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LOCATION: El Salvador; United States
POPULATION: 7,006,403 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism


El Salvador is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America. When the Spanish arrived in 1524, the Pilpil, who spoke a language similar to that of the Aztecs, resided there. Atlactal, their leader, initially defeated the forces led by Pedro de Alvarado, and Atonatl, an archer, wounded Alvarado. Both are remembered as heroes, but the whole area fell under Spanish control by 1540. The Indians were put to work on plantations that produced tropical products like cacao and indigo.

El Salvador declared its independence from Spain in 1821 and belonged to a Central American Federation from 1823 to 1841. For the next century, the government was dominated by the coffee-growing industry. When, during the Depression, coffee prices dropped and wages were cut, peasants rose in revolt in 1932. The military crushed the revolt and then massacred about 15,000 to 30,000 people, mainly Amerindians. Military rulers governed the country until 1980.

During the 1980s, armed left- and right-wing groups fought for power. About 70,000 people were killed in the struggle. Many were victims of right-wing death squads, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, the country's highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate, who was killed while saying Mass. About one-fourth of the 5 million or so people in El Salvador became refugees or displaced persons during the war, and more than 500,000 left the country. A peace agreement was reached in 1992 and, two years later, the conservative Armando CalderÓn was elected president. CalderÓn, a lawyer and businessman, restored the rule of law after the civil war and promoted the privatization of state-owned companies and pension funds to stimulate the economy. His major achievement was the peaceful incorporation of former guerrilla groups back into civilian life.

In 1999 Francisco Flores, representing the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), was elected president of El Salvador. During his tenure, Flores followed a close alignment with U.S. policies, authorizing the deployment of Salvadoran troops to Iraq and signing a free-trade agreement with the United States. In 2004, ElÍas Antonio Saca succeeded Flores as president. Saca embraced the free-market and offered a pro-U.S. standpoint.

El Salvador's economy is predominantly dependent on its agricultural sector, with sugar, cotton, corn, and coffee exports as its main cash crops. Cattle have also become a promising source of income. Other important commodities for the Salvadoran economy are shrimp, textiles, chemicals, and electricity. The principal buyers of Salvadoran goods are the United States, Germany, and Japan. Even though Salvadorians have focused on developing their agriculture sector, the country has had severe problems feeding its population, mainly because there is an unequal distribution of land in favor of commercial corps. Many of the landless peasants, unable to sustain themselves and their families, have migrated to more developed countries, especially the United States and Mexico. Consequently, as of 2007 El Salvador leads the region in remittances per capita with inflows equivalent to nearly all export income.

Since the middle of the 20th century, El Salvador heavily increased its investment in industry, which boosted the banking system. As a consequence, manufactures of beverages, canned foods, organic fertilizers, cement, plastics, cigarettes, shoes, cotton textiles, leather goods, petroleum products, and machinery have also thrived.


El Salvador is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts. It is bounded on the north and east by Honduras, on the north and west by Guatemala, and on the south by the Pacific Ocean. The Gulf of Fonseca to the east separates it from Nicaragua. Two east–west mountains ranges cross El Salvador: the Sierra Madre along the border with Honduras, and a southern range that includes more than 20 volcanoes. The country also lies on an earthquake zone.

The climate is tropical, with the rainy season extending from May to October. Most of the people live in the fertile central zone or in the metropolitan area of San Salvador, the capital. About 90% of the people are Mestizo, of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry. Whites account for about 9% of the population and the remainder, almost all are Amerindians. Of the more than 1 million people displaced by the civil war, about 500,000 settled in other parts of El Salvador, 250,000 migrated to Mexico, and 150,000 moved to the United States. By 1990 there were believed to be 1 million Salvadorans in the United States.


Spanish is the official and universally spoken language. Very few people still speak an Amerindian language, mostly Nahua.


According to the Pilpil creation myth, Teotl rubbed two branches together to produce the sparks that became the stars. TeopantlÍ, the reformer who rules the universe, then appeared in the heavens. A handful of fire that condensed down below into a ball of light became TÓnal, the sun, and a tear from TeopantlÍ created Metzti, the moon. Metzti projected her light onto the earth, creating mountains, canyons, and wild beasts.

Ten-year-old CipitÍn, a kind of Cupid, is the god of young love in national folklore. Always elusive, he hides behind the foliage. From high in the treetops he shakes flowers off the branches so they will fall on girls passing below. He has a sweetheart, TenÍncin, who lives with him in a cavern inside a volcano.

Folk medicine is not as prominent in El Salvador as it is in Mexico and Guatemala, where Indian heritage remains stronger. Witchcraft is sometimes blamed for illnesses and love problems. Ojo (eye) is the name given to infant illnesses attributed to the infant being seen by a strong person, who does not necessarily intend any ill will.


More than 80% of all Salvadorans are Roman Catholic. In the late 1960s, activist clergy began condemning the army's violence and human-rights abuses. Priests went into the countryside to educate peasants and organize them into cooperatives and unions. Right-wing groups killed dozens, and others joined the guerrillas. The Church continued to operate social programs in the 1990s, but most were less political than before.

About 10% of the population is Protestant. A number of groups, including the Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh-Day Adventists, have been active in missionary work developed and financed in the United States. Evangelists preach a message of personal salvation through belief in Jesus rather than through social action.


Many Salvadorans journey over the border to Esquipulas, Guatemala, each January to honor the "Black Christ," a mahogany image of Jesus placed in a basilica built to house it in 1758. San Vincente also holds elaborate festivities for this occasion, with processions on January 14 and 30. Indian men perform a dance in the local church to an accompaniment of fife and drums.

On January 20, Villa Delgado holds a fiesta for St. Sebastian, including a bullfight farce set to fife and drums. The Day of the Cross is held on May 3 nationwide. Homeowners set up a cross in the patio or garden, decorated with fruits and flowers. A folk belief is that if no cross is erected, the devil will come and dance until midnight. Between 1 and 6 August, San Salvador holds a fiesta commemorating the Transfiguration of Christ with sports events, games, and parties. A float stops across from the cathedral, and from there a figure representing Jesus makes his way underground into the church, where he reappears in white robes. Pilgrims flock to San Antonio del Monte for a fiesta held between August 22 and 26; an image of the saint in the local church is credited with miraculous powers. Christmas is celebrated with nightly posada processions from December 16 to Christmas Eve (December 24). In Izalco, the period between Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) is celebrated with nightly processions and Jeu Jeu, an Indian rain dance. Izalco and Texistepeque have notable Holy Week (late March or early April) celebrations.

Among secular (nonreligious) holidays, November 5 commemorates the day in 1811 on which Father José MatÍas Delgado gave the first call for independence in all of Central America. Independence Day is September 15.


Baptism of infants and confirmation of children in church are common. Perhaps half of all couples, however, live together without formalizing their unions with a license or a church ceremony. A birthday may not necessarily be celebrated; the person's namesake saint's day is likely to be observed instead. A novena for the dead is usually held in the home of the deceased, with friends invited on the final night. Often a second novena is held later.


El Salvador shares the customs of other Latin American countries. A greater degree of formality is expected in relations with strangers than in the United States, but punctuality is rarely esteemed. People generally stand closer to one another and gesture more than in the United States when conversing. Unconventional behavior, including inappropriate dress, is frowned upon in this tradition-conscious society.


A sharp contrast between great wealth and extreme poverty has characterized Salvadoran society since colonial times. About 2% of the people own 60% of the nation's productive land and account for about 33% of the national income. In 2006, more than 30% of El Salvador's population lived under the poverty level.

The elite generally live in San Salvador, in houses typically surrounded by walls many meters high and topped with barbed wire. They travel periodically to their country estates and send their children to private schools. The middle class, about 8% of the population, includes professionals, government employees, teachers, and small business owners. Many army officers come from such a background. The vast majority of people are laborers or peasants who own or rent small plots of land.

In the early 1980s, the poor were taking in fewer calories than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Their diet consists mainly of corn, beans, rice, and sorghum, with only about 1 kg (2 lbs) of meat a month for a family of six. Malnutrition is particularly common among children. The rural population rarely has access to sewage systems, and surface water is seriously polluted. In the countryside, peasants live in one-room, earthen-floor, thatched-roof huts made of adobe or wood frames with mud or rubble fill. The poorest such homes are made of poles and straw. In the cities, a poor family may occupy a single room of a compound or establish a shanty in a squatter community on the edge of town.


A provision in El Salvador's civil code requires a man to protect his wife and a wife to be obedient to her husband. Often, however, there is no man around, although Salvadoran women give birth to an average of more than five children. Many marriages have fallen apart as spouses travel in search of work, often outside the country. The dislocations caused by the civil war of the 1980s have had the same effect. About 60% of all births are out of wedlock. The institution of compadrazgo (godparenthood) provides aid to the family from outsiders but is not as common as it is in Mexico.

The constitution includes a provision guaranteeing equality for women, but girls are generally expected to be passive and submissive, while boys are taught to be the opposite. There is a history of sexual abuse in the countryside. However, the nation has more women professionals than ever before, including nearly 30% of its doctors and lawyers.


Because the 1932 massacres targeted people of Indian appearance, native El Salvadorans exchanged their dress for European clothes. Few Indians retain traditional dress today, which for men usually meant white cotton trousers and shirt, sandals, and a large palm-leaf hat with a high crown. Women wore a huipil (blouse) with short puffed sleeves; a tightly wrapped skirt called a refajo; and a large, bright cotton cloth on the head. Festive dress for women now consists of a cotton skirt above a petticoat, trimmed with a few ruffles around the bottom and reaching to the ankles, and a blouse trimmed with lace and embroidery around the sleeves and neck.


The staple of the Salvadoran diet is corn. The pupusa is (like a tortilla) a cornmeal pancake, often fried. It is folded over and filled with soft, white cheese or some other stuffing such as chopped meat or fried pork rinds (chicharrÓn) or simply frijoles (red or black beans). Gallo de chicha is chicken marinated in a fermented cornmeal brew mixed with brown sugar. The quesadilla is a sweetish bread or cake served as a flat, thin square. El Salvador's markets abound with fruits, some of them unfamiliar to Americans.


Primary education is free and compulsory and since 1968 the school system has been composed of preschool, primary, and secondary education. In 2003, 80% of Salvadorans over the age of 15 were literate. About 70% of all children of primary-school age were enrolled, but only 15% of children old enough for secondary schooling were enrolled there. Although public education is free, many parents are unable to afford the school materials their children need to attend. Thousands of schools closed during the civil war, when spending on education per pupil dropped by 67%. Half the work force has had no more than three years of schooling. The National University, which is in San Salvador, allows many poorly qualified students to attend but graduates few. The University of Central America, also in San Salvador, is a private institution run by Jesuits. There are also schools for technology, fine arts, agriculture, social services, and nursing.


Juan José; Bernal, a priest, wrote poetry during the colonial period. Francisco Galindo was a 19th-century poet and dramatist. Salvador Salazar ArruÍ, writing under the pen name SalaruÍ was a prominent short-story writer. Claudia Lars was an outstanding poet. Manlio Argueta and Claribel AlegrÍa are novelists and poets. Roque Dalton was a left-wing poet killed by his own guerrilla comrades. Other 20th-century writers include Francisco Gavidia, cofounder of the national theater; Alberto Masferrer, essayist and poet; and Juan RamÓn Uriarte, essayist and educator.

Among artists, Juan Francisco Cisneros was a 19th-century painter. ArruÍ was known for his tapestries as well as his writings. José MejÍa Vides created paintings and woodcuts.

The marimba, an instrument that resembles the xylophone, is popular throughout Central America. Before the arrival of the Spanish, music was based on a five-tone scale, and the marimba was a keyboard composed of long gourds. Drums and flutes—also traditional Indian instruments—accompany over 30 types of dance performed as a ritual on the local saint's day. La historia is a dance that dramatizes the conflict between the Moors and Christians in Spain. A gracejo (jester) dressed in rags interrupts the narrative with bawdy exclamations. Turco del monto is a mountain-pig dance performed at several local festivals. Masks made of cloth, coconut fiber, wood, or gourds may be worn in Indian dances.


The minimum wage in 1995 was only $2 per day in agriculture and $3.50 a day in industry and commerce. Half the work force was believed to be unemployed or underemployed. About 70% were unskilled laborers, and about 33% were engaged in agriculture. The average Salvadoran earned about $1,400 a year, but peasants averaged less than half that much. By 1995 Salvadorans working in the United States were sending home nearly$1 billion a year to their relatives, a greater inflow of cash than from all Salvadoran exports combined.


FÍtbol (soccer) is the national passion. The so-called 1969 Soccer War with Honduras followed two matches by the national teams of both countries and resulted in as many as 3,000 deaths, mainly civilians. Basketball is also popular. Other sports include horseback riding, bicycling, motorcycling, swimming, baseball, tennis, golf, and sports fishing.


Popular music is dominated by the Mexican music industry. Nightlife is found in San Salvador, in the form of clubs, discos, and marimba street bands. The fiestas offer popular entertainment on a large scale and are accompanied by games like greased-pole climbing and the carrera de cintas, in which contestants on horseback must put a stick through a ribboned loop while riding at full gallop.


Weaving of textiles on pre-Conquest hand looms may still be done in Izalco, where belts are made, and Panchimalco, where women have a long history of weaving skirts and carrying cloths. Cotton is dyed, but not silk or wool. Foot-pedaled looms, introduced by the Spanish, are still used to produce hammocks and bedspreads in San SebastiÍn. Hats are woven from palm fibers, while hammocks, saddle and net bags, and petates (large woven mats) are made from henequen fiber. Baskets are made from palm leaves, rushes, reeds, or wicker. Wicker furniture is made in Nahuizalco.

Molded both by hand and the potter's wheel, ceramic pieces are decorated with red clay dissolved in water and applied with a corn husk. Izalco is the traditional center for gourds, made into bowls, jugs, and cups and often decorated and finished. Also handmade in El Salvador are dolls of wood or dried corn husks, tiny clay figurines for nativity scenes, wooden stirrups and small lacquered boxes, powder puffs made from goose feathers, and silk shawls.


In the mid 1990s, about 270,000 children were working up to 12 hours a day, and 90% of the Indian population lived in ex- treme poverty. El Salvador has the second-highest rate of deforestation in the world. Erosion depletes 20% of the topsoil each year, and 90% of the rivers are polluted. About 50% of the population, mostly in the countryside, does not have access to uncontaminated water. San Salvador is dirty, overcrowded, and crime-ridden.


The Salvadorian government introduced the principle of equality between men and women in the constitution and has modernized family legislation with the Family Code and Family Procedural Code (1994) and the Domestic Violence Law (1996, revised 2002) that protects, prevents, and penalizes domestic violence—of which women are victims in 91.6% of reported cases. However, sociocultural barriers, along with institutional and financial constraints, hinder progress in legal and policy frameworks for gender equality in El Salvador. Consequently, the political participation of women remains low and gender-based violence affects women in all social groups.

As in other Latin American countries, poverty has been feminized. In 2002 the percentage of poor women in urban areas was 17.7 points higher than that of poor men, and there were more poor urban households headed by women (33%) than by men (27%). In the rural sector, migration is changing the social landscape. It is estimated that one fifth of the Salvadoran population lives abroad, mainly in the United States. Immigrants are mainly men of the rural sector and, as a consequence, one third of the rural population subsists on family remittances, since the agricultural production is no longer profitable. This situation has lead to an increase in the number of households headed by women from 26.4% in 1992 to 33.6% in 2002.

Despite the efforts to incorporate women into leadership posts, the presence of women in executive, administrative, professional and technical positions has decreased between 1999 and 2002, which indicates a higher gender inequity. As of 2008, there were 13 women deputies, who accounted for 15% of the country's single-chamber legislature, and 6 women ministers of a total of 17 members in the executive branch.


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—revised by C. Vergara