Sunday, January 17, 2010

Pupusa Diplomacy

I don’t want to get too warm and fuzzy, but I do think we could ease tensions in the world if we increased our intercultural understanding and truly heard people from different countries, their stories, and their perspectives.

I had an opportunity to do exactly that last Wednesday morning with several women from Latin America in the kitchen of the retirement facility where we all work. Earlier in the day, one of the women, Gilma, who is from El Salvador, told me she was making pupusas for the staff appreciation lunch (my homemade blackberry pie was cooling in the prep corner).

“We’re making them at 11:30,” Gilma said. “Come and help.”

So I joined Gilma and five other women, who are servers in the dining hall and housecleaners. Although my mother-in-law was from El Salvador and my children are one-quarter Salvadoran, I had never made pupusas before.

I watched Gilma first so I could learn to do it right. She said grab some pupusa dough, roll it in your hand, then flatten it, stuff it with some zucchini and cheese, and then flatten it again. My first pupusa did not look round like Gilma’s. Mine were oblong, which is a polite way of saying sadly misshapen.

Gilma showed me again, and the key was rolling the dough again after stuffing it with zucchini and cheese. It worked and my pupusas looked similar to everyone else’s.
We made pupusas as the cooks and servers prepared lunch for the 108 residents of Drake Terrace, located 15 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

What was great about the experience was that even though I am a department head, the women were my teachers that morning as I deferred to their culinary wisdom. Cooking together helped break down barriers and erase any divisions that might have existed between management and staff. The women got to see me, wearing my casual dress pants and shirt, as one of them or at least just another person willing to help.

I was acutely aware that making pupusas or any traditional meal carries so much meaning for everyone involved. The preparers get to beam proudly as they replicate a dish from their native countries, something they learned long ago from grandmothers or mothers in villages and towns far, far away. The helpers, of which I was one, get to acquire new skills and, specifically, feel we were contributing to our multicultural potluck, which featured pupusas, pie, carnitas, tortillas, lasagna, brownies, and cake with white frosting.

My first serious intercultural foray was about five years ago after I joined a local Arab-Jewish dialogue group. Although I am very liberal, my views on Israel were chauvinistic and defensive. I held all countries, including my own, to a rigorous standard of human rights except the Jewish State, which I excused and defended with all the fervor of a militant.

But at one meeting, I actually listened to a woman born in a Palestinian village on the West Bank talk of the time Israeli soldiers forced her 70-year old father to remove some graffiti from a building near his home. Even though her father had had nothing to do with the incident, the soldiers threatened him with bodily harm if he didn’t scrub the walls. It was at that point I realized there were different narratives about the situation in the Middle East, personal stories and perspectives that I needed to hear and understand.

The Arab-Jewish dialogue group really changed me. I still support Israel, but I was able to see other views and my perspective broadened. Some of family and friends, of course, have accused me of abandoning Israel and colluding with her enemies, but all that fodder is for another blog entry in the distant future.

I guess I’ve finally learned something about being sensitive to cultural differences and perspectives in my sixth decade. My initial intercultural experience unintentionally didn’t go well. One of the classes I was taking at Columbia University in the early 1980s was Black Radicalism in the 20th Century, a 2 ½ hour seminar every Tuesday afternoon from 4-6:30. I was the only white male in the class. I was very interested in the topic.

But I was also in the middle of training for my first marathon (26.2 miles), so I often came to class with my energy ebbing after a 10, 12, or 14 mile mid-morning run. I would rest my head on the long wooden desk as class proceeded. Each session usually consisted of some contextual remark s from Professor Hollis Lynch, his deep Trinidadian voice exciting and comforting, before one student delivered a report on the book we’d all read, after which Professor Lynch helped guide the discussion.

On the last class of the semester, enroute to Professor Lynch’s spacious Upper Morningside Heights apartment for a Caribbean feast and fiesta, I struck up a conversation with another student, Henry, a nurse. We talked about the class and how much we enjoyed reading about Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights luminaries.

Henry was just a bit surprised at how highly I thought of the course and my experiences each week. “One of the women in the class really hated you,” he said.

“Really? You’re kidding,” I responded. “How come?”

“She was really upset that you rested your head on the table. She said you never took the class seriously.”

“You’re kidding?” I repeated, and then I went on to explain about running long distances and my energy waning by the end of the day and resting comfortably before dinner. He understood and had told the woman she was mistaken. But then reality hit me with a stark slap, and I understood how easily cultural misunderstandings begin, fester, and can explode.

I would’ve rested no matter what course I was in, Black studies, Jewish studies, ship navigator’s trigonometry. Maybe that it isn’t how one should ‘behave’, but being disrespectful was never, ever on my mind. However, my female classmate saw it differently. I was not only studying her history, but we were learning about the specific and tragic experiences of African Americans, many of which she was familiar with on a personal level.

Henry and I agreed that we should have held a class within the class three or four times during the semester so people could air grievances and express feelings.

Fortunately, my pupusa making experience went smoothly. Probably the only ‘issue’ was when I looked at the steaming pile of pupusas before we began to eat. There were three kinds, zucchini and cheese, leroco (a Salvadoran cheese), and pork and beans, and they were all mixed together. Should I ask anyone to help me find a vegetarian pupusa and, possibly, risk offending anyone who labored over their preparation? I decided to grab the lighter colored ones, which were clearly not filled with the pork and beans, and plopped two onto my plate. They were delicious, and because I was unable to tell which one of us had actually made the pupusas I ate, they tasted even better.

2 comments: