Central America is a diverse and complex region, and Central Americans living in the United States reflect this heterogeneity. Unlike Mexican immigrants, who have dominated U.S.-bound Latin American migration, Central Americans are socioculturally and economically diverse, and they have been received by the U.S. government in different ways. As Nestor Rodriguez and Jacqueline Hagan (1999) observe, the Latin American population in the United States includes both well-educated and unskilled immigrants, political refugees, wealthy landowners, and peasants. Central Americans also have diverse linguistic traditions. For example, Guatemalans who are of Mayan descent may speak one or more Mayan languages (and not Spanish). Hondurans who come from the Caribbean coast of their country (and some Belizeans) may speak Garifuna. Garifuna and Nicaraguans who come from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua may speak English or Mesquito at home instead of Spanish.
There has been a noticeable presence of Central Americans in the United States since the early twentieth century. In the early 1900s, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan coffee growers traveled to and from the United States for business and pleasure. The commercial ships that transported bananas from Honduras to the United States brought news of new opportunities, and Hondurans traveled north in the search of them. But the growth of the largest Central American groups in the United States (Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans) began in the late 1970s, when a political and economic crisis destabilized several countries in the region and forced many of their citizens to abandon their homes. Many (mostly Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans) relocated to adjacent Central American countries, while others (mostly Guatemalan Maya) settled in refugee camps in southern Mexico. Many of these refugees have since returned to their homeland, but others have made their way further north to the United States and Canada, where they have established vibrant communities. Central Americans, as a whole, now constitute one of the fastest-growing Latino groups in the United States. For instance, the number of Salvadorans (the largest group of Central Americans) in the United States stood at 34,000 in 1970. This number increased to 94,447 in 1980; to 565,081 in 1990; and to 823,832 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Thus, whereas in 1980 El Salvador was not among the top 25 immigrant sending countries to the United States, by 1990 it was in eleventh place and by 2000 it had moved to eighth place.
Despite a long immigration history and the strong influence of the United States in the Central American countries, Central Americans were relatively unknown to the U.S. public before the 1980s. Up until then, they had remained relatively invisible, often “passing” for white or being mistaken for Mexicans. This changed around 1980, when the media began portraying Central Americans in a negative fashion—sometimes as renegade army men murdering Catholic nuns, and sometimes as guerrillas confiscating homes and businesses. The notion of Central Americans as thugs (perhaps even as terrorists) began to be implanted in the minds of the U.S. public. These negative stereotypical portrayals have been sustained both on the big screen and in the media. For instance, in A Beautiful Mind, the film biography of the mathematician John Nash, the Salvadoran nationality of Nash’s highly intelligent wife is not mentioned. Housekeepers and nannies, however, are often portrayed as Salvadorans or Guatemalans in films. Furthermore, when media portrayals of Salvadoran and other Central American gang members appear in the media, their nationalities are almost always noted in these media accounts. Thus, racialized negative images of Central Americans did not stop with the images of war in the 1980s. On the contrary, they have continued to define this group.
Two major, interrelated events occurred in 1979 that helped focus attention on Central American immigrants. The first was the beginning of a long and tumultuous civil conflict in El Salvador and Nicaragua, in which the United States was deeply involved. The second was the resultant flow of U.S.-bound refugees from both countries. A similar conflict had been raging in Guatemala since 1970, and this struggle also began to attract attention. Images of suffering Mayan women, men, and children began to appear in the U.S. media.
Although the migratory flows that the political upheaval in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua generated might fit the classic profile of refugees, the U.S. administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton refused to grant blanket refugee status to Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The reception given to Nicaraguans varied depending on the political climate in Central America (particularly the dynamics of the Contra war) and the level of support they received from the Cuban community in Miami, where many settled. The major problem with Central Americans was that the U.S. government could not legally recognize refugees generated by a conflict the U.S. government itself was financially and militarily supporting.
As a result, many of these refugees were considered undocumented or illegal immigrants, even though their situation mirrored the profile of people from other countries who were formally designated as refugees. This meant that Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans (to a certain extent) were ineligible for government assistance for their resettlement. They were denied the “structure of refuge,” as Rubén Rumbaut calls the government resettlement aid available to officially recognized refugees. They were left on their own to cope with the economic, social, and cultural consequences of their flight. Many Central Americans crossed several international borders to reach their families and friends already in the United States. These ties had been forged throughout the course of U.S. political, military, economic, and cultural involvement in Central America. Thus, when the conditions in that region deteriorated to the point where many sought refuge elsewhere, the United States emerged as the preferred choice of destination (Menjívar 2000).
The circumstances of their departure and the context of arrival are of particular importance for Central Americans because these experiences have shaped their lives in the United States. Many have brought with them traumatic memories of political upheaval in their countries during the past three decades. The thirty-six-year Guatemalan civil conflict that ended in December 1996, the twelve-year Salvadoran civil war that ended in December 1991, and the decade-long “Contra” war in Nicaragua that ended in 1990 all left profound levels of devastation, especially in the countryside. The Guatemalan army’s scorched-earth campaigns and brutal repression left 440 Mayan villages destroyed (by the army’s own account), decimating an entire generation of community leaders and youth (Alvarez and Loucky 1992). Moreover, between half a million and one million Guatemalans were displaced (Manz 1988). Massacres in El Salvador and similar state terror tactics against popular social movements calling for social, political, and economic justice left approximately 75,000 dead or disappeared. In 1979, after a mass insurrection, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled the Nicaraguan government of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The FSLN proclaimed the creation of a “mixed economy” to correct the social and economic injustices of the past, as
well as an independent and “nonaligned” foreign policy to terminate the country’s historical dependence on the United States. In response, the Reagan administration launched a multifaceted assault against the Sandinista government that included a trade embargo and funds for the training, equipping, and directing of a counter revolutionary army (the “Contras”). The Sandinista government countered this attack, using up to 50 percent of the national budget, which brought to a halt the social programs instigated by the revolution. This combination of factors unleashed a profound economic crisis from which the Sandinistas never recovered; their government only lasted a decade. Although there were no overt political upheavals in Honduras, this nation was involved in the regional conflicts by proxy, as it served as a base for the Nicaraguan Contras and other military operations in the region. A U.S. base was opened there during the 1980s.
Many Central American refugees fled to neighboring areas (mainly southern Mexico), but a significant number made their way to the United States. Some had lost family members to the violence, others had received death threats, and others were economic refugees dislocated by the crisis. By and large, the United States did not consider Central Americans as deserving of protection, even though the U.S. State Department had noted on several occasions the disastrous human rights record of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran governments and the severity of the political conflict in the region. As with other refugee populations in the United States, the Central Americans’ legal status has been shaped by the intersection of immigration and refugee policy with foreign policy. Thus, these were de facto refugees who lacked de jure recognition. Once on U.S. soil, Central Americans could apply for political asylum, but throughout the 1980s less than 3 percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan applicants were granted such status.
In the case of the Nicaraguans, who were fleeing a country whose government the United States was intent on overthrowing, the U.S. government could have granted them refugee status as a symbolic gesture, as it had done with various groups fleeing Communist regimes. However, the U.S. government needed Nicaraguans disenchanted with the revolution to be as close to Nicaragua as possible, not in the United States (Portes and Stepick 1993). Granting these Nicaraguans refugee status, and thus giving them a place to settle and the aid to do so, would have dissuaded them from pressuring for a regime change in their native land. Thus, throughout the conflict years, Nicaraguans’ success rate in asylum applications oscillated, but it was never high. Hondurans were only given Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a designation created in 1990 to deal with victims of political conflicts and natural disasters (this status was also given to Salvadorans, but not to Guatemalans) after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
Thus, U.S. immigration law has been applied unevenly to Central Americans, which reflects upon the discrepancies in U.S. foreign policy toward their countries of origin. The case of Central Americans makes evident that defining a particular group of immigrants as refugees is not based solely upon unsafe conditions in the country of origin or human rights considerations, but rather on the extent to which the United States recognizes them as deserving asylum and assistance (Zolberg, Suhrke, and Aguayo 1989). The case of Central Americans highlights the enduring power of the state in creating immigration laws that shape the everyday lives of immigrants.
Despite the increased presence of Central Americans in the United States, they have remained relatively invisible. As the Guatemalan writer and scholar Arturo Arias observes, Central Americans are hidden “within the imaginary confines of what constitutes the multicultural landscape of the United States” (Arias 2003, p. 170). Only in prominent destination areas of Central American immigration—notably Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Miami—are they recognized as distinct from the major Latino groups. Within the racial landscape of the United States, they are often a minority within a minority, a situation that Arias (2003) links to a colonial history in which Central America was considered inferior to Mexico.
This invisibility also has homogenized Central Americans, and they have been simply labeled as “other Latinos,” “other Hispanics” or, at best, “Central Americans.” This has occurred in spite of the wide variety of languages, ethnicities, histories, and cultures present in this group, and despite the fact that not all Central Americans identify themselves in the same racial terms. For instance, 36 percent of Salvadorans living in the United States identified themselves as white in the 2000 U.S. Census, compared to 38 percent of Guatemalans, 43 percent of Hondurans, and 54 percent of Nicaraguans. Whereas 5 percent of Hondurans and 2 percent of Nicaraguans identified themselves as black, less than 1 percent of Salvadorans and 1 percent of Guatemalans chose this category. Even though an estimated half of Guatemalans are of Mayan descent, only 1.5 percent identified themselves as American Indian. However, this self-identification might be due to a bureaucratic misunderstanding rather than an absence of American Indians among Central Americans. In addition, more than half of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, 42 percent of Hondurans, and 36 percent of Nicaraguans identified themselves as “other race,” and between 7 and 8 percent of the people in each group marked some combination of two or more races. Central Americans are, therefore, increasing in their visibility and contributing to the complexity of Latinos within the U.S. ethnic and racial landscape.
The racial self-identification of a person from any one group is not simply an individual decision; it also reflects the social construction of race and ethnicity within the specific country. In addition, racial-ethnic identity differs by generation and subgroup (e.g., a minority within a minority). In the case of Central Americans this identification or classification is very much linked to how the U.S. government has received them, for this reception has shaped many aspects of life among the various groups. Such identifications affect intragroup relations as well, particularly between groups that have little linguistic and cultural common ground, and they shape whether and how Central Americans carve out spaces within the larger Latino mosaic.
Even those Central Americans who share a racial identification with U.S. minority groups, or even with other immigrant groups, do not automatically follow the racial politics or paths of those groups. For instance, Jason DeFay (2005) found that Central American Garifuna immigrants (who likely identified themselves as black in the U.S. Census) have an acculturation pattern that is distinctly different from that of blacks identified as Jamaican, Haitian, or Belizean. He argues that the formation of intergenerational voluntary organizations and the politics of racial and national identity in the United States have permitted Garifuna immigrants to carve out a niche distinct from the larger minority groups. Thus, one should not expect that simply identifying with other Latino (or non-Latino) groups will place Central Americans on similar paths. Furthermore, as Arias observes, Central Americans constitute a population that “has not yet earned the hyphen to mark its recognition, its level of assimilation and integration, within the multi-cultural landscape of the United States” (Arias 2003, p. 171).
It is important, however, to note that intragroup relations among the different Central American groups, as well as between them and the larger Latino groups, have included many instances of collaboration, particularly in campaigns to work on issues of social justice. Interestingly, the categorization of the newer Central American groups within larger pan-ethnic categories (e.g., Mexicans, Latino, Hispanic) has had important consequences for political mobilization and empowerment. A recognition by Central Americans and larger Latino groups of a common ground and ancestry (e.g., indigenous descent or black heritage) and the use of a broader racial-ethnic label have contributed to the development of political agendas focused on common interests and conditions. This recognition has been spurred, in part, by the history of political mobilization among Latino domestic minorities, particularly Chicanos in the western United States and Puerto Ricans on the East Coast, as well as a recognition of their own history among Central Americans themselves. Time will tell if these intragroup dynamics translate into more political power for Latinos.
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Arias, Arturo. 2003. “Central American Americans: Invisibility, Power and Representation in the US Latino World.” Latino Studies 1 (1): 168–187.
Manz, Beatriz. 1988. Refugees of a Hidden War: The Aftermath of Counterinsurgency. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Menjívar, Cecilia. 1999. “Salvadorans and Nicaraguans: Refugees become Workers.” In Illegal Immigration in America: A Reference Handbook, edited by David Haines and Karen E. Rosenblum, 232–253. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
———. 2000. Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 2002. “Living in Two Worlds?: Guatemalan-Origin Children in the United States and Emerging Transnationalism.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 28 (3): 531–552.
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Rodriguez, Nestor P., and Jacqueline Hagan. 1999. “Central Americans in the United States.” In The Minority Report: An Introduction to Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Relations, 3rd ed., edited by Anthony Gary Dworkin and Rosalind J. Dworkin, 278–296. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
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"Central Americans." Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/central-americans
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