SEAFORD, Del. (AP) - Maria Gomez is a mom and a dad to Mirla Aleman.
“She gets a celebration on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day,” Gomez’s daughter said, laughing.
It was late morning as Gomez prepped, her dark hair tied up as is protocol for long-maned chefs.
She spoke Spanish, quietly in contrast to her loud hands, as she smacked together corn flour mixture to form pupusas, a Salvadoran favorite. After a life of work, the 62-year-old opened Dona Maria’s Pupuseria in 2017.
“I always loved to cook,” Gomez said in Spanish, translated by Aleman. “But when people try my food and say, ‘That was so good. I love it.’ That’s my motivation to keep cooking.”
The pupusa (pronounced puh-poo-sah) is stuffed with a combination of cheese and pork, chicken, shrimp, jalapeno, loroco (an edible flower) or beans. The thick corn tortilla is then thrown onto a hot griddle, where it sizzles until crispy brown archipelagoes form.
“Many Americans come and try it and they love it,” Aleman said, who added that 60 percent of their customers are American.
Red salsa and snappy curtido - a fermented coleslaw with cabbage, carrots, onion and vinegar - add a kick and a bite to the savory pastry.
Each one costs $2.25, except for the shrimp pupusa, which goes for a whopping $2.50. It’s what Gomez and her restaurant are known for.
Gomez has cooked her entire life, though her restaurant is less than a year old.
“My mom has always dreamed about having a restaurant,” said Aleman, who is a real estate agent. “She loves to cook. We said, ‘Why don’t we bring that, fulfill her dream, and at the same time bring our roots to Seaford?’ “
Before Dona Maria’s, the building was littered with old furniture, board games and wood paneling - forgotten histories in a closed-down thrift store. It took two weeks to clean out the space, and 18 months before they opened.
A year and a half: It’s how long it took Gomez and her family to renovate what would become Dona Maria’s Pupuseria.
“That’s the American dream,” Aleman said. “That’s what she fought for all these years she’s been in the United States.”
A year and a half: it’s how long 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants under Temporary Protected Status have before facing possible deportation after the Trump administration took El Salvador off the list of federally protected countries on Jan. 15.
The decision could affect hundreds of Delaware residents and thousands of Salvadorans in Maryland.
Gomez arrived under different amnesty than TPS, which allowed Salvadorans to enter the U.S. following two devastating earthquakes in 2001 that killed nearly 1,000 people and destroyed over 100,000 homes. But Aleman said some of her family members will be affected by it.
“We’re talking about separating families,” Aleman said of children born in the U.S. to TPS recipients. “Those kids are teenagers by now. How do you tell a 13-year-old, ‘We’re going to El Salvador?’ That’s why people come here, to give them a better life.
“Now you’re taking them back to a place that doesn’t have anything to offer them.”
Aleman was 7 years old when her mother left El Salvador to come to the U.S in 1992. Her father had died in a car accident when she was a month old, leaving Gomez as sole breadwinner to six children.
Gomez arrived in Sussex County, working as a housekeeper and then, for a decade, in a poultry processing plant.
“She had to start from the bottom,” Aleman said. For Gomez, for years as an immigrant in the U.S. that meant couches, hard floors and a little closet under the stairs that she paid to sleep in.
She had enough money to feed her children, who were still in her home country and wouldn’t see their mother until 2001 - nine years.
“If you’ve been in the country so long, you’re going to start building something there,” said Bryant Garcia, an immigration specialist at La Esperanza in Georgetown, Delaware. “Having a family, building a house, going to school, (starting) a business. You build it and then it comes to a halt simply because there’s no way to gain U.S. citizenship (through TPS).”
Steven Planzer, an immigration lawyer in Salisbury, said TPS was just the tip of the iceberg of immigration, adding that there are several ways to stay here legally.
“People need to take charge of their own lives,” Planzer said. “They have the ability to get consultation and be guided.”
His advice for TPS recipients from El Salvador: Seek out an immigration attorney who is detail-specific and honest about expectations.
Eduardo Gonzalez, an immigration attorney in Salisbury, said he’s gotten a lot of calls from worried Salvadorans.
“I’m a big believer in personal responsibility,” Gonzalez said, “but when the government says you’re allowed to be here and keeps renewing (TPS), then arbitrarily says, ‘Ta da! Your country is fixed,’ it shows it’s a purely political decision.”
He said the idea that TPS recipients had a path to citizenship was a misconception.
“It’s really hard for these folks to get their status adjusted,” he said.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen said on Monday disaster conditions from the earthquake no longer exist and therefore her agency is legally bound to end the program.
The Trump administration’s decision follows 17 years of extending the program by administrations under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who both cited violence from drug traffickers in their decisions.
Gonzalez said El Salvador is a narco state, meaning it’s run by drug cartels and gangs, not the state.
“The moment they get there, these cartels are going to know,” Gonzalez said of Salvadorans who choose to return home. “I don’t know if the administration took into consideration the serious risk these people are going to face.”
Garcia said Salvadoran TPS recipients have issues to face beyond violence, like education levels and the economy in their home country.
Gonzalez and Garcia said the construction and poultry industries are where many Salvadorans work in the U.S.
“They tend to be supervisors or business owners themselves,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of them now have to decide whether they’re going to stay or go.”
Gomez came to the U.S. after surviving 12 years of civil war. She was 37, a difficult age for someone in her country to find work in El Salvador, where the main exports are in agriculture.
“It was very hard for her,” Aleman said. “I couldn’t even speak (when she left).”
If her mother hadn’t left for the U.S., Aleman said she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to college and get her bachelor’s degree.
“It’s all because of her and her desire to do something different,” she said.
Aleman and her husband, Craig bought a house for her mother and made sure she wouldn’t spend another day working at the poultry plant.
They saw several houses before Gomez stepped into the kitchen of one and said, “This is my house.”
“She didn’t care if the bedroom was small, if the living room was small,” Aleman said, laughing. “She was looking for the kitchen.”
Batches upon batches of pupusas rose from that kitchen before Dona Maria’s opened, and Gomez shared them with friends and family, then sold them at festivals, donating most of the proceeds to her church.
In the 1940s, a family of Italian immigrants opened a restaurant at the same location as Gomez’s Salvadoran restaurant. It felt apropos for the family to dig in its roots there.
But for Gomez, she was already back to work after reminiscing on her journey to Sussex. Sun gleamed off her steel-shined yet homey kitchen. Her gray zip-up sweatshirt masked the dewy chill of morning as the day’s first pupusas crackled on the griddle.
“She recognizes (the restaurant) is a blessing from God,” Aleman said of her mother. “Having this place gives her more strength to keep doing what she’s doing.”
Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/
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