Maria Estrela's face, a rainbow of late afternoon light and shadows, focused with ease on a ball of dough in her hands.
Nothing could have deterred her casual concentration in that church parking lot on that summer Saturday afternoon. Not the furtive scurrying of kids around a makeshift prep table, nor the bellowing calls from her sister, Vilma Nuñez, down an improvised short-order line.
"Una revuelta y una con queso!"
Nuñez shouted as she hustled behind a hot, flat-top grill, a spatula gripped in one hand and a whirling queue of handwritten order tickets flying through the other.
Each order was nearly identical, the menu offering only one item: the pupusa. And the Salvadoran sisters know pupusas.
La Iglesia Hispana Emanuel, at 2504 N. Roxboro St. in Durham, periodically hosts mini street-food festivals to raise funds for various church activities. All of the public is invited.
"Everyone in the community seems to enjoy it," says Julio Ramirez, the church's pastor. "We're sharing our history through food. And it's a reminder that we're not an island. We're all a part of this community, this human race."
The church's Spanish-speaking congregation is made up of immigrant families hailing from Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Ramirez is from the Dominican Republic, and he jokes that the congregation still manages to understand each other despite speaking Spanish in different accents.
"This is how we can connect. And we share part of who we are," he says. "We're from different countries and villages. Yet we all come from the same heart, the same history. We're immigrants. Each of us left for different reasons—economic or cultural ones, instability—but we're all here to achieve our dreams. So this simple food gives a bit of aroma, a bit of flavor, to our lives."
In August, the pupusa festival was led by Salvadoran church members, including Estrela and Nuñez.
The first customers showed up at 5 p.m., and, as the orders started coming in, Estrela took her position in front of a large mixing bowl of dense masa, corn dough she began prepping at 11 o'clock that morning.
Her fingers pecked a shallow bowl filled with water, giving them a dexterity necessary to make the masa malleable. She rolled the ball in between her palms—two to four swift cycles—before cupping it in her hand and plunging two fingers into the center, carving out a round pocket in just a few seconds. In the hollowed-out center, she plopped in a pinch of pork or cheese, or both.
Another quick dip with her fingers, this time into vegetable oil. Again a quick roll, this time pinching the pocket closed and smoothing it into a ball in one swoop. Then a smack, flat between her hands, the contents inside now pressed neatly and invisibly into a round disc.
The pupusa is the signature snack of El Salvador and other parts of Central America. In that church lot, Estrela said it reminded her of how the pupusa street vendors set up shop in her native city of Usulutan, El Salvador.
When the cheese oozes out and crisps on the grill, seared into flat, dark spots, the pupusas are ready. Many members of Durham Presbyterian Church, which shares the building with Iglesia Emanuel, came to buy food, standing in awe as they watched the sisters work.
Estrela smiled. "This is just our typical food."
By 7 p.m., Nuñez predicted at least 100 pupusas had been served, at just $1.50 each. The money will be used to alleviate travel costs for a family retreat.
Each pupusa is served with a hearty topping of crunchy cabbage slaw deluged in a puddle of tomato-based vinegar. The Salvadorans say it's spicy. Enrique Jimenez and Angelica Rangel, natives of Mexico, weren't so sure. They brought two bottles of hot sauce from home just in case.
At the next fundraiser on Sept. 14, they may fair well leaving the salsa at home. This time it'll be a taco festival, complete with live mariachi music. For more information, call 919-672-4333 or 919-451-6626.