9th St. Memories
Christmas at 1020 Ninth Street
As a child, Christmas was not Christmas unless the smell of buñuelos and tamales permeated my grandma Carolina’s house. The buñuelos (Mexican fritters) were crispy and deliciously topped with a light miel de canela and piloncillo (cinnamon and brown sugar syrup). The pork tamales and tamales dulces (sweet) tamales were savored to the last morsel.
For Christmas, grandma remodeled tattered dolls from the second hand store and made woolen blankets from material scraps. Many times the blankets kept her grandchildren warm during a cold Colorado night. It was the time of year when Carolina’s four daughters – Maria, Belen, Marta, and Celia – gathered with their children to make traditional Christmas tamales. Family members laughed and gossiped in the communal kitchen where they cooked festive delights for their families and friends.
My mother Maria González Zimmermann recalls “Kids don’t have that kind of fun anymore at Christmas.” She was referring to The Great Depression of the early 30s. “We didn’t have presents – not that anyone complained – but we certainly had plenty to eat. We always waited until the last minute to get after Christmas tree and made homemade decorations of strung popcorn. In those days, the decorations were imported from Germany. One year, we found a box of tinsel for just pennies at the Salvation Army. The whole tree was covered with shining tinsel that made the room shine in the dark. We loved to go to the movies and watch Charlie Chaplain. After the film, the theater raffled a food basket and some lucky person took home a turkey or ham. On Christmas Eve, the windows of the house mysteriously opened and a voice from below said, “Have you been a good girl or boy?” If the answer was “yes,” a hand came through the window and put candy in the children’s tiny hands. They never knew who this was. Years later, they found out it was Uncle Alfonso,” she said.
On Christmas the children went to church and sang songs. There was a nativity display and a Christmas play portrayed the birth of Christ. “I remember a German woman who was a deaconess. She spoke very good Spanish; of course, the people liked her because she spoke their language. On Christmas Eve, we curled our hair with rags and woke the next morning with beautiful curls. When the woman saw us, she immediately took us into the church bathroom and drenched our heads under cold water. Our beautiful curls were gone. I guess we weren’t supposed to look nice,” said my mother.
A few days before Christmas, preparations for making tamales would begin. My mother’s sister-in-law Juanita, and sometimes the other women in the neighborhood joined them. In the early days, Grandma bought masa from woman who made it in her home on Larimer Street. The masa wasn’t available in the stores then. Later, Grandpa Ramon and his brother José made a molino, maquina para hacer tamales (corn grinder) to make the nixtamal (treated corn) for tamales. It was the field corn that was used to make the nixtamal.
Grandma bought the meat from the Piggly Wiggle or Loop Market located between Arapahoe and Lawrence at 14th and 15th streets. “The Loop Market was the hub and the end of the line for the street cars. People got off to shop at the fresh fruit and vegetables stands. There was a flower shop, bakery, and a butcher that use to give away the heart, kidneys, pig’s feet, oxtails, and tripe (cow stomach lining) for menudo. No one knew how to cook it except the Mexicans,” said Aunt Marta Alcaro.
The night before the tamales were made, the preparations began. Grandpa Ramon soaked the chile pods in warm water so the meat of the chile could be extracted. Everyone helped to cut up the meat and then it was prepared with the chile. The next morning the corn husks were soaked in warm water. The biggest job was mixing the nixtamal. The quantities were large and the water and lard had to be mixed well with the masa to make more than 300 tamales. Everyone joined in, even the children, to make the tamales. The masa was spread on top of a corn husk, then the meat and chile mixture was put in the middle and the corn husks were wrapped and folded. Grandma cut strips of corn husks to wrap around the tamales to keep them together. She placed broken pottery in the bottom of a 50-pound can. A tin plate with holes covered the pottery so the tamales could be placed on top. The can was placed on an old coal stove and steamed slowly. On Christmas, the feast was ready for the family celebration!
Sometimes, there was turkey stuffed with apples and raisins. Potatoes, beans, vegetables, rice and tortillas were washed down with grandma’s sarsaparilla, homemade beer, or cider. After the delicious meal was devoured, the entertainment began. Uncle Rafael played the piano alongside grandpa who played the mandolin. The children sang and danced and another Christmas passed at 1020 9th Street.
Since 1919, Auraria had always been the home of my family. Today, the 139-year-old house at 1020 9th Street still stands as one of the many historic buildings preserved on the Ninth Street Historic Park on the Auraria Campus. The house became the Casa Mayan restaurant and cultural center. It was a family-owned restaurant and home from 1934 to 1974, they were the last to leave Auraria and were closed by the Denver Urban
Renewal Authority (DURA).
Written by: Trini H. González