The pupusas of San Salvador are bicentennial

184 years ago, a young poet and writer made a long journey through the colonial streets of Granada, Nicaragua. He visited a square, a market, and among the details that most caught his attention, he noted a sale of tortillas called “stuffed”. To him, those delicacies reminded him of some pupusas he had eaten some time ago, in San Salvador.

The poet’s name was José Batres Montúfar (San Salvador, 1809 – Guatemala City, 1844) and he came to be considered the best poet of the 19th century in Guatemala. When he walked through Granada, independence from Spain had been left 16 years ago. Around one of his anniversaries, on September 12, 1837, the poet wrote his impressions in a letter addressed to his family.

“The tortillas are worth 8 for half a real, but they are huge, a foot in diameter and true laborer’s pistons: they are almost never called tortillas, but because of their accidents: a filled, that is, pupusa de Sn. Salvador: a revolt , ground the dough together with the cheese, an empty one, which are the ones I prefer, is the one that has nothing added “, he explained.

Two centuries later this small reference to the ‘pupusas de Sn. Salvador ‘has become the oldest clue to the origin of the sandwich, one that reopens the debate about the birthmark of food that best defines Salvadorans.

For experts, the finding is surprising and not only because it places the pupusa as a pre-existing bicentennial dish in the years of independence, but also because its presence toured the countries that today make up the CA-4. But it stands out, above all, because it reconfirms that its origin is indigenous. “We see here the indigenous culinary ingenuity that created the pupusa, and tenaciously maintained it in street vendors, at least for more than a century after independence,” says Jorge Ávalos, a Salvadoran writer and cultural anthropologist.

Where does pupusa come from?

“The most recognized sandwich associated with the culture of El Salvador, the pupusa, is it really of Salvadoran origin?” This question was posed five years ago in a disruptive discussion published in the culture magazine La Zebra, edited by Jorge Ávalos. Since always, or at least since we can remember, we have been told that the pupusa is Salvadoran. In fact, in 2005, although without many roots, the Legislative Assembly decreed that the pupusa is a “national dish” and designated that every second weekend in November the “National Day of the pupusa” would be celebrated.

The rush of the legislators responded, in part, to the doubts that some Honduran historians and newspapers sowed at the beginning of the 21st century in the framework of the negotiations of the Free Trade Agreement between the countries of Central America and the United States. Pupusas, as a product, had become an exportable good. It was not be for lowerly. At that time, in El Salvador, the Chamber of Commerce estimated that Salvadorans invested $ 1.5 million in them, on average, every weekend.

By 2016 the debate had actually disappeared, but for Ávalos, other historians and a linguist expert in Nahuatl, doubts about its origin persisted.

Ávalos, for example, wondered: “Why didn’t any of our customs men mention the pupusa?” They also opened up unknowns that the clearest references of the sandwich, up to that moment, were more in Guatemala and Honduras than in El Salvador. For example, Ávalos explains, the word “pupusa” was recognized as slang in Honduras and as a language vice in Guatemala in three texts published between 1892 and 1897.

In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, corn is the dominant diet. And the possibility of a cross-border snack is a great possibility, although by 2021 it is undeniable that it was in a single territory where the pupusa took more roots. “In a very real sense of the word, the pupusa is Salvadoran. And it is Salvadoran because many times what we call culture means adaptation and part of the adaptation is appropriation of other things, of dishes … With food it is like that,” says Ávalos .

The Salvadoran historian Carlos Cañas Dinarte, who collaborated with Ávalos in the La Zebra discussion, shares that “The pupusa is our cultural appropriation.”

By 2016, experts had only found references to pupusa in El Salvador around the 1940s. Cañas Dinarte, for example, mentions an article published in 1943 in El Diario de Hoy, in which a Nicaraguan writer, Nachín Salinas, made reference to pupusas and even mentioned loroco.

Ávalos highlights an article in English entitled “USA Dogs vs. Pupusa”, from The Pan American magazine, published in 1947. The writer compared them, due to their exposure as street sales, with the “hot dogs” of the United States.




A watershed: “the word pupusa is not pipil”

To further complicate the issue, that same 2016, the linguist Jorge Lemus published an essay in the Academic Lighthouse in which he ruled that the word pupusa was not pipil, and suggested that the word was an adaptation that was introduced from Spanish to Nahuat or as a completely new word in Spanish. “The word is old, there is no doubt. The origin is questionable,” he says.

The pupusa, in Nahuatl, does not sound like a pupusa.

From Santo Domingo de Guzmán, in the west of the country, Nantzin Anastasia, a Nahuatl mother and singer-songwriter, explains by phone how pupusas are said in this language. Anastasia was born in April 1962 and since she can remember that she ate pupusas. They were prepared by his mother, born in 1931.

“In Nahuat it is gugumutzin. Listen: gu-gu-mut-zin,” he says, singing the syllables.

Lemus explains that the pronunciation of the word is guttural, with g for cat, but that when written, the correct thing is: “kukumuzin”.

Rediscovering the pupusa

The experts kept looking for clues and this 2021 they are released for the first time to the public. The new findings locate the pupusas, and the pupuseras, around San Salvador for more than 184 years.

On June 26, 1931, in the now defunct newspaper Patria, Ávalos discovered a column by the professor and writer Francisco Luarca. It is titled: La pupusera, and it is a small chronicle that narrates the experiences of a woman who threw pupusas through the streets of the capital since 1920.

Eight years earlier, the Salvadoran writer Francisco Herrera Velado (Izalco, 1876) also rescued the word in the story Pupusa de Foie-Gras, anthologized in the book Lies and truths, published in 1923. According to Herrera Velado, the pupusa is a “pie ordinary that they compose with the mass of the corn for tortillas, and cheese or beans “.

In that same decade, but without having certain dates, Cañas Dinarte points out that SalarRIC wrote the famous Cuentos de cipotes, which was published until 1945 and which includes “The story of Indalecia wanted well Indian, by Justiano wanted well fair and Ambrosia that daughter-in-law no people “. In the story, the character Pelizco complains about pupusas with loroco.

At the beginning of the 20th century, pupusas were already circulating in San Salvador. In the Second Book of the Tropic, from 1916, the chronicler Arturo Ambrogi describes that: “On the benches of the Moorish kiosk, a few vagrants sleep. On one side of the kiosk, near the Oriental Chalet, the stoves of some cake stands are smoking and pupusas, under their stalls and mat awnings “.

The last reference is that of the young poet José Batres Montúfar. “It is the oldest reference to the Salvadoran pupusa,” says Lemus. In his search for the origin of the word, which in turn can lead to the origin of the dish, he received the detail from Ricardo Roque Baldovinos, a specialist in Central American literature.

For Cañas Dinarte, the poet’s reference is important since his birthplace was the city of San Salvador, when this was a province attached to Guatemala. “It was born in a house located to the south of the Santo Domingo convent, that is to say: in front of the Gerardo Barrios square today. Specifically, in the property where until recently the Francisco Gavidia National Library was located.”

For the historian, it is important to determine “if the mention refers to his childhood or adolescence; how long did Batres Montúfar live in San Salvador for him to have memories of that stuffed pupusa?”.

“It is a very valuable text – he says -. If it is a childhood memory or a memory of adolescence, we are talking about our pupusas practically being bicentennial, and that is an important point that should be highlighted”.

* This text was possible thanks to the collaboration of Jorge Ávalos, Carlos Cañas Dinarte, Jorge Lemus, Juan Pablo Muñoz, Rodrigo Baires and the Florentino Idoate Library of the UCA.

Salvadoran stamp. The pupusa, experts say, is our globally recognized “fast food”. Their appearance is recurrent in Hollywood, but more recently even political figures such as the US vice president have commented on them.

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