Bringing the flavors of Salvadoran cooking, executive chef Ben Velasquez is on a mission in Washington D.C., combining his love of his mother country with his gifts as a teacher to help young Latino immigrants at the Carlos Rosario Center.
The school was named for a Puerto Rican educator who in 1970 thought the city did little for its underserved immigrant population. Chef Velasquez teaches at the brand new Sonia Gutierrez campus, taking his students on a culinary journey of Salvadoran food and beyond.
Gutierrez, an educator for whom the new building is named, was the driving force for getting a special building dedicated to hands-on vocational training in a range of subjects including culinary arts, nursing skills, and computer literacy. The Center also offers GED programs in both the afternoon and evenings.
Velasquez did not start out thinking he was going to be a chef. In El Salvador he was at the university, a law student, thinking of a career at the bar: As the war grew more intense, and death squads targeted university students, it was clear that I would not be able to continue my studies.
He would have been drafted in the army.
Being in El Salvador during that time was like being a war criminal. All of us were suspect, Velasquez told VOXXI, when we visited him at the Sonia Gutierrez campus.
A natural teacher and leader, Velasquez brings the lessons of someone who left El Salvador in the midst of a bloody civil war to make a new life for himself in Washington, D.C. That was thirty years ago. He has never looked back, but history is a lesson to all who come in contact with him.
Teaching immigrants with a purpose
For Velasquez, teaching immigrants is about helping those who come to the United States, often with few or no friends, or extended families. Students who attend the school speak different languages. They share very different cultural attributes from the new ones they find in their adopted home.
More than 50,000 immigrants, not only from Central America but from all over the globe, have been trained in this award-winning program.
At a school such as this one, those who attend find an instant community. The students and instructors understand how hard it is to adjust to a new environment. So schoolmates become more like a family, as teachers work to manage not only the educational needs of immigrants, but also their social and psychological needs too.
The new facilities, which were built by the government of the District of Columbia in 2013, also represent the commitment that this city has to its immigrant population. Today the campus where Chef Velasquez teaches is a state of the art building (LEED Platinum) that is not only high tech, but architecturally unique. Its cafeteria windows overlook the symbol of United States democracy, the U.S. Capitol.
On any given day, Velasquez and his team of instructors teach young men and women seeking a vocational high school degree the fine points of teamwork, while honing their skills as cooks in the modern kitchens of this training facility.
Students not only learn the basics about cooking and nutrition, but they as also given instruction in basic computer skills, thus preparing them for this wired society, and providing them with a marketable skill for employment.