COLUMN ONE : Returning to Reclaim a Dream : More Salvadorans are going home to a land transformed by war--and peace. They seek a quality of life they could not find in the U.S.


Her friends in the United States thought Lilian Aguirre was crazy. There she was, earning a good salary and living in a home she owned in a New York suburb. Voted teacher-of-the-year by the school district where she taught English. Rearing three children with her husband, a chef.

Why on earth, after all these years, would Aguirre give it up to return to her native El Salvador?

“I’d like to know the reason myself,” she said with a laugh. “The truth is that it was always my dream to return to my country.”


And so she did, joining a tentative but steady flow of Salvadoran expatriates who are coming home after years of civil war. Attracted by the formal end of their nation’s 12-year conflict, repelled by the growing violence of urban America and often cushioned by a nest egg that will go much further here than in the United States, more and more Salvadorans are making the move.

Their arrival is changing a society struggling to recover and rebuild after years of brutal fratricide. As they return, Salvadorans are bringing with them new skills, customs and ideas. Gradually, a hybrid subculture is forming, one where kids speak Spanish with heavy English accents and dance to hip-hop instead of the typical cumbia ; one where men and women are challenging the tradition-dictated roles of gender and class.

They are opening businesses, building suburban subdivisions, reuniting long-divided families. And with them also come some of the ills of the society they left, including gangs and conspicuous consumption.

Some returning Salvadorans are uprooting lives constructed in foreign countries during a decade of exile; others, unable or unwilling to make a complete break, have become sort of binational commuters, one foot in each world.

“In the new El Salvador, it will be impossible to ignore a certain biculturalism,” said Jose Alfredo Burgos, a former guerrilla who is dividing his time between his rediscovered home in San Salvador and his home of the last seven years, San Francisco. Some “Salvadorans will return and others will remain in the States. There will be many who go back and forth. There will always be a fluidity between the two cultures.”

At the same time, the return poses a dilemma for the government, which argues that El Salvador’s still-fragile postwar economy cannot absorb a massive repatriation or stand to lose the estimated $800 million that Salvadorans living abroad send home annually. To that end, the government is actually working to encourage Salvadorans not to come back--not yet.


The government’s ally in that mission is the perception among many Salvadoran exiles that peace and stability in their troubled homeland may not be permanent. Although no one in El Salvador is predicting that the war will resume, many exiles still have doubts and no plans to return.

For those who do return, the adjustment can be difficult. “The El Salvador you left has very little to do with the El Salvador you come back to,” said Horacio Castellanos, a writer who spent almost 12 years abroad. “For the first few weeks, there is euphoria. Then comes the crisis of adaptation.”

Today’s El Salvador, these prodigal sons and daughters find, has seen changes profound and superficial. Streets once deserted because of wartime fear are snarled with crowds and traffic. Radio and television stations once made bland by censorship are lively with political discourse. The wounds of war--the polarization, the mistrust--are fresh and deep.

Carlos Figueroa, an activist who left El Salvador as a young student 12 years ago and returned in November, 1991, said he was stunned by some of the physical changes, the new cars, the American-style clothing.

“San Salvador now is sort of a cheap copy of Los Angeles,” said Figueroa, 28. “Going to Metrocentro (El Salvador’s largest shopping mall) was like going to the Glendale Galleria. Of course, when you start to work and find the phones that don’t work, the (haphazard) public transportation, the bureaucracy--you are reminded of the frustrations.”

Using the skills he honed at Los Angeles’ hip KPFK radio station, Figueroa became a popular music and talk show host at Radio Venceremos, the once-clandestine station now run by former guerrillas.


But he quickly realized that areas such as health care are still woefully underdeveloped. His wife nearly died after a complicated miscarriage. The couple returned to Los Angeles and have no plans to come back.

During this country’s long conflict between U.S.-backed government forces and leftist guerrillas, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans departed for the United States, Mexico and Europe. One estimate put the exile community as high as 1 million, or almost one-fifth of the national population.

Most of those who fled ended up in Southern California, Washington and New York. Many were political refugees, fleeing a certain death at the hands of right-wing execution squads or rebels. Many more were simply escaping generalized violence and hoping to make better lives for their families--reasons some give now, ironically, for returning home.

Aguirre, who returned to El Salvador a year ago after more than 15 years in the United States, is a case in point. Her life in Yonkers, she said, was a rat race. The crime and drugs in her neighborhood were so bad that she refused to let her children, not even her strapping 17-year-old son, go to the movies alone.

“I am a lot less stressed-out here,” Aguirre, 36, said, puffing on her third Marlboro Light. “In New York, lunch was running through the school cafeteria grabbing a sandwich and eating in the car as I rushed to my next assignment. Here I sit for lunch and am served.”

Aguirre has opened a restaurant in a San Salvador suburb and is remodeling a new home. She taught her American-born children Spanish while they lived in the States; now she encourages them to use English at home so they don’t lose it.


For this family and others like it, the going can be tough.

Aguirre chafes at what she calls the hypocrisy of El Salvador’s upper classes, who tend to value social position over ability. When she ate at the same table with her maids in a gesture of egalitarianism, Aguirre found herself the target of harsh criticism from her more traditional Salvadoran friends. “And the maids thought I was a fool,” she said.

Aguirre said she will adjust to the system. But she expects the system to do some adjusting, too. She bucks the system often--serving up the beer herself at her restaurant, and demanding her children’s “rights” before a stunned headmaster at one of San Salvador’s rigidly formal high schools.

Nowhere was the culture clash more painful than with her conservative in-laws, who found her too independent, too assertive and, ultimately, not fitting their vision of a good wife. The family’s attacks took their toll: Aguirre is getting a divorce, her 18-year marriage in certain ways a casualty of the return to El Salvador.

Many children and teen-agers who are returning with their families are coming to know a country that belongs not to them but to their parents and grandparents. For Ramiro Burgos, El Salvador represented a single, devastating memory: It was the country that killed his mother.

The boy, now 13, was taken from El Salvador at age 2 after his mother, a leftist activist, disappeared. He was reared in San Francisco. When his father suggested going back, Ramiro was frightened. He resisted. He imagined El Salvador little more than a violent backwater.

But a year later, Ramiro has decided he likes it here and wants to stay. He said he “feels” Salvadoran.


“El Salvador ya esta avanzando. Ahora tenemos shopping malls y freeways,” Ramiro said, speaking in the Spanglish that is common in the Chicano barrios of Los Angeles or New York.

“I thought the airport would be just a field and San Salvador would just be a lot of dirt,” said the gangly boy, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap perched backward on his head. “I didn’t know there’d be Pizza Hut and Wendy’s and cool things like that.”

As more people like Ramiro come home, they are both changing their new surroundings, and being changed by those surroundings. So many kids in Ramiro’s school have returned from the United States in the last year that they are considering starting a football--not futbol --team. They play pick-up games now, using the soccer goals as field posts.

And boys like Ramiro have learned to do certain things for themselves, like washing clothes and cooking meals, that boys in El Salvador generally never learn because, in the words of Ramiro’s father, “There’s always a maid or a grandmother” to do it for them.

Ramiro and his friends are also adapting to customs here. He has toned down the way he dresses, no longer “sagging” (wearing baggy pants that hang below the waist). He also avoids discussing his parents’ leftist politics with classmates, wary of lingering intolerance.

Ramiro’s buddy is Tony Martinez, another recent returnee. Tony was almost suspended from school because of his fade haircut (short on the sides, long on top). Only when he agreed to trim the hair to a more uniform length did the school authorities relent.

Salvadorans who have returned, or planned to, cite several reasons for their decision. The principal motive is last year’s formal conclusion of a war that claimed an estimated 75,000 lives. With a U.N.-brokered peace treaty holding, the time seems right to retreat to what many see as the more nurturing surroundings of family and homeland. Intellectuals and the politically active look to a fresh climate of relative freedom in which to work.


And many point to the soaring level of violence in Los Angeles, New York and other major American cities. Gangs and crime have left them fearful for their families. At least in El Salvador, they believe, a child can go to school with less likelihood that his or her classmates are armed.

How long that will remain true is unclear. Some returning Salvadorans are members of ruthless gangs that formed in Los Angeles. In some cases, their return is forced: They have been deported after repeated felony convictions.

The back-and-forth traffic between El Salvador and the United States--especially among the middle class--has multiplied in the last year. Not all of the Salvadorans who come back have made the complete commitment to remaining. Many are testing the waters, exploring the possibilities of business and employment.

“If the reason you left is you were poor and there was no economic opportunity for you in El Salvador, then there really isn’t a reason yet for you to come back,” said a diplomat.

And victims of the worst political violence probably do not feel secure enough to return.

There are no reliable statistics being kept on how many Salvadorans return to stay. The peace accords were signed in January, 1992, and in the 14 months that followed, 599,723 Salvadorans came home--62.4% of those from the United States, according to the Salvadoran government. While the vast majority probably returned to the United States, hundreds, if not thousands, chose to remain.

The Cuscatlan International Airport outside San Salvador is one of numerous places where the repatriation is unfolding. Every morning, crowded flights from Los Angeles and Mexico City arrive, disgorging hundreds of people armed with some of the biggest suitcases known to mankind.


The Salvadoran airline, TACA, reports flights are regularly full; United Airlines started a direct Los Angeles-to-San Salvador flight soon after the war ended. Scores more arrive by land, driving vans and trucks loaded with goods to sell or use once in El Salvador.

The government has relaxed customs duties so citizens can bring more articles back with them. Through its Central Bank, the government also has made it easier for Salvadorans living abroad to get credit in El Salvador for setting up businesses or building homes.

Amid an obvious construction boom, officials last year calculated that nearly two-thirds of all new housing was being purchased by Salvadorans living in the United States. In some of the burgeoning suburbs, like Merliot and Santa Tecla, signs in English are becoming a common sight.

The Salvadoran economy has been largely dependent on dollars that exiled Salvadorans send home. Not counting foreign government aid, remittances came to represent the single largest source of income, larger than any of El Salvador’s exports. With that in mind, the right-wing government has formed a strange alliance with leftist groups and others to lobby American officials for extension of a temporary permit that would allow Salvadorans to remain in the United States.

Under a temporary sanctuary program started in 1991, about 200,000 Salvadorans who had entered the United States illegally were granted permission to stay and work because of the war conditions in El Salvador. Even though the war has ended, the Salvadoran government and others are arguing for an 18-month extension of the program.

And so, many families remain split. Oscar Armando Vasquez, an auto mechanic, returned to El Salvador as the recession deepened in Southern California and made work scarce. But he cannot persuade his wife and three children, who live in Los Angeles, to join him, and he remains nostalgic for the life he left behind.


“I felt good there,” said Vasquez, 48. “I was working, raising my children, going around with dollars in my pockets. . . . What I earned there in a week it might take a month, two months to earn here. But if I think of it that way, I’ll get sick. Now I earn colones, I have to spend colones .”

Vasquez likes to while away his Saturday nights at the local Esso Automarket, a combination gasoline station and convenience store where crowds gather to drink and socialize until the wee hours. On a recent weekend night, easily half of the license plates on cars at the auto market were from California.

The scene reminds Vasquez of the parking-lot parties that he used to enjoy in one of Los Angeles’ heavily Salvadoran neighborhoods. Kids in cars, cruising, the music blaring.

“We like to try to re-create here what we had there,” Vasquez said. “I can imagine that I’m still there in Los Angeles, imagine it’s the same kids I used to see, remember that happiness.”

Despite his feelings of longing, Vasquez has been able to translate the mechanical skills he picked up in Los Angeles into a good job at one of San Salvador’s leading factories.

But, ultimately, El Salvador may not offer satisfactory cultural and intellectual stimulation for men and women who enjoyed life in big cities with broad opportunities. El Salvador still has few bookstores, no theater to speak of and the freedoms that peace is supposed to bring are not yet deeply planted.

“El Salvador is a small country,” said Figueroa, the activist who decided to return to Los Angeles after a year here. “It’s like your circle suddenly closes. After a point, there are no new things to see and learn.”