Ilan Mochari
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BlogDecember, 2007
El Salvador, Eels, and Jose Calderon

"The Ecuadorian, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadoran cooks I've worked with over the years make most CIA-trained white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks." 

–Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential, from the "Who Cooks?" chapter. "CIA" stands for Culinary Institute of America.

Lázaro Flores, the main character in my novel, The Ring Behind the Glass, is a Salvadoran cook. He also moonlights as an assassin for ARENA, El Salvador's conservative political party. Despite the pressures of his dual duties, Flores remains a model restaurant employee. He works when he's sick, injured or exhausted. He covers shifts for his coworkers. He never complains. If he actually existed, he'd give Bourdain wet dreams.

In researching Flores, I ransacked libraries, photographed immigrant neighborhoods, and surfed El Diario de Hoy. I also interviewed my own Salvadoran coworkers. Now you might presume – I sure did – that anti-ARENA sentiment runs high among rank-and-file Salvadorans. Scan a recent headline like this one...

Right-wing President's Term in Office Has Meant Less Freedom, More Repression for Salvadorans

...and you might ascertain that the folks behind the headline – a nonprofit called CISPES, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – have captured the prevailing viewpoint of the masses. For there it is, in writing: Less Freedom. More Repression. All under the auspices of the right-wing president, ARENA's very own Antonio Saca.

But I'm here to tell you: Most Salvadorans I work with support ARENA and the Saca administration. The main reason is stability. Yes, the civil war ended in 1992. Yes, you could argue CISPES is correct in asserting Saca's regime has "had negative effects on economic growth and poverty reduction." Still, the bottom line, for my coworkers, is that their homeland's government – by hook or by crook – is not going to be toppled anytime soon. They can earn their paychecks in Massachusetts, wire the loot to relatives in El Salvador, and that's that. Any stable government permitting them to do this is one they can live with.

Their attitude, amazingly, provides a political prism for what's happening across the universe, in Russia. President Vladimir Putin's term expires in March. Yet most observers believe he'll stay in charge, once he finds a feasible way to do so under Russia's 1993 constitution. And what do the Russian masses think of this? They don't mind. In fact, one citizen told reporter Gregory Feifer that the people "feel a sense of stability and order now. [I'd] be perfectly happy if Putin stayed for a third term and violated the constitution." Other reports indicate that Russians – rather than embracing the herky-jerky process of building a democracy – pine for the stable über-state of the bygone Soviet empire.

Of course, there are Russians protesting Putin's plans. Prominent among them is Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion (whom I idolized as a boy, when I'd ransack libraries for books on chess strategies). Kasparov, as it happens, was arrested at in Moscow November 24 and released five days later; he'd led a march challenging the legitimacy of the December 2 parliamentary elections, which Putin had hindered an international watchdog group from monitoring.

Nevertheless, the parallels among Russians and Salvadorans – generally accepting of repressive regimes, unmindful of constitutional protections – shine a light on why immigrant workers tend to "make most CIA-trained white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks." Americans are raised in a culture that protests anything, from animal rights to pornographic distribution; the immigrants Bourdain and I have worked with are raised in cultures that quietly suck it up and deal. That's what makes them ideal for grueling restaurant work, where – whether you're a cook, waiter or manager – you can rest assured you'll humble yourself, time and time again, in the course of a single shift, all for the demands of the Larger Entity – and in fear of its punishment.


The lighter subjects:

  • Some horrendous reporting from the ballyhooed BBC, detailing the connection between legendary physicist Hugh Everett – the pioneer of parallel universes – and the rock band Eels. Everett died of a heart attack in 1982, when his son Mark – the auteur behind the Eels – was 19. Well, the BBC made a documentary about Mark's attempt to understand father Hugh's legacy – a fascinating idea, especially if you're an Eels fan and you've wondered about the brains behind the band. The thing is, Hugh Everett also had a daughter – Mark's sister, Elizabeth – who committed suicide in 1996. In addition, Mark and Elizabeth's mother – Hugh's wife – died of lung cancer in 1998. Now, these deaths are hardly hidden facts – you can find them, plain as day, on the Eels web site. But there is not a single mention of the female Everetts in the BBC article hyping its own documentary. What gives, BBC? My thanks to friend and coworker Briseis Guthrie, who is not Salvadoran, for forwarding me the article. And while I'm waxing Eels and cool coworkers, let me give some promotional consideration to Bryan McPherson and Lindsey Warren. (Guthrie, McPherson, Warren, and I attended an Eels show at the Somerville Theater in June, 2006.) 
  • Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, 26, is a terrific player – a top 10 point guard, with Mike Bibby and Gilbert Arenas on the shelf. But is Calderon worthy of a maximum contract? Worthy or not, he might get one. The 2008 free agent class is star-studded, yet Calderon is the prize among the point guards: Arenas, Beno Udrih, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Jason Williams, Juan Carlos Navarro, Sam Cassell, Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Allen Iverson, and Daniel Gibson. If you had to ink a five-year deal with any of these players, whom would you sign? Iverson, Davis and Arenas are better than Calderon – but they are not wiser long-term investments. Envision a Chicago Bulls squad with Calderon running the show; a Miami Heat resurgence with a Calderon-Wade backcourt; or a Cleveland Cavaliers lineup where LeBron James doesn't have to make every half-court decision. Put Calderon on the New York Knicks, and you'd have a playoff team. Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo has stated his intent to match anyone's contract offer. Still, one has to wonder – how much money can Toronto lavish on Calderon? Franchise cornerstone Chris Bosh already has a max contract, and future stars Andrea Bargnani and Jamario Moon seem destined for high-priced deals.
  • If you want to hear my NBA opinions on live radio, then check out Dave Shook's weekly program, 360 Hoops. Shook held my feet to the fire during my December 3 appearance, based on my prediction that the Indiana Pacers would be an Eastern Conference sleeper.

Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has been honored by Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari