Food by VICE

A Culinary Program in El Salvador Is Giving At-Risk Youths a Reason to Stay

Gastromotiva trains young Salvadorans in culinary and life skills to provide them with better work opportunities and alternatives to migration.

by Anna-Cat Brigida
Nov 20 2018, 5:00pm

Michelle Trinidad. Photo courtesy of World Food Program

In 2016, 20-year-old Michelle Trinidad was deported back to El Salvador after her second attempt in two years to reunite with her mother and brother living in Maryland. As she sat in the government center for deportees, she was overwhelmed by a sense of defeat from her unfulfilled journey.

“After being deported, you arrive in pieces,” said Trinidad, now 22. “You think, Im deported. Now what am I going to do?

In her exit interview before leaving the center, an official told Trinidad about a work training program for young Salvadorans to specialize in the food service and restaurant industry. The 22-year-old had always loved to cook, often peering over her aunt’s shoulder and following her around the kitchen while she prepared traditional Salvadoran dishes. Trinidad gave the official her information, but didn’t have much hope for a positive outcome.

“Work opportunities are scarce here in this country,” said Trinidad, who has had trouble finding decent-paying work in the past. “Even if you send out your resume again and again, they always say they’re going to call you, but the call never comes.”

But Trinidad did receive a call, in September 2017. The young deportee was selected to be part of the first class of Gastromotiva, a program funded by the World Food Program and other international organizations that trains young Salvadorans in life skills and culinary abilities as a way to provide them work opportunities and alternatives to migration. Brazilian chef David Hertz began the program in Sao Paõlo in 2006, and it has since expanded to Mexico and South Africa, and now El Salvador.

Gastromotiva is part of a growing “social gastronomy” movement which seeks to use food and gastronomy to fight social issues like unemployment, inequality and food insecurity. Social gastronomy projects are gaining traction in Latin American in particular, a region where enough food is produced to feed all its inhabitants, but the poorest and most marginalized residents can’t access this food because of social, economic and political inequality.

Venezuelan chocolate shop Kakao has trained more than 1,500 Venezuelans to date, mainly women with few other work opportunities. Gustu, an upscale restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, hires locals from low-income neighborhoods in the hope that the profits from the expensive restaurant return to the community. During the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a restaurant serving athletes used food waste to prepare meals for the homeless.

The Gastromotiva program in El Salvador focuses on providing job opportunities and career development to youths from low-income areas, which often experience high levels of gang violence. El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world, with nearly 4,000 murders last year in a country roughly the size of Massachusetts. Young men from poor neighborhoods are most likely to be the victim of a homicide. Young women in these communities also face a high risk of femicide and sexual violence.

The stigma against these communities makes it difficult for adolescents and young adults to find jobs. As a result, more young people are migrating in recent years, as was the case for Trinidad, who is from a dangerous neighborhood on the outskirts of San Salvador. Since 2014, at least 56,000 Salvadorans under the age of 18 have crossed the US border by themselves.

teenagers in san salvador el salvador
Two teenagers sit on steps next to an old bombshell in Cinquera, 72 kilometers north of San Salvador, in 2011. Cinquera was one of the heaviest hit combat zones during the Salvadorean civil war. (Photo: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images)

In El Salvador, a job at a restaurant can mean the difference between staying in the country or migrating to the US.

“There’s a lot of people who go to the US because here we don’t have work opportunities, and we want to work there and help our family have a better life,” Trinidad told MUNCHIES. said.

Andrew Stanhope, the World Food Program representative for El Salvador, says the program hopes to show youths that “there are opportunities here and reasons to stay here in El Salvador.”

Thirty-five young Salvadorans, including Trinidad, were selected to enroll in the first Gastromotiva class in 2017. The group completed a four-month course with workshops expanding far beyond learning basic culinary techniques and mastering recipes. The program aims to help participants to become better citizens and self-sustaining young professionals, so it organizes workshops on conflict management, gender violence prevention, healthy self-esteem, and other life skills.

“We incorporate these topics so that it’s part of their general training and so that it’s an integral program and not just a cooking course that focuses on things like cuts of meat,” said Elia Martinez, who coordinates the Gastromotiva program through WFP. “For us, it’s important to consider the whole person, the human beings as they are.”

Half of the participants in the first Gastromotiva class had jobs at graduation, and the employment rate increased to nearly 90 percent during the second class.

Martinez adds that many participants are dealing with a “heavy emotional burden,” which can affect their mental health and prevent them from accessing job opportunities. So, the program has an element of psychological support as well.

Trinidad admits that she had difficulties readjusting to life back in El Salvador after deportation, particularly the first time she returned in 2014 because she had to return without her brother, her closest family member. He was granted asylum in the US, while her case was rejected.

“It’s really hard to come back and not have your only family here with you,” she said. But the program has helped her deal with this difficult situation. “Gastronomotiva teaches us so much, both in personal ways and in the kitchen.”

At the time of Gastromotiva graduation, Trinidad was already working at a gourmet catering company. She was also offered a part-time position as assistant chef during the second generation of the Gastromotiva program.

Other Gastromotiva participants have gone on to work at places like Colombian coffee franchise Juan Valdez, regional Mexican restaurant chain El Pinche, and local restaurant Go Green. Still, the organization is working to increase the employment rate of graduates, given that some cannot accept positions that require traveling back to their neighborhoods at night because it’s too dangerous. Half of the participants in the first Gastromotiva class had jobs at graduation, and the employment rate increased to nearly 90 percent during the second class.

"Now I’m working in what I like to do. I earn well, so why am I going to leave? My family tells me to come, but I tell them I’m doing well here."

The program is making a small difference in a country where 23 percent of people under the age of 30 neither work nor study, and hopes to expand its class size in the future.

While small in size, the approach is making a big cultural shift through “the concept of using culinary art to change their lives,” says Stanhope of WFP.

Trinidad now travels three days a week to the city to assist Gastromotiva’s head chef chopping vegetables, making sauces, and preparing traditional dishes.

For the first time, she has dreams of a future in El Salvador. The 22-year-old aspires to study restaurant administration when she saves up enough money to cover university tuition.

“You come back to the country with the vision of leaving again,” she said of her experience as a deportee.

“But now, why would I leave? I don’t have to,” she adds. “Now I’m working in what I like to do. I earn well, so why am I going to leave? My family tells me to come, but I tell them I’m doing well here.”

Her case doesn’t have to be unique, Trinidad says. “If the country had more doors open for youth, because it’s the youth that they shut the doors on, people wouldn’t have to leave.”