Cynthia Gonzalez’s Salvies Who Lunch is an empowering space for fellow Salvadorans to celebrate their roots
By Christine Bolaños
Cynthia Gonzalez grew up in south-central Los Angeles with a strong sense of pride in her Salvadoran roots, but no one to celebrate her heritage with outside her family. Most of the Latinxs at school were Mexican. They thought some of the words she used, like cipote (child), and the food she ate, like pan con pollo (Salvadoran chicken sandwich), were weird. As an adult, she dedicated her career to ensuring Salvadorans were represented in literature and programming. It wasn’t until she set up a brunch with fellow Salvadorans that she found the sense of belonging she had yearned for all of her life.
Since that eventful lunch, Salvies Who Lunch (SWL) has evolved into a movement far exceeding the impact of a mere digital platform, networking events, or casual social meet-ups. It’s a series of events created in response to the current anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx climate that seeks to go against the status quo by highlighting the positive contributions and characteristics of Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans.
It highlights positive role models such as business owners, educators, artists, entrepreneurs, and creators from all backgrounds but with a shared Salvadoran heritage. The goal is to create a network of like-minded people who converse about topics impacting the Salvadoran community, all while enjoying Salvadoran food staples like pupusas (thick flatbread stuffed with one or more ingredients such as beans and cheese).
“It’s to empower the community, to bring us together and create a network for the new generation,” Gonzalez says. “I feel like the older generation has done an amazing job at organizing and creating festivals, but there hasn’t been anything that caters to the next generation.”
Salvies Who Lunch aims to fill the gap by connecting, empowering and educating Salvadorans and Salvadoran-Americans of all backgrounds and ages. Countless attendees credit Salvies Who Lunch for giving them a sense of belonging, positively highlighting the Salvadoran community, and inviting people to embrace great pride in their Salvadoran heritage--despite negativity from politicians and the media.
“There are so many Salvadoran businesses. Wherever I go, I’m hearing, ‘Oh, I’m Salvi,’” Gonzalez says. “Ten years ago, maybe even less than that, I wouldn’t hear that as much. Our entire lives, I never heard somebody say out loud, ‘I’m a proud Salvi.’ Now for the past year-and-a-half, people are showing that sense of pride.”
Salvies Who Lunch takes off
Salvies Who Lunch started as a simple Instagram hashtag at the fateful weekend brunch where attendees took a photo together. The following Monday morning, Gonzalez told her colleagues about the brunch. Her boss remarked on Gonzalez’s notable excitement that she connected with people who shared her same culture and background. They encouraged Gonzalez to create a space for fellow Salvadorans who were also yearning to connect with one another and find themselves represented.
Gonzalez set up Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts under the name “Salvies Who Lunch.” The mission was to create a public space highlighting positive aspects of the Salvadoran community, especially at a time when their voices are marginalized, underrepresented and even ostracized.
She says she aims to shift the mindset people have of Salvadorans so that they think of influential Salvadoran figures throughout the country instead of the gang MS13 or pupusas first. Since launching in January 2018, Salvies Who Lunch has quickly grown due to the attention and support from business owners, artists, entrepreneurs, public figures and community leaders.
Salvies Who Lunch’s annual signature event is ¡Chévere!, which showcases influential Salvadorans, small businesses, vendors, visual artists, and features a few performances.
Salvadoran-American Stephanie Figueroa has excitedly attended most SWL events and is looking forward to upcoming meet-ups. She is co-owner of La Pupusa Urban Eatery in downtown Los Angeles which hosted the Salvadorans who met up for the first brunch that set Salvies Who Lunch in motion.
“We’re a kind of brotherhood and sisterhood. We back each other up,” Figueroa said of the movement’s impact.
She says events like ¡Chévere! are “life-changing,” “inspirational,” and “amazing” for her generation and her children’s generation and exposes them to influential Salvadoran figures they didn’t know existed.
“Salvies Who Lunch has shown me there are a lot of Salvadorans doings lots of greats things. Salvies Who Lunch is here to show that to everybody,” Figueroa says.
Salvies Who Lunch fills a void by keeping younger generations connected to their heritage and encourages them to help their community grow stronger. Figueroa says other cities and countries like New York City and Canada, respectively, have joined the Salvies Who Lunch movement.
“Salvies Who Lunch isn’t just for me. It’s for your mom, your nephew, your niece, and kids. It’s for anyone who is missing a link to their Salvi-ness,” Figueroa says. “Salvies Who Lunch has been able to bring that connection to the table for anyone who feels lost.”
Salvies Who Lunch partnered with Therapy for Latinx to hold Enlace, a panel and workshop event on mental health and hosted a special screening of Malacrianza, followed by a Q&A with writer/director Arturo Menéndez. The film was showcased in over 20 countries and 40 film festivals and won the Best Narrative category at the Festival Internacional de CentroAmerica.
Salvies Who Lunch held its first event outside of Los Angeles in Washington, D.C. after many requests to hold an event in the city. D.C. has one of the highest Salvadoran populations in the country and has a strong sense of Salvadoran cultural identity and history. The event included a panel/Q&A highlighting several individuals. They shared personal stories and how they’re using the power of social media to bring visibility to the Salvadoran and Central American narratives that sometimes get lost in translation. Guests had the chance to meet and mingle over typical Salvadoran food dishes.
Gonzalez is thrilled about an upcoming major event to mark Hispanic Heritage Month in collaboration with Macy’s in Los Angeles. La Gente Del Volcán will be held from 2-4 p.m. on September 21 at Macy’s store on 4005 Crenshaw Boulevard. Notable Salvadoran figures such as Jose Zelaya and Nancy Mejia are on board as panelists. Zelaya is a Disney animator who learned to draw during the Salvadoran Civil War. Mejia has more than 15 years of experience engaging urban, underserved communities of color in direct service, research, and policy initiatives.
There will be a painting class for children inspired by Fernando Llort Choussy, who was dubbed “El Salvador’s National Artist.” Plus, Latinx vendors selling their products, a Salvadoran folkloric dance performance, and a meet and greet with Curly Velasquez, a self-proclaimed queer brujo and one of the Pero Like YouTube channel stars.
“I tell my mom I want quality events for our community. We need to think big. We need to think we are a superpower,” Gonzalez says. Guests may RSVP online as the event is free, but space is limited.
Sense of Purpose
Since evolving from an Instagram account using #SalvieswhoLunch to a full-fledged movement with several in-person events, Salvies Who Lunch has given Gonzalez a sense of purpose and a way to heal from a lifetime of feeling like she didn’t belong. Born in El Salvador at the onset of the Civil War in 1980, her mother Dora carried her in her arms all the way to the United States. They reunited with Gonzalez’s father Oscar in California, who first fled El Salvador for fear of being killed while attending college.
Her parents established roots in a predominantly Black community with increasing tensions between Brown and Black people. She estimates the demographics at her school were about 90 percent Black, 5 percent Mexican and 5 percent Asian and other Latinxs like Salvadorans. Classmates made fun of her Salvadoran accent. At the same time, there were opportunities for teaching moments when, for example, her mother would bring pupusas to Mexican family gatherings.
“I grew up feeling so proud of my culture especially because I couldn’t feel myself represented,” Gonzalez said. “All my friends were Mexicans, and the only other kids I would play with that could relate to my food and accent, and my background were my cousins. That’s where I felt I was at home.”
Gonzalez, her brother Oscar Jr., and cousins were brought up with such an unrelenting pride in their culture and a deep understanding that their family left their home country to start anew amid the Civil War. So, Gonzalez took it upon herself to educate her classmates about Salvadoran history.
She would pull up a world map at school and show them exactly where El Salvador was located. A common reaction was how small the country of El Salvador, fondly called El Pulgarcito (Tom Thumb), appeared.
“‘Yeah, but we’re so strong,’ I’d reply,” Gonzalez says. She also enjoyed introducing them to the Salvadoran version of Cumbia music, which is a folkloric genre and dance with indigenous, Caribbean, African, and European influence.
Gonzalez attended Los Angeles High School where there was a larger diversity of Latinxs as well as Asians and Russians. She said she felt “static electricity” when she connected with fellow Salvadorans who used words like cipote and listened to music from Los Hermanos Flores. She felt understood and at home.
A lifelong commitment to empowering Salvies
After high school, Gonzalez attended college for a few years but left to work as an interpreter for nonprofit organizations and courts instead. She went on to work in sales; usually consulting as part of marketing and advertising teams that focused on targeting the Latinx community.
Today, she works as the operations manager for Lil’ Libros, where she oversees daily operations for a collection of bilingual children’s books inspired by iconic Latin American figures. One book she is particularly proud of that is due for release on March 2020 is “Vámonos a San Salvador” (Let’s Go to San Salvador). Gonzalez has been working behind the scenes with the illustrator and sharing illuminating stories about the rich culture and history of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.
Gonzalez authored the collection of poetry, “Suspendidos en El Tiempo,” served as cultural advisor for several events including Frida Fest and Qulture Magazine, and as a board member of California Families in Focus and Long Beach Pride.
As a proud queer woman, she tapped into her creativity and experience to serve as entertainment director of CineArte, a Latinx queer film and art festival, produced by the Los Angeles LGBT Center. In her spare time, she volunteers with nonprofits that bring awareness to teen dating violence and has facilitated workshops for at-risk youth. Gonzales has written for Long Beach Register, Q Voice News and was featured in The Los Angeles Times.
Gonzalez’s greatest creation yet may be Salvies Who Lunch.
“I wanted to create something that’s going to make my parents proud,” she says. “My parents came here to give me a better life. I’m one of hundreds and even thousands of Salvi kids that were brought into this country at my age. The millennial community is also struggling to find itself and know more about our culture.”
Through Salvis Who Lunch, Gonzalez has gained affirmation she’s not alone in her yearning for connection in common identity.
“There are a lot of amazing organizations that are doing the hard work for our community when it comes to immigration and politics, and we’ve been able to showcase that,” she says. “It’s a happy medium behind everything because people need to see there’s also a revolution. There’s a space where people can come and have a sense of happiness and pride.”