News & Updates

Cooking for community: Gabriela Melara’s contributions to Canada

Oct 4, 2021 | News & Updates

This article is part of Empowerment Squared’s Community Voices series, which highlights the stories, aspirations, and accomplishments of members of the Empowerment Squared community – in their own words – through interviews.

Gabriela Melara is convinced that life is beautiful. Empowerment Squared volunteer Amy Schaefer sat down with this sunny optimist to talk about winning the Empowerment Squared 2021 Emerging Needs Award, her life in Canada, and using her cooking skills to make the world a better place.

Amy: Hi, Gabriela. Thank you for sharing your story with us today. Tell us about yourself.

Gabriela: My name is Gabriela Melara, and I’m from El Salvador. I’m married and have two children, a son and a daughter. We came to Canada because our country wasn’t safe for us. We fled El Salvador between one day and the next. When I came to Canada, my level of English was zero – speaking, hearing, reading and writing. We hadn’t prepared another language because we didn’t know we would leave. 

We needed to come. We didn’t have another choice. I am so happy Canada accepted our refugee claim. I love Canada – the winter, spring, summer, autumn. It’s good for me because my country is tropical all the time.

What was life like growing up in El Salvador?

When I was growing up, El Salvador was in a civil war. But my family… even in wartime, they made my life happy. I have three older brothers and two sisters, and I grew up with a lot of love from them. 

I love El Salvador, but Canada is a safe country. I can go outside with my children without being afraid. When my children want to go to the park or even to Jackson Square we don’t take a bus – we walk. So relaxing! We are so happy.

What are your strongest memories of your first days here?

When I came, I didn’t know what to do. But many people in the community centres helped me. I am learning English because I need to take care of my children – my first focus is my children. It’s love.

You won the Empowerment Squared 2021 Emerging Needs Award. What are your plans now?

I have finished my Introduction to Culinary Arts, and in September I will start the full Culinary Arts program at St. Charles (Adult and Continuing Education – Hamilton). It is a very good place, with an amazing level of tools and machines. I love my class. 

To my donors, I really appreciate the help. If they didn’t help me with the money, I couldn’t pay my tuition. My whole family appreciates the opportunity.

This system in Canada that helps immigrants – food banks, lunch, clothes, – this system grew my passion to help other people, too. My passion is cooking, and putting cooking and helping together is very good.

What have your children participated in at Empowerment Squared?

My children have done several programs at Empowerment Squared like soccer and art. During the pandemic both children did Homework Circle. We have a lot of benefit from these programs because they learn and enjoy at the same time. The programs were truly helpful, especially those days that my children were isolated because of the pandemic. It was supportive not only for them, but also for me and my husband. In my opinion, these types of programs encourage my children to continue to put their best effort in education to improve their life.

When we first came to Hamilton, my daughter did reading. This was helpful to her and to me, too! We learned together. Empowerment Squared helped me with English by doing reading with her. 

How are your children doing now with school?

They learn English so fast! They are so happy. My son just graduated middle school. He won an award for good academics and another for history. He is very good – I am so proud. And my daughter had an excellent report card.

Who has inspired you along your journey?

My parents were a big inspiration. My father taught me: with education, people can be anything they want. I tell this to my children all the time. You must have an education, or you don’t have opportunities. 

My father always used to call me “My dear Watson.” He said that to me whenever I gave him an idea, because Thomas Watson helped Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone, and my father was a telegraphist. For example, once I said: “Papa, let’s go eat an ice cream.” He said to me: “Of course, my dear Watson.” Just to make me happy and at the same time teach the story about his passion and work. I will always remember that Watson helped Bell to invent the phone.

You’ve volunteered in food banks and preparing meals at church. Why did you choose to help others through food?

I used to work in administration. I wasn’t interested in cooking because I was so busy. But when I was a child, my mom’s cooking was delicious. She would say to me: “Gabriela, give me this spice, give me another spice.” When we came to Canada, I needed to learn because my children said: “Mama, I want pupusas, Mama, I want tamales.” I need to make that and to learn. And when I’m cooking, I remember everything about my mom.

When we came to Hamilton, we didn’t know anything. My husband told me: “Okay, we will live here; we need to know the city.” And we walked, walked, walked and this way we found the school for my children and my school, too.

We went to register my children in St Patrick’s school. They have mass in there. We went with my children and saw many people in a line. My husband asked: “How much for the coffee?” The people explained that the breakfast is free every day. I learned that the people were volunteers. That was good news for me. I learned about many community centres and I love them. I like to help people just like other people helped me, a person in need.

When I was studying at the Immigrants Working Centre at Mohawk College or when they have events in my church they say: “Could you bring something from your country for us?” and I say: “Yes, of course!” I bring many things. Many people like my cooking and I think: maybe! I learn English in my school, but I also learn my passion is cooking. I love to cook, and when I cook, I do it with love and I am thinking that people are going to enjoy it.

Long term, it is my dream to open a restaurant. But for now I want to help people in community centres. With this Culinary Arts certificate, I can work in community centres and shelters. It’s a very good place for me because I like to interact with others. My husband says: “Gabriela, how do you have so many friends? You have a lot of friends from a lot of countries.” I like to interact with others and I like to help. When I was growing up, my father and my mother would say to me all the time that I’m like that.

Do you have a favourite dish you make? What do your kids like?

It’s pupusas! I make them in the morning for breakfast. *shows plate* This one is pork, this is cheese. My children want pupusas every day. And also I did these tamales. Sometimes chicken. These are our favourite dishes.

It’s a crazy thing. When I am cooking, I am all the time remembering: “My mother put this, my mother put this.” And I tell my husband: “I remember my mother put a pinch of spice in this, but I don’t know what it is.” And I went shopping and I saw it. “Oh, this is the spice!” I love cooking in this way and seeing my mother. And now, I cook with my children.

If you could give one message to the world, what would it be?

I would say to people in the world: never give up. In life, bad things can happen, we are not perfect, but we need to see that life continues and life is beautiful. Life is Beautiful is my favourite movie. I love this movie because even though they are in the war, the father all the time says: life is beautiful, look at that! And they grow up in a camp. Life is beautiful even when we have a lot of bad things, like me in my country, we are so happy in this country. We can be free in the community and the Canadian people are so nice and polite. It is a very good culture. We are so happy here.

Amy Schaefer is a Hamilton writer and Empowerment Squared volunteer. When she isn’t teaching math and reading, you’ll find her curled up on the couch with her pet hedgehog and a good book.