Loroco: Scientific name, Fernaldia pandurate. A plant native to El Salvador. Its small white flower is a principal ingredient in the pupusa, a corn-dough tortilla pocket. The pupusa can be filled with beans, cheese and loroco, amongst other options, and is typical to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The pupusa and its sidekick loroco travel across borders and cultures, surviving civil wars and mass migration. Hence, I learned how to make pupusas in Mexico, from a Salvadoran. David, whose biggest role model was Bruce Lee and his greatest dream to reach the United States. All of us far from home. David, the pupusa, me.
I wonder about that patch of loroco growing in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, hundreds of miles north of its origins. Did some migrant, home-sick on his way north, plant it? Did the seeds slip from someone’s pocket as they chased down The Beast, the train Central Americans ride through Mexico to the U.S. border?
We were in the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, home to 50 people on up to 200 on any given day. Salvadorans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, a Cuban here or there, a handful of nuns and a few gringo volunteers like me. Here in a dusty, humid corner of Oaxaca, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where 120 miles separate the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico, President Porfirio Díaz once dreamt of building his empire upon the iron stakes of the railroad. Today the passengers of the rails have to pay their fare to the gangs that patrol the abandoned train stations. The conductor takes his cut, and if you’re lucky, in two weeks you’ll make it to the border with Texas or Arizona.
David and I are in the kitchen, already broiling from the heat of the wood-fired stove. Whatever the provenance of the loroco, we chop it thin, and begin. In his white tank showing off his kung-fu inspired tattoos, David sets the pace. We stay up the better part of the night making hundreds of pupusas for a breakfast banquet the next morning. Around 3am I break through the exhaustion. Smooth, uniform disks slide off my palms, one after another.
I ask David how he learned to make pupusas. Mi mamá, he tells me. I wonder what she looks like, when she last heard from David, what her home is like in La Libertad, in between la playa y la capital. We share this language now, the pupusa, the masa, translated through a new pair of hands.
Pupusas a la David with the kung-fu tattoos: First, mix the masa, or dough, from corn flour. It should be stiff enough to hold its form but also pliable. Then the cheese, shredded. Pureed beans. The loroco. Dab a bit of bean and cheese or loroco and cheese into a flat patty of dough. Tenderly mold the dough around the filling, getting it just right so the filling is all wrapped up and the dough stretches without breaking. Then flatten it out and toss it onto the comal, a big flat griddle. Flip a few times to cook to perfection.
The smell tantalizes the men and women passing through the kitchen to wash their dishes. “¿Es loroco?” “¿Sabes como lo preparamos en Guate?” My strange gringa intonation is overlooked; their rapid-fire Central American Spanish becomes less daunting. Here in the kitchen, now we’re talking, no translation necessary.
Let’s not forget the fixings. The salsa, fresh from chilies and tomatoes, but not too spicy. And curtido, a pickled combination of cabbage and carrot. Ojo, don’t forget: the pupusa is not to be eaten with utensils. Hands only for the full experience.
In the little details, Central America is transposed onto Ixtepec: a club plays reggaeton instead of cumbia one night, teenage boys request their slick San Salvador haircuts in the little barber shop, we share pupusas and platanos fritos. After this initiation, I, like the pupusa, want to test my geographical limits. Having heard one too many story, I want to experience Central America without translation. I head south.
After twenty hours, four buses and one questionable border crossing, I find pupusas in Antigua, Guatemala. Delectable. Crossing the border into El Salvador more pupusas await me, now in dollars instead of pesos or quetzals. Arriving in San Salvador, there are so many fillings and fixings and portion sizes to choose from. Corn or rice-based masa. Con queso o sin queso. Made by little old señoras and brisk young ladies. On every street corner and roadside pit stop. I learn a new word: pupusodromo: a whole bunch of pupuserias in a row.
I admittedly eat too many pupusas, have a stomach ache that trails me from San Salvador back up to Mexico. My diet returns to tacos and tamales.
In a Facebook message that reaches me in a bar in Chiapas, David tells me he got stuck in Tijuana. He’s waiting for money, waiting to cross, waiting for a lucky break. I wonder if there’s any loroco in Tijuana. I forget to ask.
Months later, I am home in Washington DC, where instead of taco shops we have pupuserias and blue-and-white Salvadoran flags fly on car hoods and out apartment windows. I eat pupusas once again, this time with a Salvadoran friend who’s made it north, in a restaurant called Chicken House where no one seems to be eating chicken. We clink beer bottles and cheers to good health.
Dropping him off, police circle the apartment complex where he lives and commutes to work at a construction company. They pull over a guy driving up to his building, and he stumbles through their questioning in English. My friend, with whom Spanish comes easiest, is antsy. We embrace saying goodbye and he goes inside.
I get word David was deported back to La Libertad.
All the miles, and months and borders later, the pupusas I can’t forget were those with loroco in Oaxaca. Thrown on a hot griddle in a small town. All of us far from home. David with the kung-fu tattoos, the pupusa, the loroco by the train tracks, and me.
To absent friends, and what’s left behind to speak for them.