Pupusas are my favorite food.
(Credit Bon Appetite https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/pupusas)
They really are. Salt, fat, acid, heat. Burnt cheese, tart salsa roja, vinegar soaked slaw (curtido), hot off the griddle. It’s the perfect food hitting all of the four “temples” of good flavor. The ingredients are cheap and readily available, everything is in the preparation and method. The world knows I like food and this really is my #1 and only.
Pupusas were first introduced to me by an El Salvadorian friend growing up. A child of immigrants, his mom would make them in the morning, hand forming the masa first into a ball, then a disk like manipulating silly putty and stuffing them with a combination of cheese, beans, and meat. What are they I asked? A stuffed tortilla like a quesadilla? Or a Sope with the toppings inside? Latin American food outside of generic “Mexican” didn’t exist to me yet, and the realization of an expanded world of even more combinations of corn, meat and cheese baffled and excited me.
After moving to Baltimore, and away from the Pupusa Mecca of the immigrant communities in D.C. and Northern Virginia, I was distressed to find myself in a Pupusa desert. You can’t just walk into any nameless Latin American or Mexican restaurant and request Pupusas, you have to make them by hand to order and the ingredients are simple but the method is paramount. You can buy them premade in some latin groceries, but they are a brittle dry substitute for the real made-to-order thing from a pupuseria. I, in my “I can cook anything” hubris, have bought pounds of masa harina and attempted to make pupusas at home, but my best attempt looks more like a cracked deflated baseball on a burnt cast-iron pan than a proper pupusa.
I was elated to learn when I started working at Johns Hopkins Bayview that there was an El Salvadorian Pupuseria in Greektown within delivery driving distance of the campus. I consider my “good deed” of the day anytime I convince someone to go in on pupusas with me for lunch. “What are they?” the conversation usually goes, “They are thick masa/corn tortillas stuffed with finely processed meat, cheese and beans (revueltas)… they aren’t quesadillas, they are good, trust me.”
Sharing an order of Pupusas at work is the ideal lunch. Back when I worked at restaurants in the DC area this was an easier arrangement, no cajoling or educating was needed. Many of the back of house staff I worked with were El Salvadorian or from the neighboring countries of Guatamala and Honduras. They would tell me the best place to go in the area, or even order themselves and get the “friends and family discount” for the rest of the staff. La Casita Pupuseria in Silver Spring was the pinnacle of El Salvadorian cuisine in the area, and although it wasn’t walking distance, on particularly brutal restaurant mornings (“estar de goma” as the kitchen would chide me) it was worth the drive for the greasy deliverance from our previous night of drinking.
My Spanish is about as broken as the newest immigrant’s English, but when we would eat together we would talk. The younger guys in the kitchen would ask about the night before and the girls and share their own revelry at their Latin bars with soccer and Latina girls serving cool Coronas. The older guys would talk about their kids growing up in America as Americans, going to school and speaking English better than them and how expensive everything they needed was.
The even older guys would talk about the families they left back at home in El Salvador (or neighboring countries), their grown children they had never met but sent money to their entire life. They would tell us about the war they fled, the burned villages and forced inscriptions. The rivers of blood.
One told me about being forced up a tree as a teenager with a cluster of Grenades and told to stand watch at night for Guerillas. “If someone walks under the tree” he was instructed, “you drop a grenade on them.”
“But what if I miss? They will shoot me in the tree and I can’t run”.
“Don’t miss” as a gun was drawn and he was forced up that tree.
Another told me about being forced to carry a gun as large as himself (imagine arms stretched out diagonally) and being told to shoot anything that moves in the jungle. The only time he discharged it he said he closed his eyes and the entire jungle, trees, branches and men fell as he held down the trigger, eyes shut.
They told me about “drenar el océano” about how the Guerillas hid in an ocean of impoverished towns and farms among the civilians, and how the government learned from it’s American benefactors that to defeat the Guerillas you have to “drain the ocean” they hide in. The same strategy used by America in Vietnam and taught to any Junta or Dictator that picked the American side in a Cold War era international paradigm. They are either with us or with the Soviets. Oligarchs or Socialists. No one was on the side of people or innocence, as civilians were slaughtered, officials assassinated and towns burned to flush out the “enemy” hiding amongst them.
This original diaspora of El Salvadorians fled and tried to find asylum anywhere that would accept them. US administrations denied them political asylum as to recognize them as political refugees would be to recognize the United States’ explicit support for regimes that were committing human rights violations against their own people. Humanitarian organizations used any legal argument to protect them. Small numbers of “economic” refugees were admitted on a case-by-case basis as religious groups and non-profit’s organized to legally try to protect the millions that fled. Versions of temporary protections were passed, but by and large the can was kicked or the problem “mis-identified” under another umbrella immigration bandage as the buck was passed from administration to administration, trying to temper the sharp edges of failed foreign policy while ultimately only relieving a pittance of the population so hurt by violence.
Many refugees settled in the DC area, documented or undocumented, and had children my age. Children I was fortunate to attend school with and whose mom’s hands made me pupusas and homemade horchata and t’sked t’sked when we came home late and raided the fridge stocked with their labors.
A James Baldwin quote I read constantly and am co-opting from the Black Civil Rights movement to describe my feelings as a white guy in the current political environment is as follows:
(James Baldwin in a letter to his nephew, 1962)
There is no reason for you to try to become like white men and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them, and I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…
…Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.
To be White and able to hate a population of people, or to advocate for policies that thoughtlessly break apart families, and deny the opportunity for the pursuit of health and happiness to others is to first deny history and second to accept your reality as a fixed, transpicuous manifestation that has entirely resulted in your benefit.
To me, accepting this universe as given means pupusas in my belly, blood on my hands. Fat on the lands of ours and others. A table permanently tilted in my direction, a clockwork universe ticking along whose design was struck for me.
Unsurprisingly, Trump and the current Republican party’s vision for America has worked out fine for me. Not so much can be said about immigrant and traditionally vulnerable populations, many of whom are living more in fear today as Temporary Protected Status has been ended for El Salvadorians. A people who fled American stoked violence abroad to live here, raise their children, work and pay taxes. No matter the political justification and needle threading, the decision is ultimately thoughtless as history has proven that the chance of a satisfactory legislative resolution to American made refugee populations is slim-to-none.
I’m not a fan of empty social media activism, but do believe when policies that are passed that personally upset you, first remind yourself to vote, and second donate to a proven organization that is working to fight against what you observe as injustice. If you enjoyed reading this, or are considering commenting on and sharing this first consider joining me in donating to CASA de Maryland https://secure.actblue.com/donate/casa (or an organization of your choosing) as they help Latino and immigrant populations with legal advocacy and assistance.
Thank you for reading