Meal Magazine story: Cooked by fire, filled with memory

Did you miss my story for Meal Magazine when it appeared in print in their stunning Issue 1? (You can order the worthy hard copy here.)

Thanks to Meal going digital, it’s now online.

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Over the last 15-20 years, many U.S. natives have added a new dish to their food vocabulary: pupusas.

But not everyone understands why these Salvadoran snacks started showing up around major U.S. cities—and how our own government played a role in getting them there.

That journey is a tale of war, migration, imperialism and how deeply food is engrained in our identities and histories.

Star Tribune op-ed: the picture of poverty in LA and El Salvador is not so different

We tend to think of a place like El Salvador as very different from the U.S. and its famously lauded cities. But my latest op-ed column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune examines the stark similarities in treatment of the very poor from one border to the next.

In many ways, the poverty evident in Skid Row, Los Angeles, is some of the world’s most egregious.

Read my column here.

WATCHED POT: a docu-series about U.S. intervention abroad

If, like me, you grew up in the U.S., it’s likely you’ve heard the phrase before.

“A watched pot never boils,” perhaps your mother or grandmother told you, admonishing your childish impatience. If one is too attending, too eager, too singularly focused, time will slow; the meal won’t progress.

But when I hear that adage now, I hear something else in those words. Perhaps because of the way we’ve long spoken about global politics and simmering unrest, the phrase sounds to me like a different kind of warning: one not from the pot to the watcher, but from the watcher to the pot — a sober promise from the U.S. to the rest of the world that under it’s vigilant, meddling eye the globe will never bubble into chaos, into Communism, into backwardness. Of course, what that promise really means is that with the U.S. at the helm, the world will never bubble up into something that threatens the U.S.’ own interest and stake in power.

Introducing Watched Pot: a docu-series

Flying home during Coronavirus

Past the international baggage claim, an unused security area in Houston’s George Bush International airport looked outrageously big — its gaping confines made larger by an impossibly tall ceiling that felt as though clouds could form inside.

I’d been through this airport many times, and now I wondered: had it always been so cavernous?

Without foot traffic to create its normal humming soundtrack, each step seemed to resonate as I walked through this bizarre expanse. The voices of a single employee and a single other traveler bounced off the lofty metal beams and echoed throughout the chamber.

As I walked in their direction, I didn’t bother to get closer than 50 feet away.

“Am I going out this way for connecting flights?” I asked in a normal speaking voice, yelling being completely unnecessary, as I pointed toward automatic doors. My instincts had been dumbed by the lack of the typical stream of moving bodies.

The airport worker answered in the affirmative, and as she did, the only other passenger in this yawning space breezed past me.

“We’re going to terminal C,” she said. “Let’s go.”

We were two commuting strangers, suddenly linked together as human explorers in a dystopian future not unlike scenes from movies about the end-of-the-world.

Old woman sits in front of a dirt-floor home with a bag of food basics

For El Salvador’s rural residents, Coronavirus challenges shift, heighten

High up in the hills of La Paz, El Salvador, the ruthless spread of Coronavirus feels, in some ways, distant.

Here, where tamarind trees twist above thick, tropical jungle, there are few televisions from which to pipe in the constant pulse-raising reports. In the villages of this rural department, where roads from the nearest town of Santiago Nonualco become rocky throughways and throughways become narrow dirt paths connecting labyrinths of homes, there have been no confirmed cases. Unlike El Salvador’s cities and towns, here there is no military on the prowl, no checkpoints blocking these dusty, rock-encrusted roads. Masks worn below are rarely seen in the mountainous villages above.

To some degree, life goes on — far from the country’s dense, urban core, where the news of mass arrests, crowded containment centers and rapidly expanding hospitals keep a population on edge.

On March 21, El Salvador’s government implemented a mandatory, 30-day, in-home quarantine, enforced by the military and national police, to attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Later, president Nayib Bukele extended the mandate an additional 15 days.

These strong government measures were primarily made to avert a major outbreak in the three largest cities, where more than half of Salvadorans reside. In rural areas, people are more spread out, more self-contained and significantly less mobile than many in other parts of the country.

But if the public health threat here feels minimized, the impact of the moment for those who survive off the land and a daily wage feels acutely magnified, cutting off access to the scarce resources available, such as working the fields, selling wares on the streets and buying food.

For individuals who subsist off of mere dollars a day, going nearly a month without income is crushing in and of itself. But for a community based in agriculture, the crisis has struck extra bad timing — planting season. With campos lying dormant and important deadlines cruising past, for many the virus is threatening not just to steal the income of weeks or months, but possibly an entire year.

“It’s gotten really bad,” said Ventura Coruvera Vasquez, who cuts cane and other crops for a living. “Normally we go (to the fields) in camiones, now we would have to use buses and (because of the infection potential), the owner says no to that option.

“So what? We have to wait until next year.”

With Coronavirus impact growing, El Salvador is on lockdown

With no known cases of COVID-19, El Salvador is nonetheless taking dramatic measures as life fluctuates between feelings of normalcy and the bizarre.

The week started out so innocently.

On Sunday morning, before returning from a short beach weekend at the glorious Playa El Jaguey in eastern El Salvador, I was marveling at the sunrise melting over the island-filled bay and just how alone I was on the long, pristine sandbars.

By Wednesday evening, I felt like I was in a real-life version of Contagion — surrounded by hundreds of strangers at the grocery store as the shelves chaotically emptied, and my Twitter feed began pinging me into a panic.

Soon, I’d be marveling at how alone I was once again, but for wildly different reasons.

In the span of a couple hours, life had changed. I’d gone from scoffing at what I felt was “overblown” reaction to COVID-19 to being an unwilling participant in a full-on quarantine — changing travel plans, committing to lost money and wondering what will happen if I unintentionally overstay my visa here.

Around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, someone messaged me that the entire country was on lockdown.

Entrenched in past scars, ex-gang members lack almost every ingredient for hope; they’re baking anyway

Both the U.S. and the El Salvador governments call the current gang epidemic in El Salvador a crisis of epic proportions. But opportunities for gang members to escape the cycle of violence — with their lives — remain incredibly dangerous, and rare. This is one unfunded organization that’s trying, anyway.

The young men carefully guided the large, metal trays out of the industrial-sized oven and onto standing racks to cool.

The artisanship was evident: perfect, buttery coils of pan con ajo; creamy-topped novias; rows of soft picudas, their delicate peaks adorned with golden beads of sugar. In the other room, a few others were masterfully shaping the dough before it went into the kiln — twisting spirals to form decadent cachitos; filling jalea-replete gusanitos with the second nature sort of motion that comes only with time, repetition and dedication.

As the air filled with warmth and rich wafts of butter and yeast, I felt like I might be in any typical Salvadoran bakery, except for notable context: all of these delicacies were being made by ex-gang members.

In the back of a makeshift church in one of the most brutally violent territories in the country, these tattooed hands that not so long ago embarked on very different tasks were now rolling out thin ropes of dough, gracefully arranging them in circular designs atop sweetbreads.

Confronting my privilege in my work

Some recent online criticism took me by surprise. It probably shouldn’t have.

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Last week, Twitter punched me in the gut.

After someone reposted a link to my project explainer, noting that with a white person behind it, it had the chance to go sideways, a small community of Latinx U.S. Americans jumped on board with the criticism, which got pretty extreme in a few cases.

I’m embarrassed to say, it took me by surprise.

I wanted to create this new docu-series exploring U.S. imperialism because I see a real dearth of those kinds of stories in U.S. media — and because these lesser-told accounts that may seem distant and long ago to some are actually critical context for the issues we’re all concerned about today.

In many ways, we’ve forgotten our own history or we were lied to from the start. Revisiting some of those stories and bringing light to them is what I’ve been driven to do.

But since I began the project, I’ve also described, in part, my motivations for what not to do. I’ve talked about being hyper aware of the history of white people in other countries — colonizing and enslaving, diminishing and extorting, profiteering off of faces and experiences and controlling narratives for their own gain.

I’ve explained that as a white person moving through non-white places, one of the few ways I felt I could do good and not harm was to make my work a critique of my own people, my own government; to be a voice in examining that influence so that we can work to change the direction of the tide.

Still, when some of those accusations were slung my way, I was shamefully taken off guard.