Discovering El Salvadorian Culture

Andrea Mendoza, Reporter 

The Salvadoran culture is full of many traditions and customs. In order to dive into the Salvadoran culture, one must know a few basic facts about the country.

El Salvador is a nation of 8,260 square miles in Central America between Guatemala and Honduras. Mountains separate the country into the southern coastal belt, the central valleys and plateaus and the northern mountains. These regions have created slight cultural variations because of the different crops grown in each one. Coffee grown in the mountains and cane grown on the coast provide the rural population with paid labor, while in the central valleys corn and beans are grown for private consumption and sale. Most industry is in the center of the country where the capital, San Salvador, is located. Other large cities include San Miguel in the east and Santa Ana in the west.

Katherine Valle, a student at Pierce College, was born in the city of San Salvador and lived there until her family migrated to the U.S when she was 10 years old. Her story is that of many immigrants coming here to the U.S. Valle’s family came to the U.S. in search for “el sueno Americano,” or the American dream. She left her friends, family, culture and home to come to America.

“I remember coming here and going to Walmart,” Valle said. “I was literally shocked when I saw so much food and the TVs. On our TV back home, I would see American commercials about these skinny TV’s and the first ones I saw were at Walmart.”

Almost all residents speak Spanish, which was brought in by the conquistadors. Before the Spanish conquest, the area was inhabited by the Pipil Indians. Very few Salvadorans now speak the indigenous language, which virtually disappeared after 1932, when General Maximilio Hernández Martínez suppressed rural resistance by massacring 30,000 mostly Indian rural peasants. Those who survived la Matanza (“the massacre”) hid their Indian identity by changing their dress and speaking only Spanish. Some remnants of the Pipil language remain in everyday Salvadoran Spanish.

Pierce student Denis Anzora was also born in El Salvador. He came to the U.S. at 13 and struggled with the language barrier in school. He felt his home was a haven from school as he found it very difficult to learn English.

“I watched a whole lot of shows in English to help me out,” Anzora said. “Nickelodeon and Disney channel were my life and education. I learned better watching TV rather than being in class.”

For Salvadorans, their flag might seem to represent corruption within the country, as El Salvador is ranked the fifth most dangerous country in South America, according to worldatlas.com. But, for some, the flag represents pride and honor. The flag consists of two blue horizontal stripes with a white stripe in the middle. In the center is a coat of arms inscribed “1821,” the year of independence. Salvadorans in the United States often have plaques that contain the flag as a symbol of national pride. Since independence, the blue in the flag has symbolized support for the ruling oligarchy.

For former Pierce student Ramsay Flores, the flag represents pride and solidarity. Flores is a recruiter for the U.S. Marine Corps and came to the U.S. at the age of 17. He came to study civil engineering, but eventually decided to join the armed forces.

“I lived most of my life in El Salvador, and when I came here the atmosphere was just very different,” Flores said. “Everyone says that living in the U.S. is the best thing ever, but I hated it. It wasn’t until I joined the Marines that I really got a sense of what this country was all about, but I still miss my Salvador.”

El Salvador is a society that holds onto a traditional machismo attitude, in which females stay home and tend to household chores while men go to work and support the family. However, those roles are challenged by women who seek employment. Many marriages are informal, meaning a couple starts a household and bypasses a church service. This is a legally-recognized union. Unions that involve a religious ceremony are also legally-recognized; however, they are typically considered permanent bonds. Roughly 75 percent of Salvadorans consider themselves Roman Catholic and the Church traditionally frowns upon divorce according to worldatlas.com.

“I grew up with the mentality of having to be that breadwinner of the house,” former student Carlos Molina said. “In my country, gender roles are very divided. I think it’s very much like that in other places too you know, not just in El Salvador. My dad is very harsh on me because he wants me to be the only one able to provide for my future, my family.”

Both Carlos and his sister Karla Molina, a former Pierce student, remember what it’s like growing up with the machismo attitude. 

“Our parents are the typical machismo couple,” Karla Molina said. “I mean our mom works because she’s putting us through college, but she still has to come home and make dinner, clean the house and do those housewife-like things.”

Some traditions of El Salvador include displaying fireworks during Christmas, devoting nine nights of prayer for the souls of the dead and using traditional medicine for folk illnesses. These customs are deeply rooted in most Salvadorans as well as natural medicine and healing. While modern medicine has a place in El Salvador, traditional healers also maintain a role in society, along with folk illnesses. For example, traditional Salvadoran beliefs imply that babies suffering from a fever might also be suffering from “evil eye,” a condition that is only resolved when the person responsible for passing on the evil eye chews herbs and applies the resulting liquid on the baby.

“My grandma doesn’t believe in pills,” student Diego Ramirez said. “If you have a cough or something she’ll give you this nasty tasting syrup thing she makes at home and if you’re seriously dying that’s when she’ll start thinking about going to see the doctor, she just doesn’t believe in doctors and hospitals.”

Salvadorans find pride in their culture, especially their food and love for soccer.

Salvadorans are soccer fanatics and have made it their national sport. The Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador is the largest stadium in Central America, with a capacity of just more than 45,000. The stadium is the home of the national soccer team, as well as club teams Alianza F.C. and San Salvador F.C.

“Everything is beautiful about soccer,” Carlos Molina said. “Football is the universal and best sport there is. Everyone in Salvador wants to be a soccer player.”

As for the food in El Salvador, corn is the staple of the diet and is most often made into thick tortillas that are eaten at every meal and are also served as tamales and in a thick corn drink called atol. Small red beans are another staple, as they are often served with a variety of fruits and vegetables including mango, papaya, tamarind, oranges, bananas, watermelon, cucumber, pacaya, lettuce, tomatoes and radish. Salvadorans also eat rice, eggs, chicken, pork, beef, fish and seafood and some game meats. Coffee is the most common drink, along with highly sugared fruit drinks. Elotes (new corn) are eaten in September before the corn hardens. Out of these elotes, corn tamales are made. These tamales are often eaten on special occasions.

Every second Sunday of November, the country of El Salvador and all international Salvadoran communities celebrate the National Day of Pupusas. Pupusas are the main national dish in El Salvador. You can find pupusas anywhere in the world where there is a Salvadoran community.

So, in order to fully understand the Salvadoran culture, one has to go out and try experience the culture themselves, as I did.

Fortunately, Washington has a large Salvadoran community, and thus there are many restaurants that offer authentic Salvadoran food. There are about 15 Salvadoran restaurants located in the Puget Sound area. Restaurants that serve delicious pupusas include Mi Chalateca in Federal Way, El Pulgarcito in Lakewood and Las Palmas restaurant in SeaTac. Pupusas are made of a thick handmade corn tortilla that is filled with a variety of ingredients – soft cheese, refried beans, pork, vegetables, etc. – pupusas are eaten typically with a slightly fermented cabbage and carrot salad marinated in vinegar, called a curtido. Pupusas have been around for centuries, first created by the Pipil tribes. The pupusa is a very simple dish that can be manipulated to virtually have anything you want on it and that’s what makes this dish very interesting; you can have it any way you want it.

To investigate the hype of the pupusa, I took a trip up north to Federal Way and visited Mi Chalateca. It would be easy to overlook Mi Chalateca hiding among the car dealerships and banks lining Pacific highway, but be prepared to receive the precious gift that is the pupusa. The interior is simple, a little run down, but always clean. The place is run by attentive and friendly staff. The pupusas are always made fresh and take some time make, therefore patience is recommended if you want to eat here. The pupusas are fluffy on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside. The bean and cheese filling sticks in your mouth making the heavenly flavor last longer for your taste buds. There are many choices of fillings, tangy curtido, and flavorful and spicy hot sauce.

Aside from pupusas, their menu also serves other Salvadorean food like, yucca con chicharron which is a dish of potato like root, serves with cabbage salad and fried pork, pastelitos de carne, which are foiled and fried corn tortilla filled with vegetable and beef, and empanadas de platano, which is fried plantain dumplings filled with creamy milk. I was able to try most of the food items on the menu, as the food wasn’t very expensive. Plates range from $2.50 to $13. Everything was made from scratch once we put the order in so nothing was cold when it arrived at our table. Everything really tasted like it was made in heaven and no Salvadoran experience would be complete without tasting this food.

El Salvador is a country full of traditions and customs. It’s rich with traditions like natural healing, passions for soccer and staple foods like pupusas.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning student news of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2017. Twitter/Instagram @puyalluppost

Andrea Mendoza

Andrea Mendoza

Reporter at The Puyallup Post
I'm a 17 year old who's determined to make a difference in someone's life. I think my purpose in life is to make at least one person smile everyday. I was born in a petroleum exporting country known as Venezuela. Being raised in a Hispanic household, I'm fluent in both English and Spanish and have dual citizenship. I have a wonderful mother, father and sister and they're my support system and thanks to them I'm the person I am today. I’m taking all business courses in order to obtain my business associate here at Pierce College Puyallup. Afterwards, I want to get my masters in business administration at Milgard school of business at the University of Washington in tacoma and own my own company one day. As a reporter for The Puyallup Post I want our readers to feel like they're more than a student and that they're a part of the Pierce College Puyallup community.
Andrea Mendoza

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Andrea Mendoza

I’m a 17 year old who’s determined to make a difference in someone’s life. I think my purpose in life is to make at least one person smile everyday. I was born in a petroleum exporting country known as Venezuela. Being raised in a Hispanic household, I’m fluent in both English and Spanish and have dual citizenship. I have a wonderful mother, father and sister and they’re my support system and thanks to them I’m the person I am today. I’m taking all business courses in order to obtain my business associate here at Pierce College Puyallup. Afterwards, I want to get my masters in business administration at Milgard school of business at the University of Washington in tacoma and own my own company one day. As a reporter for The Puyallup Post I want our readers to feel like they’re more than a student and that they’re a part of the Pierce College Puyallup community.

Discovering El Salvadorian Culture

by Andrea Mendoza time to read: 7 min
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