Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers immigrated with her family to the United States from her native El Salvidor when she was nine years old. She lived in Oregon growing up but spent summers with her aunt Pilar Celaya in Ann Arbor, and moved here as an adult. Nolasco-Rivers opened her restaurant and catering business Pilar’s Tamales on 2261 W. Liberty St. in 2001, named for her beloved aunt who was also in the catering business. Her experience as an immigrant fleeing war and persecution inspired her to create Pilar’s Foundation in 2018 as a means of helping immigrants through community-based fundraising events centered on food and music. Her colorful storefront, which includes a few tables and a world craft boutique, is a destination west-side lunch spot where diners linger over pupusas to talk and greet friends who file in and out. Since the pandemic, the boutique has been closed and apart from a couple of tables outside, food is limited to curbside pickup.

“It’s not what any of us are used to but we’re hanging on through the wind and the storm,” Nolasco-Rivers says. “My family is healthy, we are here, present, and I feel comfortable that we are going to make it through these tough times.” Pilar’s Tamales is indeed a family affair. Her three children, mother, and husband are all “huge supporters” and help with the business when they can.

A large part of Pilar’s Tamales model was centered on events catering, all of which has been cancelled, as well as the fairs and festivals where her stand was a regular feature. The ban on gatherings also prevented her from holding fundraising events. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and Nolasco-Rivers’ commitment to helping communities in need is unflagging. She recently used her restaurant to raise funds for Wicker, a nonprofit that supports the immigrant community. She created three special meals and added an upcharge which she donated to the organization, along with a per-plate matching grant from the restaurant. “We had an incredible response from the community,” she says. She will have another fundraiser through the restaurant in May, called “Spring into Action- Honduras.” “Many Honduran people have been needing to migrate from their homeland. Life isn’t doable when you can’t feed your family,” she explains. The fundraiser will buy seeds and other equipment to help Honduran farmers grow kitchen gardens this season.

When asked what words of advice she might offer a young person who is looking towards an uncertain future, Nolasco-Rivers acknowledges that times are hard. But she is a firm believer in the power of small connections and acts of love to fundamentally change the way we see the world. “There are a lot of hard situations, but young people need to know that they are supported; that they are loved. When they feel scared or insecure—all of these things that are happening in our world that start to go deeper inside of them—they feel paralysed. You help them by nurturing them. You make time. You make time and you listen.”

Reflecting on her childhood in El Salvador, she recalls the importance of storytelling in shaping her growing sense of self. “Some of my best friends growing up in El Salvador were older people. They would tell me their stories, their hardships. I got a lot of insights into our humanity here on Earth from listening. The whole reason we are here is to be loved and be of service to others that need us. I always say to people ‘Find within yourself what it is that you can offer someone else.’ If it’s a smile and a wave, that’s good enough. It’s about taking the time to acknowledge one another even through our masks.”