese or chile, then folds up each tamale and cooks them in a huge steel pot for 2 1/2 hours.

It is exhausting work, he said, because he suffers from arthritis, but “my hands do wonders with tamales.”

The debate over food safety in Arizona could affect many kinds of foods, but it has focused on tamales because they hold a special, Proustian place in Arizona’s culinary soul. Tamales are a staple of Christmases and birthdays, the inspiration for the farming town of Somerton’s December Tamale Festival, and the subject of passionate debate: Lard or no lard? Dough from sweet elote corn kernels or more neutral masa? Wrapped in banana leaves or corn husks?

For Yanet Guadalupe Azamar Uscanga, selling Veracruz-style tamales out of her tiny kitchen in suburban Phoenix is a ladder to bigger dreams — running her own restaurant, paying off debts and helping to support her 11-year-old granddaughter.

“I’m doing honest work to get ahead,” Uscanga said. “I try to be good to the whole world.”

She awakens at 4 a.m. to make tamales, opening windows and blasting fans as she stirs a huge pot of masa in her ground-floor kitchen, where a statue of a grinning chef oversees the operation.

She earns more now selling tamales, cheesecake and frozen ice pops than she did from prior jobs cleaning hotel rooms, and she rarely has to leave home to make a delivery. Customers arrive after work to pick up their orders, have a glass of hibiscus tea and talk about children, work and life.

“This is therapy,” Uscanga said.

Lately, her customers are buzzing about the politics of tamales. Uscanga said she lived in fear of losing her business, and with it, the money she had invested in food, kitchen supplies and an extra refrigerator.

On Sunday afternoon, Beny Vela Vaaz arrived to place an order for her son’s 15th birthday party and to commiserate.

“It’s so bad,” Vaaz said of the veto. “We need the food that she makes.”

Nearly a year after that night in the car when Cruz dreamed about her mother’s advice, her new business, called La Tamalería, is growing fast.

Cruz and her wife, Alexandra Herrera, make more than 1,000 tamales by hand every week, cooking huge cuts of beef and pork, slicing dozens of ears of corn and knotting the tamales closed with strands of corn husk, the way Cruz’s mother, who died in 2017, taught her to do.

They began their business in an open-air hallway outside Cruz’s sister’s apartment, but they have since been able to rent their own apartment and also recently moved into a rented kitchen space. Cruz wants to expand the business into a tamale empire, while Herrera hopes to one day start her own business manufacturing construction supplies.

“We’re here making tamales,” Herrera said. “At the end is your dream.”

But not yet. Late on Sunday afternoon, they had a long list of orders and 350 steaming tamales to sell. Herrera packed them into coolers and headed out to the parking lot. Cruz stayed behind to start on the next day’s batch.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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