Cecilia Polanco's mom loves feeding people. In college, Polanco often brought friends home to Durham to meet her family, advising them to arrive with an empty stomach.
Pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador since 2005, are what Polanco grew up eating on special occasions with her Salvadoran family. And while they are often touted on Mexican-Central American "fusion" menus around town, these grilled corn tortillas stuffed with savory meat, beans, and cheese are still a celebration food in homes like Polanco's; the process of making them can take hours and requires lots of hands.
These days, Polanco, age twenty-four, runs the So Good Pupusas food truck with the help of her family. It began as a catering business over a year ago, and now the truck has been roving around the Triangle, from UNC's campus to Fullsteam brewery, for two months. Polanco is spurred on both by the nostalgic appeal of that childhood treat as well as by a greater purpose.
The idea came to Polanco during her sophomore year at UNC-Chapel Hill, when she joked with her sister about starting a family food truck. But she also began thinking more broadly about her Latina identity and some of the privileges she had enjoyed going into college.
"I started thinking about my part in the larger community and about how I was blessed to have received a number of scholarships to graduate debt-free," says Polanco.
One of the scholarships she received was the prestigious, merit-based Morehead-Cain scholarship, providing Polanco with a full ride to the university.
"Scholarships really changed my life before I even stepped foot onto the campus," says Polanco.
Born in California to Salvadoran parents, Polanco never had to worry about being undocumented. But she speaks passionately about how many of her Latinx friends grew up under different circumstances. According to survey data from 2014 by the Pew Research Center, North Carolina has approximately 350,000 undocumented immigrants, making it the state with the ninth-largest undocumented population in the country. Here, undocumented immigrants are required to pay out-of-state tuition and are ineligible for federal aid of any kind.
"It makes it virtually impossible for them to fund their own education," says Polanco.
Now, with her food truck, Polanco aims to lessen the burden carried by many of these individuals by putting profits toward scholarships for undocumented students.
"As a twenty-year-old, I didn't have money or marketable skills, so I came up with the idea with my sister to use the profits from the food truck for a scholarship," says Polanco.
So Good Pupusas began its scholarship program last year, providing two recipients $1,000 each to use toward school. Two new recipients were also chosen earlier this year.
"A thousand dollars for an undocumented student is really just a drop in the bucket," says Polanco. The funding is renewable for those selected, and Polanco hopes to eventually help eight students a year and provide $8,000 in scholarships.
Polanco also hopes to eventually broaden the social justice mission of the food truck by not only providing scholarships for students but also using her business to create a mechanism for community members to sell their food out of the truck and make a living. She notes that many Latinos make and sell food out of their vehicles and don't have the means to start their own food truck or a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
For her, food isn't just about sustenance and flavor, it's a mode of empowerment and education. Working with the Southern Foodways Alliance, for example, Polanco raises awareness about the numerous issues afflicting her community while striving to bring a cultural awareness about Latinos to the area.
"Talking about the Latino South is to talk about what is American," says Polanco. "Tacos might as well be American. That's now almost a household word; pupusas aren't yet, but we'll get there."
She says that the presidential election reaffirmed the work she and her family are doing.
"We are unapologetic about who we are helping," she says.
For Polanco, all of it comes together through the love in each pupusa. She says she used to watch her mom pray over the pupusas, just as her grandmother would do.
"We caress every pupusa so it's drenched in good feeling," says Polanco. "It's like my grandmother would say, 'I'm doing this for someone else—let it be the best.'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pupusas with a Purpose."