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The first time I ever had a tamale was either my junior or senior year in college nearly twenty years ago. The church I was worshipping in used rented facilities—Western Seminary actually—and had the opportunity to use a different rented facility—the former Sixth Reformed Church building in Holland now owned by Hope College (since demolished and repurposed). But the space would need some considerable renovation after having been empty for a while so our congregation engaged in a Saturday morning workday. I went with a group of my buddies and I remember particularly the tedious scraping of many years worth of old paint from window frames. I remember also how one of the old-timers in the congregation, Reuben, had run down to the farmers market and picked up a couple dozen tamales to share during a coffee break. In unwrapping the aluminum foil, warmth and a delicious aroma emanated up from the corn husk encased corn masa that held just the right amount of spicy pork, the richness of the meat complementing perfectly with the heartiness of the dough. Perhaps it was in part a combination of the shared labour working in the church for a common cause and being among friends but the taste of that first tamale had me hooked. And apparently, I’m not the first to be wooed by their taste!
That memory came back to me vividly as I read a recent article by Kathryn Schulz from The New Yorker entitled, “Citizen Khan”. It tells a 100-year story—a particularly American story—of a small city in northern Wyoming called Sheridan and of an Afghan immigrant named Zarif Khan who became known there as Hot Tamale Louie. To be clear the article isn’t really all about tamales specifically but it does tell some of a lost historical record of how tamales played a role in American food culture, enterprise, and immigration. For instance I learned that, while being a common Mesoamerican food item since well before Pre-Columbian era and into later cultures of the region, tamales were relatively unknown to the general US palate until the mid 1880’s but by the 1890’s they became something of a fad. After the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, they were introduced throughout the nation peddled by vendors in various American cities. On the east coast those vendors were usually Irish and Italian immigrants, “while in the South and the Midwest most venders were African-American. But in the Rocky Mountain West the tamale trade was dominated by men from Afghanistan.”
Which is what this story really is about, how an Afghan native emigrated from a little village near the Khyber Pass and would eventually become an entrepreneur in Wyoming known for selling a particularly Mexican food of tamales. It’s the story of Tamale Louie. It’s also the story of Sheridan, Wyoming, an American story about grit, determination, kindness, success, and values. It’s about how “America” was made, what our culture is about.
The story can’t be told without also including those other elements of our American culture, elements of racism and xenophobia. Mr. Khan would live the “American dream” from 1907 until 1926 when he became a US citizen. And he continued to live that dream even though eleven months later he would be stripped of that citizenship for no other reason than the colour of his skin. This is an American story. As Schulz relates,
The first naturalization law in the United States was passed in 1790, one year into George Washington’s first term as President. It established that only “free white persons” were eligible to become citizens, a constraint designed to exclude Native Americans and slaves. After the Civil War, that law was changed to extend eligibility to people of African descent. As a result, beginning in 1870, those petitioning for American citizenship had to be either black or white.
That left immigrants from Asian nations in the lurch—deliberately, as Congress soon made clear. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented anyone born in China from becoming American. The Immigration Act of 1917 established an “Asiatic Barred Zone”: a region, encompassing dozens of countries, from the Middle East to Melanesia, whose native citizens could not be naturalized. In theory, such laws were plenty clear. In practice, however, Asians petitioning for citizenship simply contended that they were white. Whether that was true was a matter of heated dispute among ethnologists, anthropologists, political scientists, policymakers, and government officials around the nation.
The courts, brought in to clarify the issue, made a mess of it instead. In “White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race,” the Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López provides a tragicomic list of court rulings on racial identity, together with their legal rationales. Among those rulings: that Hawaiians are not white (based on scientific evidence); that Mexicans are not white (based on legal precedent); that Burmese are not white (based on common knowledge); that Japanese are not white (based on legal precedent); that people who are one-quarter Japanese are not white (based on legal precedent); that Syrians are white (based on scientific evidence); that Syrians are not white (based on common knowledge); that Arabs are white (based on common knowledge); that Arabs are not white (based on common knowledge); that Native Americans are not white (based on nothing).
What does it mean to be American? Many of us might respond, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” But obviously we are well aware that even the writer of these words did not believe “all men” actually meant all men. It certainly didn’t mean black men or the men of the indigenous/aboriginal communities that were already present in this land. And it definitely did not mean women. It would take us time to understand what “all men” meant. Maybe it still does. Still, we value these words because they continue to form and inform us, we continue to learn and grow and at our best see what we didn’t see or wouldn’t see before. Our American culture is changed and enhanced by those aspects that flavour it, those aspects that allow an Afghan immigrant to become famous for selling Mexican food in the American west.
Mr. Khan would have a second opportunity to become a US citizen in 1954. By then he was in his late sixties. He had just recently married and they would go on to have six children and they would live that American dream and become part of that American story. There’s more to it of course and I highly recommend you read it for yourself.
What does it mean to be American? Kathryn Schulz puts it this way,
Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those “many” can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall.
As I said, after the first time I had a tamale I was hooked. That congregation I was a part of took me in and taught me their ways. Granted, making tamales was but only a tiny part of our story, but a delicious part of it nonetheless. I have written about it in the past here on the Twelve and continue to carry that tradition with me. In that local church they would help me understand not only new foods, but what it meant to be Christian in west Michigan in a context that was not familiar with yet was also all around me.
As a country we continue to wrestle deeply with what it means to be American. And we are not alone in that. As this is being written our friends across the pond are voting on what it means to be both British and European.
I often wonder what it means to be Christian in the context of an American identity. How does the American culture and my faith interplay? How does American individualism deeply interfere with the teachings of Christ? How does the American dream interfere? Admittedly, during this last week I have been pondering what it means to be Christian particularly with the tribal affiliation of Reformed Church in America. Where do our values play themselves out and where do our fears and anxieties take the lead?
I’m still pondering and ultimately have no clear discernment in my particular ponderings. Yet in this journey of faith I am grateful for having met new and different people than I was used to, happy for the changes and growth. And for having tasted foods I had never had before! I’m glad for the tamale.