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Alberto calls softly to his mom and puts down the bags in his hands when he hears a knock at the door of their Takoma Park apartment. He can guess who it is. He’s on his way to drop off two orders in Shaw, but he’ll take care of these regular customers first. Every Sunday, Alberto and his mother Johana expect to see loyal fans of their pupusas.
It’s a neighbor and her daughter. Johana comes around the corner to say hello. She and Alberto always wear masks when working, but no mask can hide how she feels when cooking. She’s proud of her work and pleased to know how much others enjoy it too.
Alberto and Johana’s regulars rely on them. The man next door is a sous chef at a restaurant in Shaw and orders pupusas every Sunday after work. He gets in late and his order is usually the last of the day. His door is so close to theirs that he only needs to reach across the hall. There’s nothing better than homemade pupusas at the end of the week, he tells Alberto.
Pupusas are a staple of Salvadoran cuisine. The griddled masa cakes are a comfort food, and they’re how Alberto, Johana, and others in the undocumented community are currently making ends meet. Many undocumented residents don’t qualify for local or federal unemployment benefits because of their immigration status, leaving them without a governmental safety net and scrambling to provide for their families. The pupusas help.
The money these food entrepreneurs bring in isn’t much, but it covers groceries and some utilities. Some of it also gets sent to their relatives abroad. Like many immigrants, Alberto and Johana still have family members in El Salvador who count on them to provide for their various expenses, including food, rent, and health care.
What they can earn is limited by the fact that they can’t openly advertise their businesses and don’t feel comfortable divulging their full or real names. (Alberto and Johana asked to be identified by their middle names.) They fear the consequences of being discovered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or being fined for having an unlicensed business. As a result, they can only grow their enterprises through word of mouth.
Johana stuffs her pupusas with lighter fillings than the traditional refried beans and cheese or chicharón and cheese. She says her health has suffered during the pandemic even without contracting COVID-19, and she wants to make her customers feel well physically and emotionally. Alberto prepares the accompaniments—homemade salsa and pickled cabbage known as curtido—in addition to handling orders.
In early March, Johana lost her job as a cook at a restaurant in Navy Yard and has been unemployed since. She was given a day’s notice before the restaurant closed. Alberto lost his restaurant job a week after that. He’s since found work at three different places, but each business can each only provide him with hours one day per week.
Collectively, the mother and son have lived in the U.S. for eight years, and they’ve paid taxes the entire time. When they got to the U.S., they obtained individual taxpayer identification numbers through the IRS, which allow the government to collect taxes from residents without social security numbers.
Johana studied marketing in El Salvador and Alberto is bilingual, so they’ve managed to establish a brand for themselves and can reach more customers, namely those with disposable income. Alberto also studied computer science and quickly hired another unemployed service industry worker to help him build a website where known contacts can order pupusas for takeout or delivery.
On a good weekend, they can bring in as much as $150 after selling 150 pupusas for $2 each. But most weekends, they sell about 50. They only operate during the week if they receive a big order. While they might be able to make more, Alberto and Johana won’t compromise by using subpar ingredients.
Most immigrant entrepreneurs, like Benji and Aydee, don’t have those kinds of resources. Aydee makes tamales and pupusas, but she relies on people to reach out via WhatsApp or Facebook. This is the norm for many undocumented food entrepreneurs. The couple have collectively lived in D.C. for 13 years, and before the pandemic, they worked together at a restaurant on U Street NW. Aydee cooked and Benji ran food. They just had their second child in January.
Benji heard the news that their restaurant would be closing before Aydee. “I came home really worried,” he says. “I didn’t know how I was going to tell her … I felt like crying.”
Now, Benji works one or two days a week in construction. Sometimes he sells lunch to his coworkers, but Benji and Aydee need more customers. For now, the money they earn selling pupusas is supplemental. They sell about 35 every weekend for $2 each. It helps them buy some groceries, but Benji still picks up produce at his eldest son’s school or from churches who offer aid. Sometimes they keep costs low by using the same produce in their pupusas.
They’re able to send home only a fraction of what they could before. “We came to this country to get a better life for our families and we do things right, and now, in this moment, they look right past us,” Benji says.
He came to the District from Guatemala, where his father and other family members still live. They are also out of work, and because they have to pay for time spent on the internet, he rarely hears from them on WhatsApp or Facebook. Aydee, on the other hand, speaks regularly with her mother and sisters in El Salvador. She rallies the family.
“What matters now is that we take care of one another in these difficult times,” she says. “One way or another, we’re going to make it out. We’re fighters and we’re going to make it. Hope is all we have.”
Marta’s food business started by accident. One day, just after she lost her job as a busser, she made too many tamales. A friend noticed, asked to buy some, and together they ended up selling the rest. After that, she thought, “I used to make pupusas in El Salvador. Why not here?”
Now, she too waits for WhatsApp or Facebook messages from people looking for a taste of home. She and her husband Jose have been in D.C. for a collective 52 years. He’s also from El Salvador, and they live with their three kids. Jose has a green card, but because Marta is undocumented, their family has been excluded from any unemployment benefits. (Both Marta and Jose are pseudonyms.)
Marta used to work at a Dupont Circle restaurant. She knew the pandemic was coming and she spent what would be her last shift sanitizing the restaurant and spacing the tables according to reopening guidelines. That was supposed to be enough. A few days later, she learned from a co-worker that the restaurant would close either temporarily or for good.
“What am I going to do for work now?” she asks. “What am I going to live on? I have my mother in El Salvador, who’s already sick with diabetes and needs insulin every day. How am I going to look after her? How am I going to cover her groceries, her medicines?”
Marta’s mother only has her to rely on, and Marta feels immense pressure to provide for those she cares about. Her family can’t receive benefits because of her own immigration status and, more than anyone, her mom could use the financial support. The money Marta makes selling pupusas is enough for her immediate family in the U.S., but it leaves her with little to send home.
She laments that many others are in the same situation—they’re out of work and have no options other than cooking in their homes. It’s no way to live long term, and it saturates the market. At the start of the pandemic, she was making about 90 pupusas every weekend. Now, it’s more like 45.
She plans to keep cooking and seeking new customers for now, but she’s desperate for support. “We’re very stressed, very frustrated,” Marta says. “The government is really at fault for what’s going on because of how they discriminate against us, how they exclude us from so many things, but it would be good if they would come out with another stimulus package and include us, because we pay our taxes. We’re not in this country for free, we contribute to this country, and are working hard for it.”
Some have it harder than others. Aydee at least knows that her two sisters are with her mother in El Salvador. They can’t find work right now, but Aydee’s grateful her mother isn’t alone. In Alberto’s case, his dad never lost his job in construction and sent home the money that Alberto couldn’t for a while.
But every week, it’s a struggle for them and thousands of others who have been largely left without much assistance. In June, Events DC, the District’s official convention and sports authority, finalized its plans for a $5 million relief fund for undocumented workers.
The Greater Washington Community Foundation distributed $1,000 prepaid debit cards to immigrant families via five nonprofit organizations. While 5,000 people received debit cards, $1,000 doesn’t go far in a city with a high cost of living and no end to the pandemic in sight. (None of the immigrants interviewed for this story received these funds.)
In the meantime, Alberto, Johana, Aydee, Benji, and Marta keep making pupusas. Back in Takoma Park, Alberto gets in his car and puts on Destroyer. It’s Sunday, around 5 p.m. The drive to Shaw won’t take long. His phone goes off. Another order is coming in.