Editor’s Note: During the week of Thanksgiving, we wanted to take a look back at the inaugural Carolina Food Summit. The Food Summit explored the intersections of food and policy, hunger, nutrition, school lunch, family ties, and other topics that will arise as we gather around our Thanksgiving table this week. In addition, our co-founder Ferrel Guillory invited some students from one of his journalism classes to cover the Food Summit. Given our belief that first person perspectives and nurturing young voices matter, we wanted to spotlight their work as well. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.
Because they’re just so good. So Good Pupusas, that is.
Founder of the catering company by that name, Cecilia Polanco, brought the traditional El Salvadorian dish to the Carolina Food Summit in September. She spoke about the importance of food in initiating social change.
Pupusas are handmade tortillas filled with meat, cheese, and beans and served with a side of curtido, which is pickled cabbage and carrots, and tomato salsa. Polanco started her catering company, So Good Pupusas, while she was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She graduated in May 2016, and her business provides a way to fund her social mission which is to provide scholarships to undocumented high school students.
She first got the idea for her company when she invited friends over to her family’s home in Durham. The daughter of immigrants from El Salvador, Polanco said food provides, “a way for me to share my heritage with them, to talk about being Salvadorian — about what that means.”
“Food has become a platform for cultural sharing,” she said. “It’s about cultural appreciation and a way to promote a curiosity for difference rather than a fear or misunderstanding.”
Polanco’s parents immigrated to the United States in the ’80s and applied for political asylum to escape civil war in El Salvador. Her father worked in construction and her mother worked in food service. Polanco said her parents emphasized how important it was for her and her three elder sisters to get an education, but she knew from an early age that they would not be able to afford the expenses of college.
“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,” said Polanco.
Polanco excelled in high school and was awarded the Morehead Cain Scholarship and the Carolina Covenant Scholarship at UNC-Chapel Hill that, together, fully funded her college education. Because she was born in the United States, she was eligible for scholarships and financial aid. She said she knows many students do not have access to the same opportunities she did because they are undocumented.
Polanco also said immigrants from other countries in Central and South America sometimes experience a much slower naturalization process. Depending on how they entered the United States, many immigrants fear deportation, and citizenship is only a pipe dream.
“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,” said Polanco.
In addition to founding So Good Pupusas, Polanco set up a nonprofit, Pupusas for Education, that administers a scholarship fund for undocumented high school seniors. The program has selected its first two recipients, one who attends Guilford College and another who is taking a gap year before attending Meredith College.
Polanco said she is very grateful for the support of her parents and for the sacrifices they have made for her, so she hopes her business will allow her to provide for her parents as they get older. She uses her mother’s pupusa recipe, and her mother is responsible for making all of the fillings that go into the pupusas.
“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 construction jobs because he’s getting older and it’s dangerous,” she said. “He deserves to be retired and not be worried about us. It’s time for us to take care of them.”
So Good Pupusas caters events, and Polanco said she hopes to launch the company’s first food truck before November. The food truck will serve the Chapel Hill and Durham area, making weekly stops at UNC-Chapel Hill.