East Boston 3rd graders make last adjustments to costumes and await their entrances for their final showcase at PJ Kennedy Elementary School's Multicultural Festival.

Recipe For Pupusas With Peanut Butter & Jelly

Posted 1 July 2014 12:00 AM by Kayla Lee, Target Arts Teaching Artist in East Boston & Mission Hill

You might have one of three reactions to this title. You may be disgusted, curious and/or clueless. If you are anything like me, a couple of months ago you are probably wondering: What exactly is a pupusa? Moreover if you have read traditional educational literature you might be wondering, What does this have to do with arts in education? Not only will this blog tell you what a pupusa is but, most importantly, it will introduce and describe the Citi Center Target Arts residency I participated in this spring at P.J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston. By the end you will know the origin of pupusas with peanut butter and jelly and how school and community partnerships can create new possibilities.


Through the facilitation of interactive games and small group storytelling as a part of a workshop for the Citi Center Target Arts residency, the students in Ms. Decerbo’s class shared their personal journey of how immigration and migration impacted their lives and the lives of their loved-ones. The class along with Princess Bryant, Rachel Rhoades and I worked together to design a unique theatrical work. Through theatre, dance, music and dialogue the students reflected upon the intersection of immigration and integration. It was through one conversation about diversity that I first heard the word: pupusa.

The schedule went as follows: on Mondays, Mr. Bodell, the talented and high-energy music teacher co-taught a lesson with the Citi Target Arts team. His musical expertise and direction deepened the students’ conversation and reflections about immigration and integration through song. On Wednesdays, Ms. Decerbo opened her classroom so we could facilitate artistic lessons and workshops.

There were powerful moments as students shared their and their family histories of immigration, courage and survival. Based upon the stories, the students developed characters, settings, and a plot for the play. Based upon theses development with the assistance of Rachel and Princess, I created a unified story that sought to both honor and reflect students’ stories and the experiences and conversation we had as a result of the residency. The next step was to develop a script. I gave the story back to the students and then in small groups, they wrote the script for the play.


Their play features the intersection of culture, friendship, family and love. It unfolds with a series of colorful characters and scenarios. It centers on Tommy and Lilliana. They see their Egyptian friend getting bullied, but they remain silent. At home, they share their shame of keeping silent instead of helping their friend with their grandparents. Through a series of flashbacks, their grandparents Marisol and Patrick share their own personal stories of how their families did not think they should be together, because they are from two different cultures--El Salvadorian and Irish.

The play pays homage to East Boston historical figures Danny McKay and Frederic Tudor and additionally to the famous El Salvadoran musician, Pancha Lara by dancing to his famous song, El Carbonero. In the wooing scene between Patrick and Marisol, the chorus sings the American folk and unity song, Somos El Barco. So empowered by the strength of their grandparents, Tommy and Lilliana find the courage to stand up for their friend, and the show ends with the entire casting, Colombian singer, Juanes’ song Paz, Paz, Paz, which mean Peace, Peace, Peace.


After the performance, the students participated in a survey about the program and this is what they had to say:

I learned that I am a great person and to be myself.

I learned that nothing impossible in yourself.

I leared that now I am brave. (*learned )

I learned that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. I will use [what I learned] by telling everybody else that.

What I learned about myself is that I am creative.

I learned that I could speak louder than I thoght. I can be a speaker for my job because I can speak VERY loud. (*thought)

[I learned] that I can not be afraid of speaking in front of 100 people.

I will use what I learned for future by getting a job, getting good grades, and representing my school/college.

I will make a diffents. (*difference.)

I learned to overcome my fear of acting. Also doing calm breathing. I will do it when I am afraid, lonely & axnoshis. (*anxious)

The Answer to the Mystery

Now, the answer to: What exactly are pupusas? When I asked this question some of the students looked at me with that You gotta be kidding me! Are you serious?!! face. I found out from their description and later from tasting them at the P.J. Kennedy cultural festival and dinner that pupusas are thick corn tortillas filled with savory items such as meat, cheese or beans. They are an El Salvadorian staple and a food meant to be sold inexpensively according to Mario Quiroz.*

That still doesn’t explain the peanut butter and jelly part. That idea developed as a result of sharing a story with the students called Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald No Combina. ** It is a story about a girl who is of Peruvian and Scottish heritage who is challenged, because her appearance, personal style and activities run seemingly countercultural to ‘the norm.” As she embraces who she is, she finds both the joy and freedom in being herself. It is Marisol McDonald who eats tortillas with peanut butter and jelly and from whom Abuela gets her name in the play.

Now, What does this have to do with arts in education? The recipe with pupusas with peanut butter and jelly is something I invented (as far as I know). It is an allegory about integration and imagination. It is emblematic of self-acceptance and the beauty of diversity and uniqueness. Over the course of our time together, the students took risks, fostered creative thinking and ultimately designed and produced a play about family, love and respect. Pupusas with PB&J represents the special time that I had with the students as well as the possibilities that exist when schools, communities, and the arts come together to grow, collaborate and cook-up something new.

So I said to myself, why not pupusas with peanut butter and jelly? Don’t knock it until you try it, and if you do, write back and let me know how it tastes!

* Mario Quiroz is an El Salvadorian documentary photographer, who shared his work and culture with the students as a part of the project.

**Monica Brown is a Peruvian-American author and professor of English at Northern Arizona University she authored the bilingual books that were pivotal in the project, My Name is Celia Cruz/Me Llamo Celia Cruz as well as Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald No Combina.

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