Salvadoran History Through Poetry

Middle School and High School

By Justin Sybenga

Food often serves as an entry-point into a culture.  Sitting down and eating together can transform strangers into friends.  We are reminded of the realities that we all share as human beings—we have bodies that need physical nourishment and spirits that need human connection.

But often in our heritage month celebrations and in ethnic restaurants, we learn very little of substance about the history and culture of the people connected to the food we’re eating. Our relationship with the culture and the people remain at the superficial level of chit chat.  

In this two-part lesson, students learn about the history and culture of El Salvador through Claribel Alegria’s poem “Tamales from Cambray” and also write their own recipe poems.

Part One: Finding History in a Recipe Poem

Essential Question

How can food connect us to who we are and where we’re from?


  • Students will be able to understand how elements of the history of El Salvador are reflected in the poem “Tamales from Cambray”
  • Students will be able to  use imagery to explore aspects of their own identity

Time and Materials

  • One class period plus time for student writing and revision
  • Computers with internet access
  • Copies of poem and student handouts
  • Tamales (if you’re feeling generous or a student is willing to bring some in)

Lesson Activities

  1. Students journal about a family recipe or family food tradition that is meaningful to them.  Where did the recipe or tradition come from?  What are the family rituals that are followed in preparing the food or in sharing it together?  How does it reflect your identity as a family?  
  2. Review the essential question and objectives with the students. Ask them what they know about tamales. If students don’t know much about what they are or where they’re from, share pictures and/or background information.
  3. Now that students are sufficiently hungry to learn,  introduce the poet Claribel Alegria with the biography provided. Read the poem aloud. Have students record their initial thoughts about what the poet is trying to convey through the poem using the reading guide in the handouts.
  4. Students will need computers for this next activity. Share a text of the poem with hyperlinks to historical background information related to each of the ingredients. Teachers can decide on groupings based on class size and preference:
    • Option #1:  Assign each student one of the ingredients to research. There are twelve ingredients, so more than one student may be assigned to an ingredient. Give students a few minutes to read the linked article for their ingredient and to take notes on the ingredient list note-catcher. When students are done researching, read the poem aloud again as a class, stopping after each ingredient for students to share background information they’ve learned.
    • Option #2:  Assign students to groups of four. Students should divide the list of twelve ingredients on the note-catcher evenly, and student should research three of the topics and record what they’ve learned on the note-catcher. Students should read the poem again aloud, stopping for students to share what they’ve learned after each ingredient.
  5. For a second time, students write what they think the poet was trying to convey about her country on the reading guide. Then students discuss as a class how their understanding of the poem changed as a result of the added background knowledge. Possible discussion questions include:
    • What did you learn about the history, geography, and culture of El Salvador?
    • How do you think the country’s history has impacted the identity of its people?
    • How does the poet feel about her country’s history?  
    • How does knowledge of a country’s history affect your appreciation for its food, music and art, and people?
    • What countries would you like to learn more about and why?
  6. Students write a poem about a recipe that explores important aspects of their family, their ethnic or racial identity, their religion, their native country, or another group they belong to. Distribute the assignment sheet and review the purpose, requirements, and writer’s process. Teachers may want to model the mind map activity and the brainstorming ingredients activity for students on the board. Possible assessment criteria have been provided, and we encourage teachers to adapt for their student population and purposes. Teachers may choose to “publish” student work by posting poems on a bulletin board, compiling them in a class book, or sharing them in a public reading. We encourage teachers to submit exceptional student work on this assignment via email to Teaching for Change for publication on its website.

Part Two: Writing a Recipe Poem


  • To use imagery to evoke important aspects of your identity
  • To share recipe poems so that classmates have a better understanding of each other

Assignment Summary

  • Write a poem following the example of “Tamales from Cambray” that describes  important aspects of your family,  ethnic or racial identity, religion, native country, or another group to whom you belong.
  • Your poem should be 10 or more lines and include at least five food ingredients and at least five things related to the history, geography, culture, beliefs, etc. of the group you are writing about.
  • Use the poetic details to express important aspects of this part of your identity

Writing Process

  1. Brainstorming possible topics: Make a mind map of possible topics by writing your name in the middle of a clean sheet of paper (landscape orientation). Draw lines extending from your name and draw circles to write different aspects of your identity (family, religion, cultural or racial group, native country, other groups to whom you belong). For each aspect of your identity, brainstorm several foods that are important to that group.
  2. Listing possible ingredients: Notice how Alegria’s poem included both food ingredients for Tamales and important people, places, and events from El Salvador. Use a T-chart to brainstorm the both the ingredients of food and ingredients from history/culture that you could incorporate in your poem.  Use the internet to look up recipe ingredients or to refresh your memory about important historical/cultural events.
  3. First draft: When writing the first draft, strive to provide plenty of sensory details that allow reader to taste, smell, see, hear, and touch the experience of preparing or eating the food. Match the food ingredients to the historical/geographical/cultural details that seem to fit best (Examples: pepper = volcanoes or flour = constitution that binds people together). Use stanzas and line breaks purposefully.
  4. Peer review and feedback: Students will provide feedback to each other using the following criteria:
    • Clear purpose (writer’s identity communicated powerfully)
    • Descriptive detail (sensory details of food and history)
    • Concise writing (vivid word choice and no extra words or phrases)
  5. Final draft: Students will revise poem based on feedback and share final poems with broader audience.