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Episode 55: Un cocinero para la gente (A Cook for the People)

By Duolingo on Thu 30 April 2020

After an impressive career of cooking in some of the world's best restaurants, Marco Quelca decided to dedicate his life to bringing gourmet cooking to lower income communities in his native Bolivia, pioneering a new kind of performance art: high-end street cooking.

Click here for a live performance of Somos Calle.

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Transcript

Martina: Hey listeners, when this episode was made, we had to record at home to protect everyone's safety, so you might notice a slight difference in sound quality. Thanks and we hope you enjoy today's episode.

Martina: It's 2016 at the Mercado Villa Fátima, one of the biggest and most popular markets in La Paz, Bolivia. A group of people arrives, dressed in black, walking with purpose and carrying big boxes. Suddenly, they cover their faces with black ski masks, or gorros pasamontañas. Their leader is Marco Quelca.

Marco: Todos nos miran, curiosos, sin entender exactamente lo que está pasando. Todos los días, miles de personas pasan por ese mercado. La mayoría son personas con pocos recursos, descendientes de pueblos originarios, de piel morena y características indígenas. Esas personas son exactamente como yo.

Martina: These are the people Marco has come to see. There’s tension in the air as a crowd gathers to watch what these masked strangers will do. With swift movements, Marco and his team open the boxes, and they begin to take everything out…

Marco: Recipientes térmicos para conservar alimentos, que contienen diferentes ingredientes. Con mucho cuidado, nosotros empezamos a preparar un plato de comida muy elaborado.

Martina: On the plate is a nest of meat and crispy corn silk; Peruvian red peppers in beef stock; and a mixture of creamed corn, cheese, and spicy potatoes that's been molded to look like eggs.

Marco: Cuando terminamos de preparar los platos, se los damos de forma gratuita a las personas que pasan por el mercado.

Martina: The smell of the food and the presence of the masked cooks attract a crowd. When people taste the dish, they look suspicious at first, and then surprised: it's a delicacy they've never tasted before—one they could never afford to order at a fancy restaurant.

Marco: Al terminar de comer, las personas nos felicitan, nos dan las gracias y toman muchas fotos. Nosotros nos quitamos nuestros pasamontañas, pero esto es algo que muchos trabajadores no pueden hacer en Bolivia. Para nuestro proyecto culinario en las calles, los pasamontañas representan una declaración de principios.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: Marco Quelca is a descendant of the Aymara—an indigenous people from South America. They once lived between what today is western Bolivia, northern Argentina, southwestern Peru, and northern Chile.

Marco: Nosotros tenemos la piel morena y, en general, somos bajitos. Mis padres eran del campo y migraron a La Paz, a una zona que se llama Cotahuma.

Martina: Bolivia is a multiethnic state—60% of the population is made up of descendants from different indigenous groups. But the country has struggled to successfully integrate its many different ethnic minorities. A large portion of indigenous descendants in Bolivia are known as collas.

Marco: La palabra “colla” muchas veces es usada de forma peyorativa. Bolivia es una sociedad muy dividida racialmente. La segregación racial y la marginación social generadas por el colonialismo, continúan hasta hoy. Yo he vivido esto desde que era un niño.

Martina: To help his family survive, Marco had to start working—at four years old. He sold fruit.

Marco: Yo también vendía los huevos de las gallinas que teníamos en la casa. Yo tenía que trabajar, pero nunca dejé de ir a la escuela. Para mi padre, eso era muy importante porque él era profesor.

Martina: Marco's father was a teacher who lived in the countryside. His mother was a domestic worker for wealthy families. And his five brothers worked as well. So at nine years old, in addition to going to school and working different side jobs, Marco became the official cook for his family.

Marco: Yo era el más pequeño de la familia y sentía que si tenía que cocinar para mis hermanos, tenía que hacerlo muy bien. La primera vez que cociné, yo preparé un plato popular que se llama "ají de fideo". Es una especie de estofado con carne y pasta.

Martina: His mother had left him all the ingredientes for ají de fideo chopped and ready: potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, peas, turnips, parsley, and beef.

Marco: Estaba súper nervioso, así que trabajé mucho e hice lo mejor que pude. A mis hermanos les encantó el plato.

Martina: Bolivian food varies by region, but it has deep ethnic roots. The most typical ingredients are lamb, llama, corn, root vegetables, and a huge variety of grains, like quinoa.

Marco: La comida que hacíamos en mi casa dependía de lo que podíamos comprar. Nosotros comíamos muchos tubérculos: mucha papa y chuño, un derivado de la papa. También comíamos quinua y carne de llama porque era la más barata.

Martina: When he was 12, Marco started to work at a car wash. It was one of the many jobs he would have during his childhood. But it stood out from the others, because for the entirety of his 10-hour work day, he had to wear a black fleece ski mask.

Marco: En Bolivia, la discriminación es muy fuerte, principalmente la racial y después, la económica. La sociedad está muy dividida entre nosotros, los descendientes de indígenas de piel morena, y los de piel blanca.

Martina: In Bolivia, people who work certain working class jobs—like washing cars, collecting trash, or shining shoes—are expected to cover their faces. The practice stems from an old historical stigma against working people, when masks were used as a blatant form of discrimination. But over time, the custom became ingrained in everyday life.

Marco: Los bolivianos crecemos con esa cultura, ya eso es algo que no nos sorprende, es un código. Las personas que hacemos esos trabajos tenemos que cubrirnos la cara. Es muy normal para nosotros.

Martina: It wasn't easy for Marco to wear the ski mask during those long, hot days of work.

Marco: Era muy difícil porque trabajábamos bajo el sol y el calor era sofocante. Yo no entendía por qué tenía que esconder mi identidad para trabajar, y tampoco por qué no podía tener otro tipo de trabajo.

Martina: When Marco finished high school, his family pushed him to study Educational Sciences, but he didn't want to become a teacher like his father and brothers, so he dropped out. For the first time in his life, he was free to decide what he wanted to do for a living.

Marco: Quería probar cosas nuevas, quería escaparme de lo que estaba decidido para mí. Yo empecé a pensar: "¿Qué me gusta hacer?". La respuesta fue muy simple: cocinar. Con lo poco que teníamos en mi casa, yo podía combinar elementos y cocinar algo que toda mi familia disfrutaba.

Martina: Against his family's wishes, Marco decided to take a different path: he wanted to study gastronomy, so he enrolled in Bolivia's School of Hospitality and Tourism.

Marco: Mi papá no me habló por dos años porque quería que, al igual que él y mis hermanos, yo estudiara algo relacionado con la educación. Pero yo no quería, yo quería hacer algo diferente. Así que continué y me concentré completamente en la cocina.

Martina: But he also needed to work. At school, he heard that a very well-known restaurant was hiring: El Club Alemán. It was part of a private athletic club where the members were primarily of German origin—so was the food.

Marco: Yo decidí presentarme; fui muy sincero durante la entrevista. Dije que no tenía ninguna experiencia en gastronomía, pero que trabajaba desde los cuatro años y, sobre todo, que estaba listo y motivado para aprender. La jefa me dio una oportunidad y me empleó como lavaplatos.

Martina: It took Marco an hour and a half—each way—to get to Club Alemán from his house every day. He had to take three buses to get there.

Marco: En mi barrio, había calles de tierra y casitas pequeñas y simples. Cerca del restaurante, había mansiones y muchos árboles que decoraban las calles.

Martina: Marco's daily journey between home, school, and his job was exhausting. But his hard work paid off. In just a few months, Marco went from dishwasher to chef's assistant. Eventually, he became the restaurant's head cook.

Marco: Yo me transformé en un caballo de carreras: yo solo quería trabajar en la técnica para crear recetas y sorprender a las personas. Ese era mi único objetivo.

Martina: When Marco was twenty-four, his school put him in touch with the investors of a five-star hotel in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the wealthiest city in Bolivia. They were looking for someone to be in charge of the hotel kitchen. It was a big deal, a job with a lot of responsibility and creative control.

Marco: Yo me preguntaba si una persona como yo podía tener un lugar ahí. Pero, como a mí me gustaba ponerme a prueba, y como soy un hombre aventurero, decidí que era una oferta que no podía dejar pasar.

Martina: Wealthy Bolivians who live in Santa Cruz de la Sierra—where Marco went to work—are often called cambas. They are lighter-skinned than other Bolivians of mixed heritage, and they have a historical rivalry with collas like him.

Marco: Entre los collas y los cambas existe una diferencia de clase. Santa Cruz de la Sierra es una ciudad donde viven personas con mucho dinero. Es una sociedad muy consumista, donde la imagen es una de las cosas más importantes.

Martina: When Marco arrived in 2006, it was an intense political moment. Evo Morales had just become Bolivia's first indigenous President. While Morales's triumph was celebrated by Bolivians with indigenous roots, his success also sharpened long-standing social class differences and, above all, racial tension.

Marco: Al principio, no fue fácil para mí. Yo era el jefe de la cocina, pero era joven y colla. Mientras el país se dividía cada vez más, yo decidí que mis platos iban a tener como característica la unión de estilos de comida de los collas y los cambas. La diferencia principal son los ingredientes que usamos.

Martina: Marco was convinced that, despite these great social and cultural differences, there were gastronomic elements to be celebrated from each of these cultures—and brought together in the kitchen.

Marco: El plato más popular era "cola de lagarto con salsa de quirquiña". La cola de lagarto, que es carne, es algo típico de los cambas, mientras que la quirquiña es una hierba muy común entre los collas.

Martina: In Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Marco had become well-known and celebrated for his bold new cultural fusions—a cook who "did crazy things." But outside of work, his social life was difficult.

Marco: Mi novia era una chica de esa ciudad. La primera vez que fui a la casa de sus padres, su madre casi se muere cuando me vio porque su hija salía con un colla.

Martina: When the family sat down at the table together, the news was on TV.

Marco: En la tele estaban hablando del presidente Evo Morales y la madre de mi novia dijo: "¡Ay, este indio de porquería!". Yo la miré y le dije: "Señora, yo también soy indio. Por favor, respéteme".

Martina: Marco lived through these scenes of classism and racism in daily life, relationships, and at work. He grew tired of it. After two years of living in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, he decided to take the money he'd saved and leave Bolivia. He'd go study in Spain.

Marco: Ir a estudiar a España era un sueño para mí. Allí estaba el hombre que, en mi opinión, era el mejor chef del mundo: Ferran Adrià. Él revolucionó el mundo de la gastronomía.

Martina: Marco ended up living on the Canary Islands for two years, thanks to an agreement between his school in Bolivia and the islands' Center of Tourism Studies.

Marco: Yo terminé una maestría en cocina contemporánea.

Martina: After his time in the Canary Islands, Marco found work at Michelin-star restaurants in Spain, like Aponiente, in Cadiz, and Kabuki, in Madrid. Things were going very well for him professionally, but he didn't feel completely satisfied with his achievements.

Marco: Mi formación ya había llegado a un límite, había obtenido mucho más de lo que había imaginado. Yo empecé a cuestionar lo que realmente quería hacer con mi vida y con mi trabajo. Quería estar en mi casa, en mi tierra, en mi país y con mi gente.

Martina: So he decided to go back home—not only to Bolivia, but straight to his parents' house.

Marco: Mientras viví fuera, mi familia y yo nos distanciamos un poco, pero ellos estaban felices por mí y por mi carrera. Mi papá también estaba feliz, y finalmente entendió mis decisiones profesionales porque vio el resultado de todo mi trabajo.

Martina: Back home, Marco couldn't help but return to his roots. For example, he created a dish that he named "To my Pachamamita." Pachamama means "Mother Earth" in Aymara, the native language of Marco's ancestors. The dish “To my Pachamamita" is inspired by the Yatiris, which are the Andean traditional healers of Bolivia.

Marco: El yatiri le presenta ofrendas a la Pachamama con una hierba que se llama k'oa. Esas ofrendas son quemadas.

Martina: Quemadas means burned. In the dish, Marco uses llama meat and native ingredients. But the most attention-grabbing aspect is the use of an aromatic herb typical of the Yatiri's spiritual offerings. The plate is covered with a glass cloche—those fancy bell-shaped covers that are lifted to reveal the dish.

Marco: La hierba se quema y una nube de humo llena el interior de la campana, hasta que no se puede ver nada más. Cuando se sirve el plato, se abre la campana. Y cuando el humo sale, se siente el mismo aroma que caracteriza las ofrendas ancestrales de los yatiris.

Martina: Marco served these dishes to his friends, and they loved them. He was enjoying playing with new flavors and concepts, but he was still struggling to find even deeper meaning in his work. He started to wonder: what if he focused less on the food, and more on the people eating it?

Marco: ¿Cómo hacer para que todos puedan probar la alta cocina? ¿Por qué no podemos convertir esto en algo popular?

Martina: He decided that he didn't want to work at the best restaurants anymore. He wanted to find work that made him feel more connected to his own community. It was such a radical decision for him, that he even changed his name, calling himself Sabor Clandestino, or Clandestine Flavor.

Marco: Yo ya no quería ser Marco Quelca, el famoso cocinero. El aspecto clandestino tenía una relación con el tiempo que pasé limpiando autos, usando un pasamontañas. Yo quería ser un instrumento para transformar lo establecido por la sociedad.

Martina: After so many years and so much work, Marco had finally found the path that he thought would give meaning to his cooking. He started to develop a plan that would give him a chance to put his new vision into practice.

Marco: La idea era ofrecer platos elaborados gratuitamente, usando la esencia de la comida de calle boliviana. Yo hablé con un grupo de amigos y así nació el proyecto Somos Calle.

Martina: Of course, to really bring gourmet food to the people, Marco and his colleagues knew that Somos Calle needed funding. So they created a parallel project in which they charged customers money for the same dishes that they then would take to the streets, and offer for free.

Marco: La Paz tiene mucha energía. Es como una ciudad armada después de muchas luchas sociales y también es el epicentro de gente muy diversa. La calle es de todos y representa a nuestra gente y cultura.

Martina: Marco says La Paz has a culture of vivir la calle—or street life—that's unlike anywhere else in the world. Because of this, his culinary performances had an automatic audience.

Marco: En Europa, todo pasa en el interior de bares y de restaurantes. En La Paz, todo pasa en las calles y en los mercados. Yo tengo una conexión con la calle y eso es lo que me gusta de nuestro proyecto.

Martina: Since 2015, the project has been growing in popularity. Each time they stage a performance, they feed about 60 people.

Marco: Siempre que lo hacemos es tan emocionante como la primera vez. Cuando nosotros estamos ahí, escuchamos a la gente que pasa y dice en voz baja: "¿Quiénes son? ¿Qué están haciendo? ¿Están locos?".

Martina: The performances of Somos Calle have an extra element of adrenaline, because its members serve the dishes with their faces covered by black fleece ski masks. Just like the ones Marco had to wear back when he was a kid washing cars.

Marco: El pasamontañas es para rescatar el legado de aquellos que siguen haciendo ese tipo de trabajo y que son discriminados por nuestra sociedad. Yo también fui parte de ellos y sigo siéndolo. Nuestra clandestinidad es una forma de protestar, es parte de nuestra pequeña revolución.

Martina: Today, Sabor Clandestino has a shed where they offer gourmet food that finances the Somos Calle project. Marco Quelca continues going to Europe to perfect his skills, but he still lives in his childhood neighborhood in La Paz.

This story was produced by Tali Goldman, a journalist and writer from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Tali Goldman
Narrator & Protagonist: Marco Antonio Quelca Huayta
Script Editor: Catalina May
Mixed by: Jeanne Montalvo
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo