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LOCATION: El Salvador; United States

POPULATION: About 5 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 Pipil Indians (Amerindians) were living there. They spoke a language similar to that of the Aztecs. Atlactal, their leader, at first was able to defeat the Spanish, but the area was under Spanish control by 1540. The Amerindians were put to work on plantations that produced cacao and indigo.

El Salvador declared its independence from Spain in 1821. It then was part of a Central American federation from 1823 to 1841. For the next century, the government was controlled by the coffee-growing industry. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, coffee prices dropped and wages were cut. Because of the great hardships that followed, the peasants rose in revolt in 1932. The military crushed the revolt and massacred between 15,000 and 30,000 people, mainly Amerindians. Military rulers then governed the country until 1980.

During the 1980s, there was a civil war. About 70,000 people were killed in the struggle. Many were victims of the various death squads that roamed the countryside. Some of these death squads were allies of the government, and others were allies of the revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the government. Among the victims of the death squads was Archbishop Oscar Romero, the country's highest-ranking Roman Catholic clergyman, who was killed while saying Mass. About one-fourth of the five million or so people in El Salvador became refugees during the war, and more than 500,000 left the country. A peace agreement was reached in 1992.


El Salvador is slightly smaller than the state of Massachusetts. It is bordered 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 mountain ranges cross El Salvador: the Sierra Madre along the border with Honduras, and a southern range that includes more than twenty volcanoes. The country also lies in an earthquake zone.

The climate is tropical, with a rainy season from May to October. Most of the people live in the fertile central zone or in the area of San Salvador, the capital. About 90 percent of the people are mestizos, people of mixed European and Amerindian (native) ancestry. Of the remainder, almost all are Amerindians. Whites account for less than 1 percent of the population. Of the more than one million people displaced by the civil war, about 500,000 settled in other parts of El Salvador, 250,000 left for Mexico, and 150,000 moved to the United States. It is believed that by 1990 there were 1 million Salvadorans in the United States.


Spanish is the official language and is spoken by everyone. Very few people still speak Amerindian languages.


According to Amerindian creation myth, Teotl rubbed two branches together to produce the sparks that became the stars. Teopantlí, 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. Metzti, the moon, was created by a tear from Teopantlí. Metzti sent out 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 folklore. He is difficult to find because he hides behind the leaves. From high in the treetops he shakes flowers off the branches so they will fall onto girls passing below. He has a sweetheart, Tenáncin, who lives with him in a cave inside a volcano.

Folk medicine (traditional treatment using herbs and ancient methods) is not as prominent in El Salvador as it is in Mexico and Guatemala, where Amerindian heritage remains stronger. Salvadorans sometimes blame witchcraft for illnesses and love problems. The ojo (eye) is the name given to illnesses in babies. It is thought that the baby has been gazed upon by a strong person, who does not necessarily intend to do harm.


More than 90 percent of Salvadorans are Roman Catholic. In the late 1960s, activist priests began condemning the army's violence and human-rights abuses. Priests went into the countryside to educate peasants and organize them into farming cooperatives and unions. Dozens were killed by right-wing groups, and others joined the guerrillas. The Church continued to operate social programs in the 1990s, but most of them have become less political.

About 3 percent of the population is Protestant. A number of groups, including the Baptists, Mormons, and Seventh-Day Adventists, have been active in missionary work that is planned and financed in the United States. Evangelists preach that a person can be saved through belief in Jesus.


Many Salvadoran holidays are religious in nature. They often combine Catholic images and persons with old, traditional belief systems. In January, many Catholics go to Esquipulas, Guatemala, to honor what is known as the "Black Christ." It is a mahogany image of Jesus that was placed in a church in 1758. The town of San Vincente also holds an elaborate celebration for this occasion, with processions on January 14 and 30. Amerindian men perform a dance in the local church to the accompaniment of fife and drums.

On January 20, Villa Delgado holds a fiesta for St. Sebastian. It includes a mock bullfight accompanied by music.

The Day of the Cross is held on May 3 throughout the nation. Homeowners set up a cross in their patio or garden, and decorate it with fruits and flowers. A folk belief is that if no cross is erected, the devil will come and dance until midnight.

Between August 1 and 6, San Salvador holds a fiesta (major celebration) commemorating the Transfiguration of Christ. The day is marked with sports events, games, and parties. A person representing Jesus arrives at a spot near the cathedral. From there, he 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 August 26.

Christmas is celebrated with nightly posadas (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 Amerindian rain dance. Izalco and Texistepeque have special Holy Week (late March or early April) celebrations during the week preceding Easter.

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 events that most families participate in. Perhaps half of all couples, however, live together without formally marrying.

Birthdays are not usually celebrated. Instead, Salvadorans, who are mostly Roman Catholic, have a yearly celebration like a birthday that is held on the day of the saint they are named after (nearly everyone is given a Roman Catholic name).

A prayer vigil, called a novena, is usually held in the home of a person who has just died, and friends are invited on the final night of the vigil. Often a second novena is held later.


Salvadorans usually expect a more formal way of behaving toward strangers than do people in the United States, but people generally stand closer to one another and gesture more when holding a conversation. Unconventional behavior, including inappropriate clothing, is frowned upon in this tradition-conscious society.


A gap between great wealth and extreme poverty has been a feature of Salvadoran society since colonial times. About 2 percent of the people own 60 percent of the nation's productive land. This 2 percent accounts for about one-third of the national income. The middle class, about 8 percent of the population, includes professionals, government employees, teachers, and small business owners. Many army officers come from such a background. The vast majority of the people are laborers or peasants who own or rent small plots of land.

As of the early 1980s, the poor people of El Salvador were taking in fewer calories of nourishment than people anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. Their diet consists mainly of corn, beans, rice, and sorghum (a grain), with only about two pounds (one kilogram) of meat per month for a family of six. Malnutrition is particularly common among children. The rural population rarely has sewage systems, and so surface water is badly polluted. In the countryside, peasants live in one-room, dirt-floor, thatched-roof huts made of adobe or having wood frames with mud or rubble as a filler. The poorest such homes are made of poles and straw. In the cities, a poor family may live in a single room in a compound or they may set up a shanty in a squatter community on the edge of town.


A provision in the law of El Salvador requires a man to protect his wife and a wife to be obedient to her husband. Often, however, families are without a father. 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 to another country. The interruptions of normal life caused by the civil war of the 1980s also destroyed many families. About 60 percent of all births are out of wedlock (outside of marriage).

The constitution includes a provision guaranteeing equality for women. However, 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; nearly 30 percent of El Salvador's doctors and lawyers are women.


Few Amerindians wear traditional dress today. For men, traditional clothing usually consisted of 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 over 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 (maize). The pupusa is a cornmeal pancake like a tortilla, and is often fried. It is folded over and filled with a soft white cheese, chopped meat, fried pork rinds, or frijoles (red or black beans). Gallo de chicha is chicken marinated in fermented cornmeal mixed with brown sugar. The quesadilla is a somewhat sweet bread or cake in a thin, flat square. El Salvador's markets are full of many kinds of fruits.


In 1990, 73 percent of Salvadorans over the age of fifteen were literate (could read and write). About 70 percent of all children of primary-school age were enrolled in school, but only 15 percent of children old enough for high school were enrolled. Although public education is free, many parents are unable to afford school supplies. Thousands of schools closed during the civil war, when spending on education dropped by 67 percent per pupil. Half of the work force has had no more than three years of schooling.

The National University in San Salvador allows many poorly qualified students to attend, but it graduates few. The University of Central America, also in San Salvador, is a private institution run by Jesuits (an order of Catholic priests).


Father Juan José Bernal wrote poetry during the colonial period. Francisco Galindo was a nineteenth-century poet and dramatist. Salvador Salazar Arrué, writing under the pen name Salarué, was a well-known short-story writer. Claudia Lars (18991975) was an outstanding poet. Novelists include Manlio Argueta (1935) and Claribel Alegría (1924). Roque Dalton (193575) was a left-wing poet killed by his own guerrilla comrades. Other twentieth-century writers include Francisco Gavidia, cofounder of the national theater; Alberto Masferrer (18681932), essayist and poet; and Juan Ramón Uriarte, essayist and educator.

The marimba, an instrument that resembles the xylophone, is popular throughout Central America. Drums and flutesalso traditional Amerindian instrumentsaccompany over thirty types of dance.

Dances are performed as part of the ceremony 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 story with coarse exclamations.

Turco del monto is a mountain-pig dance performed at several local festivals.


The minimum wage in 1995 was only $2.00 per day in agriculture and $3.50 per day in industry and commerce. Half the work force was believed to be unemployed or underemployed. 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 one billion dollars per year to their relatives. This was more than the country made from all of the products it exported.


Fútbol (soccer) is the national passion. The so-called 1969 Soccer War with Honduras happened after two matches by the national teams of these two countries. It caused as many as three thousand deaths, mainly among civilians.

Basketball is also popular. Other sports include horseback riding, bicycling, motorcycling, swimming, baseball, tennis, golf, and sport 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 (major celebrations) offer 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.


The weaving of textiles on hand looms of a type in use before the Spanish conquest can still be seen in rural areas in Izalco. In Panchimalco, the women have a long history of weaving skirts, headcloths, 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 Sebastián. Hats are woven from palm fibers. Hammocks, saddlebags, net bags, and petates (large woven mats) are made from a local fiber. Baskets are made from palm leaves, rushes, reeds, or wicker. Wicker furniture is made in Nahuizalco.


In the mid 1990s, about 270,000 children were working up to twelve hours a day, and 90 percent of the Amerindian population lived in extreme poverty.

El Salvador has the second-highest rate of deforestation (loss of trees) in the world. Erosion removes 20 percent of the topsoil each year, and 90 percent of the rivers are polluted.

About 50 percent of the population, mostly in the countryside, does not have access to clean water. San Salvador is dirty, overcrowded, and troubled by crime.


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