Salvadoran Americans

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by Jeremy Mumford


The smallest of the Central American states, the Republic of El Salvador measures 21,041 square kilometersabout the size of the state of Massachusettsand has a population of approximately five million. Situated near the northern end of the Central American isthmus, it is bordered by Guatemala to the northwest, Honduras to the northeast, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. A Spanish-speaking country, El Salvador was given its namewhich means "the Savior," referring to Jesus Christby the Spanish. Its flag consists of horizontal stripes, two blue and one white, with the national coat of arms in the center. This coat of arms contains branches, flags, green mountains, and the words "Republica de El Salvador en la America Central" and "Dios Union Libertad." Also pictured in the center of the flag are a small red liberty cap and the date of El Salvador's independence from Spain: September 15, 1821.

Two volcanic mountain ranges dominate El Salvador's landscape; they run parallel to each other, east to west, along the length of the country. Just to the north of the southern range lies a broad central plain, the most fertile and populous region of El Salvador, which includes the nation's capital city, San Salvador, and a handful of smaller cities. These urban areas have grown significantly in recent years and by the mid-1990s housed more than half the population of El Salvador. But because El Salvador's economy is largely agricultural, a considerable portion of the population remains in the countryside to work the coffee plantations and other farms.


Before fifteenth-century explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, the land now called El Salvador belonged to the Pipil, nomads of the Nahua language group who were related to the Aztecs of central Mexico. From the eleventh century a.d., the Pipil developed their country of Cuzcatlán ("Land of the Jewel") into an organized state and a sophisticated society, with a capital city located near modern San Salvador. But during the 1520s Spanish conquistadors, fresh from the conquest of Mexico, invaded the land of the Pipil. Led by a general named Atlacatl, the Pipil resisted the invasion with initial success, but ultimately succumbed to the Spanish forces.

As in Mexico and the rest of Central America, the conquistadors created a divided society in the province they named El Salvador. A small ruling class composed of people of Spanish birth or descent grew rich from the labor of the Indian population. Intermarriage gradually softened the racial division; today the majority of Salvadorans are mestizos, with both Spanish and Indian ancestors. But there remains in El Salvador an extreme disparity between the powerful and the powerless, between the wealthy landownersaccording to legend, the "Fourteen Families"and the multitudinous poor.

El Salvador became independent from Spain in 1821. The ex-colony initially joined with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to form the United Provinces of Central America. But the regional federation dissolved after 20 years. Then, threatened by Mexican and Guatemalan aggression, the Salvadoran government sought to make the country part of the United States. The request was turned down. El Salvador remained independent but gradually came under the influence of American banks, corporations, and government policies. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought considerable political turmoil to El Salvador, with the army and the plantation owners trading places in a series of unstable regimes.

One constant in Salvadoran history has been its economy of single-crop export agriculture. In the sixteenth century El Salvador produced cacao, from which chocolate is made; in the eighteenth century it grew the indigo plant, which yields a blue dye used in clothing. Since the late nineteenth century, El Salvador's great cash crop has been coffee, although in recent decades the country has also grown cotton and sugar. El Salvador organized its economy with factory-like efficiency, consolidating land into huge plantations worked by landless peasants. As markets changed, cycles of boom and bust hit these people hard.

This unstable social order often became explosive. El Salvador has seen repeated rebellions, each one followed by massive, deadly retaliation against the poor. In 1833 an Indian named Anastasio Aquino led an unsuccessful peasant revolt. Nearly a century later, a Marxist landowner named Agustín Farabundo Martí led another. This was followed by the systematic government murder of rural Indians, leaving an estimated 35,000 deadan event known as la matanza, or "the massacre."


Between 1979 and 1992, Salvadoran guerrillas waged a civil war against the government, fueled in part by the same inequities that motivated Aquino and Martí. The nation's army fought back with U.S. money, weapons, and training from American military advisors. An estimated 75,000 people died during the conflict, most of them civilians killed by the army or by clandestine death squads linked to the government (Elston Carr, "Pico-Union: 'Trial' Dramatizes Salvadoran Abuses," Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1993). The guerrilla war and the "dirty war" that accompanied it were a national catastrophe. But in 1992, after more than a dozen years of fighting, the army signed a peace accord with the guerrillas' Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Peace has returned to El Salvador, which is now governed by a reasonably democratic constitution.


Salvadoran immigration to the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. The movement is small in comparison with some of the great immigration waves of the past, but it has a profound significance for both countries. The flight of Salvadorans from their own country was the most dramatic result of El Salvador's civil war, draining that country of between 20 and 30 percent of its population. Half or more of the refugeesbetween 500,000 and one millionimmigrated to the United States, which was home to less than 10,000 Salvadorans before 1960 (Faren Bachelis, The Central Americans [New York: Chelsea House, 1990], p. 10; cited hereafter as Bachelis). El Salvador's exiled population is already changing life at home through its influence and its dollars and will undoubtedly play an important role in its future history.

Salvadoran American immigration has changed the face of foreign affairs in the United States. The flood of refugees from a U.S.-supported government forced a national rethinking of foreign policy priorities. This in turn transformed the nature of American support for the Salvadoran government and may have helped to end the war in El Salvador. Salvadoran Americans are at the center of an ongoing national debate about U.S. responsibility toward the world's refugees and the future of immigration in general.


The exodus of Salvadorans from their homeland was prompted by both economic and political factors. Historically, El Salvador is a very poor and crowded country. Cyclical poverty and overcrowding have led to patterns of intra-Central American immigration in the past. During the 1960s many Salvadorans moved illegally to Honduras, which is less densely populated. Tension over these immigrants led to war between the nations in 1969, forcing the Salvadorans to return home. El Salvador's civil war from 1979 to 1992 created high unemployment and a crisis of survival for the poor. As in the 1960s, many Salvadorans responded by leaving their native land.

The fear of political persecution has led other Salvadorans to seek refuge in another country. During the 1980s, death squadssecretly connected with government security forcesmurdered many suspected leftists. Operating mostly at night, these groups killed tens of thousands of people during the civil war (Bachelis, pp. 41-42). At the height of the death squad movement, 800 bodies were found each month. As the frenetic pace of assassination continued, the squads resorted to increasingly vague "profiles" by which to identify members of so-called "left-wing" groupsall women wearing blue jeans, for instance (Mark Danner, "The Truth of El Mozote," New Yorker, December 6, 1993, p. 10). The bodies of some victims were never recovered; these people form the ranks of the "desaparicinos " (disappeared).

This climate of pervasive terror prompted many Salvadorans to flee their homeland. Some left after seeing friends or family members murdered or receiving a death threat; others fled violence by the guerrillas or the prospect of forced recruitment into the army. About half of the immigrants ended up in refugee camps in Honduras or in Salvadoran enclaves in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, or Mexico. The other half headed for el Norte the United States.

Because they left quickly and quietly, without property or established connections in the United States, Salvadoran refugees could seldom obtain U.S. visas. They crossed borders illegally, first into Mexico, then into the United States. Refugees trekked through the desert, swam or rowed the Rio Grande, huddled in secret spaces in cars or trucks, or crawled through abandoned sewer tunnels in order to enter the United States. Many sought aid from professional alien smugglers, known as "coyotes," and were sometimes robbed, abandoned in the desert, or kept in virtual slavery until they could buy their freedom.

Once in the United States, Salvadorans remained a secret population. U.S. law provides that aliens (including illegal ones) who can show they have a tenable fear of persecution can receive political asylum and become eligible for a green card. But according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) figures, political asylum was granted to very few Salvadorans: in the 1980s only 2.1 percent of applications were approved. Those who were turned down faced possible deportation. Therefore, few Salvadorans made their presence known unless they were caught by the INS.

Salvadoran refugees did not at first see themselves as immigrants or Americans. Most hoped to go home as soon as they could do so safely. In the meantime, they clustered together to maintain the language and culture of their homeland. Dense Salvadoran enclaves sprang up in Latino neighborhoods in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C., and the New York suburb of Hempstead, Long Island. Wherever a few Salvadorans established themselves, that place became a magnet for friends and relatives; about three quarters of the Salvadoran town of Intipuca, for instance, moved to Washington, D.C. (Segundo Montes and Juan Jose García Vásquez, Salvadoran Migration to the United States [Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration and Refugee Assistance, Georgetown University, 1988]), p. 15; cited hereafter as Montes and Vásquez). On Long Island, out-reach workers reported that the population of Salvadorans ballooned from 5,000 before the civil war to over 100,000 in 1999. However, the greatest number of refugees settled in Los Angeles, where Salvadorans soon became the second-largest immigrant community. The Pico-Union and Westlake districts of Los Angeles became a virtual Salvadoran cityby some counts second only to San Salvador.

Salvadoran refugees during the 1980s were only one current in a broad stream of Central American refugees pouring into the United States. Guatemala and Nicaragua, like El Salvador, endured civil wars during this period. Many people from those countries joined the Salvadorans seeking refuge in the United States.

The Central American influx was secret and illegal, and much of mainstream America was at first ignorant of its magnitude. But the INS kept a close eye on the situation. Many Salvadorans who were denied asylum in the States exercised their right to appeal their cases, sometimes all the way up to the Supreme Court. (Until a final decision is reached, the applicant is entitled to temporary working papers.) INS agents suddenly found a huge new bureaucratic workload dropped in their laps, for which they had little experience or funding. Many agents tried to move immigration cases along by any means necessary: intimidating Salvadorans into signing papers in English which put them on the next plane to El Salvador, or refusing asylum applications after a ten-minute interview and deporting the applicants before they had a chance to appeal (Ann Crittenden, Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision [New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988]).

The deportation of Salvadoran refugees led many liberal American activists to take an interest in the Central American influx. Disheartened by the conservative trend in America in the 1980s, these activists found a rallying point in the plight of the refugees. Some saw the Central American refugee crisis as the great moral test of their generation. Likening the deaths in El Salvador and Guatemala to the Holocaust (the systematic slaughter of European Jews by German Nazis during World War II), human rights activists in the United States felt a moral imperative to petition their government for a change in foreign policy.

American activists established a loose network to aid the refugees. Operating in clear violation of federal laws, they took refugees into their houses, aided their travel across the border, hid them from the authorities, helped them find work, and even gave them legal help. Reviving the ancient custom that a fugitive might find sanctuary inside a church and be safe from capture, the activists often housed refugees in church basements and rectories, giving birth to what later became known as "the sanctuary movement."

Throughout the 1980s the U.S. government extended very little sympathy to Salvadoran refugees. Ironically, the government only began to acknowledge the reality of Salvadoran oppression when persecution and war began to taper off in El Salvador. In 1990 a federal lawsuit brought against the INS by the American Baptist Churches (ABC) forced the agency to apply a more lenient standard to Central American asylum applications. The settlement prompted the INS to reopen many Salvadoran applications it had already denied and to approve new ones in greater numbers. By this time, however, many Salvadoran Americans had benefited from an amnesty passed in 1986, which "legalized" illegal immigrants who had entered the States before 1982.

In 1991, after years of debate on the issue, Congress awarded Temporary Protected Status to Salvadorans who had been in the United States since 1990. This status allowed qualifying Salvadorans to live and work in the States for a fixed period of time. Known as the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), the special status was scheduled to expire at the end of 1994.

Although the war is over in El Salvador, many Salvadoran Americans are still afraid to return to their homeland. ARENA, the political party most closely associated with the death squads, was in power in the mid-1990s, and many of the conditions that brought about the war remained the same. Furthermore, Salvadoran Americans had established roots and a new livelihood in the United States. A 1990 poll found that 70 percent of Salvadorans surveyed did not intend to return to El Salvador, even if they knew they were safe (Robert Lopez, "Salvadorans Turn Eyes Homeward as War Ends," Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1992). However, Salvadoran Americans maintain close ties to friends and relatives at home. Within a year after the civil war ended, about 350,000 Salvadoran Americans visited El Salvador (Tracy Wilkinson, "Returning to Reclaim a Dream," Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1993).

Due to poor INS records and the low profile of undocumented immigrants, statistics regarding Salvadoran immigration are notoriously unreliable. As of 1995 the total number of Salvadorans in the United States was somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million. Approximately one-third of the immigrant population were green card holders, who could apply for U.S. citizenship after five years. Between one-fifth and one-third had some form of temporary legal status. The remaining third were undocumented and therefore illegal.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Assimilation is more problematic for Salvadorans in the United States than it has been for other immigrants. Most Salvadorans who have any legal status at all are asylum seekers, motivated to immigrate to the States because of fear of persecution, not a desire to become an American. Asylum laws prohibit many Salvadorans from renewing their ties to their home culture. Most asylum seekers cannot visit El Salvador, even for a loved one's funeral, without losing their legal status in the United States. (The assumption is that anyone who travels to El Salvadorwhatever the reasonis not really afraid of persecution there.) Thus, many Salvadoran Americans are torn between embracing the culture of America and maintaining their Salvadoran identities.

Salvadoran Americans form an insular communitywith their own social clubs, doctors, even banksand often have little contact with outsiders. They maintain a tight network, living almost exclusively with other people from their home country, or even their hometown (Pamela Constable, "We Will Stay Together," Washington Post Magazine, October 30, 1994; Doreen Cavaja,"Making Ends Meet in a Nether World," New York Times, December 13, 1994). Many older immigrants have spent more than ten years in the United States without learning any English.

Although they immigrated largely out of fear rather than a desire for a new life, Salvadorans in the United States, especially the younger generations, are gradually becoming Americanized. While conditions have improved in El Salvador, few refugees have returned home. The United Statesonce a place of refugehas become a new home for Salvadoran immigrants. To reflect the changing needs of the Salvadoran American community, the Central American Refugee Center in Los Angeles (CARECEN), one of the largest support organizations for refugees, changed its name to the Central American Resource Center (Elston Carr, "A New Direction," Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1993).


El Salvador has a rich heritage of folk beliefs and customs, which evolved in a landscape of villages, fields, forests, and mountains. Salvadoran Americans seek to preserve their traditional rural culturea difficult proposition, considering most Salvadorans settle in America's largest cities.

Salvadoran folklore is rooted in supernatural beliefs. Tales of ghosts and spirits have been passed orally from generation to generation. One such spirit is the Siguanaba, a beautiful woman who seduces men she finds alone in the forest at night and drives them mad. Slightly less dangerous are the Cadejos, two huge dogs; the black one brings bad luck, while the white one brings good luck. Another spirit, the Cipitío, is a dwarf with a big hat who eats ashes from fireplaces and strews flower petals in the paths of pretty girls. Such country legends have little meaning in a Los Angeles barrio; they are rapidly dying out among Salvadoran American children, a generation thoroughly immersed in the world of American cartoons and comic book characters.


Salvadoran Americans have sometimes had tense relations with their neighbors in the cities where they are concentrated. Salvadoran gangs have fought with Mexican gangs in Los Angeles, and in Washington, D.C., a city with a significant Salvadoran population, they have competed with African Americans for jobs and resources. In May of 1991, after a black policewoman shot and killed a Salvadoran man during an arrest, Salvadorans in Washington's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood rioted. This incident, however, is not necessarily representative of relations in all Salvadoran American communities.

Many cultural observers contend that mainstream America has not yet formed a distinct stereotype of Salvadoran Americans. Salvadorans have settled in neighborhoods already populated by Mexican Americans, and outsiders generally have only a vague sense of the various Latino nationalities in those neighborhoods. But Salvadorans certainly share in the widespread discrimination leveled at Latinos. In the New York borough of Brooklyn, for example, a group of white teenagers who beat up a Salvadoran man in a neighborhood park reportedly referred to him as "that Mexican."


Salvadoran Spanish is rich in proverbs that reflect the country's rural landscape. While a North American might say, "Be quiet, the walls have ears," a Salvadoran would warn, "There are parrots in the field."


Salvadoran food is similar to Mexican food but is sweeter and milder. The foundation of the diet is cornmeal tortillas (thicker than the Mexican variety), rice, salt, and beans. The most popular national snack is the pupusa, a cornmeal griddle-cake stuffed with various combinations of cheese, spices, beans, and pork. Pupusas are served with curtido, a cabbage and carrot salad made with vinegar. A more substantial meal is salpicón, minced beef cooked with onions and chilies and served with rice and beans. For dessert, many dishes include fried or stewed bananas. Chicha, a sweet drink made from pineapple juice, is a popular beverage. The best Salvadoran food is found in private homes, but many Salvadoran restaurants and food stands have opened in Los Angeles and other cities where Salvadoran Americans live.

Both in El Salvador and in Salvadoran American neighborhoods, people love to buy food from street vendors. Popular street foods include pupusas and mango slicesspiced with salt, lime juice, red pepper, and crushed pumpkin and sesame seeds.


Salvadorans wear the same Western-style clothing worn by most Latin Americans who are not culturally Indian. Salvadorans in the highlands, where nights can be very cold, occasionally wear brightly colored blankets of traditional Mayan design, but they call these Guatemalan blankets, underscoring their foreign origin. Around their necks, many Salvadorans wear small crosses tightly wrapped with colored yarn.


The most popular musical form in El Salvador is the cumbia, a style that originated in Colombia. A typical cumbia is performed with a male singer (usually a high baritone or tenor) backed by a male chorus, drums (primarily kettledrum and bass drum), electric guitar and bass, and either a brass section or an accordion. The 2/4 beat is slower than most Latin music; the baseline is heavy and up-front. A very danceable musical form, it is popular with non-Latin audiences.

Ranchera music, which originated in Mexico, is also well liked by the country people in El Salvador. In the cities, many people listen to rock and rap music from the United States. Mexican American musical styles such as salsa, merengue, and tejano music have become increasingly popular among Salvadorans in the United States. These and other styles from North America are also gaining more listeners in El Salvador.


Many Salvadoran Americans celebrate Independence Day for all of Central America on September 15 of each year. The first week in August is the most important national religious festival, honoring Christ, El Salvador's patron and namesake, as the holy savior of the world. Known simply as the National Celebration, this week is marked in both El Salvador and Salvadoran American neighborhoods with processions, carnival rides, fireworks, and soccer matches.


The single greatest health problem in El Salvador is malnutrition, which especially affects children. This problem is largely absent among Salvadoran Americans. Still, undocumented Salvadoran Americans are often hesitant to visit American doctors or hospitals, for fear of being reported to the immigration authorities. And many communitiesincluding, through 1994's Proposition 187, the State of Californiahave sought to deny public health services to undocumented immigrants.

Partly for these reasons, some Salvadoran Americans continue to rely on traditional healers. Such practitioners, known as curanderos, use herb teas and poultices, traditional exercises, incantations, and magical touching to heal. Other Salvadoran immigrants are patients of Salvadoran doctors who may have received training at home but have no license to practice in the United States (John McQuiston, "Man Held for Practicing Dentistry without Degree or License," New York Times, December 2, 1994).

Some Salvadoran Americans carry deep emotional scars from the torture they suffered or witnessed. Many are tormented by rage, continuing fear, and guilt at escaping the violence that claimed the lives of so many of their loved ones. As a result, some members of the immigrant community suffer from depression, alcoholism, and erratic or violent behavior. Few Salvadoran Americans can afford to receive the psychological help they need to work through their traumatic experiences (Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Central American Refugees and U.S. High Schools [Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1989]).


Spanish is the first language of almost all Salvadorans. Salvadoran Spanish is very close to the Spanish spoken in Mexico and other Central American countries; it is recognizable only by its accent.

El Salvador stands apart from neighboring countries in that its indigenous languages are virtually dead. One possible explanation for this loss lies in El Salvador's history of widespread violence against the poor. In the aftermath of the 1833 rebellion and during the matanza of 1932, government forces singled out Indians to be killed; out of self-protection, many Salvadoran Indians adopted Spanish language and dress during these times.

Because of their initial determination to return to El Salvador, many immigrants to America at first resisted learning English. However, bilingual education programs, particularly in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have been extremely helpful to Salvadoran children (Pamela Constable, "Bilingual Plan Draws Bitter Words in D.C., Washington Post, October 26, 1994).

Family and Community Dynamics

The traditional family in El Salvador, as in Latin America generally, is large and close-knit. The father exercises final authority in all things, and together the parents maintain firm control over their children, above all their daughters. Among Salvadoran Americans, though, this pattern has begun to change. The immigration process and the vastly different conditions of life in the United States have altered Salvadoran family dynamics in dramatic and at times destructive ways.

Due to the nature of their flight to the United States, many Salvadoran refugees made the journey alone: husbands left their wives, parents their children, teenagers their families. Entire families were separated and often stayed that way. Many refugees married non-Salvadorans, sometimes for immigration benefits, and Salvadoran Americans were barred from returning home for any reason without forfeiting a request for asylum.

Some Salvadoran parents who were separated from their children for a long period of time during the immigration process foundwhen finally reunited as a familythat they had lost some of their traditional parental authority and control over the youngsters. Likewise, teenagers who settled in the United States alone grew into adulthood under influences very different from those they would have encountered at home. Even when families moved to America together, family dynamics inevitably changed under new cultural influences. Children learned English faster and adapted more readily to their new surroundings than their parents. They often had to translate or explain things to their parents, argue for their parents with English-speaking storekeepers, and in general become more knowledgeable and confident than their parents. This role-reversal proved painful for both generations.

Salvadoran American parents generally fear that their children may stray too far in America's permissive society. Indeed, many young Salvadoran Americans have formed gangs, especially in Los Angeles, where the culture of Latino youth gangs has deep roots. These gangs, including the nationally known Salva Mara Trucha, distribute drugs, extort money from local merchants (especially street vendors), and battle for turf with Mexican gang members (Mike O'Connor, "A New U.S. Import in El Salvador," New York Times, July 3, 1994; Anthony Millican, "Street Gang Shakes Down Vendors for Sidewalk 'Rent'," Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1992).


Salvadoran Catholicism emphasizes all the sacraments that are practiced in other Catholic countries: baptism, confirmation, marriage in the church, communion at mass, and last rites. Other occasions are also celebrated in church, such as graduation from school and a girl's quinceañera, or fifteenth birthday. Still, when compared with other Central Americans, a surprising number of Salvadorans do not observe church rituals. Church weddings, for instance, are considered prohibitively expensive for the poor, and common-law marriage is frequently practiced.

One ritual of family life which is common even among the poor is compadrazgo, or the naming of godparents. Latin Americans of all nationalities practice this custom. They place special importance in the relationship between a child and his or her padrino and madrina and between the parents and their compadres, the friends they honored by choosing them for this role.

Some rituals of the old country have been abandoned by members of the immigrant community. For instance, the traditional Salvadoran practice of interring bodies in family crypts has recently given way to a more Americanized approach to burying the dead. In the early 1980s, most Salvadoran Americans who could afford it had their bodies sent to El Salvador for burial after death, a posthumous relocation that could cost thousands of dollars. By the mid-1990s, Salvadoran Americans were beginning to reach the painful conclusion that their families would never return to El Salvador; as a result, more and more immigrants are opting for burials in the United States (Gabriel Escobar, "Latinos Making U.S. Their Home in Life and Death," Washington Post, July 12, 1993).


Few Salvadoran American families depend entirely on public assistance; a large portion of the immigrant population is undocumented and therefore does not qualify for government benefits. However, the high rate of poverty in the community forces many to seek whatever help they can findeither through assistance for U.S.-born children or through fraudulently obtained benefits. The extent of reliance on public assistance is hard to estimate due to its underground nature.


Salvadoran Americans, like many immigrants, place a high value on education as a way to advance in the world. Some Salvadorans cherish education in particular because of their ongoing struggle to achieve it at home: because the National University in San Salvador included a number of Marxist professors and students, the government closed down the campus in 1980. Some professors and students kept classes going in a variety of small buildings and private homes; all Salvadoran university students realized that they could not take access to education for granted.

In the United States access to education has been equally difficult for Salvadorans. Many schools excluded or reported undocumented students, until the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyer v. Doe (1982) established that all children, even illegal immigrants, have a constitutional right to attend public school. This issue remains controversial: California's Proposition 187, approved by voters in 1994, seeks again to exclude undocumented students from public schools.

At the university level, few institutions allow undocumented immigrants to enroll. California State is one of the few universities to admit students without proof of legal residency. Furthermore, it allows undocumented immigrants in California to pay the low tuition charged to state residents, instead of the much higher out-of-state rates. As the only major university where undocumented immigrants can enroll for less than $2000 per year, it has attracted many Salvadoran American students to its campuses in Southern California. Again, this educational route is threatened by California's Proposition 187.


Most Salvadorans are members of the Roman Catholic church, although various evangelical Protestant denominations, including Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Assemblies of God, and Mormons, also have Salvadoran adherents. In addition, a small number of Salvadorans are Jewish or Muslim, stemming from late nineteenth-century immigration from the Middle East.

Salvadoran Catholicism bears the strong influence of liberation theology, a Catholic school of thought that evolved in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. Liberation theology teaches that Christianity is a religion of the poor. The movement encouraged impoverished Salvadorans to form Christian communitiesor "base communities"to improve their lives. Dedicated both to Bible study and to mutual aid in the secular world, these communities organized credit unions, cooperative stores, labor and peasant unions, and political activist groups.

Liberation theology received an important boost from the approval of the 1968 Latin American Bishops' Conference in Medellín, Colombia. In the late 1970s Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, though originally selected for his conservative views, became an important patron of the new theology. Young priests carried the message to the Salvadoran countryside with an evangelical fervor, but a shortage of priests in El Salvador necessitated an increase in the involvement of the Catholic laity. Base communities sprang up both in the cities and the country.

Liberation theology's success in organizing the poor had a profound impact on Salvadoran politics. The movement brought new political ideas to the countryside, as the universities did to the cities. Many of the peasants who comprised the rural left during the civil warguerrillas, farmworker federation members, activists who demonstrated in San Salvadortraced the origins of their political consciousness to participation in a base community.

The Salvadoran army was well aware of the effects of the new theology. Starting in the 1970s, it targeted Catholic organizers for harassment and death. In March of 1980 Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass; the murder was attributed to a right-wing death squad. Nine months later, four U.S. churchwomen who were working in El Salvador were killed, causing outrage in the States. And in November of 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women were killed on the San Salvador campus of the Jesuit-run Central American University.

Salvadoran American Catholics have not reproduced the full-fledged base communities that they left behind in El Salvador. However, many Salvadoran Americans are members of progressive Latino Catholic congregations, influenced by liberation theology and Vatican II, which advocate social justice and self-empowerment among the poor. These same congregations have a history of activity in the sanctuary movement, helping their Salvadoran members gain a foothold in the United States.

In addition to the Catholic church, several evangelical Protestant denominations have Salvadoran churches. These communities were founded throughout the Salvadoran countryside during the twentieth century by missionaries from the United States. In the 1970s and 1980s the evangelical sects increased their missionary efforts, in particular through the influence of American military advisers on soldiers in the Salvadoran army. Both in El Salvador and in the States, Salvadoran evangelicals tend to be more socially and politically conservative than Catholics.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Salvadorans have often been referred to as "the Germans of Central America" because of their strong work ethic (Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions [New York: Norton, 1993], p. 10). Salvadorans in the United States are among the hardest-working immigrants, working enough hours at low-paying jobs to send about $800 million home every year.

Although many Salvadoran refugees worked on the land before immigrating to the United States, few of them settled in America's rural areas. In this respect, Salvadorans differ from newly arrived Mexican Americans, many of whom engage in migrant farm labor; Salvadoran immigrants are instead concentrated in unskilled urban jobs that do not require English.

Many Salvadoran American men work in hotel and restaurant kitchens, especially in Los Angeles. Others work as day laborers in the building trades. Many Salvadoran American women work as nannies and maids. Both men and women perform cleaning and janitorial services in hotels, commercial buildings, and homes. Some Salvadorans also work as unlicensed street vendors of food and goods, a line of work which is illegal in Los Angeles and other cities but is nevertheless tolerated and in fact contributes to the life and economy of the city.

Although Salvadoran Americans toil in the lowest-paying sectors of the American economy, they are slowly but inexorably becoming more prosperous. They work long hours, save a great deal, and are gradually moving from the inner cities to the suburbs.

Because the majority of Salvadoran Americans continue to toil in the lowest-paying sectors of the American economy, tens of thousands of these immigrants remain in both urban and suburban ghettoes, alienated from the communities around them. Many live in overcrowded shared or partitioned housing and struggle to get ahead while they support families back in El Salvador. Others, however, are becoming more prosperous, and are participating members of the communities in which they live.

Salvadoran American income is of vital importance to El Salvador. Salvadoran Americans, even those who are poor, have an incentive to send money to family and friends in El Salvador because a U.S. dollar buys much more there than in the States. In all, they send approximately $800 million back home per yearclose to $1000 per person. These payments, known as remittances, are the largest source of income for El Salvadorlarger than either coffee exports or U.S. government aid. For this reason, El Salvador is sometimes said to have a "remittance economy" (Montes and Vásquez, p. 15). It is in part because of this contribution to the economy at home that Salvadoran politicians lobby Washington for permanent status for Salvadoran Americans.

Salvadoran Americans have also brought large numbers of American consumer goods to El Salvador. By 1994 far more homes in El Salvador had color televisions, stereos, and other modern equipment than they did 15 years earlier. In this way, too, Salvadoran Americans have transformed the texture of life in El Salvador.

In addition to gifts and remittances, Salvadoran Americans have extensive investments in their home country. They may not plan to return permanently, but many are keeping the option open. According to one report, two-thirds of new housing built in San Salvador is bought by Salvadoran Americans (Tom Gibb, "Those Who Didn't Flee Rely on U.S.," San Francisco Chronicle, August 30, 1993. Taking as its model the role American Jews played in the growth of Israel, the Los Angeles agency El Rescate hopes to establish a bank that will allow expatriates to invest directly in Salvadoran development (Robert Lopez, "A Piece of the Pie," Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1993).

Politics and Government

The Salvadoran American community has not been a significant political force either in the United States or at home. However, the size, concentration, and organization of the community suggest that this may change in the future. Most Salvadoran Americans are not U.S. citizens and therefore do not have the right to vote in elections. Salvadorans do not have nearly as much influence with the political establishment as voting constituencies have. In Los Angeles, for instance, there is a stark contrast between the U.S.-born Chicano neighborhoods of East L.A. and the Pico-Union and West-lake neighborhoods, populated by immigrant Mexicans and Central Americans. The former have many community centers, legal services, and social workers; the latter have very few (Hector Tobar, "No Strength in Numbers for LA's Divided Latinos," Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1992). This situation is slowly changing, however: Carlos Vaquerano, the Salvadoran community affairs director of CARECEN, was named to the board of Rebuild L.A., organized to help the city recover from the L.A. riots in 1992 (Miles Corwin, "Understanding the Riots," Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1992).

One area of U.S. politics in which Salvadoran Americans have played an important role is in legislation regarding their immigration status. In the debate leading to the passage of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadoran refugees and the extensions of that status, Salvadoran organizations lobbied politicians and brought their cases of persecution to the press. At first, refugee organizations were run by Americans, and Salvadorans often appeared in public only with bandannas over their faces. Gradually, Salvadorans and other Central Americans began to take charge of the refugee organizations and assume a higher public profile.

Salvadoran Americans have also contributed significantly to labor union activity. Many refugees fought for the right to organize under repressive conditions in El Salvador, and they brought dedication, even militancy, to American unions. In a 1990 Los Angeles janitors' strike, for instance, Salvadoran union members continued to march and demonstrate even under the threat of police violence. And Salvadoran street vendors in Los Angeles have organized to improve their precarious situation (Tracy Wilkinson, "New Questions Arise for Salvadorans in Los Angeles," Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1992).


Most Salvadoran Americans are not active in or outspoken about Salvadoran politics. Those U.S. organizations most actively involved in Salvadoran politics (such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, CISPES) have attracted little participation by Salvadoran Americans themselves. The immigrants' own organizations have focused not on politics at home, but on relief and jobs in immigrant communities throughout the United States. This relative indifference to home politics may be surprising, given the political passions that have long raged in El Salvador; but the majority of Salvadoran Americans seem interested in putting the hatred of the past behind them.

While the most ideologically committed of the Salvadoran refugees settled in Mexico, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica, those who settled in the United States focused on survival and building a community. Refugees who fled the government and refugees who fled the guerrillas have a lot in common; many will not even discuss their political beliefs, lest it disrupt the fragile solidarity of the refugee community. Furthermore, many Salvadorans on the left became active in politics because of the desperate poverty and class war in El Salvador; when they arrived in the United States, where it seemed for the first time possible to escape poverty through hard work, their political commitment sometimes melted away.

Salvadorans outside El Salvador are not permitted to cast absentee ballots in that country's elections. The majority of the refugee community is thought to favor the left, and the absence of their votes is believed to have helped the right-wing party ARENA win the Salvadoran presidency in 1989 and 1994 (Lisa Leff, "At Peace but Uneasy, Salvadorans Vote Today," Washington Post, March 20, 1994).

The relative lack of political influence among Salvadoran Americans is not necessarily permanent. Salvadoran immigrants are densely concentrated in a few cities, and they have a strong infrastructure in refugee organizations. As more Salvadorans become U.S. citizens, the immigrant community will probably play a larger role in local and regional politics. And given their economic contribution, they will almost certainly come to exert more influence in El Salvador.

Individual and Group Contributions


Claribel Alegría (1924 ), the most famous living Salvadoran writer, was born in Nicaragua but moved with her family to El Salvador at an early age. She studied at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and has since visited the United States on a regular basis. With her U.S.-born husband, Darwin Flakoll, she has lived in various parts of the worldparticularly Spain and Nicaraguabut she considers herself a Salvadoran. Her autobiographical poetry and fiction (some written in collaboration with her husband) is very popular among both Salvadorans and Salvadoran Americans and provides a rich portrait of bourgeois life in a provincial Salvadoran city.

Many Salvadorans involved in their country's political strife have recorded their feelings in poetry; one such writer, Miguel Huezo Mixco (1954 ), was a guerrilla soldier who composed and published verses during campaigns against the army (Mirrors of War [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985], p. 147).

Dagoberto Reyes, a Salvadoran painter and sculptor, immigrated to Los Angeles in the early 1980s. His sculpture "Porque Emigramos" ("Why We Immigrate") was commissioned to stand in Los Angeles's MacArthur Park.

Alvaro Torres, a popular singer of Spanish-language romantic ballads, was born in El Salvador and lived in Guatemala and Mexico before moving to the United States. José Reyes, another popular Salvadoran musician, also lives in the United States.

Christy Turlington (1969 ) is an internationally known supermodel. The daughter of a Salvadoran mother, she began modeling at the age of 14. She has appeared on the runways of Paris, Milan, and New York, in the pages of every major fashion magazine, and has contracts with Maybelline, Calvin Klein, and Vidal Sassoon. Turlington is also a noted animal rights activist and has raised money for Salvadoran causes.


Jorge Catán Zablah (1939 ), a Salvadoran who received his Ph.D. from University of California at Santa Barbara, is the chairman of the Spanish Department at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.


Colonel Nicolás Carranza is an infamous Salvadoran American who commanded El Salvador's Treasury Police in the early 1980s. He has been accused of organizing and overseeing many of the clandestine death squads that operated during those years. In 1988 the Nation reported that he was living in Kentucky, supported by active duty pay from the Salvadoran military and an annual stipend from the CIA.


Hugo Perez, a midfielder on the U.S. national soccer team, immigrated from El Salvador to Los Angeles as a child. The second-highest all-time scorer on the U.S. team, he contributed to America's unexpectedly competitive performance in the 1994 World Cup. During World Cup matches played at Pasadena, California, Salvadoran Americans were among the most vociferous fans of the U.S. team. Waldir Guerra (1967 ), another great Salvadoran soccer player who learned his craft in L.A.'s highly competitive Salvadoran soccer leagues, immigrated to the United States from his hometown of San Vicente, El Salvador, at age 16. He was a star in college and professional soccer in California and later returned to El Salvador to play professional soccer there. A member of the Santa Ana team, he is considered the second-best player in all of El Salvador.


Most Salvadoran Americans rely on the general Spanish-language media in the United States, which is largely produced by Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. There are very few media outlets geared specifically toward Salvadoran Americans.


KPFK-FM (90.7).

Pacifica Radio for Southern California, broadcasts a radio show for Salvadorans hosted by Carlos Figueroa, who has also worked with the FMLN's Radio Venceremos in El Salvador.

Address: 3729 Cahuenga Boulevard West, North Hollywood, California 91604.

Telephone: (818) 985-2711.

E-mail: [email protected].



KMET-TV, Channel 38.

This Los Angeles station airs a 30-minute daily show focusing on Salvadoran American news and culture, hosted by José Trinidad.

Contact: Laura Cohen, Public Relations Director.

Telephone: (213) 469-5638.

Organizations and Associations

Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN).

Address: 91 North Franklin Street, Suite 211, Hempstead, New York 11550.

Telephone: (516) 489-8330.

Fax: (516) 489-8308.

E-mail: [email protected].


Central American Resource Center (CARECEN).

Founded in 1983 as Central American Refugee Center. A relief organization for refugees, CARECEN has evolved into a community self-help and advocacy organization for Central Americans. Though largely staffed by non-Central Americans, its director is Salvadoran American. The Los Angeles office has changed its name from the Central American Refugee Center to the Central American Resource Center. CARECEN has independent offices in several U.S. cities.

Contact: Robert Lovato, Executive Director.

Address: 1636 West Eighth Street, Los Angeles, California.

Telephone: (213) 385-1638.

Centro Presente.

A community center for Central Americans in the Boston area.

Address: 54 Essex Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Telephone: (617) 497-9080.

El Rescate.

Established in 1981, El Rescate provides legal, educational, and community economic development services to Central American refugees in the Los Angeles area.

Contact: Oscar Andrade, Director.

Address: 1340 South Bonnie Brae Street, Los Angeles, California.

Telephone: (213) 736-4703.

Interfaith Office on Accompaniment (IOA).

Works to support the refugees and displaced communities of El Salvador. Aims to enhance moral, political, and economic development by sending interfaith delegations and church volunteers to assist the Salvadoran people.

Contact: Lana Dalbert, Chair.

Address: 1050 South Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, California 94110.

Telephone: (415) 821-7102.

Museums and Research Centers

Central America Resource Center (CARC).

This Texas organization releases a bimonthly English-language newsletter with political and cultural news from Central America, selected and translated from a variety of Spanish-language news sources. It also maintains a library and archive in its Austin office. Not to be confused with the social service organization CARECEN.

Address: 2520 Longview, Austin, Texas 78705.

Telephone: (512) 476-9841.

Hemispheric Migration Project, Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance, Georgetown University.

This project sponsors and publishes research on various population movements within the Americas, including the migration of Central Americans to the United States.

Address: Box 2298, Hoya Station, Washington, D.C. 20057.

Telephone: (202) 687-7032.

Sources for Additional Study

Bachelis, Faren. The Central Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Constable, Pamela. "We Will Stay Together," Washington Post Magazine, October 30, 1994.

Crittenden, Ann. Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988.

Mahler, Sarah J. Salvadorans in Suburbia: Symbiosis and Conflict. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.

Montes, Segundo, Juan Jose, and García Vásquez. Salvadoran Migration to the United States: An Exploratory Study. Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration Policy and Refugee Assistance, Georgetown University, 1988.

Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo. Central American Refugees and U.S. High Schools. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1989.

U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs. Central American Migration to the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1990.