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Jul 8, 2010

The best tamales on the Hummingbird Highway

If you have ever headed down south, the chances are that you may have met Bertha Lisbey. Lisbey is the owner of a small business on the Hummingbird Highway, who for an unbelievable six decades, has been selling those delicious hot tamales to the thousands that have stopped by her snack shop. So what has been the driving force behind her entrepreneurship through the good and hard economic times? News’ Five Marion Ali spoke to this unique woman and files this report.

Marion Ali, Reporting

Seventy-two year old Bertha Lisbey has been making tamales for over sixty years for a living.  A widow and mother of twelve, Lisbey says her humble business has enabled her to raise and school her children and now it is her grandchildren that are benefiting from it.  Originally from San Ignacio, Cayo, she’s famous to most travelers who frequent the Hummingbird Highway who stop in at her snack shop at the roadside at mile twenty-seven in Saint Margaret’s Village. For those travelers, the landmark location has either fed them or their parents.  In short, Ms. Bertha has literally fed generations of hungry travelers using that portion of the highway.  And despite the present economic crunch, Ms. Bertha says she has her loyal patrons who seek out her tasty tamales even at her house.

Bertha Lisbey, Owner of Bertha’s Tamales

bertha lisbey

“It’s good because now everybody weh pass dehn hungry, dehn stop fi dehn tamales.  If I am not here, di place close, dehn goh home and they eat home, everybody.  Sometimes dehn bus bruk down, di crowd come here or dehn go home you know and buy tamales.  They go to my house, sometimes yah close.”

But after six decades at it, Ms Bertha is thinking about throwing in the towel.

Bertha Lisbey

“I’m getting tired, I’m getting old.”

Marion Ali

“Have you found a successor to continue the business?”

Bertha Lisbey

“Well yes, maybe one ah my daughter wah tek it over, you know because as I seh I done tired.”

Marion Ali

“What got you into this business of making tamales?”

Bertha Lisbey

“My granma teach me to make tamales.  She die already, yes.  And ih left mi di mek tamales still.  When my husband was living dah he dah di one weh tell mi.  Soh him mek a shed right by Poor Man Refridge, dah right deh I was selling.  Den only James Bus mi used to stop deh.  Well when Z-Line see dat James Bus stop dehn stop too, and right soh.  Now everybody stop, tourists – I can’t complain.  I got wah day like Friday when tourists pass they stop here.  They like the tamales and they like the pepper and dehn get red like macaroni.”

Manuel Itza and Abner Milian are not exactly tourists, but they’ve been avid supporters of Ms Bertha’s fire hearth tamales.

Manuel Itza, Motorist, Hummingbird Highway

“Every time I come I –cause I like the tamales, ih very nice.”

Marion Ali

“How long have you been eating from her?”

Manuel Itza

“It’s been – I know her from a long time ago so I have already eaten her tamales since I started coming this way.  I saw her and I decided I need to eat.”

Abner Milian, customer, Bertha’s tamales

“The tamales taste good right and dehn noh got no other place yah weh sell food.  Soh dis dah di only place weh I know too.”

But while she has made a name for herself over the years, she also had a considerate philanthropist in her corner several years ago.

Bertha Lisbey

“I mi used to be di agent from Coca Cola soh since I mi got mi lee business up dah di Poor Man Refridge, I went to Belize and I went to talk to Mr. Barry Bowen and I tell ah weh happen and ih seh “Sure Lisbey ih seh I will help you”.  One day he come here and ih seh Lisbey I want a tamale.  I tell ah ok Mr. Barry Bowen.  I give him that tamales.  But dehn time ah never got dat yoh know.  I mi only got dis.  And he tell me “Lisbey you noh want wah Coca Cola house?”  I tell ah sure, why not?  If you gimme I agree to it.  Ih seh “okay den, eena three months time I will send it for you.”  But I noh believe it and I tell ah “Mine Mr. Barry Bowen outta sight outta mind” I tell he.  “No, no Lisbey” ih seh, “I will send it for you”.  We were sitting down right here and my husband right here and we see the truck di come di bring di lee house.  When I see the house is for me.  I she what, I glad.  And dehn put it right here and my husband fix there and they fix it.  I noh pay one copper.”

And now while she’s thinking of giving it all up, there’s one thing Ms Bertha is not willing to part with anytime soon, the secret recipe.

Bertha Lisbey

“My secret – noh.”

Marion Ali

“Okay, you won’t give me your secret.”

Bertha Lisbey

“It’s not good to say your secret.”

Marion Ali

“Except your daughter who wah tek ova di business.”

Bertha Lisbey

“Nor she wah seh it.”

Reporting for News Five, I am Marion Ali.


Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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12 Responses for “The best tamales on the Hummingbird Highway”

  1. Earl Grey says:

    Must be better than those they sell at the bus-stop in Belmopan. I have to get some.

  2. maddyvandijk says:

    That looks delicious, great to see people are actually making a decent life by given their best to themselves, their famalies and their community.

    belizean food no longer agrees with my stomach, but when ever i visit belize I must have some tamales, no matter how sick it makes me in the end.

    good job bertha..

  3. Dora says:

    This womans story inspires me for several reasons. The fact that she has worked hard as a single mother raising her kids when she could have thrown in the towel and felt sorry for herself. Her “can do” spirit will probably be her legacy to her kids so that they also will see the potential everyone has. Secondly, its refreshing to hear stories like this where good decent folks are making the best of what little resources they have despite the economy. Lastly is the note she made about Barry Bowen, interesting how his actions many moons ago is still clearly in her mind even have he has gone on to eternity. One entrepreneur helping another.

  4. Proud Belizean says:

    Congrats to Ms. Bertha….

  5. Louisville Ky says:

    All this story did was bring back fun memories and naturally , Mek Mi Mouth Wata Run!
    Hot Tamales ahn cold wata frahn poo man refrig. When you are hungry and on the road, it does not get much better than that. Trust mi !!
    I hope her daughter decides to continue the tradition cause, tamales dah poo man refrig , in and of itself IS a Belizean institution!!

  6. Earl Grey says:

    Let’s hope that the Barry Bowen Foundation – Bowen Family keeps up the father’s work of being a benefactor.

  7. macal rivera says:

    YUMMIE!! I have to get going to hummingbird highway!! Sound like that delicious food!!! Addictive!!!!
    Rather be dependent on tamales that CRACK COCAINE!!!

    See you soon Miss Lisbey!! I award you the Gold medal for the best tamales cook!!!

  8. Earl Grey says:

    Let’s hope that the Barry Bowen Foundation – Bowen Family keeps up the father’s GOOD WORK of being a Philanthropist…. very important.

  9. J.P. says:

    I will miss her!!! I’m 24 now, but have been stopping for her tamales since the first shed in Poor Man Refridge when I dah mih wah lee, lee gyal. Always a highlight of our family trips down South. I will never, ever forget your delicious tamales, Ms. Bertha!

  10. Jackie says:

    My husband is from belize so I read the news everyday. I must say that the articles about food is my favorite of course. I once at from a vendor on the roadside and being from America, I thought that this was different. I must say the food was great. So since my kids and I love tamales how about that recipe Ms. Bertha :) . Good luck on retiring from work.

  11. Elgin Martinez says:

    Keep dah Tamales coming Bertha.

  12. lathguy says:

    Surely,Iwill have to stop by,Ms Bertha ,and make your acquaintance.As a Lisbey decendant ,congrats and best wishes.

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