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ATC system operator shares salsa, kindness as Salsa Claus

Each jar of Cardoso’s salsa has the above photo on the label. Cardoso’s colleague Steve Van Boxtel, consultant system control operator, created the image by superimposing Cardoso’s image with the beard of retired ATC System Control Operator Chris Collins.

It’s rare to find Senior System Control Operator Victor Cardoso without a glass jar full of homemade salsa. He makes batches in bulk at his home in Illinois. Then, he brings the jars with him wherever he goes – to American Transmission Co. in Pewaukee, Wis., where he helps maintain and operate the electric transmission grid; to his favorite Cheers-style restaurant and bar near his home; to visit his children and grandchildren.

He calls himself Salsa Claus. The labels glued to the lids of his glass jars feature the moniker, along with a photo of Cardoso with a large sombrero and a superimposed white beard. Instead of garland on his Santa Claus t-shirt, it’s a jalapeño. The text on the bottom of the label reads, “Good or Bad even the naughty deserve to celebrate!”

His salsa, though, isn’t for sale. That’s because for Cardoso, it’s not just about the salsa. It’s about the conversation and spreading kindness.

“I give it away, and I just say, ‘Do something nice for somebody. I don’t care what you do, just do it.’”

Cardoso’s outlook is rooted in his past. His parents and four brothers and sisters emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1959 when Cardoso was 11 years old. They had no money, and didn’t speak English. They made their home in East Moline, Ill., where Cardoso went to high school and excelled in math.

“I came to this country, and this country was really good to us. So this is my way of sharing.”

Years later, Cardoso found the utility industry a good fit for his personality and proclivity for numbers. He worked as a substation electrician for 20 years before becoming a system operator. He started with American Transmission Co. in 2001 when the company formed. As a system control operator, he works 12-hour shifts on a rotating schedule, splitting his time between work in Pewaukee, Wis., and his home in Illinois. He says it’s a schedule that works for him and allows him the flexibility to spend hours in the kitchen.

“I don’t like routines. Being a system operator allows me to not have a routine. Making my salsa is not a routine; I do it when I feel like it or when somebody wants it,” he said.

Cardoso’s salsa recipe has evolved over the past 40 years when a friend first gave him a recipe for fresh salsa. Today, he draws inspiration from friends and family, customizing the ingredients and heat level to whoever he’s making it for. There are three spice levels – “Naughty Hot,” “Original” and “Nice Mild” – but he says he will make the salsa any way upon request. He once stayed up all night to create a new salsa verde with green tomatoes for a friend who is allergic to red tomatoes. He doesn’t look up recipes, instead opting to try new flavor combinations on his own.

“It’s a hobby. It’s a way of meditating. So when I start experimenting with flavors, I’m in my kitchen for hours; I just get wrapped up in my own world, and I just start making it. It’s a form of relaxation for me. I’ve had people tell me it’s the best salsa they’ve ever had. What a compliment.”

Over the years, he has served on the boards of a number of charitable organizations, and his family was a foster family. He has donated his salsa to help with fundraisers, like one for the Youth Service Bureau of Rock Island County. He says his salsa is for everyone.

“I don’t care who they are. I’ve given my salsa to multimillionaires. I’ve given my salsa to people who don’t have a whole lot. If you like it, I’ll give it to you.”

Today, Cardoso uses his salsa as a way to start conversations. He says he just wants people to talk to each other and learn about each other. He says salsa is one way to make that happen.

“There’s a lot of ugly things going on in this world. There are issues that people are upset about. People are antagonizing each other. There’s bad feelings. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I just want to do something that’s fun that’s not harmful, and it turned into this.”