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Local Salvadorans Skeptical About Peace : Exiles: Many are reluctant to believe the fighting will stop. Even optimists face dilemma of whether to return home.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the skepticism forged by a decade of war, the largest Salvadoran exile community in the United States reacted cautiously Thursday to news that leftist guerrillas and the right-wing government of El Salvador have signed a landmark accord that promises peace.

“If it’s true, then it’s great,” said Vilma Rivas, a 28-year-old housekeeper and mother of three. “But I don’t believe it.”

That sentiment was repeated often Thursday throughout the streets, restaurants and shops of the churning Central American barrio that has sprung up west of downtown Los Angeles in the last 12 years and that now stretches from Pico-Union into Koreatown and beyond.

Even for the more optimistic, the dilemma is whether to return home. Many want to wait to see whether the fighting really stops; others, especially those who fled the tiny Central American country in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, say their lives are here now.

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Lawyer Ruben Martinez fears that his three daughters, who after eight years in the United States no longer read or write Spanish and have lost their taste for pupusas , could not readjust to life in El Salvador--peace or no.

“You establish your roots here, and you no longer think of yourself but of your children, who have lost the customs,” he said at his office near MacArthur Park. “After 12 years of fighting and destruction, there are new things that exist in El Salvador, and (old) things that don’t exist anymore.”

Nevertheless, Martinez, 39, said he intends to visit El Salvador soon to test the waters.

Ironically, as prospects for peace grow in El Salvador, the opportunities for Salvadoran exiles to remain in the United States diminish. Social workers predict that it will be more difficult to argue political asylum cases for Salvadorans, who were recently granted temporary safe haven under the 1990 Immigration Act.

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Still, no one is anticipating a great, immediate exodus back to El Salvador.

Maria Ramirez, a waitress at the Atlacatl Restaurant in Koreatown, said she is still haunted by the skirmishes that drove her from her village seven years ago. Nightly, she and her family would take refuge in the mountains around her home to escape the fighting between the army and the rebels, she recalled.

Even if the war is over, Ramirez said, there will be few jobs and no prosperity.

“Signing (the agreement) does not mean the killing stops,” Ramirez, 33, said. “You sacrifice a lot to come here, bring up your children, make a life. Go back now? The war, the houses destroyed, the poverty, the hunger. . . . You have to give it a lot of thought.”

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The Atlacatl restaurants--there are two--are typical of the dozens of Salvadoran eateries that serve the tortilla dishes known as pupusas , pig-foot soup and other regional delicacies. On the walls are copies of the national anthem and old tourism posters showing a pristine Costa del Sol beach and bikini-clad women--an El Salvador very distant from the war.

“Let’s hope it’s a lasting peace, not just a Band-Aid,” said Abelino Argueta Lazo, 38, manager of the Atlacatl who left his cattle ranch in the mountainous Morazan region, a longtime rebel stronghold, 14 years ago.

Sounding a more positive note, cashier Betty Esmeralda Martinez added: “I have a certain amount of hope. That is what sustains me.”

Tens of thousands of Salvadorans have poured steadily into Southern California during the last decade, taking up the jobs available to illegal immigrants. They became maids, nannies, car washers, seamstresses. Many eventually prospered, setting up small businesses, restaurants, parcel delivery services.

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The millions of dollars they sent home to relatives became El Salvador’s principal source of foreign exchange, crucial to the Salvadoran economy.

Advocates who work with Salvadorans estimate their number in Southern California to be close to half a million. Immigration authorities believe that number is high but agree that the largest concentration of Salvadoran exiles resides in Los Angeles.

In a small-sample survey conducted during the last week by the Central American Refugee Center in Los Angeles, less than a third of the Salvadorans asked said they would return home if a peace agreement were signed. But asked what they would do if a year passed and peace seemed to be holding, more than two-thirds said they would go home.


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