Salvadoran Americans

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Salvadoran Americans

Jeremy Mumford


Salvadoran Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Republic of El Salvador, a nation situated near the northern end of the Central American isthmus. El Salvador 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 name—which means “the Savior,” referring to Jesus Christ—by the Spanish. 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. 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. The smallest of the Central American states, the Republic of El Salvador measures 21,041 square kilometers, which makes it about the size of the state of Massachusetts.

The estimated population of El Salvador in 2012 was just over six million, according to the CIA World Factbook. Ninety percent of the population is mestizo, meaning of both Spanish and Indian ancestry. Fifty-seven percent of the citizens are Roman Catholic, 21.2 percent are Protestant, and very small numbers are Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, or other religions. The urban population of El Salvador has steadily grown; in 2012, 64 percent of the citizenry lived in cities. Still, a considerable portion of the population remains in the countryside to work the coffee and sugar plantations and other farms. El Salvador has the third-largest economy in Central America, exporting assembled factory products, coffee, sugar, shrimp, textiles, and chemicals. Exports made in maquilas (factorie ntracted by corporations to perform the final assembly and packaging of products) accounted for 45 percent of El Salvador's exports in 2007. Remittances accounted for 17 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 and were received by about a third of all households.

Before 1960 fewer than 10,000 Salvadorans lived in the United States. This number rose dramatically during El Salvador's civil war (1979–1992), when between 500,000 and a million Salvadoran refugees came secretly and without documentation to the United States. The refugees settled mostly in Spanish-speaking communities in San Francisco; Chicago; Houston, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and the New York suburb of Hempstead, Long Island. After the Salvadoran civil war, the country was struck by several natural disasters, including earthquakes, hurricanes, and a volcanic eruption, that further spurred immigration to the United States. About 500,000 Salvadorans have come to the United States each decade since 1980.

By 2010 the Pew Research Center estimated there were 1.7 million people of Salvadoran descent living in the United States, making them the third-largest Latino group in the country. Other estimates were higher, and the EFE World News Service refers to 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States in 2010. Pew estimates that only 28 percent of these are American citizens. Thirty-five percent of Salvadorans in the United States reside in California, while another 15 percent live in Texas. Yet smaller communities in New York and Maryland have the highest percentages of Salvadorans among their residents. Increasingly, as Salvadorans decide they are here to stay, they are looking for ways to attain permanent residency and citizenship.


Early History 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 CE, 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 what now is San Salvador. During the 1520s, however, 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.

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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 comprised 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. However, an extreme disparity remains in El Salvador between the powerful and the power-less, between the wealthy landowners—according to legend, the “Fourteen Families”—and the multitudinous poor.

El Salvador became independent from Spain in 1821, after which it joined with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to form the United Provinces of Central America. However, this regional federation dissolved after twenty 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 had 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 greatest cash crop has been coffee, although in recent decades the country has also grown cotton and sugar. El Salvador organized its economy with ruthless 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, Agustín Farabundo Martí, a founder of the Salvadoran Communist Party, led another. This was followed by the systematic government murder of rural Indians, leaving an estimated 30,000 dead—an event known as la matanza, or “the slaughter.”

Modern Era 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. The guerrilla war and the “dirty war” that accompanied it were a national catastrophe. In 1992, however, 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, but it has had a profound significance on both countries. The flight of Salvadorans from their own country was the most dramatic result of El Salvador's civil war, draining the nation of between 20 and 30 percent of its population. Half or more of the refugees—between 500,000 and one million—immigrated to the United States, which was home to fewer than 10,000 Salvadorans before 1960, according to Faren Bachelis, in The Central Americans (1990). El Salvador's exiled population, as well as its dollars, continued to affect life in the home country.

Salvadoran 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.

Significant Immigration Waves 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. These circumstances have led to patterns of intra-Central American immigration. 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 also led Salvadorans to seek refuge in other countries. During the 1980s, death squads—secretly connected with government security forces—murdered many suspected leftists. Operating mostly at night, these groups killed tens of thousands of people during the civil war, according to Bachelis. 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” groups—all women wearing blue jeans, for instance, as Mark Danner states in his 1993 New Yorker article “The Truth of El Mozote.” The bodies of some victims were never recovered; these people form the ranks of the desaparicinos (disappeared).

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This climate of pervasive terror prompted many Salvadorans to flee their homeland. Some left after seeing friends or family members murdered or after receiving death threats themselves; 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 and 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. The places where a few Salvadorans established themselves became a magnet for friends and relatives. About three-quarters of the Salvadoran town of Intipuca, for instance, moved to Washington, D.C., according to Segundo Montes and Juan Jose García Vásquez in Salvadoran Migration to the United States (1988). On Long Island, outreach 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 city—by some counts second only to San Salvador in population.

Salvadoran refugees during the 1980s were only one current in a broad stream of Central American

Salvadoran refugees hold a meeting.

Salvadoran refugees hold a meeting. NIK WHEELER / CORBIS / GLOW IMAGE

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. The INS, however, 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 work-load dropped in their laps, for which they had little experience or funding. According to Ann Crittenden in Sanctuary: A Story of American Conscience and the Law in Collision (1988), many agents tried to move immigration cases along by any means necessary, such as intimidating Salvadorans into signing papers in English that put them on the next plane to El Salvador or refusing asylum applications after ten-minute interviews and deporting the applicants before they had a chance to appeal.

The deportation of Salvadoran refugees led many liberal American activists to take an interest in the Central American influx. Disheartened by conservative trends in the United States 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, and U.S. 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 Page 50  |  Top of Articlerectories, 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 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 (TPS) to Salvadorans who had been in the United States since 1990. This status, known as the Deferred Enforced Departure, allowed qualifying Salvadorans to live and work in the States for fixed periods of time. Although the war in El Salvador ended in 1992, many Salvadoran Americans remained afraid to return to their homeland. Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, the political party most closely associated with the death squads, was in power from after the civil war until 2009, and many of the conditions that brought about the war remained the same. Furthermore, Salvadoran Americans had established roots and new livelihoods in the United States. As reported by the Los Angeles Times on December 27, 1992, 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. However, Salvadoran Americans maintain close ties to friends and relatives at home. Within a year after the end of the civil war, about 350,000 Salvadoran Americans visited El Salvador, the Los Angeles Times reported on May 19, 1993.

Due to poor INS records and the low profile of undocumented immigrants, statistics regarding Salvadoran immigration are notoriously unreliable. By 1995 the total number of Salvadorans in the United States was somewhere between 500,000 and one million. Approximately one-third of the immigrants 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, and the remaining third were undocumented and, therefore, illegal.

In May 2001, after two major earthquakes followed by hundreds of serious aftershocks, U.S. President George Bush reauthorized the expired TPS for Salvadorans living in the United States since February 13, 2001, the date of the second major earthquake. This allowed them an avenue to live and work legally, if they were willing and able (it could cost several hundred dollars) to register for TPS. The earthquakes had left one in four people in El Salvador homeless, and remittances from the United States were major sources of income. After eighteen months, TPS was renewed for 265,000 Salvadorans living in the United States. When TPS was renewed again in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007, Salvadorans, were relieved each time. However, many began seeking routes for permanent residency, and there was growing political debate about the lack of a long-term policy. For example, Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies said in the Bergen County (New Jersey) Record, in 2003 that the government was creating a problem by providing one extension after another to immigrants who had arrived illegally: “The longer we don't enforce the law, the more difficult it becomes to do so, because people put down roots, they become part of a community, they have children born in the U.S.”

Over the next few years, the social and political effects of Salvadoran Americans' long-term unstable legal status came to the fore. In 2007, along with renewal of the TPS, the United States increased deportation of undocumented Salvadorans and those with criminal records. Fifteen thousand were deported in 2007, followed by 20,000 the next year. Salvadoran gangs operating in California and New York made headlines such as “Gangland in Suburbia” (New York Times, 2009) and “Refocusing Immigration Efforts on Gangs” (New York Times, 2010). In 2008, with estimates ranging from 1.1 to 1.5 million Salvadorians in the United States, there were 340,000 Lawful Permanent Residents, nearly 230,000 with TPS, and no clear path to either citizenship or return to El Salvador. The United States was no longer an asylum for refugees; nearly all of the 19,659 Salvadorans admitted to the country for permanent residence in 2008 entered as family-sponsored immigrants and as the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, back at home in El Salvador, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) Party won the presidency for the first time since the end of the civil war in 1992. For Salvadorans in the United States, according to a New York Times report in 2009, this election generated both excitement and debate, and brought out the “one foot here, one foot in the homeland” feeling that had plagued Salvadoran Americans for decades.

According to a 2010 study by the Migration Policy Institute, by 2008 nearly 40 percent of employed Salvadoran American men were working in construction, extraction, and transportation, while nearly half of Salvadoran American women were laboring in the services sector of the economy. The concentration of Salvadoran Americans in low-wage jobs was caused by several issues, including low high school graduation rates and the language barrier.


Spanish is the first language of almost all Salvadorans. Salvadoran Spanish is very close to the Spanish spoken in Mexico, Honduras and other Central American

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CENGAGE LEARNING, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED U.S. Census Bureau, 2009–2011 American Community Survey

countries, though it does have distinguishing charac teristics. The most commonly noted is the use of the familiar pronoun vos with its corresponding verb forms. The familiar and formal in El Salvador are affected by class and urban/rural distinctions and have been retained in the United States in heavily Salvadoran areas such as in Houston. In his authoritative work Varieties of Spanish in the United States (2008), John Lipski points out that young Salvadorans born in the United States rarely use the voseo verb forms or other particularly Salvadoran Spanish characteristics, though they “may tag vos to questions and affirmations as an explicit affirmation of Salvadoran identity.” An example is George tiene mi dinero, vos (“George has my money”).

El Salvador stands apart from neighboring countries in that its indigenous languages are virtually dead. Only a handful of words from the indigenous languages of the Pipil (Nahuat) and K'ekchi Indians have survived in Salvadoran Spanish. 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. However, Salvadoran caliche, or street language, is a Nahuat-inflected Spanish used in the everyday slang by all classes of people, especially the poor and working classes. Caliche in the United States is a marker of Salvadoran identity.

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. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 90 percent of Salvadoran Americans spoke Spanish at home and under 50 percent rated their English as “very good.”


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 communities, or “base communities,” to improve their lives. Page 52  |  Top of ArticleDedicated 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 the nation necessitated an increase in the involvement of the Catholic laity. Base communities sprang up both in the cities and rural areas.

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 made up the rural left during the civil war—guerrillas, farmworker federation members, activists who demonstrated in San Salvador—traced 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 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 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women were killed on the San Salvador campus of the Jesuit-run Central American University.

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

Assimilation for Salvadorans in the United States has been deeply affected by the legal, psychological, and economic problems of refugees from war and natural disasters. At least two-thirds of Salvadorans in the United States are undocumented and experience the specific problems related to that status, such as fear of deportation, exploitation in the labor market, and lack of personal safety.

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.


Assimilation for Salvadorans in the United States has been deeply affected by the legal, psychological, and economic problems of refugees from war and natural disasters. At least two-thirds of Salvadorans in the United States are undocumented and experience the specific problems related to that status, such as fear of deportation, exploitation in the labor market, and lack of personal safety.

Until well into the 1990s, Salvadoran Americans formed an insular community—possessing their own social clubs, doctors, and even banks—and often had little contact with outsiders. Many older immigrants have spent years in the United States without ever learning any English.

Whether they immigrated largely out of fear or a desire for a new life, Salvadorans in the United States, especially the younger generations, are gradually becoming Americanized. Although conditions have improved in El Salvador, few refugees have returned home. To reflect the evolving needs of the Salvadoran American community, the Central American Refugee Center in Los Angeles, one of the largest support organizations for refugees, changed its name to the Central American Resource Center in the 1990s. Although factors such as the insecurity associated with undocumented status, limited job opportunities, and separation from families in El Salvador led to gang problems in the 1990s, the Salvadoran American community began to bounce back in the twenty-first century, with increased pride in its heritage and a feeling of being better acclimated to American culture. According to a 2012 article in Newsday about that year's Long Island Salvador Fest, the crowd chanted, “Cinco, cero, tres,” the international phone code for El Salvador. The article quotes a twenty-five-year-old Salvadoran American man at the festival who had grown up in the United States: “We came to adapt to other cultures, but somehow we forgot our own cultures. Our roots and our culture are something really important about our community.”

Traditions and Customs 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 culture, though it is a difficult proposition since most settle in large 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 delivers 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 Page 53  |  Top of ArticleLos Angeles barrio. Thus, they are rapidly dying out among Salvadoran American children, a generation thoroughly immersed in the world of American cartoons and comic book characters.

Cuisine Salvadoran food is similar to Mexican food, except it 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 grid-dle-cake stuffed with various combinations of cheese, spices, beans, and pork. Pupusas are served with cur-tido, 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 slices that are spiced with salt, lime juice, red pepper, and crushed pumpkin and sesame seeds.

Traditional Dress Salvadorans dress in 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 that are tightly wrapped with colored yarn.

Dances and Songs 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 also 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 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.

Traditional Salvadoran music carries influences from the Mayans, Africans, Spanish, and indigenous people from the region. The güiro—a hollowed-out gourd used to keep the rhythm—is one of the driving instruments.

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Salvadoran Spanish is rich in proverbs. Two notable examples are:

Lo que en el corazón se tiene, por la boca sale.

What's in your heart can't stay hidden for long.

Querer pollo por cinco.

To desire finer things but not want to pay their price.

Holidays 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. In 2006, the New York State legislature designated August 6 as Salvadoran-American Day, or El Día del Salvadoreño.

Health Issues and Practices 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 communities—including California through 1994's Proposition 187—have 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.

Some Salvadoran Americans carry deep emotional scars from the torture they suffered or witnessed in their native country. 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

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1 mango, peeled, cored, thickly sliced

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon chile flakes

1 tablespoon clear honey

1 lime, juice only

2 lime wedges, to garnish powdered sugar, for dusting

Preheat the oven to broil. Place the mango on an oiled baking tray. Drizzle the mango with the olive oil and sprinkle with chile flakes, honey and lime juice. Place under the broiler for 3–4 minutes, or until golden brown. Dust with powdered sugar. Serve with lime wedges.

through their traumatic experiences, according to Marcelo Suarez-Orozco in Central American Refugees and U.S. High Schools.


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.

Because of 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 long periods of time during the immigration process found that when they were finally reunited as a family, they had lost some of their traditional 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 the United States together, the 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 and argue for their parents with English-speaking storekeepers. In general, they became more knowledgeable and confident than their parents, a role-reversal that proved awkward 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 distribute drugs, extort money from local merchants (especially street vendors), and battle for turf with Mexican gang members.

Rituals of Family Life 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 that 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 honor 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 inter-ring 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 arranged to have their bodies sent to El Salvador for burial after death, a process 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.

Public Assistance 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 find—either through assistance for U.S.-born children or through fraudulently obtained benefits. The extent of reliance on public assistance is difficult to estimate due to its underground nature.

Education Salvadorans place a high value on education, partially because of the difficulty of Page 55  |  Top of Articleattaining one. Since 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, but this proved challenging.

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, sought again to exclude undocumented students from public schools. The law was challenged and found to be unconstitutional by a federal court, and it was killed in 1999. Though similar laws have been attempted in several other states, the growing Latino electorate has turned the political tide in the twenty-first century. In 2001, for example, California passed the California Immigrant Higher Education Act, known as AB540, allowing eligible undocumented students to attend public community and four-year colleges in California. However, tuition was still out of reach for many Salvadoran immigrant families, which prompted the Salvador American Leadership and Education Fund (SALEF) to step in and award scholarships to AB540-eligible students. By 2010 SALEF had awarded 750 such scholarships. Furthermore, in 2011 California passed the California Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, otherwise known as the DREAM Act, which enabled students meeting the AB540 criteria to receive financial aid.


Salvadorans have often been referred to as “the Germans of Central America” because of their strong work ethic, according to Walter LaFeber in Inevitable Revolutions (1993). Salvadoran Americans are among the hardest-working immigrants, working enough hours at low-paying jobs to send home billions of dollars each year.

Although many Salvadoran refugees worked in agriculture 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 and skilled 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 labor as unlicensed street vendors of food and goods, a line of work that is illegal in Los Angeles and other cities but is nevertheless tolerated and, in fact, contributes to the life and economy of these urban centers.

Although many Salvadoran Americans still toil in the lowest-paying sectors of the American economy, some are starting to become more prosperous. They work long hours, save a great deal, and are gradually moving from the inner cities to the suburbs. With their savings, they have opened restaurants and other service companies, employing other Salvadoran Americans. Additionally, through increased access to education, particularly in California, Salvadoran Americans are more inclined to enter the professional ranks.

Nevertheless, tens of thousands of Salvadoran Americans 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. The more prosperous, however, are becoming active members of the communities in which they live. For example, a 2012 article in the Los Angeles Times reported that “Salvadorans are opening more businesses, naming schools and roads after community heroes, and even reaching for political power. At least four Salvadoran Americans are running for City Council this year, and for the first time, there is a Salvadoran candidate for mayor.”

The incomes of Salvadoran Americans are 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: a U.S. dollar buys much more there than in the States. According to the Banco Central de Reserva de El Salvador, Salvadorans living in the United States sent home $800 million in 1999; in 2008 this number rose to almost $3.8 billion. These payments, known as remittances, are the largest source of income for El Salvador—larger than either coffee exports or U.S. government aid. For this reason, El Salvador is sometimes said to have a “remittance economy,” according to Montes and Vásquez in Salvadoran Migration to the United States: An Exploratory Study. It is in part because of this contribution to the economy at home that Salvadoran politicians lobby Washington, D.C., for permanent status for Salvadoran Americans.

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 a report in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1993, two-thirds of the new housing built in San Salvador during that period was bought by Salvadoran Americans. However, the global economic downturn in the late 2000s had strong ramifications on investment in El Salvador. By 2011 El Salvador was the beneficiary of the least foreign investment in Latin America, as Salvadoran Americans were investing more in the United States.

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Initially, political activity among Salvadoran Americans was primarily limited to the important role they played in legislation regarding their immigration status. In the debate leading to the passage of TPS 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.

For many years, the Salvadoran American community was not a significant political factor in the United States or at home. The immigrants' organizations had focused not on politics but on relief and jobs in immigrant communities throughout the United States. The relative indifference among most Salvadoran Americans to politics in their native country was attributed to their interest in putting the hatred of the past behind them.

The most ideologically committed of the Salvadoran refugees settled in Mexico, Nicaragua, or Costa Rica, while those who came the United States focused on survival and building a community. Refugees who fled the government and refugees who fled the guerrillas had a lot in common: many would not even discuss their political beliefs, lest they disrupt the fragile solidarity of the refugee community. Furthermore, many Salvadorans on the left who had been active in politics because of the desperate poverty and the class war in El Salvador saw this commitment melt away upon arriving in the United States, where, for the first time, it seemed possible to escape poverty through hard work.

However, when Mauricio Funes, a journalist with CNN en Espanol, ran for president of El Salvador in 2009 as the FMLN candidate, his campaign awakened long-dormant enthusiasm among Salvadoran Americans. Luis Reyes, a co-owner of the upscale Washington, D.C., restaurant Lauriol Plaza, heavily invested time, money, and energy in organizing other successful Salvadoran American business owners to help get Funes elected. Reyes traced this commitment to a decision he had made as a young immigrant in the 1980s not to become involved in El Salvador's civil war. “I'd wanted to participate in a direct way,” he said in a 2012 interview with Alexandra Starr in the online journal Inc. “Those men [in the 1980s] were fighting for a just cause.” Younger Salvadoran Americans, who did not remember the war directly, also became involved. Almost three decades after the civil war, about thirty members of the Salvadoran Union of University Students, an organization on California college campuses, flew to El Salvador to learn about the election firsthand.

At the same time, Salvadoran Americans also became more politically involved in the United States. “When we first came to the United States, it was just about survival, so that's what our organizations focused on,” Salvadoran-born Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Maryland state delegate, said in 2009 at a Salvadoran leadership summit, according to a 2009 article in the Washington Post. “Now we have a community that has evolved. … We have to either create new political institutions, or we have to expand those current organizations so they also play a political role.” Another Salvadoran American in Maryland's legislature, state senator Victor Ramirez, was cofounder of Latinos for Obama in Maryland in 2008.


Literature 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 subsequently visited the United States on a regular basis. With her U.S.-born husband, Darwin Flakoll, she lived in various parts of the world—notably Spain and Nicaragua—but always considered 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.

After she received the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1996, the writing of Leticia Hernandez-Linares appeared in newspapers, anthologies, and literary journals, including Latino Literature Today, This Bridge We Call Home, and Street Art San Francisco. Hernandez-Linares, a performer, organizer, and educator as well as a writer, was born in Los Angeles. In 2001 she began organizing and hosting Pinta tu Propio Mundo, an annual women's poetry, performance, and art event; under a new name, Amate: Women Painting Stories; this series became part of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program in San Francisco. In 2002 Calaca Press published her poetry chapbook, Razor Edges of My Tongue.

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

Education Jorge Kattán Zablah (1939–), a Salvadoran who received his Ph from the University of California, Santa Barbara, was chairman of the Page 57  |  Top of ArticleSpanish department at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

Politics and Government Ana Sol Gutierrez (1942–) has served in the Maryland legislature since 2003. She was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, and came to the United States with her family in 1947 at age five. She was the co-organizer of the First Salvadoran American Leadership Council in 2009.

Victor R. Ramirez (1974–) represents Prince George County in Maryland's legislature. He was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and moved to the United States with his family in 1974.

Stage and Screen In 2003 Jose Rene “J. R.” Martinez (1983–) sustained severe burns to over 34 percent of his body while serving as in the Army infantry in Iraq. Out of that tragedy came an improbable journey of inspiration: he has starred in several television shows and movies and wrote a book, Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit (2012).

Sports Born in Los Angeles, Carlos “Famoso” Hernandez (1971–) is the first world champion boxer of Salvadoran descent. He became the International Boxing Federation super featherweight champion in 2003. He retired in 2006 with a record of 39–8, including twenty-three knockouts.


Most Salvadoran Americans rely on the general Spanish-language media offerings in the United States, which are primarily produced by Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. The largest Spanish-language television network is Univision, whose Internet news arm provides updates from each Latin American country, including El Salvador. Some of the largest Spanish-language newspapers in areas where Salvadoran Americans live include La Opinión in Los Angeles, La Voz de Houston in Houston, El Tecolote in San Francisco, Al Dia in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, El Nuevo Herald in Miami, Florida, El Diario la Prensa in New York City, and Mundo Hispanico in Atlanta, Georgia.


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Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Los Angeles

This organization was founded by a group of Salvadoran refugees whose mission was to secure legal status for the thousands of Central Americans fleeing civil war. Over the past twenty-five years, CARECEN has transformed itself from a small grassroots group to the largest Central American organization in the country. Its clients have similarly changed from refugees fleeing war to families who have put down roots in the United States and are building vibrant lives for themselves and their children.

Martha Arevalo, Executive Director
2845 West 7th Street
Los Angeles, California 90005
Phone: (213) 385-7800

Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), San Francisco

Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, Executive Director
3101 Mission Street
San Francisco, California 94110
Phone: (415) 642-4400

Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Washington, D.C.

1460 Columbia Road NW
Suite C-1
Washington, D.C. 20009
Phone: (202) 328-9799
Fax: (202) 328-7894

Centro Presente

This is a community center for Central Americans in the Boston area.

17 Inner Belt Road
Somerville, Massachusetts 02143
Phone: (617) 629-4731
Fax: (617) 629-2436

El Rescate

Established in 1981, El Rescate empowers immigrants, in particular Latinos, to improve their political and economic status.

Salvador Sanabria, Director
1501 West 8th Street
Suite 100
Los Angeles, California 90017
Phone: (213) 387-3284
Fax: (213) 387-9189

Salvadoran American Leadership and Education Fund (SALEF)

SALEF exists to foster the civic participation and representation of the Salvadoran and other Latino communities in the United States and to promote economic, educational, and political advancement and democracy in El Salvador.

Carlos Antonio H. Vaquerano, Executive Director
1625 West Olympic Boulevard
Suite 718
Los Angeles, California 90015
Phone: (213) 480-1052
Fax: (213) 487-2530


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Migration Policy Institute

The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.

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1400 16th Street NW
Suite 300
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: (202) 266-1940
Fax: (202) 266-1900

Pew Hispanic Center

Founded in 2001, the Pew Hispanic Center is a nonpartisan research organization that seeks to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the nation. The Center does not take positions on policy issues. It is a project of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank” in Washington, D.C., that provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping the United States and the world.

1615 L Street NW
Suite 700
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: (202) 419-3600
Fax: (202) 419-3608


Aizenman, N. C. “Salvadorans Seek a Voice To Match Their Numbers; Summit Aims to Raise Political Visibility.” Washington Post, 24 Sept. 2009: A10.

Coutin, Bibler, Susan. “Remembering the Nation: Gaps and Reckoning within Biographical Accounts of Salvadoran Émigrés.” Anthropological Quarterly 4 (2011): 809.

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

Bermudez, Esmeralda. “Fully Embracing Their Heritage; Immigrants and offspring Follow Salvadoran Events with Passion.” Los Angeles Times, 15 March 2009: A33.

Cordova, Carlos B. The Salvadoran Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

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

Kowalski, Kathiann M. Salvadorans in America. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 2006.

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.

Starr, Alexandra. “Luis Reyes: Entrepreneur as Revolutionary.” Inc. 30 Oct. 2012.

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

Watanabe, Teresa. “New Lives, but Old Traditions; Two Local Salvadoran Festivals Celebrate the Customs of the Central American Nation and the Struggles of Those Who Fled War and Created Lives Here.” Los Angeles Times, 5 Aug. 2007: B1.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300153