On a chilly January afternoon at Delia’s, a stucco-clad fast-food restaurant tucked alongside tire shops and cash-and-loan joints on a wide, flat commercial strip in the Texas border city of McAllen, Mario Navarro was taking his lunch break. He slid into a booth with a tidy, foil-wrapped pile of the house specialty: tamales, sold by the half or full dozen.
The owner of Delia’s is Delia Lubin. She started out in the tamale business in 1985 after immigrating from Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border. One day, the story goes, she set out with just 5 pounds of masa. She earned enough money to buy another 5 pounds of masa, so she did it again the next day. Today, the six-location mini-chain might be the most revered institution in McAllen.
Navarro, a slight, garrulous 21-year-old, works at Delia’s as a cashier; he wore a bright-yellow Delia’s shirt. The tamales he ate, chicken and cheese, are made with the only queso that Delia’s uses: Philadelphia Cream Cheese, valued for its emulsified texture, which holds up during steam-heating. “It’s the most popular flavor,” he beamed, freeing a tamale from its corn-husk wrapper and dipping it into a plastic cup of emerald-green jalapeno sauce, “and it’s the most delicious.”
Delia’s sells 18 varieties of tamale — traditional pork, pecan-studded sweet cheese, smoky Veracruzano folded in a banana leaf — and all are okay by Navarro. “Delia’s could be like a Mexican Chick-Fil-A,” he said. “They’re working on opening in San Antonio, and as soon as they open, one’s not going to be enough. They’re going to have to put several in San Antonio, and once it’s in San Antonio, they’re going to have to go to Houston, and once in Houston, it’ll have to go to Dallas, you know?”
Navarro is proud of working at Delia’s — there’s the health insurance, paid vacation, and a $9-an-hour starting wage. But it’s also gratifying to work at an iconic place. Delia’s tamales are moister than the competitors’, with a generous ratio of ancho-and-arbol-spiced filling to masa corn dough, and they’re wildly popular: In the week before Christmas, Delia’s sells literally millions of tamales; the lines that wind out the door at each location are so long that police often manage the crowds.
The border is part of daily life here, a snake-like line that divides the fluid urban body that McAllen and Reynosa comprise. The latest census figures put the population of McAllen at 84 percent Hispanic; as the city’s most beloved fast-food restaurant, Delia’s is a good indicator of the primacy of Mexican culture here. But Mexico isn’t just a cultural influence — it’s an essential part of McAllen’s economy. The jagged border fence, part of the 700 miles of physical barrier that traverse the U.S.’s 1,933-mile border with Mexico, runs along portions of McAllen’s southern limit, a visible if imperfect barricade between nations.
Every year, almost 3.5 million people make the trip from Mexico to Texas at entrances from McAllen to Brownsville, 60 miles to the east. Most people come to shop. According to Nancy Millar, vice president of McAllen’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitors from Mexico bring in 37 percent of the city’s retail revenue through purchases at its big-box stores and the sprawling La Plaza Mall; they’re also responsible for what Millar estimates is a third of local restaurant revenue.
And the relationship between McAllen and its southern neighbors runs even deeper than that. “Fifty percent of people in McAllen have close relatives in Mexico, so the people there are really family,” Millar told me. “We’ve given fire trucks to Reynosa. We have so many relationships with their educational institutions. The medical community works together. Environmental communities work together. It’s just very, very porous culturally, so this is a serious situation for us.”
By “this,” Millar means Donald Trump’s proposed immigration policies, including his executive order to build a wall that would restrict travel between Mexico and the U.S., and his suggestion that the wall might be paid for with a tax on Mexican imports. In McAllen, it’s on everyone’s mind.
At Delia’s, in a booth looking out on the busy roadway, diner Destiny Glass and her husband, Eden Chubb, a truck driver who hauls industrial equipment, were sharing a dozen-and-a-half beef and bean-and-cheese tamales, along with a single giant soda. Chubb said that Trump’s proposed tax “would put a lot of people out of work.” Pulling on his straw, he continued, “Down here, there’s the oil field or truckers. If you’re not a doctor or have a college degree, everybody lives off that. I literally wait at the border for a load to come from Reynosa. If that’s not coming, what am I going to do?”
“We’re a border town, so for sure we’re gonna be affected,” Mario Navarro told me. McAllen is a city of 130,000 people, and nearly everyone is personally connected to the promise of a wall and a tax. “The mayor, Jim Darling — I went to high school with his daughter, Janet Darling,” Navarro said. “I voted for him, and I heard he’s trying to tell Trump to come visit the town to see that it’s going to be affected. I don’t know if he’ll come or not. But that’s what people are talking about now.”
Indeed, in December, when the governor of Nuevo Leon, the northeastern Mexican state that feeds much of the travel to McAllen, called for a boycott on Christmas shopping across the border to send a message to Donald Trump that his policy proposals toward Mexico were unwelcome, McAllen leaders shifted into emergency mode. “We went down to Monterrey, and our mayor held a press conference and explained that McAllen’s feelings about Mexico have never changed,” Millar told me. “We are still here, we still care, and our relationship has not changed.”
As a follow up, on January 26, with the approval of the city council, Mayor Jim Darling invited Donald Trump to show him how friendly the cross-border relationship is.
If the president does come, would his eyes be opened by a visit to Delia’s? I put this question to Delia Lubin the next day, when I met her at a different Delia's 5 miles east, in the nearby suburb of San Juan. “Ha!” she replied. “I don’t think he eats tamales!”
Lubin, who is 70 years old, cut an elegant figure in a red turtleneck and black jacket, with her hair pulled tightly back into a bun, accentuating her high cheekbones. The Delia’s in which we met is next to the commissary where all of Delia’s tamales are prepared for shipment to the other locations and online customers. The space looks vaguely castle-like, with two round towers and a guard station where a policeman lingered in anticipation of managing weekend crowds. Lubin and I sat in a corner booth, next to a flattop where a worker was making fresh tortillas to accompany the weekend's menudo, a tripe-and-hominy stew that is the only other thing that Delia’s serves. As we talked, all around us, groups of diners were digging into tamales and stew, or, having eaten their fill, were sighing and leaning back in their chairs.
I asked Lubin if she was worried about changes in border policies under the new president. “With the import tax, it’s going to be hard,” she said. “If Congress accepts everything they want to do, it’s going to be hard for us on la frontera because a lot of products come from Mexico.” In fact, the cost of Mexican goods like corn husks and chiles has already increased — due to higher gas prices, Lubin says her vendors told her — and she was recently forced to raise the base price of her tamales from $6.79 a dozen to $7.99. That might still seem like a bargain to Delia's mail-order clients, who pay $2 more per dozen for frozen tamales, but locals weren’t happy about the markup. (“We don’t come here all the time because, for tamales, they’re kinda pricey,” Destiny Glass had told me the day before.)
The negative impact of higher pricing on a business like Delia’s is compounded by the uneven exchange rate between the dollar and the peso. “They come to buy tamales from Mexico City, from Monterrey. All the people from there, they do that,” Lubin told me of her Mexican clientele. But back in 1994, when Mexican policies led to a 50 percent devaluation in the peso, Lubin’s sales suffered, even though her business was still an informal operation. “And this year’s going to be the same,” she predicted.
Whenever the peso dips against the dollar, which happened most recently with the election of Donald Trump, McAllen merchants like Lubin feel the squeeze. Local news stations were reporting on a drop in Valentine’s Day sales in McAllen, while on the other side of the border in Reynosa, the sidewalks were teeming with shoppers. So, naturally, Lubin doesn't want to raise her prices any more than she already has. “But with this situation we have right now, eventually everything is going to be higher,” she said. "I hope I don’t have to do it. Eventually if I have to, though, yes, I will.”
For now, the border tax is a moving target. The wall might be paid for with a smaller import tax, or no tax at all, but some other form of payment — “perhaps a complicated form,” Trump has said. Even so, the promise of an impenetrable barrier where there’s now a patchwork of fencing and patrols, dependency and goodwill, could hurt business on the American side of the border, said Lubin. “For everybody, not only for us, the people from Mexico help a lot. They come and spend money. And right now, the way it is — it will take time, but we are going to feel it.”
Mario Navarro had told me that the promised restrictions on travel already had people he knows feeling paralyzed. Even for Mexican nationals with U.S. visas, he said, “everyone is scared to come right now” and his aunts on this side “are just going to stay here and see what happens.” He says they’re scared that they might go back to Mexico and, when they try to return home to the U.S., “maybe they don’t let them come back.”
When I was in McAllen, Immigration and Customs Enforcement hadn’t begun its highly publicized series of raids. Still, Homeland Security’s border patrol was everywhere, in cars and trucks, small planes, helicopters, power boats on the Rio Grande River, ATVs in the borderland parks. And people at Delia’s already had deportation on their minds. Hilda Villanova was sharing a meal with her husband Juan, her son, and three small grandchildren. “I feel sorry for the families that will be separated. Not everyone that comes illegally is bad,” she said. “It’s just sad.”
Villanova is a second-generation American. But even if they’re U.S. citizens, some McAllen residents are worried about being targeted while tough-talking Donald Trump is in the White House. Fidencio Aguilar is a cook who works in back at Delia’s, steam-heating the tamales that arrive assembled from the commissary. Like Navarro, Aguilar was born in McAllen. “They say that children born from Mexicans are gonna be sent back,” he told me, repeating a local rumor. “That’s crazy talk.” And, yet, he added, “if that happens, I’ll find out what to do then.”
Corrections: This piece originally referred to the suburb of San Juan as San Jose; misspelled Reynosa in one instance because of a copy editing error; and incorrectly characterized a dish being made by a Delia’s employee. Eater regrets the errors.
Betsy Andrews’ work can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com and in Best Food Writing 2016. She is also the author of two award-winning books of poetry: New Jersey and The Bottom.
Photo by Jack Casselberry
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter