By John-Paul Gemborys
On a warm spring day outside the Campus Y, Cecilia Polanco sat in the driver’s seat aboard her food truck, carving up a pupusa with a plastic fork before the midday lunch rush.
Behind her, two little Latina ladies smiled and giggled over a stainless steel countertop as they smacked corn flour dough into thick, round disks. One was Nora Polanco, whom Cecilia called mami, a sweet, soft-spoken mother of four with a round, rosy face and a streak of crimson in her dark hair. The other, a firecracker with short, black hair and laugh lines drawn across her face, was the 61-year-old Victoria Galdamez — otherwise known as tia Vicky. Wetting their hands, the two ladies pinched out balls of dough and patted them into flat cakes before applying a generous dollop of modo, or filling, which on that day was chicharrón con queso (a savory paste made of fried pork and cheese) or frijoles (refried beans mixed with shredded mozzarella). The two sisters then sealed the dumplings and removed any excess dough before flattening them once more to be seared atop a hot griddle. As the rich smell of sizzling pork and cheese wafted through the air, Cecilia stood at the window, taking orders from excited students.
“This is Salvadorian food?” one man asked, his voice barely audible over the hum of the truck’s generator.
“Yep,” Cecilia replied as the two ladies worked behind her, flattening the dough so that it sounded like the clapping of hands. “Do you want the toppings?”
“Sure,” he replied.
She reached for a pile of pupusas set aside by her mother who flipped them hot off the grill — each one was browned and dappled with crispy, black bits. As Cecilia set one on a paper plate, she added a handful of curtido, a piquant slaw of pickled cabbage and carrots, and a squirt of red tomato salsa.
For Cecilia, being the owner of a food truck was never something she had planned on.
“We kind of started talking about it in passing, kind of jokingly that we should start a food truck,” Cecilia said of her mother and her. “Once I started talking about it, I was like, ‘Wow, I really am thinking about this. I do want to do this.’ But it really didn’t become real real until I bought the truck.”
But So Good Pupusas is more than just a business for Cecilia; it’s a mission.
“This is really a means to an end,” she told me. “We wanted to start a scholarship fund for undocumented students. We don’t have any money to do so, so we have to generate it somehow, and pupusas is what we know best.”
Family, tradition and pupusas – a simple recipe but a powerful one. A recipe Cecilia hopes to use to effect enormous positive change.
Journey to the United States
It was 1982 when Jose Alfonso Sandoval left his rural village of La Isla to make his journey to America. At 26 years old, he was leaving behind the only country he ever knew, two daughters and a pregnant wife, but he knew he had to get to America. With his third daughter on the way, he wanted a better life for his children than was available in his village, which at the time had no running water, paved roads or electricity and only offered an education that was equivalent to middle school.
“Everyone there is from el campo. We’re all campesinos — we work in the fields, and you don’t need an education to work in the fields,” Cecilia said. “My dad didn’t really see a future for us there — for his daughters.”
But that wasn’t the only reason, Cecilia said. “We had no choice but to leave.”
At the time of her father’s departure, a brutal civil war was raging in El Salvador, and her father, a former serviceman, was in danger.
“They were trying to recruit him back into the military, but it was the military against their own people, and then the guerilla forces also wanted him, so you had to choose. If you chose one, you were still fighting against your own people, and if you didn’t join either side you were kind of seen as a traitor to both of them,” Cecilia said.
“My grandmother would tell stories about waking up in the morning to clear dead bodies. And that was just something that happened. Or the military would come, and we would have to feed them. And you already were poor, so what did you feed them?”
In order to escape the violence, her father left. But he couldn’t bring his whole family at once, so he set off on his own, accompanied by only one of his wife’s sisters, to work and send money back home. Before reaching the United States, Cecilia’s father first had to cross into Guatemala and then Mexico.
“There’s a storyline that we tell about how Salvadorians are tres veces mojados,” Cecilia told me. “We say mojado can kind of be translated into ‘wetback,’ but they have different connotations. For us, mojado is just someone who is crossing the border. ‘Wetback’ has a much more negative connotation. So we say that we are that three times because we have to cross into Guatemala, we have to cross into Mexico and then the United States.”
Along his journey to cross three different borders, Jose Alfonso was detained in Mexico and spent some time in a Mexican prison. When he finally got to the United States, Cecilia said he weighed only 115 pounds.
His first time, Jose Alfonso entered the country illegally, and for a whole year he worked.
“That’s one of the hardest things he had to do,” Cecilia said. “(That) was being here by himself without his wife and his little girls. And the little girl he’d never met.” After one year Jose Alfonso had enough money to bring his wife Nora to America to work with him.
Nora said that the first thing she thought about when arriving was work. “Trabajar mucho para traerlos” she said.
“The first thing she was thinking about was working — working to bring her daughters,” Cecilia translated.
“Mhmmm,” Nora said, nodding.
“That’s the story that they tell,” Cecilia said, “is that when you get here you’re indebted. So you get here to work, to pay off your debt and then save up money to bring someone else over, and now you’ve got to pay off their debt. So that’s how it goes. You have to pay the coyote.”
By the time Cecilia’s third sister turned 4, the entire family had resettled in America, though not yet as citizens . “There was a point in time where we were essentially undocumented before going through the process of seeking political asylum,” Cecilia said.
“I don’t know how — he just did the right things,” she said of her dad applying for citizenship. “Part of that was filling out papers to gain residency — to seek political asylum — he just had to figure everything out. He was so smart in so many ways, in ways that are more than scholarly intelligence. Our situation turned out for the best because of a lot of the decisions he made.”
In 1992 Cecilia Polanco was born in Los Angeles, California — the only one of her sisters to be born in a hospital.
Pupusas and tradition
Cecilia has been eating pupusas made by her mother since before she can remember. Growing up, she said, pupusas were a treat only had on rare occasions.
“We would have them probably a couple of times a year — so not that often,” she said. As Cecilia grew older, her mother began to make them more often, and with Cecilia’s food truck officially opening last March, the treats have become more common but no less special.
“Now we have them really often because we’re working on the truck, but this was something really special that I shared with people to show them a deeper part of who I am,” Cecilia said. “They might know me as their fellow UNC student or know me as a Latina, but what they might not know are the specifics behind that — the diversity within that make me Salvadorian. And so I get to share that to people with food. And that’s really special.”
For Cecilia, it’s important to feed people exactly what she was fed at home. But it can be a difficult learning process for her, as her mother has no official recipe for pupusas.
“She doesn’t measure anything. She tastes everything. By smell, taste and how it looks, she knows if it’s ready. And so that’s what I’m learning, which is probably harder than learning the recipe.”
The recipes can also be time-consuming with a lot of prep in advance. But as a second-generation citizen, Cecilia said she believes the effort to learn her mother’s recipes is worth it.
“Something I worried about when I was younger was not learning to cook like she can cook because I’m in school or I’m working or something like that. But now my job is to learn how she does it, so now I’m going to learn how to make pupusas. I’m going to know how to make them, and I’ll make them for my children and my grandchildren and keep her legacy alive,” she said.
Even so, Cecilia confessed that she still hasn’t mastered the art of pupusa-making.
“It’s hard to get it perfect like that,” she said as she pointed to some of her mother’s crispy examples. “Sometimes mine come out with half of it being dough inside, and the other half the filling’s all spilling out, so it takes a lot of time and practice to get to that level of expertise.”
But with her mother and tia Vicky to guide her, it’s likely that she’ll figure it out eventually. “They’re my two main chefs,” she said as her mother flipped pupusas over the stove and tia Vicky roasted a sweet potato. “I’m really like the sous chef in training. I need (tia Vicky) to tell me, ‘OK, yeah, this is right,’ or, ‘This needs a little bit more of this,’ so that’s who she is,” Cecilia said.
Paying it forward
As the child of Central American immigrants, Cecilia is conscious of how fortunate her situation is in comparison to others.
“There are a lot of families that arrived here just like my family, seeking something better, and because they were Mexican or Guatemalan or from somewhere else, they didn’t have the same path — they didn’t have the same opportunities.”
In December, Cecilia got official status for her nonprofit, Pupusas for Education, which gives out two $1,000 scholarships each year to undocumented high school seniors. Last year they had five applicants. This year that number tripled. One of their scholarship recipients received a Golden Door Scholarship, one of the most prestigious scholarships for undocumented students in the country. “Her name’s Maria, she is doing really well academically, and she’s vice president of their Latino organization there. She’s just rocking it,” Cecilia gushed over her recipient.
With no state or federal funding, undocumented students have a massive financial hurdle to clear and often have to piece together smaller scholarships, like Pupusas for Education, to afford higher learning.
“We’re kind of a drop in the bucket for an undocumented student trying to pay out of state tuition, but we feel that through our mission and the assistance we provide, we’re affirming that students are worth investing in,” Cecilia said.
Cecilia also plans to use her food trucks to allow locals who may not have a legitimate platform to sell their own food.
“I’ve always known of food trucks to be a Latino thing,” she said. “They’ve been at soccer fields, at construction sites for decades in North Carolina. Now illegal food vendors who might sell their food in nontraditional ways like out of their van, at church or at a corner store — there’s been a big crackdown on that community. And they’re majority Latinos, majority-minority — people of color who are selling food.”
In exchange for using her truck, a small portion of the earnings will go toward Pupusas for Education, but first Cecilia says she needs to fine-tune the business model so that it’s worthwhile, and so that no one gets exploited.
Near the end of the day, a woman approached the truck informing Cecilia that she had never tried a pupusa.
“Great, I love being people’s first pupusa,” Cecilia smiled.
“But I already know that I want the chicharrón,” the woman said.
“Uhmm, is that a good amount to get?”
“One’s a snack. Two or three’s a meal.” Cecilia informed her matter-of-factly.
“Then I want two. Can I get one? Hmmm.”
“One pork, one bean?” Cecilia asked.
“Yeah,” the woman said. “Gonna try them both.”
As her aunt and mother shaped pupusas in the back, carrying on a tradition that had been in their family for generations, Cecilia shared that tradition one pupusa at a time, helping other students like herself go to school — students who might one day share their culture with the world as well.
Edited by Alison Krug.