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When Maria Victoria Lopez Pineda immigrated from El Salvador to the United States, it wasn't so much a choice as it was a necessity.
Lopez Pineda, also known as “Vicky,” was forced to flee El Salvidor after her family received death threats and her son was kidnapped and eventually left unconscious and nearly beaten to death on the side of a road.
El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, has the highest rate of intentional homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to figures gathered by the United Nations in a February 2020 BBC article. Nearly 62 people out of 100,000 died from violent crime in 2017.
“In El Salvador, life is hard,” Lopez Pineda said. “It is also dangerous.”
Lopez Pineda and her 10 children fled to safety in the U.S. in search of a new beginning — and they’re some of the lucky ones. Nearly 200 people the U.S. sent back to El Salvador between 2013-19 have been either killed, extorted, sexually assaulted or tortured, according to a report released by Human Rights Watch in February 2020.
The family’s life wasn’t magically fixed after arriving in the states, however.
“America is a country full of opportunities, but life revolves around working, which can be stressful,” Lopez Pineda said through a translator. “It is what I expected.”
Lopez Pineda did end up achieving the American Dream by working diligently and saving up money for years to take over ownership of a previous Salvadoran restaurant, El Pulgarcito, on Dec. 31, 2017, after working for the owner for two years. She bought the restaurant in payments and changed the name to Vicky’s Salvadorian. She now runs the restaurant with two of her daughters, who cook and serve.
Lopez Pineda has drawn inspiration from the dishes she used to eat and cook in El Salvador. She grew up fixing meals for her younger siblings while her parents worked, and later for her children when they were younger. It helped her build an appreciation for preparing meals for others.
“I like seeing people happy getting together with family and friends over a good meal,” Lopez Pineda said. “I also enjoy cooking because it is something I can do good enough to be able to make a living.”
The pupusas and rice and beans at her restaurant are authentic recipes of what she used to make back home. Her pupusas are stuffed handmade tortillas filled with a choice of meats, cheeses and vegetables. Two pupusas sell for $8.50 and they come in eight different varieties, such as calabeza and queso, chicharron and queso and revuelta, which is pork and cheese.
“Most of the food I cook today is food I cooked and ate in El Salvador,” Lopez Pineda said.
Her family was very poor back in El Salvador, so they weren’t able to eat a lot of meat and other expensive ingredients. But she is able to offer that now, utilizing beef, chicken and pork to make a variety of dishes that are traditional and also some that are familiar to those in Lewis County.
Vicky’s Salvadorian offers carne asada ($15); $2 tacos, served with cilantro, onion and lime, that come in either asada, chicken or chorizo; chicken or corn tamales for $1.50; and flour-tortilla burritos that range from $5 for a small or $9.50 for a large; and quesadillas that run for $10.50
Business has been very slow at Vicky’s Salvadorian since the COVID-19 pandemic began taking its toll on businesses across the state in mid-March. There have been times when Lopez Pineda has had trouble finding the products she needed, and other instances where they had to throw away food because it expired due to a lack of customers. It’s forced her to purchase and prepare less food, while offering specials to help sell ingredients before they expire.
“I hope we will be able to stay open, but with all the bills and dramatic drops in revenue, only time will tell,” Lopez Pineda said.
Still, it’s been a rewarding experience owning the restaurant the past three and a half years, working with two of her daughters and knowing all 10 of her children are safe and thriving in the U.S. She knows it wouldn’t be possible without the support of her customers.
“I love to cook and I also got to know a lot of the customers that come in regularly,” Lopez Pineda. “They have really helped us keep the doors open.”
More Information on Vicky’s Salvadorian
Owners: Vicky Lopez Pineda
Location: 1409 S. Gold St., Centralia
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily
Top-selling items at Vicky’s Salvadorian
Two pupusas: $8.50
La carnavalera: $3.25
Huevos rancheros: $10.50
Pollo guisado: $13.50
Carne asada: $15