Editor’s Note: This interview is the final installment on our 4-part series with the Red Hook Food Vendors. Our previous interviews included talks with Red Hook Food Vendor founder Cesar Fuentes, Reina Soler of Solber Pupusas, and Fernando Martinez of Country Boys‘. You can check out those interviews here (or after the jump).
In our wrap up, we speak with Marcos Lainez of El Olomega, a truck well known for their long lines (and great pupusas) at the ballfields. As with all our pieces, we found that Marcos’ road to food truck stardom was long and bumpy.
“That was our way of having fun back then, you know, playing soccer in front of the lake and swimming and that was about it. We had no Nintendo, no PlayStation, nothing, we only had a soccer ball and the lake, and it was fun.” -Marcos Lainez
by Leanne Tory-Murphy
Marcos likes to keep his hands busy. By day, he works as a medical photographer and on the weekends he’s an all-around assistant to the pupusa-making ladies of the El Olomega food truck. But before he could hone his handiness, Marcos had to endure emigration from war-torn El Salvador, adolescent struggles, an unfamiliar sport at Lincoln High School, and an eventual epiphany that led to his passion for photography. I met up with Marcos at the Red Hook Ballfields to find out more about the man behind the pupusas that keep people clamoring for more.
What’s the story behind the name?
El Olomega, we named it El Olomega because the town that we come from is named Olomega — there’s a nice lake where we come from, it’s a small town where everybody knows everybody. Olomega didn’t sound right when we were playing with the name so we named it El Olomega, which sounds more like a male name but La Olomega didn’t work, so we went with El Olomega just to name our small town back in El Salvador.
And it’s near a lake?
Yes, if you Google it you will see Olomega lake and that’s the name of the town. It’s a very nice, well-known place now with the Internet, because everybody is posting pictures of my small little town, and we also are bringing out the name with the bloggers and everything. It’s a nice thing that you bring your own town back to life because nobody knew our town 20 years ago. It didn’t exist. With the Internet, everything is so instant, people can post a picture ‘Here I am at Olomega Lake swimming’ or ‘in front of Marcos’ house’ (laughs).
Do you think people from New York who have learned of Olomega from you guys have gone to visit the town?
No, probably not. Not from here. Because it’s expensive remember, and there’s always problems when you watch the news here, you don’t see good things about any place. You heard the bad part of the news, the gang members in whatever town, even though our town is a really nice place you know, we have no violence or anything, but if you watch the news from El Salvador then you’ll hear the gang members kill whatever and so on and people get scared. Like you wouldn’t go to Mexico right now because all you hear is the cartel killing people. It’s true but I’m sure there are also really nice places to go for vacation but people get scared. But besides the lake, you could spend a nice day at the lake and there’s not much else to do, it’s a small place.
Did you learn to swim at a young age?
Oh yeah, I learned how to swim at 7 or 6 years old. That was our way of having fun back then, you know, playing soccer in front of the lake and swimming and that was about it. We had no Nintendo, no PlayStation, nothing, we only had a soccer ball and the lake, and it was fun.
So when you moved here you wanted to live near the water, because your main way of having fun is by swimming?
It was sort of a coincidence, my parents were already here, and Brighton Beach is a nice place, Coney Island is 20 minutes from our house walking on the Boardwalk. It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s coming up now with new construction, so it’s just a coincidence, but it’s nice, I don’t regret it. It’s nice to be in front of the water. Of course I’d rather be in front of a lake because the salt water is kind of….
I prefer the salt water but I think it really just depends on what you grow up with!
I guess! Because we live over there but the kids don’t like to go to the beach, we come over here to Red Hook, to the pool. They love the pool, they don’t like the beach, so we bring them every Monday or Tuesday, I take half a day off and we bring them here. They don’t like the ocean – we live 3 blocks from the beach and I ask ‘Why don’t you go?’ and they say ‘No, no.’
What is the story of your parents coming here?
My father came, then my mother following, trying to escape from the war. Then they were here for a while and after they settled down, my mother came back to bring us over. During the war, I guess they didn’t want their kids being recruited for the army. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those movies where the army is just taking kids — that was true, it’s not fiction. They had to do it, either the army or the contras. It was one or the other. So that was the main reason they were trying to move here, and of course a better life, it’s like the American dream, people want the best for their kids, and that’s why we’re here.
How were your early school experiences?
Oh yes, coming from a small town to a big, big high school, I went to Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. It was a nightmare for me. I cried at the beginning, not knowing the language, not knowing anybody, coming from a school where maybe my junior high school had 700 kids total. Over there we have two shifts, morning and afternoon, it’s unlike here. Over there school starts at 7:30 in the morning and we get off at 12 o’clock, and the next shift starts 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock, there is no free lunch there. One, the government doesn’t have money to be giving out free food, well, now they do, it has changed.
To me, when I went to Lincoln High School, it looks like a university, bigger than a university in my country. It’s a huge school, a huge building — at least to me — and when you’re a kid everything looks humongous. So it was very difficult and adapting to different culture and not knowing the language, that was the hardest thing I think. And kids, they are cruel too, they make fun of you because you don’t speak their language, and I didn’t know how to play basketball, that was the only thing that they played here, they didn’t have soccer at Lincoln. So, what do you do with a ball in your hands? I had never played basketball. It’s hard, but after the first year it was totally different.
Do you play basketball now?
I had to play basketball in high school because there was no other sport and when you take gym it’s always basketball. After 2 years I joined the swimming team and that’s where I had fun. We did pretty good. Finally I tried out for the soccer team. It was the beginning of soccer, but it didn’t work out, they cancelled the class. I had a Puerto Rican teacher, it seems he didn’t know about soccer. Puerto Rico is not known for soccer. It’s baseball. So I was not happy there and I moved over to the swimming team and stayed there till I got out of school.
How is it to be part of a community of vendors?
There are like 4 vendors that visit each other, we have a closer relationship with that. Like the Columbian lady, who is closer to our house, a ten minute drive. There are other vendors, like Rafael, who lives out in Long Island, so it’s a long drive, you know? We’re not gonna go there. We enjoy the weekend when we’re not here, we do. I mean it’s 6 months without days off, I mean sometimes I do take days off during the week but I don’t have any weekends off. And everybody wants weekends to go out to events and all that stuff. We don’t, we are here. But we do enjoy the weekdays, especially with the kids, family. When you have kids, that’s your priority. Nothing else matters, at least that’s my point of view.
What kind of work do you do that you can take days off?
I am a photographer. I work for Downstate Medical Center, I work there Monday-Friday, it’s a 9-5 job, and sometimes we work nights, special events and weekends sometimes. So that’s my regular job.
What does it mean to be a photographer in a medical center?
I am a medical photographer, sometimes we go into surgeries and things. It’s a hospital/university, and we do a lot of medical documentary things for the university, for doctors. You know, for their speeches and classes, when they are doing a surgery on a tumor that is rare, they need a photographer to get those pictures, even though nowadays with the iPhone and things they are doing it themselves so we are kind of being pushed away. But we are keeping up with technology, with the Internet, with the websites, all that stuff.
What’s the most gruesome thing you’ve seen?
Well, you see, I don’t think like that. Because when you go into the operating room, you see a body, but you don’t actually see the face of that person. So I had to photograph an open heart surgery. I was there for almost 6 hours. I don’t know how to put it. But remember, I grew up during the war, so I kind of got used to see dead bodies on the street when you were going from one place to another. It was a cruel war, in the 80s, late 70s, so I guess, because I don’t see the persons face, I really don’t think that person is there, because it’s covered. When you are doing an open heart surgery, you see the chest, but that’s it. I don’t know if you dissected a frog in high school…
I couldn’t do it!
So that’s not for you then! (laughs)
You can actually see the heart beating?
Yes, yes, you do. I wish my daughter would go into the medical field, but she’s like you, she cannot see blood or anything. I always wanted to be a doctor but I thought I didn’t have the capacity, and my language, you know, here I was a foreigner, and I’m like, you know what, this is gonna be too much for me. When I was in high school I got into photography and I won a scholarship so that’s how I went to college. I went to Pratt Institute, I have a Baccalaureate in Fine Arts. So through high school, the scholarship, college…and here I am selling pupusas!
Quite the journey! Did you have any favorite subjects when you were starting out in photography?
When I took it in high school, photography, and seeing that image revealed in front of you. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a dark room…that’s what excited me. In college it was just a continuation from high school. I felt that I knew a lot when I went to college, and photography 101 was just like the basics, because I had already taken 3 years in high school and I had a great great teacher. He would stay after school with the kids and he just loved teaching photography and we loved photography too so we stayed there.
When I went to college I felt like I was in pretty good shape because I had learned so much in high school. And as you move on, of course classes get more difficult. And then I also got involved with Film and almost took it on as a second major, I did have fun shooting video. At work I still do film because we have a video department, we have a media department within the university where we do all the work for the hospital and university. And that’s how I keep up with all of this — film, photography and even web design, I have a little bit of everything because I like to learn. The more you know the better off you are.
What is your favorite film of all time?
Well, listen, I love this film “When Harry Met Sally.” (laughs)
You’re a romantic!
Yes, it’s a romantic comedy, I think it’s a great film, I loved it. It’s so funny, I keep watching it, I’ve watched it like 10 times already.
So after all this technical training, who taught you how to make pupusas?
I do not make pupusas. You know, for some reason we come from a culture which is very machista, that’s why you see only women here. I don’t want to fall into that because when you come to different country you change and adapt. If you go to a Salvadoran restaurant — and I’m talking about my people — if you see a man making pupusas, they would probably not buy it. This is sort of the women’s thing, the kitchen and especially the pupusa. And to make it is very difficult — you can’t learn it in a week or two. Maybe they can learn how to do it, but to get up to speed that would take months of practice, years.
I think I can make pupusas, I’ve tried it at home, but they don’t look as good as theirs! So I will never stand in front of people making pupusas — I don’t want to scare our customers! Americans wouldn’t mind, because you see chefs here are mostly men, but this is something that comes from the Mayan tradition, where women are mostly in the kitchen. If you see people eating with their fingers, that’s how we eat it, there were no forks maybe! If you go to a restaurant they’ll give you a fork, but the tradition is you grab the pupusa and eat it with your fingers. So going back, my sister is the main pupusa maker…
So you are the horchata maker?
I’m like everything, except making pupusas…I can do anything from mechanic to PR to website to posters, I do all that stuff. Like I said I can do everything except making pupusas, I can prepare the stuff, I can grind it, cook the pernil, the pork, but even at that stage it’s more female, more for women. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with men doing it, but if a man, a man from Central America or El Salvador sees a guy making it he will probably stay away. Back in our country those roles are still evolving.