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“Here, try this,” Wendy says, pulling the lid off a large skillet that sits on the stove in the corner of her kitchen. The aromas from the spices and garlic cloves quickly fill the air. She pulls out a piece of crispy pork that’s been sautéed and slowly cooked in its fat drippings until golden brown. “You see, it’s different from the chicharrón you’re used to seeing in Mexico,” she points out. She’s referring to the difference between the meatier Salvadoran-style chicharrón that she learned how to cook by watching her mom as kid growing up in El Salvador and the Mexican-style (usually the skin or pork rind that is either fried or cooked in a salsa) that most people are familiar with here in Tijuana where she currently lives. Next, a generous helping of oregano goes into the salsa de tomate before she begins chopping the ingredients she’ll use for the curtido (a sort of spicy coleslaw).

Wendy is preparing the chicharrón, beans, salsa de tomate and curtido for the pupusas she’ll be selling. Pupusas are a staple Salvadoran food consisting of thick tortilla-like dish made from maíz flour and filled with one or more ingredients such as cheese, meats, beans, or loroco (a vine with edible flowers) and usually accompanied with the salsa de tomate and curtido.

Wendy has been preparing and selling pupusas from her home in Tijuana since May 2020 after the Salvadoran restaurant she previously worked at closed due to COVID-19.

Before the restaurant, Wendy was living and working at Movimiento Juventud 2000, a migrant shelter in Tijuana. She first arrived in Tijuana in November 2018, a week or so ahead of the large migrant caravan that she traveled with earlier from Tapachula, a city near the southern Mexican border with Guatemala. The group she had been with decided to split off and travel on La Bestia (The Beast), the freight trains often used by migrants traveling through Mexico.

Q: Did you ever think that one day you would be selling pupusas in Mexico?

A: Honestly, I did not imagine it. Well, as I said, my plans were not to leave my country. I mean, I was OK there then, but due to the circumstances over there, well ... even to this day because it is always a little dangerous. Even if the president tries to make the maras or gangs stop. He’s not only fighting against one or two, there are thousands, there are more, there are more gangs. There are more gangs than civilians. So, no, as I mentioned, I never imagined arriving here in Mexico or even less being on the border with the United States and Mexico and selling pupusas. In my life? No. I didn’t imagine it.”

(Wendy didn’t want to leave El Salvador. It wasn’t until her brother was murdered by local gangs and the death threats that followed, demanding she pay $10,000, that she finally decided to flee with her partner and her then 8-year-old daughter.)

Wendy poses in her living room in front of a Salvadoran flag
Wendy shreds cabbage for the curtido
The salsa de tomate that will be served with the pupusas

Q: How long were you working at the shelter after first arriving in Tijuana?

A: About nine months.

Q: You were there for nine months before leaving and you began working at the restaurant?

A: Exactly. The opportunity to leave the shelter came up and my plan was not to stay at the shelter. In the meantime, I was willing to support however I could until I received my Mexican (immigration) papers. I told myself I'm going to go out and look for work because I also have my other daughter who is in Costa Rica and I have to support my parents too. So, thank God, I was given the opportunity to have that job.

I barely started working there and he put me in charge of the restaurant. There were good days and bad days, you know? Sometimes sales are low or high, but I’m always optimistic. And sometimes it was challenging because there were coworkers who wouldn’t show up and it was during my shift. I would be in the kitchen, waiting tables and ringing people up. Sometimes I would have to call the boss and let him know they didn't come to work and I was all alone, and he would tell me to close. I said no because it’s a wasted day of work and pay as well. It was better for me to continue working. I didn’t want to stop working because I was here out of necessity.

Wendy adds chilis to the curtido
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