Treasures from the Vault: Carmen Lomas Garza

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

The holiday season is upon us once again, bringing traditions, comfort food, and, most of all, family. This week’s treasure, Carmen Lomas Garza’s lithograph Tamalada (Making Tamales), brings all of these elements together in one scene.

A Hispanic family gathers in their kitchen to make tamales. In the front, a man and two women shuck the tamales and soak the skins. Around the table, the multiple people have jobs from filling the tamales to placing them in the pan to put in the oven. In the doorframe stands a man with his daughter. On the wall hangs a painting of Jesus and the Last Supper.
Carmen Lomas Garza, American, b. 1948. Tamalada (Making Tamales). Lithograph, 1990. Gift of June E. Enoch, 1997.13. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A Mexican American artist, Garza’s Tamalada celebrates the traditional Mexican process of cooking tamales, portraying at least three generations engaged in each step of tamale making. In the foreground, we see a little girl holding corn husks before they’re soaked by the three adults next to her – possibly her grandfather, mother, and older sister or cousin. To the left of this group, eight more family members gather around the table, most of them are stuffing the corn husks with the tamale filling but one woman, likely the grandmother, fills a container to bake them in. There’s also one sneaky fella off to the side in a green shirt tasting the filling – there’s on in every group who can’t wait until the end! In the background there’s a man in the kitchen doorway holding a small girl’s hands as she stands on his feet, possibly keeping her out of the way – it’s likely her sister who is playing on the floor with the husks in the foreground, her truck and doll forgotten with all the excitement around her.

While this piece isn’t about a specific holiday, we can feel the warmth and sense of home that many people associate with the season. Garza’s art-making was inspired by that of her grandmother and mother, and she portrays that familial link of teaching traditions in this print; a memory taken from her own life. It’s easy to imagine the lively conversations happening around the table as siblings, cousins, and grandparents exchange stories told time and time again. We can hear the scraping of spoons and bubbling of water as the tamales are constructed, Garza even shows the fire of the gas stovetop lit, much like the other familiar holiday sounds of a mixer making cookies or knives carving a turkey.

Garza has captured the coziness and comfort found when families come together, and that’s the heart of Tamalada. A significant member of the Chicano Movement, which comprised Latino artists celebrating the culture of Mexican Americans in the 1960s, her work celebrates the life that she and thousands of immigrant families have experienced while also educating audiences who may not be familiar with her culture. A positive image of Mexican Americans that any person from any culture can relate to, old or young, Garza employs both special and everyday events to help combat the racism she encountered as a youth. Though we may not have experienced the ritual of making tamales, most of us have traditions that gather the whole family together. One of my fondest memories is Christmas morning with my family: my parents always made the same breakfast before we opened presents – sausage, gravy, and biscuits, from scratch– while my brother and I were in charge of pouring milk or coffee. It was always about the four of us and, as our family has grown, our tradition now involves my brother’s wife and daughter and my husband, much like Garza’s tamale scene depicts a tradition encompassing all generations and new family members. While other Chicano artists embraced more political artworks, Garza maintains these familial scenes in her works, believing all people can more easily relate to these basic human elements: family, tradition, and spending time together.

The difference in our various experiences and practices are what make the holidays and time with family special, but the similarities in each of us partaking in these experience and practices prove how few differences we truly have. As we look at Garza’s Tamalada, let’s remember what warms our hearts and brings us home, and how each of our individual pieces in the puzzle make it whole.

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