As a writer, you really never know what will serve as research fodder for your fiction. In 1978, as a college student I attended the University of Costa Rica, in San Jose, Costa Rica, for three semesters as an exchange student. There I met and dated a Salvadoran political refugee named Pedro. He told me stories about his country, customs, and traditions. And we ate Salvadoran food at a pupusería in San Jose. Fast forward thirty-eight years later and I’m writing a book set in south Texas’ Bee County where the only Amish community lives in the entire state. I write about the influx of unaccompanied illegal immigrant children through the Mexico-Texas border in The Saddle Maker’s Son.
“My” children are Salvadoran. My experiences as a college student become a treasure trove to be mined for details to make my fiction world real to the readers. So Lupe helps her new Amish friends make pupusas (stuffed corn tortillas), salsa roja (red sauce), and curtido (cabbage salad).
It was an amazing writing challenge to mix the cultures of the Amish, who speak Pennsylvania Dutch and have a rich historical and religious tradition dating back centuries, and the Central American culture represented by these two young children who speak Spanish, don’t know English, and have never heard of the Amish.
The story represents the melting pot that is our country and reflects the loving, generous nature of our Amish neighbors. Mordecai checks out a book from the library to learn more about Lupe and Diego’s homeland. He encourages Rebekah to cook with Lupe and show her some homespun hospitality that will make her feel more secure and welcome.
I spent an afternoon this week making pupusas and salsa roja in honor of the recent release of The Saddle Maker’s Son, using the recipes readers will find at the end of the novel. There’s a trick to making pupusas just right. It’s important to add just enough water to the masa to be able to flatten them without the masa cracking. I thought of Lupe making hers as I made mine and how she slapped them from hand to hand, saying, “así, así,” (thus, thus or just so). I might not have succeeded the first time, but they were hot and tasty. The salsa is very picante (I recommend deseeding the jalapeño or serrano. I didn’t and my lips were on fire!) If you’ve eaten in a Mexican restaurant that makes fresh corn tortillas and salsa with cilantro, then you know just how my house smelled this afternoon.
This cultural experience reminds us all to be kind to our neighbors, whatever the circumstances. Like Jesus was with the woman at the well, the tax collectors, and the lepers. He didn’t just welcome them in, he sought them out. He especially welcomed children. “Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:13-14)
Feel free to leave comments about your own cultural experiences and foods you like to make (and eat) from other countries. Buen provecho!