People, Purpose and Pupusas danielle wallace unc chapel hill

The Power Behind the Pupusa

The steam rises off the dough as Yesenia places another pupusa on the griddle this overcast Thursday afternoon at the Carolina Food Summit. The scent of delicious fried dough permeates the air as the hungry guests make their way over to the table questioning what exactly smells so enticing. Yesenia is hard at work on the griddle, Ana stands ready to serve and little Anita listens eagerly to instructions from the head of this whole operation, her aunt Cecilia.

These pupusas are more than just yummy dough patties filled with pork, beans and cheese. They are the Polanco’s livelihood. And more importantly, this traditional Salvadorian dish is how Cecilia Polanco seeks social change and justice. Polanco recalls the first time she realized the power behind the pupusa when she was just an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and invited her friends to her family’s home in Durham for dinner. “I told them to come hungry because my mom was going to feed them and was not going to take no for an answer and more likely than not we were going to have pupusas.”

For Polanco, the pupusas provided a way for her to share her Salvadorian culture. The pupusas sparked conversation that led to her friends learning more about where she came from. “It was a way for me to share my heritage with them, to talk about being Salvadorian about what that means, and food has become a platform for cultural sharing, cultural appreciation and a way to promote a curiosity for difference rather than a fear or misunderstanding.”

Recognizing the opportunity to spread awareness about her culture and the potential to make money, Polanco started her food truck and catering company, So Good Pupusas, as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, she seeks more than just a paycheck in this business venture. As the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador, the fact that she was able to attend college and get an education weighed heavily on her heart. She knew she needed to give back.

Polanco’s father immigrated to the United States from El Salvador in the early 1980’s. He came seeking political asylum from civil war and settled in California where he worked in construction to save up enough to bring the rest of his family to safety. After Cecilia was born, the family moved to North Carolina where they currently reside. As the only one in her family born in the United States, Cecilia realized she was different.

The Polanco’s have gone through the naturalization process and are now citizens of the United States of America. However, Cecilia said she knows the road to citizenship is not as smooth for everyone. “I’m very conscious of the fact that had we been from a different country in Central America, had we had a different situation, we may very well be undocumented. And I, being the only one (in my family) born in the United States, had the rights and privileges of being a citizen, but many people don’t have that.”

Cecilia is not only here at the Carolina Food Summit to cater the event. She is also here to talk about the social mission behind So Good Pupusas. The business partners with a non-profit also founded by Cecilia called Pupusas For Education that administers a scholarship program for undocumented high school seniors in North Carolina. Polanco said she hopes to connect with influential people at the summit to get her message out there. Business owners and book authors enjoy a delicious pupusa, and through conversation about the origin of the dish, learn more about Cecilia’s culture. So Good Pupusas is the platform that helps raise awareness about Pupusas For Education and what it means to be an immigrant in the public education system in North Carolina.

As the daughter of immigrants, Cecilia knew from an early age that her parents would not be able to help her fund higher education. However, she is extremely grateful for the support they were able to give her. They instilled in her the value of education, and even though money was tight at home, her parents insisted that she focus on her schoolwork. “They said to me, you’re always going to have a roof over your head and food on the table, and you worry about your schoolwork and doing well in school.”

Polanco excelled in her academics. She was an exceptional student. And, she was a United States citizen. These two factors combined allowed her to qualify for enough financial aid and scholarship money to pay for college. However, many students like Polanco whose families immigrated to the United States do not receive the same opportunities for higher education because they are undocumented. Polanco received the Morehead Cain Scholarship and the Covenant Scholarship at UNC Chapel Hill. She was determined to use the opportunities her scholarships provided for the greater good to benefit people without access to a university education.

Polanco looks at her family and how far they have come. She is extremely grateful to her parents and is motivated by them to make So Good Pupusas a success. “My dad and my mom are close to 60, so one of the priorities for me and my sisters is to make sure that he stops working constructions jobs because he’s getting older and it’s dangerous," said Cecilia. “He deserves to be retired and not be worried about us. It’s time for us to take care of them.”

Polanco also looks to her nieces and nephews as a positive sign of where her family is going as they continue their education in North Carolina as United States citizens. She can’t help but think of children who are the same age who will not have the same access to education as her family members do. To Polanco, the problem is urgent. She seeks justice for these children. Although these thoughts may keep her up at night, she uses the energy to continue working to expand Pupusas For Education.

Cecilia said So Good Pupusas and Pupusas For Education would have never gotten off the ground if it weren’t for the family’s teamwork. The family functions on mutual love and support for one another, a message Polanco hopes translates on a greater scale in the United States as people come to learn more about Latin American cultures and look at immigrants in a more humane way.

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