Julie Lopez was 24 years old and five months pregnant the first time she was on an airplane. A few classes shy of a university degree, Lopez made the daunting decision to leave El Salvador in 1997. The news that she was expecting wasn’t welcomed by her family or the community. Viewed as a stigma and source of shame, Lopez couldn’t continue her education and her future prospects of a career and financial sustainability in El Salvador were bleak. She had been studying public relations and she was working at a local television station.

“It hurt to leave,” Lopez said. “I still think that one day I’ll finish my degree. It’s not too late right?”

Her father and oldest sister were already settled in San Diego, having emigrated in the 1980s after a brutal civil war that dissolved any family wealth. Lopez’s sister encouraged her to join them in the United States. At the time it was far easier to secure a visa, so she did.

Lopez worked odd jobs for years as her English skills improved and then one day in 2008, both she and her mom Lydia Lopez were unemployed at the same time and her mother suggested that they sell Pupusas in packs of 10 by a convenience store.

Making her homeland’s native dish to eat and share helped Lopez deal with the homesickness and regret of the life she left behind in El Salvador. Now, making Pupusas is how she’s managed to make a life for herself and her family in one of the nation’s most expensive regions.

Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador, but Honduras has made strong claims to the food item as well. Still it’s widely believed to have originated in El Salvador. It’s a warm, chewy, compact flatbread stuffed with various ingredients—the most popular being bean and cheese.

Formed with corn masa, the dish bears a resemblance to arepas, which originated in the northern region of South American, most notably popular in Colombia and Venezuela.

However, the El Salvadorean dish is served with a mandatory side of curtido, a crunchy cabbage relish that’s prepared like a vinegar-based slaw with onion and carrots, spices, and salt. The tangy cabbage mixture is a little like sauerkraut and traditionally accompanied by a simple hot sauce that provides more flavor than heat.

The trick of the pupusa, which Lopez likens to customers as a tortilla pancake, is the way masa harina  (grainy cornmeal flour) is mixed with water and a little salt: The masa must be worked into a dough by hand, not machine. Pupusas are stuffed with the filling and griddled fresh on a hot plancha.  

The dish is extremely versatile, another popular traditional version is called revueltas. The stuffing is a mix of refried beans, cheese and pork, but the stuffing can just as easily be made with vegan mushrooms and spinach.

Although it was never a selling point in El Salvador, Lopez now capitalizes on the fact that the flour is naturally gluten-free. The flour made from corn is also higher in fiber, vitamin A, zinc, and iron than wheat.

“See this, it’s not too smooth but it has to be very soft otherwise the Pupusas will not be good,” Lopez says picking up a small mound of wet masa in her fingers from a nearby steel container at her farmers’ market stall. The texture resembles the consistency of something between tacky bread dough and clay and perfecting it is an art.

Lopez recalls that at first, they gave away more Pupusa samples than they sold. It was early for El Salvadorean immigrants, and the street food staple commonly found in their homeland was virtually unknown.

Soon enough, Lopez and her mother developed a following and sold the delicious comfort food item  successfully enough that someone recommended a local program with La Maestra’s Mujeres Emprenadoras (female entrepreneurs) program. Julie started attending classes in 2008 to learn the ins and outs of establishing a small business and later received a microloan of $500 to buy a canopy that allowed them to start selling at farmers’ markets.

In 2009, she and her son Chris Lopez, now 22, started working at the North Park Farmers’ Market. Chris Lopez is the reason Lopez emigrated and she calls him her little angel. Even as a pre-teen he was helping her with applications and advertising. Coincidentally, marketing and advertising is his college major in Arizona.

Still, in the beginning, the La Maestra program helped Lopez find a commercial kitchen to work with, fill out reams of technical paperwork, submit tax forms and develop a business plan.

Now, Lopez and her younger sister Maria Ayla operate the business under the name Pupusas Express at four markets—UC San Diego, Linda Vista, City Heights and Lane Field Park—and in January they opened a brick-and-mortar shop at 1207 East Main Street in El Cajon.

Lopez and several other female immigrants and refugees were accepted into a Source of Change program at UC San Diego which helped open doors to other markets. The purpose of the university program initiated by Social Impact and Innovation and the UC San Diego Housing, Dining and Hospitality program is to ensure that these women, who are often ostracized and exploited, to develop a sustainable and dignified means to earn a living. Several food stands established by women from various countries have participated including other Latin American and African collectives, but Pupusas Express and La Costeñita of Guatemala are the only two currently operating at the weekly market.

Julia Macouzet, a program manager at La Maestra called Lopez of Pupusas Express a shining example of what hard work and determination can accomplish. Most intrepid entrepreneurs suffer setbacks while navigating linguistic and financial literacy concerns. It is no small feat to develop a menu, negotiate and source ingredients, develop a schedule for food prep, and secure all of the necessary equipment and health licenses.

Ana López of La Costeñita said that she’s currently only at one market, UC San Diego on Tuesdays, but she wants to expand. She’s only been operating her stand for two years. Her most popular dish is a small snack food hailing from Guatemala called rellenitos de platano, or simply rellenitos: small stuffed plantains filled with refried beans and fried. It’s an unexpected blend of sweet and savory with a slightly crisp, caramelized exterior.

Domestic violence led López to immigrate 12 years ago. She found the La Maestra program while recuperating from an attack by a supervisor at a previous job. La Maestra’s program deals with many women who have suffered physical and mental abuse, working to boost their self-esteem and encourage self-sufficiency.

Financial independence is the best means of ending abuse. The program includes microloans, mentoring, peer support, and an education in the ever-important message of self-care and well-being. The program now includes more than 150 female small business owners including crafters, direct sales, tailors and only two food vendors.

Macouzet explained that getting vendors into the food business is tough, but there are other women looking to enter the markets soon specializing in other traditional Latin American street food staples.

Looking around UC San Diego’s weekly market it’s easy to see why food stands provide an accessible opportunity for new immigrants. Meal options range from Hawaiian donuts and poke, East African Sambusas (fried dough filled with meat, potatoes or lentils), Mexican tamales, Jamaican jerk chicken, Brazilian street food and an only-in-America carb-rich creation of sandwiches stuffed with pasta. When it comes to celebrating differences and international exploration, it seems easiest to do via calories.  

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