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Thanksgiving ‘Tamaliza’ Brings Highland Park School Together

Academia Avance Charter School, located on Avenue 53 and Figueroa Street in Highland Park, on Tuesday night held an event that is fast becoming a Thanksgiving tradition.

Academia Avance’s parent center on Monday radiated warmth, the delicious aroma of tamales, as giggling mothers prepared 1.500 tamales. (EGP photo by Gloria Angelina Castillo)

While  tamales are more of a Christmas or New Year tradition for many, at Academia Avance, the coming of Thanksgiving signals its time for tamales. For the fifth consecutive year, members of the school’s Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) labored for hours to deliver the corn-husk-wrapped main attraction of their “Tamaliza” fundraiser.

Proceeds from the event held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving are used to support teachers with anything “from frogs to books,” according to Angela Vizcaya, the school’s student activities and parent coordinator. Science teachers request frogs for dissection and English teachers request novels, she explained.

However, the money raised will also support college campus tours, summer school, dances and culmination, Vizcaya told EGP. The event made a $1,500 profit, she said.

“The Housewives of Highland Park”—as Vizcaya affectionately refers to them—spent Monday filling shifts along an assembly line in Vizcaya’s office, making 1,500 tamales that sold out.

The group of 21 parents, composed almost exclusively of mothers, keep the mood light, cracking jokes and demonstrating a tight-knit friendship while making the red pork, green chicken, and cheese and chili tamales.

Araceli Garcia, mother of Elizabeth, an 11th grade student, has been a member of the PAC for seven years. Her older daughter, now a sophomore at Mt. Saint Mary’s College, graduated from Academia Avance.

The first year of the Tamaliza all the moms made their own tamales and donated them to be sold at the fundraiser, according to Garcia. But by the third year they began getting together to prepare the tamales, she said. The group currently asks for ingredients to be donated and volunteer their time to do the work.

“We thought it wouldn’t work out but it has,” Garcia told EGP, speaking in Spanish. Each year they make more tamales and raise more funds, she added.

Some of the fathers, who are less involved or don’t want to attend social gatherings in their personal lives, look forward to attending the Tamaliza, Vizcaya and Garcia said.

Elda Castillo, Vizcaya’s mother and a volunteer, said the secret to the tamale sales really comes down to the tamale recipe, specifically knowing how to make a delicious chili for the meats.

Blanca Gutierrez, mother of a sixth grader at Academia Avance’s satellite campus in Lincoln Heights, says she believes the parent-led event is also successful because it is fun.

“I think because we’re a small school, not a big public school, it’s easier for parents to get involved and know each other,” Gutierrez said.

Carmina Grajeda, mother of a 9th grader, was one of several moms smearing “masa” (Tamale corn dough) on husks with a spoon. “This is a good excuse to be together as a family and to co-exist with our Avance family,” Grajeda said.

Siblings, 11th grader Araceli Perez and 8th grader Adrian Perez, helped make and count the tamales. Adrian said he doesn’t know any other school that has a Tamaliza. Araceli, who has experience making tamales at home, said the work of preparing the tamales is “fun” and “exciting” because the moms have a good sense of humor and tell jokes.

The fundraiser also includes the sale of champurrado (hot chocolate drink) and deserts; there were also raffles, games and live entertainment.

Most of the students at Academia Avance are Latino, and about 92 to 94 percent of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch, according to Vizcaya.

Last year, PAC members raised a total of $9,000 through all their fundraising efforts. Other successful mothers-led efforts include increasing parent attendance at parent-teacher conferences, using a phone tree and assigning parents to PAC members, Vizcaya said.