Editor’s Note: This interview was done with help of Francisco Yanez, who translated when necessary.
Estella Lucero is a happy and welcoming woman. Her eyes are wide and kind to people she meets even though she encounters a language barrier from time to time.
But the one thing that is obvious about the 63-year-old grandmother is her willingness to work and work hard. Her labor, though, is from the heart and a she smiles and laughs while she works making batches of traditional fare for sale.
Her grandchildren and everyone who knows her calls Estella “La Tia” or “The Aunt.”
“I don’t know why,” she smiles. “They just always have!”
She has one granddaughter and one grandson, both in their 20s. She has one great-grandbaby who is a year old. They all live close by. And she has nieces and nephews she adores, too. Two are U.S. Marine Corp veterans and one is now a police officer.
Estella was one of nine children who grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico. Being one of the oldest siblings, she was responsible for preparing food for the family. She also learned to make food for large groups of people who worked for her family building roadways across Mexico.
Through the years, it was her ability to make traditional tamales that kept people coming back. In 1995 and a widower, Estella moved to Conway to be near family. It didn’t take long for her reputation in the kitchen to jump start her business — La Tia Estella, Inc.
“I am self-taught,” she says. “I learned to make tamales by watching one of the sisters at my church and I just picked up on that trait.”
Now, her ability to whip up large numbers of tamales — chicken, beef, pork and garlic-butter — is an artform she hopes to preserve for future generations — if they’re willing to do the work.
“Making tamales is a lot, a lot of work,” she says. “Younger people don’t want to learn. I always worked in the kitchen. I was always responsible because I had siblings. I believe it is important to maintain these recipes because it is important to maintain our culture and understand our ancestors’ way of cooking.”
Each week, beginning early in the morning, Estella begins work on her tamale orders. She has a technique that is fast and efficient, and she has a system for labeling the different varieties with strips of corn husk.
Currently, Estella makes everything she cooks to order and delivers daily to customers. Soon, though, she will have a regular food truck situated in Conway. She’s looking for a location.
“I definitely have a love for cooking,” she says. “When I was a little girl, I would wake up at 4 in the morning when I heard my mother get up. She would say, ‘Go back to sleep! It’s too early for you Mi hija (my daughter). But I would watch and help her and my love for cooking started then.”
Estella’s mother would cook by season, spending much time during the Christian season of Lent making a traditional sliced torta bread with brown sugar, cheese and raisins (Capirotada).
She was an expert at pork stew and Barbacoa. She passed down dishes sometimes unavailable in restaurants even today like Tinga, a shredded chicken with chipotle that is similar to a thick stew served on a tostada.
“I learned how to make rice from an older, older lady. That’s why it is different. These are homemade Mexican dishes,” Estella explains. “I will make them to order and so many people says it reminds them of home.”
When Estella moved to the United States, she was unsure how she would make a living but knew she would persevere. Without her husband to help, she first took a job in construction laying bricks. But word of her tamales spread and she learned quickly she could do more from her kitchen.
“I feel so grateful and blessed that this trait helped pay my bills,” she explains. “I’m not a burden to my family or the government. Thanks to God.”
While Estella works at a quick pace on a recent afternoon wrapping tamales to deliver, she talks about her heritage and her family history. With joy, she explains how her great-grandfather moved from Michigan to Mexico in 1910 to help during the revolution there. That’s how her family has roots in Mexico. Her grandmother eventually married a Mexican soldier — a well-educated, well-respected man who spoke multiple languages.
Although the story is unusual at best, there are many twists and turns. It’s a family story of love, revolution, revenge and spins much like that of a Shakespearean tale. And she tells it in Spanish, which only enhances the romantic nature of the story.
“I tell my children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews this story,” she beams. “It’s who we are. And I usually tell it over a traditional meal.
“I often make Caldo de Res (Mexican beef soup), and that reminds me of my mother. It’s good for eating because it has so many nutrients and it’s good for napping!”
Estella admits although her calling is tamale-making, she is available to make specialties requested of her.
“Homemade food is important, even for a busy family,” she says. “Too many young people go out to eat and are deep frying and eating processed foods. Things made at home have many health benefits and are good for family.”
Estella takes orders for tamales through Las Delicias in Conway. To inquire about dishes or order, call (501) 358-7577.
Note: The process for making traditional Mexican tamales
is too difficult and time-consuming to detail here. We recommend
researching techniques online if you are brave enough to try. Step-by-step instructions are available. The following is Estella’s traditional ingredients list.
4 cups masa harina (Mexican flour)
1 (21-ounce) can beef broth
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 ⅔ cups lard
Pinch of garlic powder
2 ½ pounds pork loin
1 large onion
8 dried chile pods (guajillo)
4 cups water
1 ½ teaspoons salt