Lately Suegra has been suffering from “empacho” … This illness has always confused me – And Suegra is equally confused as to how it’s possible that gringos have never even heard of it.

“Empacho” is a gastrointestinal illness that many people in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America believe can kill you. I decided to interview her about it for anthropological reasons because it doesn’t seem well documented.

Interview below, (in Spanish.)

Note: The use of the word “chibolitas” in Salvadoran Caliche means “little round objects” or “little balls.” (The word has other meanings in other parts of Latin America.)

(If interested in a translation to English, let me know in comments and I’ll see about transcribing it.)

Duritos & Fútbol

Reading La Cocina de Leslie the other day, I came upon her blog post about Duritos. I knew I had seen something similar at the Latino Market many times before, but I always passed by without really checking them out, assuming it was some sort of healthy spaghetti.

With Leslie’s post in mind, I bought a bag for less than $2 when I went to the Latino Market. I let the kids watch me cook them so they could witness the magic. It’s neat to watch them puff up when they hit the hot oil, (and I never would have guessed you cook them this way. I would have boiled them if I hadn’t been told otherwise!)

When Suegra saw me preparing to cook them, she tried to act like she knew all about them even though in more than a decade she has never mentioned them, eaten them or cooked them in my presence. She gets jealous when I know something she doesn’t when it comes to cooking.

She asked where I heard about them and I replied “una amiga que vive en México.” Suegra sniffed and then claimed that El Salvador has Duritos too and that she used to cook them “all the time” – (even though she hung over my shoulder and couldn’t hide her surprise as they puffed up in the pan.)

I wasn’t in the mood for her games so I told her, “I don’t believe you ever ate them or cooked them.” Then, just to get her goat I added, “I discovered them first.” She sucked in her breath and finally left the kitchen saying, “I suppose you invented pupusas too!”

Anyway, we ate them while watching the opening game for DC United which was just as good as the Duritos. The boys preferred the Duritos plain while Carlos and I experimented with Valentina hot sauce, salt and lime.

(Thanks, Leslie, for a new favorite snack!)


Penquear – (origin Caliche) To spank/hit/slap, golpear

We had finished eating and our youngest son had already run off to play. Carlos, our older son, Suegra and I sat around the table, our plates pushed away, and talked for awhile as we usually do.

Carlos had a small argument with one of the guys at work and was telling us about what happened. The fact that the co-worker was Mexican really didn’t have anything to do with the conversation except to identify which guy Carlos was talking about – but you can’t say “mexicano” around Suegra without her getting started. Like many older people, she has some “preconceived notions” which aren’t malicious so much as misinformed. Of course she pipes up with the usual, “Así son los mexicanos, pues.”

Carlos gives me a look that means I should bite my tongue, but I can’t keep quiet.

“No puedes juzgar a todos los mexicanos así. Tengo un montón de amigos mexicanos y son muy buena gente.” I say.

Suegra shakes her head. We go back and forth a few times. Things are getting a little heated.

“Los hombres mexicanos son muy penqueadores!” she says, as if that settles it.

I start to tell her it’s not true of all Mexican men, and that Salvadoran men have their own reputation as well, but she interrupts, as is her way.

“Y si yo estuviera una joven, jamás me voy a salir con un mexicano!”

This conversation is going no where, so I decide to tease her.

“Y si está bien meloso?”
“De eso miel, no voy a comer!” she says.
“Y si está bien guapo?” I ask.
She looks at me as if I’m an idiot.
“Los mexicanos no son guapos, vos!” she says as if it’s common sense. (Forgetting that I know for a fact she has a crush on Vicente Fernandez.)

I catch Carlos’s eye and decide not to push it further. Insisting that there are plenty of mexicanos guapos will only make him celoso and cause problems for me. The table falls quiet since I fail to return fire, and then our twelve year old, who we had forgotten was sitting there, speaks up.

“Huh,” he says, “I didn’t know Mexicans like to spank people… that’s weird.”

Because he says this in English, Suegra has no idea what’s going on when I start laughing. Carlos also isn’t sure what’s so funny until I explain. Our son managed to pick up on the word “penquear” within the word “penqueadores” – but his only reference for this word is the threat of a spanking, as in, “Te voy a penquear.” Because he doesn’t know the word out of this context, he didn’t realize it could mean “hit” or “slap.”

Of course I set him straight. I explain the word “penquear” and I also tell him you can’t judge people based on stereotypes. My son says, “Of course. I already know that!” …and I knew he did, but I just wanted to make sure. Maybe I won’t convince Suegra, but my children will know better.

How The Robin Got A Red Chest – According to Suegra

(English translation in comments)

A cute plump little Robin perched on the backyard fence. I watched him out the kitchen window as I washed breakfast plates off in the sink. Suegra appeared next to me.

“Ay, qué lindo, vá?” she said.
I nodded, turning off the water and drying my hands.
“¿Cómo se llaman esos pajaros de la garganta roja?” she asked.
“Robins,” I responded, accepting the loss of my quiet bird watching moment.
“Hay una historia de esos Robins,” she said, “No la conoces?”
I shook my head.
Suegra smiled, for she had a story to tell, and there are few things in the world that make her as happy as story telling.
“Bueno,” she began, “Cuándo Jesús se murio en la cruz, tenía bastante sangre, cómo los soldados estaban apuñalandolo…” she pauses to make sure I understand. I nod and she continues.
“Jesús tenía sangre por todos lados, y aquí en el pecho,” she says putting her hand slightly above her heart.
“Venía ese pajaro…el Robin, me dijiste, vá?… bueno, pero antes de este tiempo estaba sólo cafecito el pajaro. El Robin voló por el pecho de Jesús y posó allí…”

I smile because this is a sweet folktale…At this point I have assumed that the bird came to comfort Jesus, and for that, the blood colored his feathers red… but Suegra isn’t finished.

“Se posó en el pecho, y empezo a picar a Jesús—”

“Picar?!” I interrupt, “Pero yo pensé que este cuento sería algo más bonito… picar?! Qué feo salio el cuento…”

Suegra shrugs and walks away. When I look out the window, the cute little Robin has flown away.

Image: Elee Kirk


My cumple is at the end of the month, but Carlos wanted to give me his gift un poco temprano.

This is Carlos’s first and only tattoo… y lo amo!

Suegra still doesn’t know about it. When she finds out, she will probably threaten to disown him, (otra vez.) She believes tattoos are a pecado and that only “mala gente” like pandilleros get them. When Carlos told me this I said, “Wait, doesn’t your older brother have tattoos?”

“Yeah,” Carlos said, “but when my mother found out, she slapped him.”

So Carlos’s birthday present to me? A permanent reminder of his love, and the promise of mucho drama to blog about in the coming days.

(Thanks, nene!)


Suegra está enferma. Ha pasado unas semanas así, tosiendo por todos lados. Después de verla en la cocina, con un gabinete abierto, tosiendo sobre todas las ollas y sartenes, no podía soportarlo más. No podía quedarme en silencio.

“Por favor, cúbrete la boca.”
“¿Cubrirme la boca?” ella repitió, un poco incrédula.
“Sí, por favor, cuando estés tosiendo, cúbrete la boca,” dije yo.

“¿Para qué?” Me preguntó con la cara toda confundida.

“Para que no riegues gérmenes por toda la casa. Nos vas a enfermar a todos,” dije yo, “No te enseñaron eso en la escuela cuándo era niña?”

“No,” ella dijo con desdén. “En El Salvador no hay necesidad de cubrirse la boca. Allá los gérmenes no se quedan en las casas como aquí. Las casas allá están bien abiertas…y aquí todo cerrado…ay no,” suspiró.

Bueno, después de esta conversación, ella se puso un poco molesta conmigo. Cada vez que ella tosía y cubría su boca, me miraba con los ojos entreabiertos como si dijera: Mira! Mira la inconveniencia que me has obligado a hacer!

En la mesa durante la cena, aquella noche, ella continuó tosiendo y cubriendo su boca. Carlos le preguntó entre bocados, “¿Estás enferma todavía pues, madre?” (Como que si no fuera obvio.)

“Ojalá no me vaya a morir de esta gripe,” dijo Suegra, “Porque si me muero, tienes que mandar mi cuerpo a El Salvador.” Ella tosió, cubriéndose la boca, “Y Tracy,” me dijo, “si no acompañas mi cuerpo en el avión, no te voy a dejar en paz.”

Y después de decir eso, ella rió tanto que no dejaba de toser.


• Special thanks to mi comadre, Claudia. Carlos y yo tuvimos broncas last night so I had too much pride to ask him to double check my Spanish for errors. Claudia came to my rescue this week! Gracias, amiga!

• Partisipaste en Spanish Friday? Deja tu link en comentarios! Did you participate in Spanish Friday? Leave your link in comments!

English translation:

Suegra is sick. She’s been like this for a few weeks already, coughing all over the place. After I saw her in the kitchen coughing into an open cabinet full of pots and pan, I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stay silent.

“Please, cover your mouth.”
“Cover my mouth?” she repeated, a little incredulous.
“Yes, please, when you’re coughing, cover your mouth,” I said.
“For what?” she asked with a confused expression on her face.

“So that you don’t throw germs all over the house. You’re going to get everyone sick,” I said, “Didn’t they teach you that in school when you were little?”

“No,” she sniffed. “In El Salvador there is no need to cover your mouth. The germs don’t stick around like they do here. The houses there are wide open … and here they’re so closed up … ay no,” she sighed.

Well, after this conversation, she got a little upset with me. Every time she coughed and covered her mouth, she looked at me with narrowed eyes as if to say: Look! Look at this inconvenience which you’ve obligated me to do.

At the dinner table that night, she kept coughing and covering her mouth. Carlos asked between bites, “Are you still sick then, madre?” (As if it was not obvious.)

“Hopefully I will not die of the flu,” said Suegra, “If I die, you have to send my body back to El Salvador.”

She coughed, covering her mouth, “And Tracy,” she continued, “If you don’t accompany my body on the airplane, I will haunt you.”

And having said that, she laughed until she coughed and coughed.

3 Elefantes

At a yard sale my youngest son wanted to buy a little toy and it was 2 for $1. He asked if he could buy 1 for 50 cents and they refused so he bought the toy he wanted and picked a little elephant for Suegra.

He went to Suegra and gave her the elephant and she smiled. “I will have good luck soon because of you,” she said in Spanish. My son smiled and walked away, probably not understanding her words but knowing she was happy.

“Why will you have good luck?” I asked.

She explained that in El Salvador some people believe if you have tres elefantes (three elephants), you will have luck – but the way in which you come to own the elephants is important.

“Uno comprado, uno regalado, y uno robado,” she says with a sly smile.

(One bought, one received as a gift, and one stolen.)

Knowing she has one elephant figurine in her room that she bought years ago, and now this one that my son gave her, I asked about the third.

“Do you have a stolen elephant?” I asked.

“No,” she said… “Not yet.”