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.

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.”

El Salvador under quarantine: desolation, heavy artillery, pupusas and hope

A ghoulish light descended on the pupuseras as they worked — the TV glare mixing with fluorescent bulbs as it bounced off green walls. But the aroma was practically heavenly.

Scents of charred quesillo and pork fat dripping onto the griddle and oozing through masa cakes floated through the open sidewalk window and out onto the street. That, and the alluring sizzle made me stop in my tracks after first walking past. I spun around and returned.

“Estoy de vuelta,” I’m back, I said, yanking down my blue, medical mask to show my smile. “Por el olor.” Because of that scent.

I ordered a pair of revuelta pupusas to take with me. And I almost felt something I hadn’t in weeks: normal.

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.

La vida es más rica in El Salvador

After returning to El Salvador last week following a little more than half a month in the U.S., I told a friend I was happy to be back and he asked me what felt nice about it.

It was one phrase, that had been clanging through my head all day, that first came to mind:

La vida es más rica aquí.

Life is richer here.

I have been thinking of that little idiom ever since I heard a man I was interviewing in Morazán use it recently. This was a Morazán native (he might not appreciate me naming him without asking so I’ll decline) who has split his time between the U.S. and El Salvador for many years now. In many ways, he seems content with his life in the States. He loves the city he lives in and its Latinx communities, has no interest in criticizing the U.S. government and by all impressions given, is grateful for the opportunity he has there and proud of being the kind of immigrant that he believes the country wouldn’t want to deport. The money he makes there dwarfs what he could in the small village where he is from, and it supplements his life when he returns twice a year.

Even so, as we chatted about the differences between the two worlds and I told him how much I had loved living in El Salvador, he nodded knowingly.

“Es la verdad,” he said. “La vida es más rica aquí.”

Maybe that’s a sentiment that would come as a surprise to some U.S. Americans who think of El Salvador as a developing country, tormented by poverty and violence and lacking many of the comforts or conveniences we take for granted in the States.

But that thought — la vida es más rica aquí — certainly was one, if not yet expressed, that had begun to blossom in my mind.

Leaving El Salvador, different from before

When I walked into the San Salvador airport, my phone connected to the WiFi, instantly.

My phone recognized the building immediately, but I barely did. It felt like a place I was when I was a different person.

Looking down at my phone, though, sent me down memory lane. I remembered connecting to that public network, anxious that I couldn’t get a SIM card before driving into town. I remembered feeling such anticipation, and walking through the airport taking mental notes.

The Murder Capital of the World sure does have a lovely airport, I thought, strolling past MAC makeup counters, glistening coffee shops and craft breweries. (Side note: what must people feel like when they arrive to the great U.S.A. and land in …LaGuardia?)

But the feeling wasn’t just anticipation. If I’m honest, there was something else I was feeling that day, nearly five months ago. I was a little scared.

20 lessons from El Salvador

When I arrived in El Salvador — a tiny Central American country many in the U.S. think of mostly in terms of pupusas and immigration — I had no idea what to expect.

But after five months of living in its capital city, traveling across its strikingly diverse landscapes and through its charming towns and villages, I have found it to be one of the richest, most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It feels like paradise, and it feels like home.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

The reputation is unfair. If you Google “travel to El Salvador,” you just might come away with the impression that you simply can’t do it; much is made of the gang presence and violence statistics and it leads to an incredibly one-dimensional portrait of the country. In reality, there are more safe areas than unsafe areas, and as a visitor, it’s extremely unlikely that you’d run into any concerning activity. What’s more, petty crime — such as theft — is very low, making many cities, towns and neighborhoods in El Salvador actually much safer and tourist-friendly than other places in the region. For those reasons and others, I felt safer here than I have anywhere.

Seven reasons why I feel safer in El Salvador than anywhere

Before moving (temporarily) to El Salvador, there was one phrase I heard over and over, from strangers and friends alike:

Be careful.

El Salvador, after all, has a gritty, dangerous reputation, especially in the U.S. where you can hardly Google the country without breaking out in hives. Sample headlines describe it as “murder capital of the world,” and lament “life under gang rule.” The majority of U.S. media coverage of El Salvador centers on migration and thus focuses on the country as a place of poverty, crime and desperation.

Several people, this summer, actually urged me not to come — for my safety.

Now, after living here more than three months, I still hear that phrase from people back home all the time, despite trying to show so many wonderful aspects of the country.

Usually, I just shrug.

I know they mean well. But besides not especially caring for the remark, it almost just feels silly.

And that’s because, believe it or not, I feel safer here than I have …maybe anywhere.