La Mariposa en la Pared

The everyday experiences of latino immigrants through the eyes of an outsider. Las vidas típicas de unos inmigrantes latinos a través de los ojos de una forastera.

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Location: Upstate NY, United States

"To me it’s always interesting when you get accepted somewhere you don’t really belong. It’s interesting when people open up and let you in their world." - Gilles Mingasson

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Café Chapín

The Café Chapín is something of a misnomer, since the woman who works tirelessly in the kitchen patting out pupusas between her puffy brown hands and steaming tamales filled with all sorts of delights from pork to pollo, and those golden treasures that need no filling at all called tamales de elote, is actually a salvadoreña.

It doesńt matter, for it seems the place is actually named for its clientele - humble, industrious people, with ready, gold-gilded smiles. Never far from their very next thought is all they left behind in Guatemala: their tired mothers waiting, aging fathers toiling, younger brothers trying to stay in school, desperate cousins stealing to live, lonely girlfriends trying not to cry on the phone, babies growing up without them, celebrations going on without them, the dead gone and buried without their goodbye... and the grinding poverty mercifully alleviated because of their sacrifice.

Working hard and sending money back home to sustain their families in their beautiful but violent, beloved but impoverished Guatemala, they pass their few free hours pining for the familiar music and food that would both sharpen the pang of their memories, and bring unspeakable comfort. The ladies at the Café Chapín provide homemade, Guatemalan comfort food along with the soundtrack to go with the memories awakened by the aroma and savor of home.

Walking into the café on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I was the cause of much curiosity and the object of hushed questions aimed at my Chapín boyfriend, Jaime, by the teenaged Guatemalan girl behind the counter. The first, and I thought oddest, question was, "Is she an American?" This is a question I have never heard directed at me in my home state of New York. She was polite and kind, but her eyes looked directly into mine with unabashed curiosity. Our Mexican companion, Victor, felt as foreign as I did in this little Guatemalan enclave, and he stuck close to my side, and let our Chapín friend order for him.

The girl was surprised to hear me speak Spanish, and further mystified by my familiarity with and enthusiasm for pupusas. Jaime tried to explain to me how exactly she was related to him, but the convoluted lineage was lost on me and he finally summed up his explanation by describing her as a cousin. The distantly-related paisanos exchanged the latest gossip about family both here and there, shared the cell-phone numbers of several mutual friends and relatives, and we finally wandered over to the corner jukebox to select the proper aural seasoning for the meal we were about to receive. My homesick Jaime chose the sublime sweet sadness and longing in the deceptively cheerful-sounding strains of a bachata song, while Victor satisfied his craving for home with the more buoyant sounds that only Los Tigres del Norte could deliver.

When our food arrived, we eagerly shared bites with each other, jealously eyeing one anotheŕs tamales, each different from our own. Tall glasses of milky horchata provided the perfect chaser for each mouthful of maíz encased latin american delicacy.

In my desire for understanding and sisterhood with my expatriate latino friends, I have found shared meals to be particularly binding, and as I basked in the glow of a belonging borne of the mutual satisfying of our different kinds of hunger, Victor iced the cake of togetherness with the type of good-natured jab that always makes me feel even more at home with these boys. He had noticed that I shunned the condiments normally eaten with pupusas - a pickled cabbage salad called curtido and a pungent orange salsa - in favor of eating them plain. After trying unsuccessfully to persuade me to eat the pupusas the way any self-respecting latina would, he gave up with an exasperated "¡Gabacha, aprenda a comer!"

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Heading Home

A few weeks ago, Juan returned home to his family after 2 years working in the United States. He had worked as a day laborer out of a Home Depot parking lot in Arizona, and in restaurants in Tennessee and New York. He showed me pictures of his gorgeous Jaliscan wife, and his two sons all dressed up in matching cowboy boots and hats, both of them under the age of 8. He had come here with hopes of earning a better living, allowing him to better provide for his family. They weren't starving or suffering; he just wanted more for them.

The reason for leaving to finally reunite with his family was simple: "It just isn't worth it," he told me. "I only make a little more money working here than I did working for my family's monument business in Mexico. So I'm going home." He packed up the gifts he had bought - an X-Box 360 for the kids, perfume and jewelry and pretty clothes for his wife - and he left.

This is, of course, good news! This also shows the simple economics involved in either keeping men home where they can be with their families and earn a decent living, or forcing them to look for work in far away places when there is no work at home, or when the work available doesn't pay enough to compete with wages they can earn here. Unfortunately, Juan's situation isn't typical.

An example of the latter option: In Guatemala, twenty year old Julio made 38 Quetzales, or about $5, a day, working long hours outside doing construction. Here, he earns $10 an hour doing the same work for fewer hours, or $60 a day working in a kitchen during the wintertime. The choice for him was simple, because the amount he earns here is, in his mind, almost too good to be true. Mothers allow their sons to leave, fathers encourage their sons to go north and work, because this amount of money makes an enormous difference in their standard of living. The boys leave as heroes, with dreams of returning home in about 5 years driving nice trucks, with money in the bank and cash in their pockets to build a house and provide well for a future wife and children. This begs the question, however: what happens when that money they've earned up north runs out?