Documentary about Phoenix tamale maker wins at film festivals

Bradley Smith (left) and John Avila attended the Palm Springs International Film Festival in June 2022.

A documentary film tracking a Phoenix man’s journey from prison cook to food truck owner and advocate for the formerly incarcerated has won two festival awards.

The short film “Tamalero” is centered around the story of John Avila, a former inmate who perfected the art of making tamales from commissary items while he was incarcerated. Once released, he began selling the tamales from his Prison Pies food truck.

The documentary’s producer is Arizona State University graduate film student Bradley Smith. The two met at a neighborhood potluck where Avila contributed his specialty tamales, and the idea for the film was born.

“Tamalero” was released in 2022 and entered into multiple film festivals around the country. The film was voted Best Experimental Short Film by the audience at the New Orleans Film Festival last fall. It also won the Best Local Voice award at Emerge Festival 2022: Eating at the Edges, an event at Arizona State University that explores food sustainability.

“I was shocked, to be honest. I never expected (the film) to go that far,” Avila said.

The wins came after it was first entered in the Palm Springs International ShortFest in June 2022.

“Once I knew it was going to premiere somewhere, I spent two full weeks dialing it in and tightening up certain areas,” Smith said about the film, which runs only 10 minutes, 26 seconds.

“Tamalero,” which translates into “tamale maker” in English, is narrated by Avila and details his journey. While he was in prison, Avila ate a prison-style tamale that an inmate made him. It was made using crushed Doritos with water for masa and filled with meat, items he could buy at the commissary. In the film, Avila shares how the food allowed him to feel a sense of home and connection to his grandmother, who made tamales when he was young.

“If you’ve never been to prison, you just think of all the bad stuff. I wanted to show something different that people never heard of,” said Avila, who was first jailed in 2002 at age 21 for DUI. 

After the film, Avila found people wanted to hear his story.

In October 2022, he shared his story onstage at Arizona Storytellers, an Arizona Republic-sponsored night of live storytelling that’s recorded to air on KJZZ. He speaks at other public events, as well, and regularly posts video interviews with former inmates on the Barrio Stories website, which captures the history of Arizona’s historic Mexican American neighborhoods and people.

“I’m trying to help people get their rights restored and get visitation for their kids. Everything that involves them getting out and back on their feet again,” Avila said.

To try his prison-style tamales, look up @prisonpiesaz on Instagram to find his food truck locations.

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