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A series of isolated violent events in the United States gave rise to what is called the Tamale War, which occurred in the early 20th century.
The tamale is one of the oldest dishes in Mexico, and also one of the most diverse. This dish is present in all regions of the country and has more than 4,000 varieties. In addition, this food, which is characterized by being wrapped in some type of leaf and cooked by steam, is also a link between Mexico and the United States. But it did not start in the most pleasant way, as in the early 20th century a war was sparked by this Mexican delicacy.
It is called the Tamale War, but not because of a particular event, but due to a wave of incidents that occurred among the tamale vendors who were taking over the American market., during that time, the disputes between the merchants of this Mexican food began to appear in newspaper headlines. Its sale was considered an activity of the lower classes, not only Mexican immigrants but also African Americans, Italians, Irish, and Afghans.
In 2016, the writer Kathryn Schulz published a chronicle titled “Citizen Khan” in The New Yorker, in which she tells the story of a Muslim entrepreneur who is remembered as Hot Tamales Louie. About this man who achieved wealth by selling food, it was thought that he was taught by Mexicans upon arriving in the United States. But beyond the work of the Muslim man, named Zarif Khan, Schulz contextualizes how tamales were received in the United States and the violence that occurred in the country because of them.
“When Europeans arrived in the New World, tamales could be found, at a minimum, throughout much of Central America and all of Mexico. However, still in 1884, they were so unknown in the United States that the Associated Press felt obliged to refer to them as ‘a strange food item, locally known as tamales,'” Schulz wrote.
After this, tamales became popular among vendors of all types, because like other forms of street vending, little money was needed to start the business, which made it attractive to immigrants. The tamale craze in the United States lasted for more than three decades, and “headlines about ‘tamale wars‘ were comically abundant,” as Schulz recounted. In the newspapers, one could read how “rivalry in the tamale business” had constantly ended in shootings and murders, with even talk of a “tamale mafia” in Seattle.
The attempt to eliminate tamales in Los Angeles.
The tamale fever throughout the United States began in San Francisco around 1892, after Robert H. Putnam founded the California Chicken Tamale Company, taking inspiration from Mexican street vendors who had migrated from areas such as Sonora and Baja California to Los Angeles, California. Later, Putnam brought the business concept to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and that’s how it began to spread throughout the northern part of the country. However, Mexican food was already popular in the city. As told by Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America“, its appearance dates back to the years between 1870 and 1880 in Los Angeles.
Tamale vendors dominated the downtown area in the 1890s, specifically from the old plaza located at what is now Olvera Street, to the southwest, as Arellano tells in the article “Tamales, L.A.’s original street food” published in the Los Angeles Times in 2011. At that time, promotions were often offered for two tamales at the price of four, and an “army” of carts and wagons filled the famous Tamale Row.
“By 1901, more than one hundred tamale carts roamed Los Angeles, each paying one dollar per month for a city commercial license,” Arellano wrote. Their popularity encouraged others in the surrounding cities to follow their example. In 1906, Sonoran immigrant Alejandro Morales began selling his wife’s tamales from a cart. “Morales, a ditch digger by trade, turned the concept into a restaurant, then into a tamale factory, then into Alex Foods, a multimillion-dollar empire now known as Don Miguel Mexican Foods,” wrote Gustavo Arellano.
Although tamales have by no means disappeared from Los Angeles, in 1897 the city council wanted to ban their sale, as there were recurrent disturbances around these businesses. However, this was not possible, and in 1901 the only thing that could be achieved was that they were allowed to be open until one in the morning, as the carts were considered “a refuge for drunks who roam the streets when the bars are closed at night.”
By the year 1910, this dish was still not well-regarded in the city, and around 100 entrepreneurs petitioned the city council to ban the carts. But that crowd could do little against the tamale society, which had collected more than 500 customer signatures in favor of tamales. By the year 1920, the dispute continued, and at that time Councilman Fred Wheeler defended the business before the Los Angeles council, arguing that tamales had put the city on the map.
The tamale “lost” the battle in 1924 with a resolution that banned its sale. But on today’s Olvera Street, Mexican food was already more than just tamales, as tacos, menudo, and barbacoa also appeared. That same year, The Los Angeles Times declared the ancestral Mexican dish as something old and not fit for the change that was happening in the city: “Born of the people, perished in the metropolis.”
As of 2022, Los Angeles is home to dozens of places where you can find tamales.
Sources: Los Angeles Time, New Yorker y El Sol de Hermosillo.