We eat war. Everytime anyone goes into a Salvadoran restaurant and fills up on the delicious filled masa pockets known as Pupusas, they are eating war. When I arrived in the US over thirty years ago it was difficult to find tortillas de maiz, let alone a Pupusa. Even making them ourselves posed difficulties because some of the ingredients such as loroco, the fragrant flower that is mixed with the cheese, was found only in the confines of our memory. Over the years my longing for Salvadoran food has been amply satisfied. Pupuserias are everywhere now. So common are Pupusas that in some places they can be found as an item in the supermarket frozen food section. Salvadoran restaurants serve Pupusas and many other dishes that ground me generously in a gastronomic sense, but also spiritually and historically. Pupusas are to Salvadorans what the baguette is to the French. It is more than food. It is identity. I have collected newspaper restaurant reviews, usually in the cheap eats section, for years now. Once in D.C. I found the entire Sunday food section dedicated to mapping and ranking Salvadoran restaurants in the area. Another time I found an advertisement for an appartment in LA that listed a Salvadoran restaurant around the corner as an amenity. My last finding was an article in the travel section of the New York Times on how to spend a week-end in Boston on a limited budget. There were four photographs accompanying the article, the Paul Revere statue in the North End was one of them and right below it a plate with two pupusas, curtido y salsa roja. 30 years has made a huge difference indeed. Yet for all the raving about the cheap, delicious and even "seductive" (as an article called Pupusas) Salvadoran food, few bother to think, and even fewer know, that the new addition to the list of American "ethnic" foods comes with a high price tag. Pupuserias in the US are the offspring of the millions of dollars this country spent to repress the demands that the people of El Salvador made of their own government for social and economic justice. It is a fact that thousands were killed, maimed and dissappeared during the Salvadoran Civil War. It is a fact that children were taken and sold in the international adoption market and a fact that thousands emigrated trying to escape the violence and persecution in El Salvador. That experience of war is filtered through each day to the thousands of Pupusas made all over the US. Pupusas are delicious and they are also places of resistance. We say Presente! in school when our name is mentioned in the roll call. We say Presente! in a rally to say we represent; we are here, alive and focused. Each Pupusa is a Presente! A tribute to the resilience of being alive in a new, and all too often inhospitable place, and to the memory of those who did not make it.
I am not talking here of the famous, and in El Salvador revered, Salarue's Cuentos de Cipotes. I am writing about cuentos or stories penned by cipotes, kids, who for innumerable circumstances have been dragged into La Vida Loca or life in the infamous Salvadoran gangs. As such these stories and poems are as valuable as Salarue's stories in capturing life, raw, as is, on the streets of El Salvador.
I discovered the work of the Cuentame Project from New America Media. The project describes their work as, "an initiative focused on improving the emotional health of incarcerated girl in the youth detention center in Ilopango, San Salvador, El Salvador." The writers come from the "Rosa Viginia" Juvenile detention center in Chalatenango for young women and El Centro Espino in Ahuachapan for young men.
"Cuentame con quien andas y te dire quien eres," goes the popular saying. In English that is something like, "Tell me who you hang out with and I'll tell you who you are." The cipotes on the pages of the Cuentame blog tell us exactly who they are and who they hang out with and why.
They write about their lives surviving the streets, trying to find love and respect in gangs. These youth might otherwise be called a "lost generation." But they are not lost, they are very much part of every day life in El Salvador. This is the first time I read about them not as a number, a statistic on some report about the debilitating gang issue in El Salvador, instead here I read their own powerful voices full of longing and truth.
I am including a link for the article in New America Media and a link for the Proyecto Cuentame blog.
Claudia Castro Luna is Seattle’s First Civic Poet (2015-2017) She was born in El Salvador and came to the United States in 1981. She is the author of the chapbook, This City, from Floating Bridge Press. Her non-fiction has appeared in Soccer America, the 2014 Jack Straw Writers Anthology and is forthcoming in Tia Chucha's “The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States,” and Kalina Editor's, "Puntos de fuga. Narrativa salvadoreña contemporánea/Vanishing Points. Contemporary Salvadoran Narrative." She lives in English and Spanish and shares a house in Seattle with her husband and their three children.