It may come as a surprise to many that the Bay Area has long been home to a Central American community. After all, Central Americans in the United States are invisible, too often lumped in with Mexicans as “more job-stealing immigrants” by some. Not only is this wrong, but it erases an important aspect of the Central American identity of those in the United States.
This erasure denies the valid and traumatic refugee experience of the Central American diaspora, caused by the United States meddling with the Central American region, which lead to a tremendous amount of destabilization resulting in civil wars, dictatorships, and mass genocide. Consequently, many Central Americans fled to the United States and began establishing their communities in cities such as the one here in our own backyard, like Oakland.
Yet, like other diasporas around the world, the act of fleeing due to state violence often leaves memories as the only portal back to the homeland. This is especially true for refugees unable to return to Central America. Cut off from our homelands, our food recipes are core to the Central American identity. A new Central American recipe cookbook, Para Chuparse Los Dedos (which translates to “Finger-licking Good”), investigates the variety of experiences and recipes of local Central Americans.
In an interview with co-founder and project lead Susanna Morales and co-founder Gianna Brassil, Brassil mentions one of the biggest reasons for the development of their project: “Food came up as the biggest communal experience that we had in terms of reconnecting with those identities in a way that even transcends language or ability to visit the country. Because food is something that can be recreated and revive tradition here in our home or in Minnesota or San Francisco.”
However, former Macalester College students and co-authors, Brassil and Morales did not initially have a project idea when they applied for the Macalester J-Term 2019 fund in the fall of 2018. They only knew that they wanted it to be based on the Central American identity because both identify as Central American (Morales as Guatemalan and Brassil, through her grandmother, as Nicaraguan). They developed their idea as they worked on their application and in the words of Brassil, their focus for an oral history project became clear.
Still, the location of the project was extremely important. For Morales, being from Minnesota, she knew that the Central American community was not as big there as it was in the Bay Area. Luckily, since Brassil is from San Francisco, she had that local Central American connection. So the decision was made to focus on the Bay Area’s Central American food culture. Soon, Morales heard that they would be receiving a $2,000 grant to begin with and later on Morales would receive a second grant for $10,000.
Together, they quickly got to work and were able to set up interviews along with cooking workshops with local Bay Area Central American families, all which were paid for by the grant the two received. Then these sessions of both workshops and interviews gave the idea to Morales of putting what had started as an oral history project into a book.
According to Morales, it was “more than a cookbook, more than just recipes.” Morales applied for additional funding and successfully received a second grant, allowing not only for more cooking workshops but also the ability to transcribe their research with a team of writers and to work alongside a graphic designer.
Eventually, everything came together for the book to be printed; due to the success of their sold out cookbook they were able to raise almost $5,000 in book sales. This allowed Morales to begin figuring out how best to donate the money from the book sales. Then COVID-19 hit the world.
As the early days of COVID-19 unfolded, she reached out to one of the participants, Reverend Rhina Ramos from Oakland’s Ministerio Latino, to see if any of the other participating families needed support. Thankfully, Reverend Ramos reported that none of the participating families were affected but suggested that the money could be donated to an East Oakland Central American organization, CRECE (Central American Refugee Committee), led by Tulio Serrano, who would benefit from the donation. Ministerio Latino also accepted some of the donation as well to help undocumented LGBTQ+ Latinx folks. Taking the suggestion, Morales donated their book sales money to Oakland’s Latino community during the beginning of a new crisis.
Their donation helped each organization provide their respective communities with aid. Ministerio Latino was able to serve seventy-one families with either cash or checks. CRECE gave gift cards to fifty families and a bag with essential items of food to day laborers on High Street. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is still an ongoing crisis and currently both organizations are hard at work trying to continue their support for these communities. Both examples of how the Central American community in the Bay Area works tirelessly to stick together and hold each other through a new crisis. More importantly, it reminds us all that food is a necessity and a tradition. It undeniably brings a community together. Through our access to food, our community heals as it has done time and time again. In times of crises, our food, our recipes, are our hope and comfort, ones we are trying so hard not to forget.
Morales said she is working on the future of the cookbook project and how to make it accessible for everyone since it is currently sold out. They have provided three recipes from three different Central American countries, linked below.
Recipes courtesy of Para Chuparse Los Dedos
About Para Chuparse Los Dedos
Para Chuparse Los Dedos is a “storytelling cookbook,” one in which the different sections thread the importance of the diversity of our Central American recipes. Each section of the book pertains to the four elements of the Central American Diaspora identity: El Hogar (Home), La Identidad (Identity), La Comunidad (Community), y Un Sabor a la Tradición (A taste of tradition). All explore the relationship of the food, family, and the particular recipe showcased. Its pages are an opportunity not usually found in the Latin American discourse in that it allows the heart, memory, and the truth of being Central American to actually be seen and heard. At the end of the day, this book is a testament of an identity, of a diaspora, of a community that despite the many obstacles it faces in the United States, proves Central Americans will continue onwards for a better future but who, at the same time, remain faithful to Central America, to our beloved Isthmus.