For Salvadorans in the Phoenix metro, pupuserias become community centers

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Jessica Blanco was only 13 when she moved to Phoenix from her home in El Salvador. It was in 2011. She didn’t know anyone when she arrived; his whole family was nearly 2,500 miles away.

“I felt very disconnected from moving here, not just physically. I’ve tried joining a community, you know everybody wants that, but I haven’t seen a lot of Salvadorans here in Arizona. I did not meet any Salvadorian in middle or high school, ”she explained.

Thanks to the food, however, many Salvadoran Arizonas born in the United States and abroad were able to regain a sense of the community they grew up in, with their families here and with those they left behind in El Salvador.

There is a huge population of Latinos in the Phoenix subway. According to the US census, nearly 43% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. However, the majority are Mexicans, a situation influenced by the many Mexicans who lived in the region long before the borders were established and by the mass migration flows that resumed in the 1940s.

In the 1980s, the United States saw migratory patterns accelerate from El Salvador as its civil war began to unfold. California is home to the largest number of Salvadorans living abroad – more than 700,000, according to the 2019 US Census. By comparison, Arizona had fewer than 20,000 Salvadoran residents during the same period.

For many, like Blanco, finding a community in Phoenix that resonates with their Salvadoran roots proved difficult upon arrival. According to the owners of pupuserías in the valley, the food from their country of origin helps to create a meeting point for them.

According to Miriam Ramírez, owner of El Salvadoreño # 2 restaurant, located on 75th Avenue and Thomas Road in Phoenix, ordering a loroco-based pupusa is a strong indication that you are Salvadoran.

She said there aren’t many ways to identify Salvadorans in the Phoenix area – if their Salvadoran heritage isn’t detectable in the way they speak, then they will surely understand it in the way they speak. they command their pupusas.

Not many people know what loroco is, Ramírez said. It is an aromatic flower that grows in El Salvador and when mixed with cheese and hot corn dough that makes pupusa, gives the dish a unique and delicious flavor.

This is precisely the food that brings Salvadorans together in the Phoenix area, Ramírez said. Restaurants, like the chain she runs with her daughter Yesenia Ramírez, serve as meeting points for Salvadoran families who find this connection to their culture in the cuisine of their country.

“There are second or third generation Salvadorans. You may not see them in the street with a flag, you cannot identify them at first glance,” Yesenia Ramírez said. “But when they see a pupusa restaurant, they remember the food their grandmother made for them, and they quickly associate these flavors with their traditions, their culture, their family.”

In 2005, pupusas was declared the national dish of El Salvador. The second Sunday in November has been declared National Pupusa Day.

Around the valley, authentic Salvadoran restaurants aren’t too hard to find. The majority, however, are in Phoenix. Miriam Ramírez’s Salvadoreño restaurant chain operates in Phoenix, Mesa and El Mirage, with a sixth location soon in Tempe. Others like Restaurant Guañaquitos, Restaurant Salvadoreño y Pupuseria Los 3 Hermanos and Restaurant Reina de las Pupusas are also located in Phoenix.

Along with cheese-based pupusas, chicharrón and the combination of cheese and beans, loroco pupusas are among the most requested dishes at Miriam Ramírez’s restaurant. It opened in 2002 and has served thousands of Latinos and non-Latinos in the Valley.

But the culinary ingenuity of Salvadorans went further, and over time the dish included endless flavors such as chicken, chorizo, ham, meat, and even shrimp.

“We make it with pepperoni and cheese which is flavorful, and customers in Phoenix love them,” said Yesenia Ramírez.

The pupusas are accompanied by a marinated concoction of cabbage, carrot, chili, onion and vinegar.

Unlike large cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, where hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans live, there is no designated neighborhood or area in Phoenix where the Salvadoran community is concentrated.

“In Los Angeles you see the vast majority around MacArthur Park, there are a lot of Salvadoran businesses there; lots of markets that make you feel like you’re in your hometown,” Yesenia Ramírez said. “It’s missing here in the Phoenix area. There are a lot of Salvadorans here, but we are all scattered. The valley is very big and wide, and there is no specific place where we live or meet.

Dr. Cecilia Menjívar, professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, focused her research on the Central American experience in the United States. In order to understand Salvadoran’s lack of visibility in the Phoenix metropolitan area, we need to understand the reasons families have migrated here, she said.

Menjívar documented the history of Central American immigration to the United States, highlighting how the political and economic difficulties of the 1970s influenced current migration patterns.

In his academic study “The Power of the Law: The Legality and Daily Life of Central Americans in Phoenix, Arizona,” Dr. Menjívar explains that “although the political conflicts officially ended in 1992 in El Salvador and in 1996 in Guatemala , immigration from the two countries has continued and is now exacerbated by the high rates of unemployment, underemployment and high levels of violence associated with “common crime” in Central America. “

The study focuses on the legal infrastructure that created the environment in which Central Americans live today. Current immigration laws, as Menjívar explains in his work, affect the daily lives of immigrants to places like El Salvador, including their ability to build community.

Like Mexicans and immigrants from other Central and South American countries, Salvadorians tend to come to the United States with the intention of staying there for a maximum of two years, thus supporting their families and returning home. shortly after. They do this “to earn money and go back to their hometown, but over time most decide to stay,” said Miriam Ramírez.

“That we stay to live here does not mean that we forget our country, our family or our roots. What we do (in the US) is think about keeping our roots alive, ”she said.

Enrique Meléndez, member of El Salvador’s diplomatic corps and former honorary consul of El Salvador in Phoenix, said Salvadorans are concentrated in Mesa, Phoenix and Tucson. And despite their small numbers in Arizona, Salvadorans created with other Latinos in the region, including Mexicans.

“The Salvadoran people of Arizona are very social … and respect other nationalities. Many of them work very hard and develop various professions – something similar to what happens with Mexicans, Hondurans and (people from) other Latin American countries, ”said Meléndez.

For Jessica Blanco, however, finding a home in Phoenix has also resulted in some form of erasure of their own culture as Salvadorans. “I think that as Salvadoran immigrants we are trying to merge with the Latino culture here, but it is as if the Mexican culture is very widespread,” he said.

Blanco, 23, said that due to the lack of knowledge of fellow Latinos in her country, she spent time educating those around her about her identity. The hegemony that Mexican identity has over how a Latino should look and be in Phoenix – and the United States – forces this kind of unlearned environment for Salvadorans and other Latinos.

“I think the Central American erasure is something major that I’ve achieved trying to navigate different groups,” she said.

Kenneth Velásquez, originally from Tucson, moved to Tempe to study architecture at Arizona State University. Like Blanco, he said he had not been exposed to much to the other Salvadorans in the Phoenix metro.

“I would say that while I have been able to connect a lot with the Latino community, I haven’t been able to connect as much with the other Salvis in particular,” he said.

Velásquez is the eldest son of immigrant parents from El Salvador. His family’s immigration story illustrates some of the trends in Central American immigrants in recent years. Her mother was granted Temporary Protected Status in 1999 and moved to Arizona shortly thereafter. Her father arrived in 2008 and continues to send funds to El Salvador to support her family to this day.

Velásquez believes he doesn’t see enough Salvadoran representation in Phoenix. Apart from his family experiences and his encounters through family ties, he does not feel that he has been able to find a community here among other Salvadorans.

“I don’t really have any contact with the Salvi community here yet,” he explained. “The only real connections I have had with the community are through pupuserias and a football game, things that have a direct link to the country.”

Velásquez’s experience is one that Miriam and Yesenia Ramírez understand. For this very reason, restaurants that specialize in Salvadoran cuisine, their way of keeping their “roots alive,” provide that space that Salvadorans need to create community, they said.

With no official consular office in Phoenix, the closest being in Tucson and then Los Angeles, Salvadoran restaurants in the valley offer their dining halls as consular service locations when staff visit Tucson.

Additionally, Yesenia Ramírez helps organize the annual Arizona Pupusas Festival, one of the few events in the valley to celebrate Salvadoran culture. The event usually takes place around the famous Pupusa Day. This year, it will take place on November 13 at the Roosevelt 16 Cultural Center (1650 E Roosevelt St.) in Phoenix. The event is organized by the Cultivo Market Collective.

The event promotes Salvadoran cuisine from local restaurants, traditional live music, typical El Salvador dances, art exhibitions by local Salvadoran designers and other activities.

“A lot of people with whom we have established good relationships, we have met them either in restaurants or at events such as the Pupusa festival,” said Miriam Ramírez. “That’s the goal of this festival: to bring people together and promote our culture, and so far it has worked for us.”

Contact La Voz reporter Raphael Romero Ruiz at rromeroruiz@lavozarizona.com and editor-in-chief Javier Arce at javier.arce@lavozarizona.com. Follow them on Twitter @raphaeldelag and @ javierarce33.

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