A History Of Food And Chaos Bonds LA's Salvadoran Community
The connection between food and crisis is one of the open secrets of Salvadoran life, both in Los Angeles and beyond.
I've understood this link since I was a curly-haired, pupusa-eating Giants fan who grew up in San Francisco hating the Dodgers and, by extension, all things Los Angeles. That changed in 1991, when I returned from fighting in the war in El Salvador and moved to L.A. where I started working at CARECEN, the largest Central American aid organization in the United States.
CARECEN was, and still is, located in L.A.'s Pico-Union neighborhood, the densely populated area that spawned MS-13 and other maras, Salvadoran gangs whose name originally meant "friends" or "group of friends." The maras came together out of immigrant loneliness, meeting at street corners and parks. As the heavily armed Crips, Bloods and Mexican Mafia pressured them, they adopted the rituals and structure of these larger, more established gangs, which relied on violence for power and profit.
While I was at CARECEN, we provided services — legal aid, food programs, health, job training — to refugees fleeing the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador as well as immigrants from Mexico, Honduras and other countries. Between the non-stop crises of daily life in Pico-Union, one of the poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods in Los Angeles, I watched as the end of El Salvador's war and the 1992 riots marked marked the tumultuous birth of a permanent Central American community in L.A.
Before that, the majority of the Salvadorans I knew had planned to return home. For most of them, that never happened. After living here for years, they had found jobs and built families. Their kids, who had been born and raised in the U.S., had no direct connection to their parents' homeland. And after 12 years enduring one of the bloodiest civil wars in the hemisphere, El Salvador's economy was in tatters. As a result, L.A. boasts one of the highest concentrations of Salvadoran restaurants anywhere in the world outside of El Salvador.
During those sad years, a period I describe in my recent memoir, Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and the Revolution in the Americas, I had, without knowing it, been mixing food and chaos.
Regardless of the situation I was navigating — riots, war, genocide, gang violence, govenment violence — my adventures were eased by the comforts of food. One afternoon, early in my time at CARECEN, I met a reluctant donor named Leland beneath the smoky skies of post-riot Pico-Union. I was hoping Leland would give us money to help start a youth job and education program designed to steer teenagers away from gang life:
"I drove back toward the ABC coffee shop, a spot on Bonnie Brae, where I liked to conduct business over Korean food, tacos, and pupusas. I prepared to try one last time to persuade him, before he left the gates of our little hell for the blue skies beyond LAX. We parked Leland's rented LeSabre across from the CARECEN office, a gorgeous, black-and-white Eastlake Victorian at 668 South Bonnie Brae. Leland and I started walking southward, toward ABC. All around us, on streets crossing Wilshire, were more rows of hulking brick SRO residences packed with Mexican and Salvadoran migrants.
Across the street from the phone booth, several young men in tank tops and jeans were hanging out in front of a big wall covered with MS-13 calligraphy and other graffiti. I was lost in daydreams of visiting sunny beaches in postwar El Salvador when the all-too-familiar staccato sound rang out on Bonnie Brae: bam-bam-bam! Somebody was firing what sounded like one of Pop's .38s. The shots continued, followed by the sound of shattering glass. Screams of mothers rang out across the street. More clips from a pistol of an unknown caliber followed. Bam, bam, bam-bam-bam!
The sound of car tires skidding followed the dark, heavy rain of more glass shattering."
I hadn't thought much about the role food played in my life during those years. It was only when my friend and fellow writer Myriam Gurba described the "warm presence of music, poetry and food" after reading a draft of Unforgetting that I realized how deeply food was woven into the fabric of my book — and my life. In the perpetually crisis-challenged lives of Salvadoran families like mine, food has always been there for us.
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Although Salvadorans wouldn't start coming to the U.S. en masse until the early 1980s, the dark clouds of war began looming over our lives in the 1970s. As refugees filled my parents' crowded Mission District apartment in San Francisco, they brought news of impending conflict. They also brought panes con chumpe, epic Salvadoran turkey sandwiches that helped us stomach the terror swirling underneath our festive parties:
"Besides the smell of cigarettes and Jovan Musk Oil, Revlon Charlie, and other cheap cologne and perfume, the dominant smell of the party in our apartment was that of the salsa, Mom's special mix of spices — pepitoria (dried pumpkin seeds), ajonjolí (sesame seeds), chile pasilla, sticks of canela (cinnamon), bay leaves, and others — passed down by her ancestors over hundreds of years. Set on a hot fire, then ground and blended into a sauce and mixed with grilled tomatoes, red onion, carrot, and bell peppers, the salsa glazed the thirty-pound bird that Mom and my grandmother, Mamá Tey, were using to make the turkey sandwich delight known as panes con chumpe. Salsa was the smell and taste of family joy."
Once war broke out in El Salvador in 1980, food became a source of solace, especially to those involved in or impacted by the conflict. Salvadoran food was there for me in 2015, when I returned to El Salvador to research my book. Over a typical Salvadoran breakfast, my driver, Isaias, began unspooling stories about his experiences as a member of an elite special forces unit during the civil war:
"Before he begins, we start digging into the Salvadoran breakfast plato típico — avocado, Salvadoran sour cream, tortilla, and casamiento, the 'wedding' of rice and black beans mixed together. As plastic and franchise and gringo as Mister Donut is, their plato típico is pretty good.
'So, during the war,' Isaias begins... 'Yes, they assigned us to go rescue the remains of five soldiers killed near Conacaste,' he says. 'They were left there by those culeros [queers] in the Bracamonte Battalion.'
'So, getting to what you asked me about, the stuff about smell,' he says, 'it reminds me of the time we went to an area near Conacaste, an area that saw heavy fighting with the guerrilleros. 'The dead guys there were only partially buried. The area around them was minado. Mined. So other guys were fighting the guerrilleros while we went to the area where the bodies were.'
'We never leave our boys behind. We made it through the mines and got to our destination. The first thing that hit us was the smell. But we didn't have time to waste with all the fighting, and we got the ponchos to carry the bodies in. The remains had been there over six days and smelled like hell itself. When we started picking them up, we yanked the meat right off them, like when you have a fried fish and the skin and meat fall right off.'
He pauses to take a couple of forkfuls of Mister Donut's casamiento."
During the strife in El Salvador, Mister Donut's casamiento (black beans fried in butter with white rice), semita (Salvadoran sweet bread) and coffee were often part of the meetings I held in broad daylight with urban commandos of the FMLN guerrillas as we planned to sabotage bridges, energy installations and other military targets.
I had returned to El Salvador in 1990, at age 28, to join the fight against the fascist government. Such open meetings — eating in restaurants, in fancy hotels, in neighborhood coffee shops — were a way to hide in plain sight. They helped us avoid the spies working for the military dictatorship ruling the country, a regime that was responsible for slaughtering 85% of the 80,000 people killed during the war, according to an exhaustive report from the United Nations Truth Commission.
In 1991, at the tail end of the war, I returned to L.A. where the refugee crisis, fueled by El Salvador's civil war, had transformed the City of Angels. It was now home to the second largest Salvadoran population outside of San Salvador.
Most Salvadoreños who came here ended up in Pico-Union, Hollywood, South L.A. or the San Fernando Valley, all of which saw a boom in pupusas, whether at Salvadoran restaurants or on the streets.
Three decades later, many young Central Americans are still dealing with the same ambiguities of language, food and identity that I struggled to reconcile as a child:
"At age ten, I didn't share Mom and Pop's pride about being from the place with the blue-and-white flag adorning the machete on the mantel of the living room. Salvadorans didn't even make sense in English, a fact brought home to me every time Mom and I walked past a Salvadoran restaurant near Twentieth and Mission, the main street our neighborhood in San Francisco is named for. The sign said it was a salvadorian restaurant.
'Mom, why do they spell the name of the country like that?'
'I don't know, mijo. Different people like to do things differently, I guess.'
We were coming home from buying supplies for a spring party. We kept walking until reaching Twenty-Fourth and Mission, the center of the neighborhood. There, across the street from the gigantic hole they dug for the new BART train station that was coming, another, bigger sign on a nearby restaurant: el salvadoran.
As we approached Twenty-Fifth Street, where we'd turn left to get home to our apartment, we ran into the most irksome but funniest restaurant sign, the one that said salvadoranean. I resigned myself to the painful fact: Salvadorans were a people with no clear identity on Mission Street, in the English language, or in the United States."
But Salvadorans today have a major advantage: the history and fruits of struggle that are also rooted in the United States. Young Salvadorans in Los Angeles (and around the country) have advantages I lacked. They have academic and cultural institutions to support them, a community to guide them and thousands of Salvadoran restaurants to nourish their bodies and remind them of their origins.
During a recent walk around MacArthur Park, the spiritual — and criminal — center of the Pico-Union neighborhood, I looked at the water gushing out of the fountain in the middle of the lake where many guns rest. (Bodies used to rest there too.)
In some ways, the crowded park feels exactly the same. It remains crowded with very poor people, gangs still operate in and around the park and vendors still sell elotes, hot dogs and other things. In other ways, things have profoundly changed.
Many of the older Salvadoran restaurants that once ringed the park have either closed or moved, as have many former residents. The schools are newer and, most importantly, Pico-Union is the symbolic rather than the population center of L.A.'s Salvadoran and Central American residents, who have established major communities in South L.A., Van Nuys and other parts of the city.
Salvadorans, now tied for the third largest Latino subgroup in the U.S., have faced half a century of riots, extreme poverty, horrific violence and forced migration. But we have also rebounded with courage, intelligence, ferocity and food, all of which helped us not only survive but to put down roots and build community, even as we form part of the larger Los Angeles.
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