WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL growing up in Guatemala City, on Día de la Independencia my mother would dress me in a traditional huipil — a blouse embroidered in the brilliant blues, reds, yellows, and greens of the scarlet macaw that inhabits the rainforests. Around noon, we’d walk toward Guatemala’s National Palace of Culture and watch the parade representing the villagers’ journey on September 15, 1821, when our country, along with Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, declared independence from Spain.
We’d spend the rest of the day eating tamales, drinking tamarind juice, and listening to “Luna de Xelajú” played on the marimba — an instrument symbolizing the country’s identity, national unity, and patriotism.
After moving to the United States in my early 20s to complete my master’s degree and pursue a career in journalism, I was surprised by how much I missed the traditions of my homeland, the taste of its food, the cheerful people. The comfort of conversing daily in my native language.
My frequent trips from Washington, D.C., where I work, to Boston, where my family now lives, never seem to leave much time to explore Massachusetts’ Central American community. In D.C., I’ve made friends with a group of Central Americans who like to share traditional foods from our homelands. They’ve become like family to me. With the approach of our Independence Day, I was curious to learn more about how my people live in the Boston area and to connect with them.
BY LATE AUGUST Efraín Martínez and Alfonso Hernández are already in full planning mode for the annual Central American Independence Day celebration at City Hall Plaza, scheduled this year for September 17. The two are cofounders and leaders of Boston’s Alianza Cívica Cultural Centroamericana, a nonprofit organization.
They’ve allowed me to sit in on a planning meeting at the organization’s headquarters in Dorchester. “That [Independence Day] morning is extraordinary for us because we raise all the Central American flags with pride and get to show our culture and identity to the people who visit the plaza,” Martínez tells me in Spanish.
Martínez and Hernández are among a group of Central American community leaders that includes doctors, historians, business owners, and radio broadcasters. The two men met after they immigrated to Boston — Martínez from Honduras, Hernández from Nicaragua — and realized that although the city offered them better opportunities, they were homesick. They set a goal: to “share the richness of our culture with Boston, because together, we’re stronger,” Hernández says.
At the meeting, I’m introduced to Bernardo Iglesias, from Costa Rica, one of the community leaders and a senior library assistant at Boston University’s Alumni Medical Library. Iglesias is passionate about history. I learn that the first group of Central Americans to immigrate to Boston ventured here because of United Fruit Company (rebranded as Chiquita in 1984), a merger in 1899 of Boston Fruit Company and businessman Minor Cooper Keith’s three banana companies, which transported agricultural products from Central America to Boston. One of the headquarters of United Fruit, notorious for its controversial involvement in Central America, was on Long Wharf. The diaspora arrived in the Boston area “approximately in the late 1930s and early 1940s,” Iglesias explains, “when they came on boats and realized that there were better job opportunities here.”
In the 1980s, civil wars, socioeconomic and political instability, and a lack of job opportunities at home drove many more Central Americans — approximately 1 million — to immigrate to the United States. Between 1980 and 2013, the Central American population in the United States increased from 354,000, to more than 3 million. In Boston proper, Latinos now represent 20 percent of the city’s population, according to a Gastón Institute Publications report published in July. East Boston, Chelsea, and Waltham have seen an influx of immigrants from many different countries over the years, and entrepreneurs have seized opportunities there to open restaurants with traditional foods from their homelands. Since 2000, Martínez says, Central Americans “have given life to these areas.”
Carlos López, from El Salvador, owns one of the most popular eateries in Eastie. For over 25 years, Topacio Restaurant has offered up traditional Salvadoran pupusas — handmade corn tortillas that can be filled with beans, cheese, or pork. López serves about 400 to 500 pupusas at the Independence Day celebrations at City Hall Plaza every year. “For me, it’s an honor,” he says.
Before I leave the planning meeting, I ask where to go for the best tamales. Everyone laughs. Don’t miss the food made by Mónica Solares, they tell me. I guess it’s an open secret.
The next morning, I decide to find out for myself. I’m excited to have breakfast at Rincón Guatemalteco, a panadería (bakery) that also carries food items in Waltham, an area Central Americans call the heart of Greater Boston’s Guatemalan neighborhood. From the moment I enter its small storefront, I can tell it’s the real deal: Guatemalan fried beans, layered cheese, cocoa, corn, and coffee are sold here. The aromas of molletes and torrejas, two traditional pastries, and warm pork and chicken tamales fill the cozy space, taking me right back to my childhood.
Solares immediately offers me a chicken tamale, a mollete, and a cup of Guatemalan black coffee. We chat for over an hour, and I learn she’s originally from Zacapa, an impoverished area. She and her family moved to Waltham, where she started the cozy eatery 17 years ago. “We were attracted to the fact that there was a Central American community present, especially a lot of friendly Guatemalans,” she says. Her tamales are part of every September 15th celebration.
In just a few days of getting to know Boston’s Central American community — talking and joking in Spanish, eating meals and drinking tamarind juice together, learning the local history and even learning from Carlos López how to cook pupusas — I’ve experienced the generosity of spirit of my homeland and felt a resurgence of the pride that September brings to Central Americans. I’ve reconnected with my roots.
As Martínez says to me in Spanish with a proud smile, “Niña, aquí los centroamericanos somos uno” — ”Girl, we Central Americans are one here.”
Read more from the My Boston History issue:
- What does it mean to lose special places where Latinos gather in Boston?
- A lighting designer shines a spotlight on the lack of diversity backstage
- My night at Havana Club, the heart of salsa and bachata dancing in Cambridge
- My life was in danger trying to help children in Guatemala. I had to choose exile.
- Honoring 100 change-making leaders across Massachusetts