The American Dream, One Arepa at a Time

Apr 20, 2017

Two brothers from Venezuela bring a staple food item from their native country, arepas, to rural Virginians from the window of their beat-up food truck. WMRA’s Jessie Knadler caught up with the brothers to find out what it’s like being immigrants hustling for the American dream in the age of Trump.

Food trucks are all over the place but in rural Rockbridge County? They’re still pretty rare. So you take notice when one is parked outside the Devils Backbone Brewery in Rockbridge one evening.  A small crowd of customers gathers round the order window.  

FADE UP CUSTOMER 1:      ….and a carne con papas bowl…

JONATHAN TARIFA:   And a carne con papas bowl?

CUSTOMER 2:    The carne con papas comes with plantains…

JONATHAN:    It comes with fried egg, plantains, black beans and cheese and arepa. You try the sweet corn arepas? Bro, it’s really good.

That’s Jonathan Tarifa. El Budare Grill is his restaurant on wheels. He operates it with his brother Pablo. They’re both big guys, both from Venezuela who now reside in Roanoke. They’re both married to American women, have kids, and are on track to earn their citizenship this year. They’re on a mission to bring Venezuelan cuisine to rural Virginians.

JONATHAN:  Some people come to us, Oh, this is a taco truck. No, this is not a taco truck. Latin American culture has more than just tacos.

They’re all about arepas, a staple of Venezuelan cuisine. An arepa is like pita only thicker, almost fluffy. It’s made of ground corn maize, and typically grilled on a skillet.  Anything and everything is piled on top, or sandwiched between. Growing up in Venezuela, what was inside your arepa signaled your social status.

JONATHAN:  Taking an arepa to school, you feel kind of shy. If you bring something like black beans, it was like, bro, you’re not cool, don’t bring black beans in your arepa. You have to have like ham and cheese so you’re fancy, you know what I’m saying? Like, you’re cool enough to hang out with the people with money.

Arepas, he says, are in every home in Venezuela. They’re eaten with breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’re poor, you eat arepas. If you’re rich, you eat arepas. The brothers learned to cook theirs at home. Here’s Pablo.

PABLO:  I cook basically, like, how I want to eat that food. I like to cook clean, fresh and do my best every single day.

El Budare Grill has garnered nothing but five-star reviews on Facebook. The brothers pull their beat up truck around the Valley, mostly in and around Roanoke, but occasionally to Rockbridge. Fans drive to where they know El Budare Grill will be parked. The brothers need a new truck, but money is tight.

JONATHAN:  This one right here is crying for oil, for spark plugs. Like, this thing is done.

Given that food trucks have blossomed in Harrisonburg and elsewhere, you might be surprised to learn that operating one isn’t as lucrative as it may seem. Like any ambitious Americans, the brothers took out a loan to finance a new truck—budding capitalists.

Despite the struggle, they’re convinced that they’re better off in the States than back home.  Jonathan said when he traveled to Venezuela two years ago, he barely recognized his home country.

JONATHAN:  Like, I felt like I was somewhere else, like another planet.   I wanted to come back so bad.

Venezuela has been rocked by violent protests over food and fuel shortages. Its leader Nicolas Maduro has been called a dictator.

JONATHAN: I feel secure. I feel good here. I feel like what I work for will be there for me when I come back home, my cars, my belongings, like, nobody is going to take nothing from me. 

Two immigrants from Venezuela in a food truck hustling for the American dream—this is the part where assumptions about their politics may kick in.  Here’s Pablo.

PABLO:  Dude, I support Donald Trump. To be honest, I do. I love him.

JONATHAN:  I love Donald Trump’s system. We came here with visa. We came here legally. We stay here because we saw a better future. We saw that it was an open door for us. But everything has a consequence. Like, if you come here illegally, you’re going to have consequences because there are laws. So what Trump’s doing, I think he’s doing the right thing.

Although they couldn’t vote in the election, the Tarifa brothers line up with the 29 percent of Latinos who did vote for Trump, sensing that maybe his anti-immigrant rhetoric wasn’t aimed at all Latinos, just the law breakers. Like any other demographic, Latinos aren’t single-issue voters. They chose Trump for all kinds of reasons: his promise of change, his populist conservative rhetoric, his talk about blowing up big government. It all hit a nerve.

Jonathan and Pablo say they want to be a part of that American Dream.