A Chef’s Journey: From El Salvador To Philadelphia With Jorge Chicas of Red Owl Tavern

Was the fighting in the cities?
Yes, in the city. We lived a block away from an army base. They would cut off access to the water, so we would have to go get water at the military base.

Where was this?
In San Miguel. During that period, they would cut the water, they would cut the electricity. There were times when we didn’t have water for weeks at a time, so we would have to go to the military base and get water. And so you develop a relationship with everybody there. It was hard for me growing up. I remember having friends [at the base] and you would see them one day and the next time you went back, oh no, they went out and didn’t come back. You grew up with that and you see things and it wasn’t something nice. There were three times in which they attacked the army base and we were smack in the middle of it. We had to basically take the mattresses and make some sort of tent in the bedroom in the house. We couldn’t go closer to the windows because you could see the flash from a rifle being fired or the flashes from the helicopters shooting down.

Chef Jorge Chicas. Courtesy of Red Owl Tavern. Kylie Flett.

Chef Jorge Chicas. Courtesy of Red Owl Tavern. Kylie Flett.

How old were you when you first remember any of that?
I think that all of that started back in the 80’s. So I was 7, 8 years old. I didn’t really see a lot of it until I was like ten.

How long was the civil war?
It lasted for nearly thirteen years. A long time.

You’re drafted twice at thirteen.
Yes.

The first time you’re drafted…
My uncle managed to get me out. The second time, we had a neighbor that was in the military as well. He managed to help me out. That was when my parents were like, we need to figure out a way of getting you here.

Then your parents went to Mexico and got the visa [for Mexico].
My mother stayed in the states. My father stayed in El Salvador. We tried to get visas to come to the states but they said no.

Did they give a reason?
There were a lot of people trying to get out of the country at that time. For us, we were trying to apply for a visa with my grandmother. But because my parents were already here [in the United States], they were like, we can give it your grandmother but not to you guys. So, you need your parents….

What year was it that you made the crossing at Tiajuana?
’86.

How did you get across.
I remember the first time. My father had worked it that they were gonna get us into an airplane and fly over. But apparently the plane was broken, so they came to get us from the hotel and they were like, ok, we’re gonna do the passing tonight. I’m like, how we gonna do this thing. And I remember getting to—they call it the line—it’s a…it goes down, there’s water running through the middle, then it goes up, then you have the fence and then you see the cars on the other side, the border patrol going back and forth. So when the border patrol is going this way….We were sitting on the other side and seeing groups of people trying to cross. I remember sitting there with my grandmother, my sister, my brother, my dad. We’d see these groups of people go one way and the patrol would go one way and then another group would go the other way, and sometimes if you were lucky you’d pass. If not, you were caught. They [the patrols] would come back. It was like a game. We were watching this. And we’d see the helicopters on the other side, putting the flashlight on the people that were trying to cross. It was weird. I’ve never seen anything like it. My dad was like, there’s no way we’re gonna do this. My brother was like five years old at that point and my grandmother with us. We’re not gonna be running around and doing this thing. So he managed to talk to some people, who actually…they walked us through a farm and then they got us into a van and they closed the hatch in the van. We were in a box inside the van. We were in that box for an hour. Really small, cramped space. I remember being really scared. It was hot. I was afraid. It was about an hour ride. We got to a house and they told us that we were in San Diego already. They fed us breakfast and we got into another van and we were passengers driving to L.A., and in L.A. we took the plane to D.C., which is where my mom was.

What was your thought process like when you got on the plane and then arrived in D.C.?
I was very eager to see my mom because obviously at that point we had been away from her for three years. My dad came to the states when I was five. Then [later] my mom came to the states and we were three years without my mom.

You were being raised by your grandmother at that point.
Yeah.

How hard was that?
Very difficult. It’s hard. It’s weird. Going to school and, you know, over there it’s huge when it’s Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and…there’s no dad, there’s no mom.

You’re parents are doing it for job opportunities, to make more money, but how hard is that to absorb as a kid?
It’s difficult. We talk about this now and they tell me, if we knew what we were walking into, we wouldn’t have done it. But, you see it from another angle, too. We wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t take the chances and try something different. It’s very hard to really evaluate it and see, was it worth it or was it not. It was hard. Very hard. And you know, I think that I was scarred for life with that feeling. I remember when my kids were born. I remember wanting to be there and, I’m never gonna leave you guys, I’m always gonna be here no matter what, we need to stick together and this is the way it’s gonna be. I think that you tend to overprotect a little bit too much [laughs]. Because you go from one extreme to the other. So, it’s very hard.
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