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Wrapped and ready for Christmas, tamales are a must in Denton's Latino households

Latin American cuisine can be found all over Denton, and it’s not uncommon for people to make dozens of tamales at home and then sell them year round. Local tamale makers say their busiest time of the year starts in mid-November just before Thanksgiving.

Tamales are a staple during celebrations throughout the year such as birthdays and baptisms, but they’re highly sought-after around the holidays — especially Christmas.

What started as a request from school staff at Denton ISD became a side business for the Fuentes family.

“The teachers asked me, given that I’m Hispanic, if I made any,” Alma Fuentes said in Spanish. “I started making them, and because I live with my daughter, she advertised it on Facebook, and people started buying. I’m thankful to God that every time we make some, the same people come back and buy more.”

Her daughter, Laura Fuentes, said they have an unofficial name for the tamale business. Tamales del Alma is named after her mother, but it also means “Tamales From the Soul” when translated from Spanish.

The necessity to make money during the pandemic led to a year-round tamale business for Stephanie Astrada of Denton.

Astrada, 30, is a one-woman show running The Golden Wrap in Denton. The name comes from the corn husk tamales are wrapped in. She said she has been selling tamales through Facebook for two years now.

“I love the whole business aspect, and I love meeting everybody,” Astrada said. “It gave me the motivation to continue with it. … It used to be a seasonal thing because when people think of tamales, it’s just a Thanksgiving and Christmas thing, but I do them a couple of times a month now.”

They take a lot of time to make, which is why Astrada thinks they’re more common to have around the holidays — the time and effort to make them would feel more special around the holidays.

“I’m delivering on Friday,” she said. “I just went to the store [Monday] and bought just about everything I need so I can start figuring out these next couple of days and what I’m going to do. … I get about a few hours of sleep a night, but it’s worth it.”

Her customers will enjoy the fruits of her labor on Christmas Eve — la Nochebuena, or the Good Night, in Latin American culture. It’s marked by feasts in households.

Alma Fuentes, 61, remembers being young and gathering with multiple family members in Mexico to make tamales.

“At my house, we always made some for Christmas, for New Year’s, for Candlemas,” she said in Spanish. “And when I make them for people, I make them as if I were making some for myself.”

At any other time of the year, Astrada said she can make tamales and fulfill her orders in one day. At Christmastime, she said she gives herself two days because there are more orders and because she offers four flavors — chicken, pork, bean and peppers.

Alma Fuentes said she also makes extra salsa to sell to customers in case they want something a bit spicier than what’s already in the tamale. The Fuentes family sells tamales for $12 per dozen, and Astrada sells them for $15 per dozen.

“We hit more than 60 dozen, and that was this past weekend,” said Laura Fuentes, 34. “And they’re all gone. I didn’t even get to taste one.”

Astrada and the Fuenteses all started making tamales when they were very young, although for the kids, making tamales usually means helping the adults place the stuffing onto the masa, or corn dough.

“I had to have been maybe 5 or 6 helping my grandma with the easy stuff like making the masa for it,” Laura Fuentes said. “My mom is definitely the one that does all the measuring as far as salt and whatever we got to add to it.”

She said measuring is done loosely because her mother learned from her mother by watching and listening, just as she’s doing now. There are no exact measurements — only eyeballing.

There are different types of tamales in Latin America, and both Astrada and the Fuenteses make them using corn husks and corn masa dough. Banana and plantain leaves are used in some countries, and some tamales are sweet rather than savory.

Astrada said she starts with making the green and red salsas that will top the chicken and pork tamales. She boils the produce that will go into the salsas, blends them and strains them for any chunky bits.

Astrada cooks the chicken, pork and beans, and roasts the peppers for the raja tamales. The protein has to cool before she can shred it, and she also has to mash the beans and slice the peppers. She mixes the shredded protein with their respective salsas.

The corn husks need to be washed, so that they become not only clean but also soft enough for masa to be spread on them. The masa itself is another ingredient Astrada takes time to make.

“Once I get that done, then I create an assembly line,” she said. “I get the masa and lay it on the husk, get the protein and fold it. And I do that four different times because I have four flavors.”

Alma Fuentes said she makes the masa from scratch rather than buying the pre-made dry masa mix from the store that just needs water.

After selling tamales for years now, Laura Fuentes and Astrada both said they have loyal customers who have stuck around since the beginning.

“We have our clients that know when it starts hitting this time of year; they’re like, ‘Hey, when are you going to make some?’” Laura Fuentes said.

Astrada said one of her customers has been there from the start.

“Right now, I have a dozen loyal people that contact me all the time, sometimes not even when I’m ready to sell them but because they want me to cater,” she said. “And I’ll do it.”

Laura Fuentes said she doesn’t know why it’s common in Latin American culture to have tamales around the holidays.

“It’s just all I’ve known since I was little,” she said. “Instead of having a turkey, we have tamales and buñuelos. It’s our version of a turkey.”

Alma Fuentes doesn’t know how the tradition came to be either.

“It comes from, I imagine, before I was born,” she said. “I think it’s just a custom. I just remember always making them this time of year. I don’t know when the tradition started or why we make them on these dates, but I do know that they’re very delicious.”

Look back through the six biggest stories in Denton this year

After searching through our archives and analyzing our coverage of northern Denton County throughout the year, the newsroom gathered together the biggest stories that have marked the past year.

Here are the Denton Record-Chronicle’s six top stories of 2021.

February freeze

The first inklings of what February’s massive winter storm would mean for many residents came just days beforehand. The Record-Chronicle ran photos of warming stations and emergency vehicles ready for snow removal on Friday, Feb. 12. Experts’ predictions for the days to come ran the next day, and it already seemed likely that some degree of rolling blackouts would occur, but it wasn’t yet clear how bad it was about to get.

Schools closed, residents struggled through days without power, Denton and other areas issued boil-water notices, and snow and ice hung around for days as vital infrastructure suffered and the city all but ground to a halt.

The city of Denton issued a disaster declaration Monday, Feb. 15, and the county followed suit Feb. 16 as the next crisis the community would experience began to unfold: problems with running water. Corinth residents experienced not just power outages but water outages because the city did not have a backup generator for pump stations. Aubrey had to issue a boil-water notice Tuesday. The next day, the city of Denton had to issue a boil-water notice as well.

Cold weather burst water pipes, damaging homes, schools and other buildings with flooding, and some structures suffered ice damage. Crews worked around the clock to make the area as habitable as possible, but the inescapable effects lingered for a week or more.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

Cellarman Andrew Truemper helps fill water into a bucket for Denton resident Perla Sanchez at Denton County Brewing Co. on Feb. 18. The brewery distributed clean, filtered water from its 700-gallon tank to anyone in need while people struggled with frozen pipes and the city’s boil-water notice.

Volunteers also stepped up to provide clean water to residents living in homes and apartment communities that had no access to running water before local officials stepped in. Other nonprofit grassroots efforts followed for the coming days to provide food and water to people in the coming days and weeks.

Systemic issues brought to light by the storm remain unresolved less than two months before its first anniversary.

Masks in schools

The debate on whether mask requirements were good or bad marked 2021, but none played out in such a contentious way as mask mandates in area schools.

A few months into 2021, pushback on mask requirements started in a way we hadn’t seen before from an angry few to groups of parents protesting area school boards, calling on them to drop mask requirements in public schools.

The backlash started after Gov. Greg Abbott dropped the statewide mask mandate March 10. The day after, Krum ISD board members decided to keep masks in classrooms after a long debate, and then rescinded the mandate a month later.

After the pushback, Argyle ISD made masks optional at sporting events and eventually made mask-wearing optional effective in May, just weeks before school let out. Denton ISD instead chose to keep optional mask measures in place through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

While normalcy crept in over the summer as vaccination rates climbed and cases ebbed, the delta variant began to run rampant in school districts as students returned to campuses for a new school year, relaunching the debate on masks. Then guidance from Abbott and the Texas Education Agency said no hard mask mandates were allowed, prompting school boards across the state to decide if they would openly defy Abbott and risk getting sued.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

Parents and children hold pro-mask signs before a Denton school board meeting at the Stephens Central Services Building on Aug. 24.

Parents at Denton ISD implored the board to create a mask mandate as cases rose in late August, with dozens speaking in favor of a mask mandate. The board did implement a mandate without a mechanism to enforce mask wearing but changed the language from “required” to “recommended” a month later as cases declined.

RanchLand Foods dream deal disappears

Within a few months, Denton City Council and staffers’ enthusiasm about an economic incentive grant to bring an organic meat production company’s headquarters to Denton turned into concern.

The Denton City Council in May approved a Chapter 380 grant for RanchLand Foods to move its headquarters to Denton. The Arizona brand promised to invest almost $6 million into the former Miller of Denton building and bring more than 100 jobs to the city.

Jeff Woo/DRC file photo 

RanchLand Foods had been set to move into the former Miller building, shown in May. But by September, an anonymous tip led city staff to file a report with the Denton Police Department with concerns the company was not legitimate.

But by September, an anonymous tip about the company and its owner, Kenny J. Davis, led city staff to file a report with the Denton Police Department with concerns the company was not legitimate.

An investigation by the Denton Record-Chronicle revealed Davis had served time in federal prison for his role in a multilevel marketing scheme that had defrauded investors of more than $600,000. An appraisal district in Arizona revealed the address Davis gave for RanchLand’s main hub didn’t exist, and the closest real address was an empty field.

Charles Goodwin said he briefly worked as an executive for RanchLand in Denton. Soon after, he said, he and many other employees stopped being paid. An email Goodwin received from RanchLand parent company IHI Holdings showed he was owed nearly $13,000 in back wages.

Stephen Harris, who claimed to be an IHI executive but whose voice sounded similar to audio recordings of Davis, told the Record-Chronicle in September that Davis was hospitalized. He said the company had been bought out by another company — also owned by IHI — and would relocate to Dallas instead of Denton. He could not provide the address of any of RanchLand’s distribution centers.

Subsequent investigations by the Record-Chronicle revealed an economic incentive Davis applied for in Decatur earlier this year fell through before the Denton deal after Davis failed to answer questions about the company’s false address and RanchLand financials.

Denton staff stressed that Davis received no money as part of the incentive agreement, since parties to economic development contracts must meet benchmarks before receiving payouts. But other Denton residents saw losses. Internal emails among city staff claimed that Davis owed more than $200,000 in back rent on the building RanchLand occupied.

Harris said IHI Holdings was handling final payouts for vendors and employees while RanchLand was in transition. City staff would review internal vetting processes in the wake of the deal, Economic Development Director Jessica Rogers said. Within three weeks of the RanchLand revelations becoming public, Rogers and Cory Lacy, vice president of economic development, had left the department. Both said the departures were unrelated to the scandal.

New Denton County courthouse opens

In late November, Denton County officials completed a move years in the making. The county’s new administrative courthouse opened to the public after almost three years of construction, about $45 million and a fair share of bumps in the road.

By the end, the project had exceeded its initial timeline by nearly a full year and had gone over budget by roughly $2 million, counting all payments due to contractor Sundt Construction. Questions abounded over the delays, with officials pushing the timeline back on several occasions.

County Judge Andy Eads said the building hit several snags before reaching the finish line, including pandemic challenges and February’s winter storm. He also said there were times the county had to step in to get the result it wanted from the contractor. In one example, he said, an installment of bricks needed to be redone after county officials found they didn’t match properly.

The end result — a four-story, 96,000-square-foot building that houses numerous county offices — was to Eads’ liking. But he left the county’s relationship with Sundt somewhat ambiguous.

“We do have legal advice that we seek as we’re wrapping this up, to make sure the county’s protected and our interests are protected,” Eads said. “We appreciate the work Sundt has done, and we’re glad they submitted a bid. … We want to be a good place to do business, but we’re also balancing that with the fact these are tax dollars. That’s why we do maintain our standards.”

State and local redistricting

None of the several district maps redone in 2021 were safe from criticism.

Maps for the U.S. House, Texas House, Texas Senate, Denton County Commissioners Court and Denton City Council were all accused of being gerrymandered by their opponents while being defended by their creators.

The one outlier is the Denton council district map, which was passed in a split vote by what is popularly considered to be a progressive group of representatives. Every other map was passed by a conservative majority.

The congressional and two state-level maps carved up Denton in what opponents have called an intentional dilution of the city’s voting power. Conservatives and progressives alike have called the new districts a bum deal for locals who want the best chances at representation.

Prison sentence for woman who entered Capitol

Courtesy image/U.S. Department of Justice 

An image from a security camera shows a person the FBI has identified as Jenna Ryan, circled, inside the Capitol on Jan. 6. Ryan is expected to surrender herself to the Federal Bureau of Prisons after Jan. 3 to serve a 60-day sentence for entering the Capitol building during the riot.

A few people who entered the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, had ties to Denton County, but none made the news nationally as much as real estate broker Jenna Ryan, who flew to the Capitol riot from Denton.

Ryan is expected to surrender herself to the Federal Bureau of Prisons after Jan. 3, 2022, to serve a 60-day sentence for entering the Capitol building during the riot earlier this year.

She was arrested by the FBI on Jan. 15 after turning herself in, originally charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. She first pleaded not guilty but then entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building.

Her television interviews and statements on social media led U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper to give her a prison sentence rather than probation. Cooper also said he knew Ryan’s case was one people were watching closely and that his decision would be important.

“Your statements and media appearances in the aftermath of Jan. 6 I think demonstrate a lack of accountability for your actions,” Cooper said during sentencing. “You played down your role, you’ve been upfront you feel no sense of shame or guilt. … And perhaps most famously, in words you may regret, you said that because you had blond hair and white skin, you wouldn’t be going to jail.”

For a song: Composer pens concerto for Guyer High student

Guyer High School senior Christian Luevano was speechless for a moment when he unwrapped a parcel given to him by the school’s Director of Orchestras Michelle Hanlon.

Luevano said he knew something was up. A classmate had told him to join him in the orchestra hall at Guyer, and when they walked in, his parents, Chuck and Kim Luevano, were there. So were his former and current double bass violin teachers, Gudrun Raschen and Jeff Bradetich.

He opened the parcel to see the first two pages of a composition Hanlon commissioned by Argentine musician Andrés Martín. The framed pages included a note from Martín, a rising star himself in the contrabass community, dedicating the piece to Luevano. Martín wrote a solo for the Guyer musician, too.

“My jaw just dropped,” Christian Luevano said. “I love his work. He is definitely an up-and-coming musician for this instrument. His work is good, and what he does is really separable for the typical piece you have for the double bass. I’m really excited.”

Luevano is at the forefront of the next generation of double bassists who train to play in symphonies and chamber orchestras, but who mean to make the finicky, giant instrument a solo instrument.

It’s not often you hear that someone has “the build” to play a musical instrument, but Luevano’s teachers and parents say that about the 18-year-old musician.

“He’s tall, he’s got big hands,” Hanlon said. “He’s kind of made for double bass.”

But at first, Luevano said his mom balked at his foray into strings all together.

Luevano said his mother, who teaches clarinet at the University of North Texas College of Music, told him and his older brother they had to study music. He was in elementary school.

“She said, ‘You have to do something — voice, piano or violin,” he said. “I said violin and she said no. I think she thought I was going to be like my older brother and pick piano.’”

Kim Luevano said her sons are competitive, and she had assumed Christian would pick piano.

“Have you seen the child-size violin? They’re tiny. Have you heard them? I kept thinking about hearing that eee-eee-eee. For even an hour. No,” Kim Luevano said. “I also looked at him, and I figured he’d be playing a tiny violin and then the Suzuki method and the stance you have to teach to play. He was a big kid. A friend of mine said, ‘Put him on the double bass.’”

They did, and Christian took to the instrument. He appreciated its subtlety. The violin and even the cello are dramatic instruments. The bass, he said, demands more of the listener. It’s a quieter instrument, with a sound introverts appreciate.

“With the violin and the bass, it’s apples to pears,” he said. “It is a tough instrument but I like that about the bass. I like the sound, and I like to go for that dark chocolate sound. Maybe sometimes it has a little orange zest in it, or something spicy. “

Hanlon had the funding for a commission about a year ago.

“Every spring concert, I try to do something that showcases my all-staters,” she said. “I didn’t want to do the Bottesini piece [Concerto for Double Bass No. 2 in B Minor] and he was playing the Martín piece at the time.”

The piece Hanlon mentioned is the Concerto for Bass y Ochestre, the dramatic and poetic composition Bradetich put on the program for the second International Double Bass Solo Competition in 2017. Rich in rhythmic complexity and sonic sweep, the piece calls for huge shifts for the bassist, as well as a sensitive ear for operatic colors and tones.

“I had the idea to commission a piece for [Christian],” said Hanlon, who is also the Fine Arts Department chair at Guyer. “I know Jeff, I had his son in orchestra. I was telling him about Christian playing Andrés’ piece and Jeff said, ‘I know him.’ I thought, ‘I can cash in some favors with him.’ When Andrés agreed, my stomach went to my throat. I was so excited.”

Guyer has produced more than the typical share of ambitious double bassists. Four years ago, three bassists at Guyer placed in the top six of Texas’ 40 bassists in the All-State Orchestra. Christian Luevano was the top bassist in all-state his freshman, sophomore and senior years. Bradetich said Luevano wasn’t as driven to compete during the pandemic, but still managed to place sixth in the all-state bass section.

“He has a work ethic like no other student I’ve ever had,” Hanlon said. “I’m a musician, and I play gigs, still. But the way he talks and the way he practices makes me want to practice better. He’s made me a better musician. He’s special. And he’s also really humble.”

Raschen taught Luevano privately for seven years. Bradetich has taught him for the last two years.

“He’s unusually gifted,” Raschen said. “When he came to the conservatory to practice with the others, I realized they were leaning on him for timing. He was in third grade and they were in middle school.”

Over the years in her studio, Raschen said she discovered Luevano was a natural teacher.

“The other day, he was playing and he started helping another student — I was thinking, ‘He’s a good teacher,’” she said. “When you practice, you are teaching yourself.”

Chuck Luevano said his son studies and practices as if he were an athlete.

“He has an uncanny ability to sit down and focus,” he said. “He can break things apart and focus. And he can accept criticism. Then he has the drive to sit down and focus on that.”

Christian Luevano said he’s looking forward to seeing the composition.

“The marking on the score is ‘brutal,’ these chords are separated by the bass. It’s not the solo, but the solo comes out of that,” Luevano said.

Luevano said he doesn’t want to conquer a tough piece of music and then coast.

“I like something that pushes me to be a better musician,” he said. “I want to be faster and play better, and make bigger shifts when I play. But I also want to understand what it means to be a musician. I want to know what it means to play and make people feel something.”

Bradetich said he’s had to find ways to get his student to pump the brakes at points.

“I don’t want him to reach that point of burnout,” he said. “A musician is very much like an athlete. You don’t want to overtrain. You see that in music, where children study and perform and work really hard and by 13 they’re done. We don’t want that to happen with Christian.”

Luevano is considering six music programs for his college studies: UNT, Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Juilliard School in New York, the Colburn School in New York, the University of Southern California and Rice University in Houston.

Bradetich said Luevano is more than prepared for a university music program.

“He doesn’t need a teacher,” Bradetich said. “He needs opportunities. I’m hoping the Berlin Philharmonic Institute might be an option. ... He’s one or two of the most talented students I’ve ever had. He’s gotten far very fast. The big time is ready for him. And he’s almost ready for the big time.”

Tamales del Alma, or Tamales from the Soul, is a family operation run by mother-and-daughter duo Alma Fuentes, center, and Laura Fuentes, right, along with Laura’s husband, Martin De Leon.

Inflation isn't slowing holiday shopping at Denton's small businesses this season

At Patchouli Joe’s Books & Indulgences, the downtown bookstore’s first holiday shopping season in Denton has been a busy one.

“We’ve been blown away — it has been wonderful, the amount of shoppers we’ve had in our store, and we feel like the word is really getting out there,” co-owner Diane Mayes said.

The bookstore, which opened on Hickory Street in May after a move from Leander, is one of several local businesses seeing strong turnout among shoppers. Consumer prices have been climbing over the past few months as inflation takes hold, up 6.8% over last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. That’s the biggest jump in nearly 40 years, but that hasn’t stopped consumer spending; it’s up more than 37% in Denton County compared with pre-pandemic levels, matching national trends in increased spending.

That demand for goods has created something of a feedback loop with global supply chain shortages. With prices for international shipping and other costs for merchants climbing, those expenses are being passed to consumers. While most are unhappy with the rising prices at checkout — consumer confidence was at a 10-year low last month, according to the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index — that has not curbed buying.

“Being our first year, we really didn’t know what to expect, but I think our sales have probably doubled in the last month,” said Kasey Francis-Eusea, co-owner of metaphysical gift shop Bewitched Denton.

Despite businesses’ fears that customers would turn to online shopping this holiday season, they’re showing up at local shops in person. Neither Bewitched nor downtown gift shop Sleeping Lizzards offer online purchases, but owners said customers have been coming through the doors at a steady rate. Patchouli Joe’s does have an e-commerce store, but those numbers have been average compared with the boom of in-person shoppers, Mayes said.

The turnout also has been more spread out this year, with customers showing up in steady numbers throughout the past month. Although some Denton businesses did see a big turnout on Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, demand has continued to remain high beyond Thanksgiving weekend.

“To me, it just kind of set the pace, and we just have not stopped from then on,” Mayes said.

The trend has come as a relief to small retailers, who have faced an uncertain outlook over the past two years. It’s Denton’s willingness to support local that has helped keep many afloat, Sleeping Lizzards co-owner Roxane Clark said.

“People have come in to ask for items and said they’d rather buy here than on Amazon,” Clark said. “They have really showed up for small businesses every day — we’ve made it through a really tough season because of our customers.”