Salsa and El Salvador
For José Barrera, his love of Salsa is more than just a personal taste: it helps distinguish him as a Salvadoran-Canadian from the various other communities he's met in Canada. Barrera’s life story and experiences with preserving and adapting traditional Salvadoran foods offer a window into the complex issues of migrant communities in finding their place in Manitoba’s mosaic through food and other parts of their culture.
Interview participant: José Barrera
Written and Narrated by Jackson Wayne Anderson
Produced by Kent Davies
Episode Image by Kimberley Moore
Theme Music by Robert Kenning
José Bererra, interview by Jackson Wayne Anderson, December 11, 2017 in Winnipeg, MB. Digital audio recording. Manitoba Food History Project, “Winnipeg Interviews," Oral History Centre Archive, University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, MB.
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KENT DAVIES: You’re listening to Preserves, a Manitoba Food History podcast: exploring the rich, flavourful history of Manitoba food and the people who make it, sell it and eat it.
From the packing table to the dinner table, from restaurant specials to grandma’s secret recipes, we consider the cultural, social, and commercial aspects of Manitoba food and what it means to us.
I’m your host Kent Davies.
This week we talk about salsa and how making the foods we love is important to maintaining our cultural identity.
But first, let’s introduce the project further by chatting with the Manitoba Food History Project’s principal researcher and my co-host –– you may remember her from her book, Snacks: A Canadian Food History, which documented the history of such notable snack food staples as Hawkins Cheezies and Old Dutch chips host –– University of Winnipeg’s business and food historian Prof. Janis Thiessen.
KENT DAVIES: So Janis, how did this project come about?
JANIS THIESSEN: Well after finishing my Snacks book I was interested in learning more about the history of food especially in my home province. So the Manitoba Food History Project is driven by two questions: how has food been produced, sold, and consumed in Manitoba? And how has that all changed over time?
KENT DAVIES: And we’ve been learning a lot of interesting things in the course of this project. I feel that food is a kind of a touchstone that allows you to explore all aspects of history whether that be cultural, social, and even business history, which is you know, your background. Everybody has a story, everybody has a recipe. And I’m excited to bring those stories to light. So what’s in the pantry for our very first episode?
JANIS THIESSEN: For our first episode we have the story of José Barrera, originally from El Salvador. And his life story is almost unimaginable for some of us. So we are grateful that he chose to share it with our listeners.
KENT DAVIES: Now, this story was produced by one of your students: Jackson Wayne Anderson.
JANIS THIESSEN: Yes, Jackson Anderson is completing a four year Honours degree in history at the University of Winnipeg.
KENT DAVIES: As I understand it he actually works with José, at a church.
JANIS THIESSEN: Yes, they got to know each other quite well and José was willing to share his many salsa recipes with Jackson.
KENT DAVIES: And we got to try some. Which was great.
JANIS THIESSEN: That we did. They were delicious.
KENT DAVIES: But I think we got the light version because usually salsa will make steam come out of my ears.
JANIS THIESSEN: Yes, and José talks about that in his story.
KENT DAVIES: Alright let’s give it a listen.
JOSÉ BARRERA: One year, I thought I would end up at the Grace Hospital. When I was making them. They went through the glove because I was chopping them. The habanero and the ghost peppers. And it went through the glove. I couldn’t. I had to keep my fingers open like that and air them out always. For two weeks. It feels like they were going to come off. And I dipped it in milk, like people suggested, ketchup, sugar... You name it, nothing will take the pain.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: This José Barrera. Here he’s describing his experiences making salsa. A food that he has a very personal history with.
JOSÉ BARRERA: I was exposed to it as a daily thing, since I remember life. Spicy….definitely I had to have it. It’s almost like you are addicted. You know what I’m saying? It’s calling you.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: For José, the spiciness of his salsa is more than just a personal taste: it helps distinguish him as a Salvadoran from the various other communities he’s met in Canada.
My name is Jackson Wayne Anderson and today we explore how José’s life story and his experiences in preserving and adapting traditional Salvadoran salsa illustrates a larger chapter in Manitoba’s recent history.
This chapter began in 1970, when Premier of Manitoba Edward Schreyer spoke of two challenges that the province would face int he future: the first was to “preserve a meaningful cultural identity for each of the diverse groups in our society” and the second one: “to bring into society as a whole the maximum cultural contribution from each of those groups.”
In the last 50 years, hundreds of migrant communities new to Manitoba continue to struggle with preserving their distinct cultural identities while still mixing in with the province’s cultural mosaic. For many of these communities, traditional foods serve to both help and hinder their adaption to Manitoba’s multicultural landscape.
Salvadoran salsa is just one example of a food not often considered very “Manitoban,” that has nonetheless mixed into our local foodscape while still being culturally distinct. The capacity of foods like salsa to “mix” with other cultures outside of El Salvador does complicate this story a little.
By sharing these communities’ complex experiences with traditional foods and identities through smaller stories like José’s, I hope to show how food has a multifaceted role in helping newcomers to Manitoba integrate into a new culture on their own terms. As we will see, food is more than just something to whet our appetite: it’s a part of our cultures and of our stories that brought many of us to live in Manitoba, and for José, his story starts in El Salvador.
JOSÉ BARRERA: I was born in a distant -- a very remote part of a village. It was just us, in the bush, right. We were extremely poor. We had a small room for eleven of us. We hunt, we fish, and then if we had to go to the village to exchange fish for sugar or rice, we just chopped up banana leaf and you wrap it around your waist, you go to the village like that to exchange the fish for whatever your needs were. Whether it’s sugar, or salt, or rice, or whatever. and we were so happy. We never knew what there is to have.
Age twelve, I escaped my country, you know, escaped war. you know, we went through war, right?
The reason that I just kept going and going is because, aged twelve, back then during the war, you had to have a piece of ID, otherwise they kill you if you get caught, right? Anyway -- so if you ask me how I escaped... I got lost. Because my country, El Salvador, especially my province, it borders with another country named Guatemala, right? So, I just kept going and going and going. I went through farms and I stayed there to do some work for them, then keep going and went through Mexico. Mexico is a huge country, and when you don’t know where you’re going, you’re just going, right? Forward.
And I went forward and hit the border between Mexico and America: San Diego, California, and Tijuana. Those are the two borders, main entrances there. One night, I just sneak in to the other side, and that’s how I came to America. Los Angeles, Downtown. Christmas Day -- 1980.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: For the next few weeks José slept on the streets of Los Angeles, finding help where he could.
JOSÉ BARRERA: I got picked up by a church because I was so young, and they helped me. So, I -- moved from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then Washington D.C., and then from Washington D.C. to New York City.
In New York City, I work for a church and back then, there was a priest from our church from Winnipeg and that’s how I’m here. He says, “By the way, do you want to come to Canada? Canada is beautiful!” And just to be obedient and I said okay.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: José said yes but he was skeptical about actually getting into Canada without documentation.
JOSÉ BARRERA: He took me to a Canadian Consul to apply for a Canadian paper. And because I was young and I didn’t have any ID in my pocket –– like I said I escaped with no papers or nothing –– so when I went to the Canadian Consul there, they told me, “Well, young man, we don’t know who the hell you are and where the hell you come from.” And I just laugh about it, because that’s the way they said it.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: The Canadian Consul requested José go to the Red Cross to receive documentation on his status.
JOSÉ BARRERA: And I say, “Well, that’s impossible, right? So, I guess I’m not going to Canada.” It didn’t matter. But I was so young, so they phoned me back for an interview. So, they make a decision and they say: “You’re going to Canada. You choose. You have a year from this day on (up to) to make a decision when you like to go to Canada.” And then I say, well I will choose August 26, 1986. That’s the day I entered Canada.
I’ve never been in a plane before, so I was so scared and afraid, and when they sent me.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: José arrived in Canada just a year before a major surge of other Salvadoran refugees fleeing the Civil War made the same journey northward –– after the U.S. tightened its immigration policy.
JOSÉ BARRERA: ...from the big city to a land that is so huge... That’s what I could see from the window of the airplane.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: Prior to the civil war in the 1980s, there was almost no sizeable Salvadoran community in Canada compared to the many other ethnic groups already living here. Many of the Salvadorans that came during the war lacked the same cultural connections to Canada that they had in other Latin American countries, or even the United States. Despite many struggles, the Salvadoran-Canadian community persevered and has become one of the largest Latin American communities in Canada today.
For José though, as with many other Salvadoran-Canadians, his ties to El Salvador and the people he grew up with were not severed once he got to Canada.
JOSÉ BARRERA: Through the church, we found my aunt. She is a nun. She still is a nun. And through her we found -- my family and after years we communicated and I learned that they’re still alive and they didn’t get killed and they thought also... They were so pleased that I was alive also.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: And in 2009 they all reunited, back in their home, in El Salvador.
JOSÉ BARRERA: We had a family reunion. We all got together, and good thing, because three months after that my mother dies.
But we went to visit the little house there, where we grew up -- I didn’t recognize it because I went back after twenty-seven years. Completely different. But it’s funny. Everybody recognized me but I didn’t recognize them. So... And a lot of people got killed during the war so…
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: It’s from his mother that José has his earliest memories of salsa, the food he’s used to keep connected to El Salvador for over thirty years.
JOSÉ BARRERA: Every town and every recipe is different. Mine is... I have my mother’s recipe in my head. Old ones. Back in my country, I saw my mother... She just did the basics. She will pick up the peppers and mash them with a rock, you know, because we didn’t have no dishes, we didn’t have no nothing, right. So you just get a rock that’s shape is almost like a bowl, right, and then with another rock you just do your own grinding; add up the salt and all the ingredients, because we have paprika trees there, also, and all the spices, and you mix it up. You mix the tomatoes and the hot peppers –– because if you ask me that’s all we had. The salt... And you were lucky to have to the tomato but you always had the pepper. You mix it together and then you have it. Then people find through their own heads or ideas, “oh let’s try this spice.” You know? Different leaves. Because in the tropical countries, it’s tropical you have that all year around. So you do your own invention, you know?
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: It’s clear that for both José and many other Salvadorans displaced by the Civil War, making traditional Salvadoran foods helps to preserve the memories of their home country. Melida, a Salvadoran woman living in the United States, once explained that giving up Salvadoran food was so hard for her community because of how it reminded them of home. As Sharon Stowers explains in her study on Salvadoran-American eating habits, the distinct tastes and flavours of El Salvador’s rich and spicy cuisines helped displaced Salvadorans remember both their culture and loved ones that they had lost during the War.
Over the last three decades, thousands of Salvadoran restaurants and grocery stores have opened worldwide to provide the international Salvadoran community a taste of their homeland. In Manitoba, this includes Café Mercadito Latino and La Fiesta Cafecito here in Winnipeg. While the Salvadoran-Canadian community has found great success in staying connected to their homeland’s culture through food, many other migrant communities new to Manitoba continue to struggle with even accessing their traditional foods. Researchers such as Amy Henderson and Joyce Slater, have noted that many migrant communities from North Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia living in Winnipeg’s North End neighbourhood have challenges getting their traditional foods in the city’s supposed “food desert.” Many of these communities have also turned to alternative means of getting culturally significant foods, which José himself has had some experience in.
JOSÉ BARRERA: I know this farmer in St. Norbert that -- he starts them early in the winter, so that the peppers by September they already mature to hold that spice. I get fifty pounds of habanero peppers and ghost peppers. And, boy, just the smell will knock you down when you are on the process of washing them before you put them in the blender. And when you are cooking them, make sure that it’s a nice day, because you are going to go on the balcony. Just the steam will choke you to death. And seal the door so that nothing goes out in the hallway. And you come out for breathing, to take a breath because it’s just... You cannot breathe in [laughs].
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: Regardless of their original culture, migrant communities in Manitoba continue to be very crafty in getting their foods just the way they want it. In many cases, though, these communities have been forced to adapt their unique cuisines to what is available here in Manitoba. However, the foods that these communities adapt to their new environment often have a history of “mixing” with other cultures across time and region. José shares his own understandings of how salsa has done this throughout it’s long, dynamic history.
JOSÉ BARRERA: What I understand is back in the... Incas and Mayans and Aztecs, those were the tribes; those are the first people who were there. This began from there, you know. And over the years, you know, people adapt their own things and make it to taste whatever it tastes. Not all the salsas are the same.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: Salsa is believed to have first been invented by the Indigenous peoples of central America by 3000 B.C. By the time that the Spanish missionary Alonso de Molina gave this food the name of “salsa” simply meaning “sauce” in Spanish, salsa had already been adapted into thousands of different mixes as it had spread across Central and South America. In many ways, Salsa’s long history as such a versatile food across so many regions makes it a part of a diverse Latin American culture rather than just Salvadoran culture. As José’s experiences show, salsa is still a very dynamic food regardless of where you make it.
JOSÉ BARRERA: As you go through another country –– like I said, I was in Guatemala and Mexico and America –– you do your own mixes and see how it turns. Like I have done with pineapple and mangos, right, with habanero peppers. I have all different mixes over here, from all the people that are here –– are here from Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica. You know, they have their own mixes too, and different peppers. So, I try everything.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: While inspired by history, José does use some modern conveniences when he makes salsa.
JOSÉ BARRERA: I just use the blender, and pre-cook them. You know, put the other ingredients in and leave it to cool off until the next day. It’s almost like wine-making. You know, you have to sterilize the bottles and you have to leave it to ferment it, you have to put this and this and that, you have to make sure that you are stirring over and over while the thing is boiling, right? Same thing, but it all depends on what kind of hot sauce you’re making. If you are just making one just for today or for the next three days, just roast the pepper, not too much, and you make it just for today or tomorrow. But if you want to make something that lasts for a few years, that is a lot of work.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: Though José has constantly mixed his traditional ingredients and tools with other ones he’s found outside of El Salvador, there is still one thing that keeps his salsa distinct from many other Canadians’: the spice.
JOSÉ BARRERA: If you want pure stuff, you make sure that you just use just a tiny little bit of apple cider vinegar and the other ingredients so that they don’t -- break the spices down, right? That has something to do with how the peppers have been ripened on the plant. Even my landlord, she just loves it. It’s the only Canadian that I have come across, nothing is hot for her. I have given away to some other people right, and they sweat and everything, they say that it is hot, but they can not tolerate the next level. I’m not saying that Canadians don’t like spicy, some of them do like spicy. But it all depends on what spicy is to you, right? When they say they like spicy you do not give what you have made because it is a whole different level. You know what I mean? You don’t want to send somebody to the hospital.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: For José, it’s clear that spiciness is very important for him in making salsa a part of his distinct Salvadoran heritage while living in Manitoba. José shares some more thoughts on certain foods help define a distinct culture for El Salvador, as well as how these foods vary and change in El Salvador itself.
JOSÉ BARRERA: Every country has their own specific dish. Because I lived there, I know what it’s called and what it is. Like Guatemala has beef and black beans. We have what they call pupusa, and what it is, it’s almost like tortilla, puffy, with stuff inside. Pork and beans, refried beans –– or whatever you have. You can make anything. We are very famous for that, but every country is famous for their specific dish.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: Like salsa the pupusa comes from a distinct culture but has changed dynamically as Salvadorans have mixed with other cultures from around the world. When I asked José where he’s seen this mixing of foods and cultures the most, his answer made me put the different foods we find in Manitoba into a bigger perspective.
JOSÉ BARRERA: Canada has… Think about it, the whole world is here. We are from so many countries. In the summertime you go to any fest in small towns, wow, you come across so much stuff that you that you think, “How do you make this? How do you put this together?” And that is because you go back to ask the lady behind the counter and, “Oh this is so and so from there... And this is so and so...” And not only there, from other countries. But they have learned to put other peoples’ ingredients, too. And not necessarily one recipe, but a little bit here and little bit there, from different people, from different countries. And wow, there you have it.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: José’s perspective on how unique cultural foods are exchanged in a cultural mosaic raises an important question: How might this access to ingredients and cultures from around the world cause a food from one specific community to lose its distinctiveness? For many migrant communities in Manitoba and across Canada, the challenge with preserving their traditional foods in the cultural mosaic is not so much the lack of access to them, but being pressured to simplify their very distinct regional and cultural dishes under a broader cultural identity that more Canadians might recognize.
We can see this both in the Salvadoran Canadian community and many other communities attached to a larger cultural group. The aforementioned Café Mercadito Latino and La Fiesta Cafecito in Winnipeg, for example, offer many distinct Salvadoran dishes, though they also explicitly advertise the wide variety of their selections for a broader Latin American community. This certainly highlights the willingness of the owners to connect to a larger community that has often helped many Salvadorans settle in Manitoba. But might also lead to other Canadians unfamiliar with the cultural diversity of Latin America to over-generalize Salvadoran culture as being like any other Latin-American culture.
The adaptability of traditional foods to a new cultural landscape is thus a lot more complicated when we factor in the risks of distinct migrant communities being forced to assimilate into a cultural or national identity that they themselves may not identify with. It’s obvious that migrant communities new to Manitoba and Canada at large face many challenges in integrating into the multi-cultural landscape as equal but distinct cultural groups. What’s even more obvious is the role that food plays in this complex process. Migrant communities here in Manitoba are finding new ways to address these challenges every day. In addition to growing their own foods and networking with suppliers across the country to get affordable foods with just the “right” taste and freshness, migrant communities have opened up to educate both themselves and other Canadians about their distinct cultural cuisines and the identities that they attach to them. Cooking and gardening programs put on by Food Matters Manitoba and the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba are allowing more and more newcomers to preserve their traditional foods in practical and affordable ways,
JOSÉ BARRERA: I think I am very, very proud of being a Canadian. But I’m also very proud of where I come from.
JACKSON WAYNE ANDERSON: While José’s life story and his experiences adapting Salvadoran salsa are only one part of a much larger story, they offer a window into the complex struggles and successes of migrant communities in finding their place in Manitoba’s mosaic through food and other parts of their culture. The questions that José’s experiences raise are questions we as Manitobans will have to ask ourselves the more diverse we become as a province. And the more we listen to stories like José’s, the more we’ll learn of how to make Manitoba truly a place open to all people, all cultures, and all foods.
KENT DAVIES: You have been listening to Preserves, A Manitoba Food History Podcast, produced by myself Kent Davies, researched, written and narrated by Jackson Wayne Anderson, hosted by Janis Thiessen and myself, Kimberley Moore creates the photos and images that accompany each podcast and is also our web designer, Sarah Story is our project coordinator, our theme music is by Robert Kenning. Preserves is recorded at the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre. You can check out the OHC and all the work we do at oralhistorycentre.ca. For more Manitoba Food History Project content, information, and events go to www.manitobafoodhistory.ca. We’re also on Twitter, Instragram and Facebook.
Preserves is made possible by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and assistance from the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg.