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Marie-Anne DAYÉ

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Cooking tamales to break the routine

A collective cooking workshop organized by Actions interculturelles (AIDE) allowed about twenty Guatemalan and Mexican workers to relax between two shifts. It was also an opportunity to create rituals, a bit like at home.

Text and photos Marie-Anne Dayé

With Latin American music playing in the background, the sound of the mixer and the wooden spoons stirring in the cauldrons can be heard, combined with laughter and discussions in Spanish. The atmosphere is relaxed on this Saturday, February 25, 2023, in the basement of the Waterville City Hall, located about 20 minutes from Sherbrooke. Jasmin Chabot and Valeria Condés Roveglia, the instigators of the Ensemble on sème project, headed by AIDE, have invited the temporary foreign workers of the region to a collective cooking workshop. On the menu, tamales, a typical Mexican dish since pre-Hispanic times, which has different variants in other Latin American countries.

The participants came in dribs and drabs to the room, ready to get to work. Most had never cooked tamales themselves… but they love to eat them! With the help of the chefs, they learned how to prepare the base made from cornmeal and chicken broth, then the two fillings: one made with chicken, onions and tomatoes and the other with a seasoned beef mixture. Then they had to stuff corn or banana leaves with these two preparations, close them and put them in the pot to steam them. Hence the origin of the word “tamales”, which is Nahuatl tamalli, meaning “wrapped”.

 

Creating rituals

Jasmin Chabot and Valeria Condés Roveglia had the idea to start their project in 2020, when they met Mexican workers on their bikes on the main street in Waterville and invited them to come eat tamales at their home. This spontaneous meeting allowed them to hear their stories, to exchange with them, and to see that few services were offered to these workers who were arriving from far away. Since then, the couple has multiplied the gatherings and activities that give the workers a break. “They are happy, they thank us and many say that before, there was nothing. They are less stressed, they are more relaxed, they have a smile on their face on Monday when they start working again,” says Jasmin Chabot. “The activities mean that they now know each other, call each other and help each other. They can also inform each other,” adds Valeria.

These men, who come year after year to Quebec, have no roots in terms of identity here, Valeria points out. That’s why she and Jasmin wanted to establish habits and rituals to reproduce what they feel at home. “Latin America is a society where, from an anthropological point of view, the cycles of agriculture are linked to ritual cycles, for example the feast of Santa Cruz is linked to an invocation to the rain,” Valeria continues. In order to create a sense of belonging, they organize soccer tournaments, movie nights, and Father’s Day, among others. “These are routines that humans need to feel that the cycles are going appropriately. They are symbolic rituals that give a sense of presence.”

 Moment of rest

For Willians Barahona, activities like these allow him to break the isolation, as he is the only TFW in the company where he works, lives with only one other Guatemalan and works 70 hours a week. He says he sometimes feels lonely and sad, feels the distance between him and his family in Guatemala, finds the winter and darkness difficult, experiences stress and lack of sleep. But the smile on his face reflected his joy at being able to break the routine for an afternoon. Although he misses his country and his family, he is motivated by his projects and has started to learn French. He hopes to one day bring his wife and now two-year-old daughter here. “By being here, I know I can give her a better future, a better education and the opportunity to live in a safe country,” he says.

 

At the end of the day, not all participants were able to taste the fruits of their labor, as the tamales were not ready before they left for their second shift. However, the organizers promised to deliver them to their homes. The next day, the organizers continued the mission of creating rituals and happy moments by inviting the workers to play basketball or watch a field hockey game.

 


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