Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Cecilia Polanco, the founder of So Good Pupusas, a food truck that serves authentic El Salvadorian food throughout the Triangle. Along with mouthwatering pupusas, the business also provides scholarships to undocumented high school seniors who have been accepted to a higher education institution or certification program. Listening to Cecilia discuss her passions for social justice and food deeply inspired me, as she applied concepts I learned in the ivory tower to her mission to promote cultural appreciation of higher education through pupusas and scholarships.
The Triangle area is home to myriad local restaurants, breweries, and food trucks, yet many of these establishments originated after their creators pursued previous career tracks. Immediately after we exchanged introductions and sat down for the interview, I learned that So Good Pupusas deviated from this apparent norm, as its founder Cecilia developed the idea for the project during her tenure as an undergraduate student at UNC Chapel Hill. Although Cecilia graduated in 2016 with a degree in Global Studies with a minor in Geography, she incorporated her business in July of 2015 and began catering to the Triangle community in August of 2015. The idea quickly transformed from a joke about selling her mother’s food to a legitimate means of pursuing the “Carolina Way” and leaving her Heelprint on the community. Efficacious and perseverant, Cecilia recognized that her citizenship status accorded her the ability to apply for scholarships to offset the costs of higher education, so she strived to provide for those whose undocumented status prevented them from seeking financial aid.
Cecilia epitomizes the mission of UNC, as she spent her time at Carolina developing the necessary skills to channel her aspirations into action. Receiving the prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship and Global Gap Year fellowship from the UNC Campus Y, Cecilia began her undergraduate career with a year of philanthropic experience under her belt following a gap year spent abroad. Volunteering in Italy and Australia, Cecilia focused on being a global citizen and recognized that she could make a difference, as she adopted the mantra, “Do what you can with what you have.” After beginning her coursework and earning a business certificate online through the Kenan-Flager business school, Cecilia worked to garner the knowledge to start a business, and she pitched the idea to conduct empirical research on pupusas in California, Texas, and D.C. Recognizing that food can serve as a platform for activism and a window into a culture, Cecilia sought to construct the products she serves carefully in order to respect tradition and provide customers with a genuine culinary experience.
While I study identity politics using public opinion surveys, Cecilia studied food as an aspect of group identity in an anthropologic manner, primarily using interviews. She discussed how businesses like hers can both literally and figuratively spoon-feed people into an unfamiliar culture, and she aspires to make pupusas a household name like tacos. For those unfamiliar with this El Salvadorian staple, Cecilia describes them as resembling a thick tortilla with a savory filling and topped with a mix of chopped vegetables and salsa. The truck occasionally sells individual pupusas at local events and food truck rodeos, but So Good Pupusas primarily caters to the community. The truck serves several types of pupusas ranging from the “American pupusa” of pork and cheese, to the El Salvadorian classic of pork, beans, and cheese. They also offer vegetarian options of bean and cheese and zucchini and cheese.
Throughout college, Cecilia invited her friends to her home to meet her family. Expecting to share a meal of tacos and burritos, these friends instead feasted on pupusas and other El Salvadorian treats like horchata. Additionally, they had the pleasure of meeting the Polanco family who all assist Cecilia with the food truck business. Her father, a mechanic, helps maintain the truck itself. Her sisters work with her mother, the master pupusa chef, in the making of pupusas, and they also contribute to the business through legal and financial consulting.
Assistance with the business aspect of So Good Pupusas and Pupusas for Education is necessary because Cecilia categorizes scholarships as a line-item, just like tomatoes, and these need to be paid regardless of the overall profit. In light of recent political events surrounding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Cecilia aims to expand her mission outside of North Carolina. Her work ethic and previous accomplishments imply this goal is possible. Cecilia offered wise parting remarks, “We are more susceptible to ideas when we are happy and fed,” which also suggest that her business is on its way to starting a movement.
Please check out So Good Pupusas every Thursday at the Latino Community Credit Union in Carrboro. Also follow them on social media (Facebook and Twitter) to keep up with their whereabouts.
Amy Sentementes is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at UNC Chapel Hill, where she studies political psychology and public opinion. She has managed to cope with the stress of graduate school by developing a love of cooking and “procrastibaking” for her friends and students. Additionally, Amy enjoys visiting local restaurants and breweries, and she hopes her research regarding group identities and stereotypes can help her evaluate cuisines from a unique perspective. A native Texan, she also loves visiting friends and family in the Lone Star State and cheering on her TCU Horned Frogs and Dallas Cowboys. You can follow her on Instagram @gradschoolfoodie.