Givers: So Good Pupusas

Feeding a need with pupusas

by Jessie Ammons Rumbley
photographs by Smith Hardy

By the time she was a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, Cecilia Polanco knew she wanted to start a scholarship fund for the Triangle community. Not as a side project, but as her future career focus. Scholarships are a way to provide peace of mind, she says, something she felt as a Morehead-Cain scholar. Financial aid offers worry-free comfort, much like a home-cooked meal—and this was Polanco’s aha moment in 2014. “I would bring friends home (to Durham) from college, and I would tell them: ‘You’re going to come to my house, you’re going to meet my mom, she’s probably going to cook for you. You need to come hungry because you can’t say no to her. And you’re probably going to have pupusas.’”

Today, Polanco and her mom cook the traditional Salvadoran dish for the masses from their So Good Pupusas food truck, founded in 2015 during Polanco’s senior year in college. Through a clever business model, sales from the food truck fund two annual scholarships for undocumented students, mostly in the Latino community. “We’re not donating profits. The scholarship component is built into the business: Our revenue covers the scholarships, just like it covers the tomatoes and the cabbage.”

Pupusas are thick, doughy masa (or corn) tortillas stuffed with savory fillings: pork, refried beans, cheese, squash-and-zucchini. “For non-Latino folks, or even non-Salvadoran folks, pupusas are something new,” Polanco says. With the food truck, she’s able to share her culture while giving back to it, and also dabble in social justice and foodway advocacy. “We do aim our scholarship at undocumented students,” Polanco says. She is not undocumented herself, and mostly grew up in Durham after being born in California; but, as a Latina, despite being “very motivated in high school, doing well, getting good grades, working, and doing community service … I faced barriers in applying for financial aid.” With persistence and a strong family support system, she says, Polanco ultimately earned the prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill. “I had a full ride, and I also received a scholarship to take a gap year. I had so much support in the form of scholarships. It really changed my life.”

So Good Pupusas gives the scholarship portion of its revenue to Pupusas for Education, the small nonprofit Polanco founded in 2016 to hold and issue financial aid. Right now, Polanco runs both, relying heavily on students at UNC-Chapel Hill who serve as interns and staffers. Executive director Tiffany Turner, for example, graduated from UNC last month and will likely join the nonprofit full-time. Together, the two hope to create even more business education opportunities for the underserved Triangle community: There’s a second truck in the refurbish stage, which might be a “partnership program” for “culinary entrepreneurs—primarily folks of color, or any need-based entrepreneurs—who want to figure out if having a food truck is right for them. We want to give them a platform to get started.”

In the meantime, Polanco uses her personal pupusa-making as a metaphor for the small-business-nonprofit journey. “I didn’t know how to make pupusas when we started,” she says, having always watched her mom make them without a recipe. “She just kind of does her thing. Now, I’ve learned what she does and learned her taste. … Last June, I made my first real pupusa, my first good-looking pupusa. But I would only serve them to friends and family. Now, I can make them to sell.” Likewise, “the business is thriving, the nonprofit is doing really well. We’ve streamlined our pupusa making. It’s all positive.”

You can find So Good Pupusas at the Latino Community Credit Union in Durham for lunch and dinner each Thursday;