May 21, 2021 • 45M

A Conversation with Karla Vasquez

Talking with the founder of SalviSoul about who gets to write cookbooks, the role of women in maintaining a cuisine, and honoring the diversity of Latin cultures.

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Alicia Kennedy
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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Karla Vasquez is a writer and keeper of culture documenting the women who are keeping Salvadoran food tradition alive in the United States. Her project SalviSoul is putting oral tradition down on paper so that it can’t be lost, and it also points to the significance of specificity when discussing Latin American traditions: The U.S. considers the Latinx community a monolith, when it is actually wildly diverse.

I wanted to discuss with her the inspiration behind this, her experience so far working on a cookbook proposal, and how she expresses her voice authentically on social media. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Karla. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat today.

Karla: Of course! I'm so happy to chat with you today.

Alicia: [Laughs.] Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Karla: Yes. 

So I grew up in L.A. It's where I am right now. And I grew up in a very Salvadoran home. So, that meant a lot of—yeah, a lot of the Salvadoran staples. A lot of polea, a lot of rice, a lot of tortillas. The occasional carne asada over the weekend. Because we were new immigrants in this country, the food was really what told me we were from El Salvador because we didn't have things that I saw other Latino families had around in L.A. There wasn't tacos at the party. It was pupusas. It was tamal de pollo. Yeah, it was a very Salvi-saturated food upbringing.

Alicia: And so, what led you to working in food and founding SalviSoul?

Karla: [Laughs.] There were a few things that led me to this work that I'm doing now. And I guess I can summarize them by pointing to three reasons.

I mean, the fact that my family are just storytellers, and this was—we carried our histories through storytime. So I think wanting to do good storytelling just became a part of just legacy that my family has. When we would sit at the table, when we would have dinner time, it was automatic—we were going to know, we were going to find out more about where we came from and our histories. 

So apart from that, a huge reason that led me to SalviSoul and to starting this work was because I had a very personal experience with my health. I became a person who had to deal with a chronic illness. I am a Type 1 diabetic. And in my early 20s, when I was diagnosed, there were a lot of doctors who had good intentions. And a lot of what they said to me were, ‘Diabetes has everything to do with food. And you're Latina, and Latinos eat very poorly. So we would advise you not to eat XYZ.’

And as I mentioned, my upbringing, food was what told me we were from somewhere else. So when I got to experience my culture, it was at the table. And so hearing this kind of recommendation from several doctors and nurses, and it just broke my heart. And I felt like I had to make a decision of, ‘Do I cater my diet to my health, or do I try to figure out if they're—if they maybe don't know the whole truth?’

And that's really what got me into food justice advocacy. And before I did food writing, I was managing farmer’s markets. I was working in low—income areas here in L.A, doing cooking classes, free cooking classes, where we would talk about all the things you can do with all the harvest from the farmers. And so that definitely informed my work. 

And as I started to research different cookbooks and really just getting obsessed with the food world and becoming familiar with all the work farmers do to give us options at the farmer’s market, I started to look for Salvadoran cookbooks. And by this point I had been going to cooking school doing a cooking program here in L.A. 

And the results that I found when I started researching Salvi cookbooks, I found two. I found two books, and I just thought, like, ‘There's millions of us here, internationally.’ We have had to adapt a transnational identity because so many of us have had to leave El Salvador. And it just felt completely absurd that there wasn't a library, or that the library we had of cookbooks were so limited. 

And also that the two books available were not—they weren't things like books from 50 years ago or anything. They were recent, within 10 years—yeah, I think when I found the first English cookbook, it was 2015. And that book had been published in 2013. So, it was relatively new. And I longed to know more. I longed just to understand where—what foods did my family have for fest—for the days of festivals? What foods they have for lazy Sundays? Food was really a way for me to understand where I came from. 

And it was a way for me to know, in that passports were not there—I, for a moment in my life here in the U.S., I was undocumented. So when documentation can’t tell you where you're from, when the language on both ends is a struggle, food was the thing that didn't ask me to be any way. I just knew we were from El Salvador because we eat plátanos, polea, queso duro, pan francés. 

Those were the, yeah, I guess the veins of the work that eventually led me to say, ‘What if I started a project, and I interviewed my grandmother and ask her for my favorite dish?’ And there was a really incredible moment in working with my grandmother. And she's definitely the co-creator of SalviSoul, because without me saying too much about it, I didn't have a name. I didn't have much, but just a question of curiosity. And I pitched it to her. And she said, ‘Oh, sí, Karla. Esto se trata del legado de la mujer salvadoreña.’ Like, ‘Karla, this is about the legacy of El Salvadoran women. You're going to interview women, they're going to tell you stories. And we're going to get these recipes documented that no one has really bothered to look there.’ 

And that was it. That was the moment that really—yeah, it was the beginning of so many things.

Alicia: And when Patricia Escárcega wrote about you for the L.A. Times last year, she wrote about your desire to write a Salvadoran cookbook. And she specifically mentioned that what you were just saying, that the cuisine of El Salvador is kept alive by women. Can you tell me more about the significance of women in Salvadoran cooking?

Karla: Absolutely. My goodness.

So much of what we know, as a diaspora is because of women in the kitchen, and women feeding their families. There’s that entrepreneurial spirit in, with immigrants, where I can't be hired. I don't have documentation. I don't know anyone here. But I know how to make some bomb tamales. I can make 150 of them and sell them on a corner, and people who are hungry will come and try it. 

When I started this project, there was a lot of wanting to give credit where credit has been past due. We have so many enclaves of Salvadorans in this country, and a lot of these enclaves really surround little mercaditos, little restaurants who have been serving these foods. And it's because of their diligence. And I think cooking, especially within a Latino, Latinx context, for women, I think it's a very complex issue because of course, we have been forced in the kitchen. I definitely had a lot of that push and pull feeling of like, ‘I don't want to work in the kitchen, because that's what has been-’ A good girl will want to work in the kitchen. And I didn't want that.

This work taught me a lot of nuance that we haven't been able to really sit with as a community. And I speak for Salvadoran community that I've interacted with. I definitely don't speak for the whole of our community. But with the experiences I've had, so many folks will say to me, ‘Karla, I don't know where else I can feel I belong to El Salvador or that I belong to this culture if it weren't for the home-cooked meals that my mom makes me or that my grandmother makes me.’

And the tension I have with that is that it then becomes this granny practice, right? And I've had moments where people say, ‘I don't need to bother to learn a recipe because I can just go home and eat it there.’ And I always have to stop myself from reacting honestly, because I want to say, ‘It's up to us. It's up to us to practice. Any culture that’s alive is practiced. It’s participated in. And you can’t lament not being able to have access to it, or for it to be a part of your life when you’re kind of assigning it to a generation that’s the older generation. It's an unfair ask to then put the whole weight of preserving culture on a generation that's done the work.’

So absolutely, there's huge significance. And especially because a lot of the history in El Salvador, there's been a lot of violence towards women. And my project is a place to highlight Salvadoran women. And yes, to highlight their sazón, to highlight the vibrancy they have for life. But also to say, ‘This is their place. This is a place that's dedicated to them. They are amazing individuals. They have incredible stories, I will introduce you to them and give you a snippet of who they are.’

SalviSoul is very much Salvi woman-obsessed. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Right. [Laughter.] 

And you mentioned before knowing you were Salvadoran by virtue of what you were eating, and that you weren't eating tacos the way everyone else was. And I feel I haven't been to L.A. in a—I was there once, I think, maybe in 2008. 

But I know that L.A. is such an amazing food city. And reading Jonathan Gold and all that stuff, it really—it gives you a sense of what L.A. is about and how significant food is for L.A. How do you think your city influences your kind of culinary vision, or your kind of culinary understanding?

Karla: Hmm.

Alicia: If at all? [Laughs.]

Karla: No, it absolutely does. I feel like there's a few ways in which it will influence. 

And I mean, I can speak on it from my point of view as a writer. Being able to meet so many different food writers here. I mean, just last week, I was talking to someone who is a food writer. And she's working on a Hungarian cookbook. And her cookbook is very similar where highlighting a lot of the women in her life, who are these cultural hubs for a lot—for the community here in L.A. 

And I think when you see a place like this city like Los Angeles, and you see people who come from the same place as you or similar places, and you see them not having to make compromises of who they are, it's a very—I remember the first time kind of seeing El Salvadorania and kind of being it. There weren't many out there. 

But I was just like, ‘Holy shit. This is really fucking bad. I didn't know this was possible.’ Because I think being an immigrant and growing up here, you really are trying to check all the boxes so you can stay here, so you're not separated from your family. So you can flourish the way you believe you can. And sometimes in that thought process, you realize that there will be compromises or that you will have to stop being a certain way or that your Spanish will have to disappear or any of those kinds of things. 

But living in a place like L.A., you start to see beautiful food concepts for restaurants that are led by the people that they are representing. And they are beautiful. They're a breath of fresh air. There's a huge spirit of pushing back and punk attitude. And I definitely feed off of that, because the publishing worlds, when I pitched this to them, were very much like, ‘People won't know what this is. People won't know what to do with it.’ I had an agent who I was pitching to say to me, ‘The American public won’t know what this is.’ And because I am in a place where there's—thankfully, I have a lot of examples of pushback where I can say, ‘I am the American public. And I want this, and plenty of other people want this.’ 

So yeah, I'm so grateful. It would be interesting to know what SalviSoul would look like in a place that wasn't this kind of presence of thriving and not compromising.

Alicia: Right.

And I mean, to speak to that, too, you post your Instagram captions in a mix of English and Spanish. And so I wanted to ask how you came to your voice as a writer, and if anyone was an influence on the way you approach your voice?

Karla: Well, the one piece of—I have one quote that I always lean on, by James Baldwin. And it's, ‘The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.’ Of course, I always say her, ‘who produced her.’ 

That's kind of been a piece of advice that's been a North Star for me. This whole question of figuring out what your voice is, it's so vague. And it's scary. And you want to make sure, or at least I want to make sure, that I'm speaking to the people who are looking for me. And so I do think about who are the people who produced me and produced these kinds of questions inside of me. 

I think about my grandmother, and—she was a phenomenal storyteller. And I think about how she never, ever had writer's block. And she didn’t necessarily type out stories or anything, but she did share lots of stories. 

And I think sometimes, the fact that we're writing kind of gives us this, makes us neurotic people. Because we’re not just sharing it, where there's so much that comes with the actual action of writing. And she never had writer's block. She never doubted herself when she would share a story. She would walk into the kitchen, and she'd be like, ‘[Snaps fingers.] Karla, ¿Qué esto pasó?’ And she had the feeling in her body. And she knew how to capture her audience. 

And so, I think of her whenever I start to get too much in my head. And I think a lot of what I've learned is—it's not about my feelings of me as a writer. It's just the story, this emotion. Something I've been realizing a lot recently is that writing is really catching feelings. You're trying to catch as many as you can.

I mean, I've read a lot of people who have shaken something inside me, and yeah, those are there. I don't know that any of those folks I've read, like Jonathan Gold, any food people you read have helped me become the writer that I want to be as much as the quote from James Baldwin and the attitude of my grandmother and how she was a storyteller. But, yeah, I think there's been so many little pieces of guidance and wisdom that have found me 

I'm not sure if I’m answering the question, but-

Alicia: You are. [Laughter.]

Since that L.A. Times profile of you last year by Escárcega, have you found an agent for the project of your cookbook?

Karla: I have, and honestly I can’t believe it. I shouldn't say that. I really didn't think I was gonna find one. I was pitching and sending out my proposal. And people would say, ‘This project sounds wonderful, Karla, but we've learned that compilation books really don't do well.’ Or, ‘Karla, this sounds great. But there's too many voices here.’ I'm sharing stories of 25 different women, plus myself. And then, of course, getting comments about ‘Well, what is Salvadoran food? People are not really interested in it.’

So yeah, I finally found my agent. After having all these different experiences with these folks, I did have a few kind of rules. Like I said, ‘I'm not going to work with anyone if they're making me feel like they're doing me a favor.’ No, I am doing them a favor. There has not been a Salvadoran cookbook published in this country by a traditional publisher. They should be happy that I am giving them an audience, because this will only help them in the trajectory of their business. 

I have had to kind of have this attitude, because—yeah, it's just unbelievable the way some folks have treated me. And it's ridiculous that it's taken this long. But my agent gets so many things. From the beginning, just said, ‘Put me in. I'm ready to work. I'm ready for this to be on bookshelves. Let's get to work.’

So yeah, I am so close to finishing my proposal right now. We had to kind of fine tune a lot of it. And I'm sure you know all about the proposal business here. It's been hard. 

Alicia: It's hard. It's so much work. Before you even get to the book, it's so much work. And then when you get to the book, it's so much more work. [Laughs.]

Karla: Yeah.

Alicia: Yeah.

Karla: The publishing industry is cruel. 

Alicia: Yeah. [Laughs.] But that's so exciting. 

You’ve been working with traditional kind of food media. Have you found a lot of pushback there? Have you found yourself feeling good working in food media?

Karla: Yeah.

I mean I will say, I think everything that's been happening in food media for the last year since last summer with the whole BA episode, I think the environment is different than when I started in food media in—beginning in 2016, I believe that’s when I started. 

Yeah, I would send out pitches back then saying like, ‘Hey, I want to highlight this restaurant. They are innovating Salvi food, and no one's really talking about this.’ And people were not interested, or—if they did, if I did hear back from them, they would say, ‘Oh, well, so-and-so already wrote about this.’ And I would say well, ‘That so-and-so is a Chicano writer who has no nuance. Can we at least consider a different angle perhaps?’

And now, it's different. I mean, I've had a few food opportunities knock on my door and say, ‘We want to feature you. There's a few things coming down the pipeline.’ So I can't say all the details, but I would have never imagined them knocking on my door and saying, ‘Hey, we would love if you could write a recipe or, and write an article. And we want to feature you.’ So I think it's a different world now for food writers like myself. We can start to see some changes. 

I do think that I'm also at a place where I have maybe a little bit of— all of the rejection you get kind of get to you. I don't care if they knock on my door now. I care less. Some of the places who have featured me—L.A. Times did feature me. But there have been some other ones who, they say they're really prestigious and nothing happens. Nothing happens, except that they end up looking maybe a little bit more inclusive or diverse, highlighted someone from a small country? Sure. 

I can’t honestly take you seriously as a food media when you haven't bothered to cater to this expanse, food media cultures that you haven't really bothered to look into. So, I take myself seriously. So, I will work with folks have demonstrated that they have been invested. It's a very small group of people. It's interesting how that happens, right? When they finally start calling you, you're just like, ‘I'm not interested in you. I am shocked that I ever thought you were that important, that I had angst about whether or not I'd ever be on your radar, you know?’

Alicia: Yeah. No, it's interesting. 

And I mean, you mentioned having the lack of nuance when a Chicano writer writes about a Salvadoran restaurant. And the U.S. media really has an idea of Latinx culture that is very one note. And you can kind of interchange one Latino for another. 

And how have you seen that get better, maybe, in the last couple of years if you have? I feel it watching coverage of Puerto Rico. Obviously, there's a huge Puerto Rican diaspora in the U.S., but it's very interesting to see the diaspora prospective versus someone who lives here and that sort of thing. It's considered the same thing, though, from the U.S. perspective.

Karla: I mean, my gosh. 

I think that several things can be true at the same time. Things have gotten better; things have stayed the same. How do I say this? How do I express all the feelings? If there has been an opportunity for me to write something, I think that there are—because of Twitter, I'll be tagged in something that said, ‘They should have hired Karla to write this. She is one of the few Salvadoran food writers, but they decided to go with a Chicano.’ Those kinds of things are happening. Before, those things didn't happen. 

So it's not to say that they’re hiring me for the—that would be awesome. But they’re acknowledging—or the people are acknowledging, and that's how we accomplish anything. Enough people who have the platform's hopefully strong enough, big enough, that you start to see something change. That's what I'm seeing. Before if I wasn't really putting myself out there, pitching, kind of being in front of folks, it's not—it wasn't going to come my way, or it's not going to. 

But I mean, we'll see. I think this is why I want to do this cookbook, right? And why I decided not to self publish, but to pursue traditional publishing, because I do believe that having that kind of—it's almost like having that rite of passage for the community will create an environment where, ‘Hey, are we doing our due diligence if we aren't asking Salvadoran writers to write Salvadoran content?’ Or, as a bare minimum, asking Central American folks. 

So I think that there is a path that has been made. It's not a path that is very populated, but there—we're getting there. Yeah, I think that's the best I can say as far as—if I were to give a grade, I would add in the comments, ‘Shows huge improvements. Keep it there, but we’re not there yet, honey.’

So yeah, I don't think I'll ever be satisfied with food media because historically, they've taken too much from everyone. I don't know that they deserve my satisfaction. So, I do think what I want is for the people, the powers that be, just to get out of the effing way. If you can't support, if you can't give up the jobs, get out of the way. Stop sabotaging. 

But anyway, I digress.

Alicia: [Laughs.]

No, but it’s real. And I know in that L.A. Times piece, again, you were talking about how Instagram following is kind of considered super important for selling a cookbook. But I have seen lots of cookbooks be published by people with 2000 followers on Instagram and 2000 followers on Twitter. And I think it's something I've seen be told to a lot to women of color, who are trying to push a cuisine that has—that the publishing forces-that-be don't think has a big audience.

But meanwhile, I have a Romanian cookbook. And it's great. And, of course, but that's a similar kind of a small country as well. But it has a cookbook, and I don't want to say that that writer didn't put in a lot of work. But it's, how many people in the U.S. have eaten Romanian food versus a pupusa? 

So how do you see social media? To me, it's this kind of necessary kind of evil of promoting your work. But what is your kind of relationship with that? 

Karla: Let's see. Gosh, heavy hitters.

Alicia: I'm sorry. [Laughter.]

Karla: No, I love it. I love them. Absolutely here for it. 

My relationship with social media has had to evolve. At the very beginning, at the onset of SalviSoul, bringing it into the social media scape, it was just such a nurturing place. All the folks who have kind of been that person and had that experience like I had, where I was really excited to look for Salvi cookbooks and then came up on two, and then the two were sold out. We were all finding each other. And it was just so beautiful. I kept having these feelings, again, and again, of like, ‘Oh, you too! You have this thing? Oh my gosh.’ So, it was a really beautiful thing. 

And knowing that the numbers kept going up, and I had—I remember when I just had a few hundred followers. And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I have 400 people who are with me on this, who think that this should be a thing. Oh my gosh, this is so fucking cool.’ 

And then when I had made the decision to not self publish, but to pursue this journey of traditional publishing, I met a great agent. And she said, ‘This is an incredible project. There is an audience for this. We definitely can find you a publisher who will do right by you. However, you need more followers.’ And I think at this point in time, I maybe had like 4,000. She said, ‘I need you to have at least 10.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. That's a lot.’

And for me at the time, I think I also interpreted it as I can't connect to that many people. Because it was just like, ‘Connecting, connecting, connecting with—it was just I was finding family. And you do the catch of you go with friends. You go, ‘How you’ve been?’ And it was just organic, too. It wasn't a strategy of how to gain a bigger following. It was just like, ‘I want to know, where the rest of the diaspora is.’ Because people from Canada, from Abu Dhabi, from Tokyo, Savis all over the world, they're like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I've been waiting for something like this. And I'm so happy I found you.’

So then hearing, ‘We need 10,000,’ I was like, ‘There's no way I can get these by myself. I need to find people to promote my work. I need to get in front of more people.’ It's just this compounded stress of ‘I need to keep having these emotional connections people that I don't think I have capacity for.’ That had been the way that the community grew. 

And a lot of this too, I have to be very careful. Because I see this happen a lot, where you have projects or books that are about tough things that we've had to survive. It becomes the gimmick. You show all your pain and suffering, and then they say, ‘Oh, yeah, that's enough for us to humanize you. We feel something now, so we're gonna care now.’ 

I almost felt when this person said, ‘I need you to have 10,000,’ I felt like this person wanted me to do that, because that's the fastest way you can get attention or make a meaningful connection. And those were a lot of things to process. No one's in my family has ever been published. There's never been a freelancer in my family. I became one so that I could be available for this. I was Frankensteining income with whatever came my way. 

And now I just felt like I had this huge task of, ‘Go find another 5,000+ people that you need to connect with and that they need to find value in the work you do, when you have receipts to show that the general public has cared less about the Salvadoran community.’

So yeah, it was fucked up. I was like, ‘I don't know how to-’ I didn't know how to deal. But I just kept doing what I was doing. I kept posting, posting not really with a strategy in mind but just, ‘Hey, this is what I'm learning. I'm sharing it with you all, because this is what the page is.’ And then eventually, a few folks with—who are also Salvis and had larger, much larger followings, who were Salvis in fashion, Salvis in makeup sharing, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a food account and she's doing cooking classes. You guys have to follow.’

And then, we eventually got to 10,000 especially after the L.A. Times piece. That helped a lot. And I went back to that agent and I said, ‘Hey, guess what! I have the 10,000. It was amazing.’ And then unfortunately, they ghosted me. So, I don't know. Was she really serious, or was she maybe just giving me a number that felt difficult and she maybe thought, ‘It'll take her a really long time.’ Or maybe she really was—It was last year that I got back to her, so 2020. Have to have a bit of patience with folks, because we're all still going through it. 

So yeah, I think social media—it's hard, ‘cause that was the same year that American Dirt came out. And we were all talking about how does someone with 3000 followers. Three books, I think. She'd already published three books, get a six figure book deal. And she only has less than 5,000 followers on any accounts. How did that happen? How? So, we know how. 

So yeah, I think that I, as far as my strategy now with social media, I'm wanting to still connect with people. I'm choosing to create from a place that is of service to Salvi folks. creating beautiful things, creating informative things. 

The end of last year was really hard, because I had family who was hospitalized due to COVID. And thankfully, they're fine now, thank and goodness. Everything was just really difficult. And I think I didn’t post for like three months, which I think is—yeah, exactly. It's criminal when you think about it and everything you have to do. I stopped doing my cooking classes that I was doing weekly. I stopped posting. I didn't have it in me. 

Yeah, I’ve have had time to rest. I have help now, too. I have someone who helps me with social media. So yeah, I think it's always a habit of resetting what social media is there to do for you. And publishers, I'm sure, will want me to have hundreds of thousands. But if that's not what I have, then that's not what I have. And I'm not gonna buy followers. I'm not going to do anything that doesn't feel honest. And that's just what they have to deal with, ‘cause I have to deal with a lot more than just worry, worrying about how many followers I have. 

Alicia: Well, for you is cooking a political act?

Karla: I think so, yes. Yes. It doesn't always have to be. I think cooking, the intention behind it can be very much like eating. But sometimes we eat for health, sometimes we eat for enjoyment. Sometimes we eat because otherwise we're gonna die. 

Being a diabetic, my relationship to food almost feels like it's on this whole other level. Because there have been moments where—yeah, I'm not sure how familiar you are with diabetes, but you can—I have Type 1, so my pancreas, which produces the insulin that helps me break down all the carbohydrates that become sugar that become energy, my body doesn't make any. So I have to give myself between five to six injections a day of insulin. And everything I eat is a very conscious choice. 

And so naturally, anytime I cook is also very conscious. And when you add that layer of cooking Salvadoran food when there are so many policies that have meant to harm my community, cooking is definitely a very political act. To say that I'm going to learn and practice these ways in this country, and that I'm going to teach others to thrive at it as well, I think is the most radical thing I can do for my community and for us to feel strong. So absolutely. I think it's a political act.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time again.

Karla: Oh my gosh, thank you so much. This has been wonderful.