A Piece of the Pie : From the Arts to Politics, Salvadoran War Refugees Are Carving a Niche for Themselves in the U.S.


WHEN HE STEPPED OFF A PLANE IN EL SALVADOR IN JULY, leading a delegation of bank officials and economists, Carlos Vaquerano had finally come full circle since fleeing the war-torn country 13 years earlier.

Vaquerano, like tens of thousands of other Salvadoran refugees during the 1980s, arrived in Los Angeles to face an uncertain future. He had no idea how long his country’s civil war would last, or whether he would ever be able to return.

By the time the former student activist returned this summer, he had carved a niche for himself in his new country, becoming community relations director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), based in Pico-Union, and a board member of Rebuild L.A. His work with those high-profile organizations provided important contacts that helped Vaquerano arrange the July trip to study the possibility of starting some sort of financial institution in postwar El Salvador.

“I have access to people who I never imagined I would meet,” said Vaquerano, 33, whose three brothers were killed by right-wing death squads in El Salvador.


Many Salvadoran war refugees who came here with dreams of returning to their homeland have become tied to their adopted country. Like Vaquerano, who will be eligible for citizenship next year, many have decided to stay in the United States for good.

Many have started successful businesses. Others have graduated from college and launched careers, while still others have entered a work force in which even menial jobs pay far more than could be earned in El Salvador. Many bore their children here. And while some still hope to return to El Salvador, political and economic uncertainty there is keeping them here for the time being.

From political activism to the arts, these new immigrants have made their presence felt and changed the face of areas such as Pico-Union and Westlake, home to the largest concentration of Salvadorans in the nation. In little more than a decade, they have transformed the Salvadoran population in Los Angeles from a refugee enclave of several thousand into a thriving immigrant community currently estimated at 500,000.

“What we’re seeing is that the Salvadoran community is starting to knit itself together and make inroads into the larger society as a whole,” said UCLA Prof. David Hayes-Bautista, a leading expert on Latino demographics. “They’re following the path of immigrant communities that came before them.”


Within the next six months, Hayes-Bautista plans to analyze 1990 U.S. Census data to determine work-force participation rates, household composition, income levels and other characteristics of Los Angeles’ Salvadoran community.

The influx of Salvadorans was triggered by their country’s 12-year civil war, during which more than 75,000 combatants and civilians were killed. The fighting formally ended in December, 1992, when the right-wing government signed a peace treaty with leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. By war’s end, an estimated 1 million Salvadorans--about 20% of El Salvador’s population--had fled to the United States.

Some of the refugees flocked to San Francisco, Houston and Washington. But for many, the destination was the Westlake and Pico-Union area. The old neighborhoods just west of the Downtown skyscrapers had for years been home to a large population of Mexican descent.

“It had the flavor, the culture. But above all, it was a place where Spanish was spoken,” said Francisco Rivera, a Salvadoran who is an editor at La Opinion, Los Angeles’ largest daily Spanish-language newspaper.


Today in Pico-Union and Westlake, the rhythms of salsa and cumbia blare from discotecas , or record stores. Sidewalks are filled with street vendors who hawk everything from cigarettes to mangoes sprinkled with chili powder. And Salvadoran restaurants, once scarce in Los Angeles, dot the main streets.

But the area is also one of the city’s most crime-ridden and one of the nation’s most densely populated. Near MacArthur Park, there are as many as 147 people per acre--or four times the average density of Manhattan and 10 times that of Los Angeles as a whole. Many families are crammed into ramshackle apartment buildings and residential hotels.

Dagoberto Reyes, 45, a sculptor and painter, was one of the refugees who settled in Pico-Union during the early years of the war.

Reyes said he was targeted by death squads because his works highlighted the suffering of the Salvadoran underclass. He left in January, 1982, shortly after his poet friend’s mutilated corpse was found on a street in the capital of San Salvador.


The security officers who arrested the poet at a cafe showed an employee there an album that contained photographs of suspected leftists they were hunting. Reyes said he was told his photo was in the album.

He left with his wife and one of his five daughters, without saying goodby to his parents. The artist’s other daughters and father have since joined him. Reyes, who is not sure if he will return permanently, has not seen his mother since several days before he fled from El Salvador.

“Just like many others in my country, I came here because of persecution and civil war. I had no other choice,” said Reyes, whose sculpture, “Porque Emigramos,” or “Why We Emigrate,” was unveiled at a reception last week at El Rescate, a Pico-Union immigrant rights agency, as part of the Los Angeles Festival. The 15-by-7-foot work shows scenes of a mass burial, peasants crossing the border and U.S.-born Salvadoran children watching television. It is expected to be erected along a wall--resembling a mural--at MacArthur Park to honor the city’s Central American community.

Like Mexicans who came to the United States to escape civil war in their country at the turn of the century, a large number of the Salvadoran refugees were social activists in their homeland, Hayes-Bautista said. Many were union organizers, outspoken university professors and student leaders.


These activists helped lead opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America and lobbied for political asylum for Salvadoran refugees. Salvadorans also became active in labor unions here and have helped spearhead the ongoing movement to legalize street vending in Los Angeles. Isabel Beltran, 46, a former university student who left El Salvador in 1975 after two friends were killed when government soldiers fired on campus protesters, helped organize caravans that visited scores of cities to talk about human rights abuses in her native country and the need for political asylum for Salvadorans in the United States.

The asylum movement, which gained momentum in the mid-1980s, led to a federal law allowing nearly 200,000 Salvadorans who arrived before September, 1990, to temporarily live and work in the United States. The Clinton Administration extended the asylum until December, 1994. In Los Angeles, the extension applies to about 75,000 Salvadorans, according to immigrant-rights groups.

Like many Salvadorans, Beltran would like to return to help rebuild the country. But she is eligible to become a citizen next year under a 1986 law that provided amnesty to undocumented immigrants. The owner of a Salvadoran restaurant that opened last year near 3rd and Berendo streets, Beltran is confronted with a tough choice.

“It’s a difficult decision that many of us have to face,” Beltran said. “Do we go back, or do we stay here?”


For Nelson Mancia, 30, a South Gate real estate agent who left El Salvador in 1981, economic success made the decision to stay here easier.

His first job was sweeping floors and washing dishes at a restaurant. Then, for a year, he worked two full-time jobs as a cook and studied on his day off to earn his real estate license in 1987. Since then, he has bought several homes and now lives in a comfortable Costa Mesa neighborhood.

“You can be successful, but you have to work hard and study,” said Mancia, who raises money for Salvadoran relief organizations in Los Angeles and El Salvador.

But most Salvadorans have not been so fortunate.


Jose Trinidad, 39, who hosts a weekly Salvadoran news and cultural show on KMET-TV Channel 38, believes that his community is worse off now than a decade ago because many of the new immigrants lack job skills and education. Many are unemployed or involved with gangs and drugs, he said.

“I hate to say it,” said the Temple-Beaudry resident, “but it’s true.”

In the Pico-Union/Westlake area, Salvadorans have formed some of the city’s most ruthless street gangs, authorities say.

Though many Salvadorans left to escape persecution, others came to the United States for solely economic reasons. Take Maria Antonia Gonzalez, 56, a street vendor who sells vegetables in the Mid-Wilshire area.


Gonzalez, who arrived in 1985, says she earns about $50 a day--about 10 times what she could make in El Salvador. She would like to go back, but said she will wait until the country’s March presidential election to see if the political and economic climate improves.

“Life is very difficult there. Here I can save a little and send some home,” said Gonzalez, who mails money to her 19-year-old son, who is studying to be an engineer. Tens of thousands of Salvadorans across the country send an estimated $700 million annually to their relatives in El Salvador, according to the Salvadoran government. The money has helped ease the miserable conditions prevalent in the Massachusetts-sized Central American nation.

In 1991, nine out of 10 workers in El Salvador lived in poverty, which meant they were unable to afford the $228 a month needed to feed a family of four, according to a study by the country’s Center for Technological and Scientific Studies.

In Los Angeles, a majority of the Salvadorans plan to stay, according to separate surveys conducted last year by CARECEN and El Rescate. About 70% of the 15,000 Salvadorans polled said they were not going back.


This is partly because many of the refugees who came here during the early 1980s have children who were born here and thus are U.S. citizens. Others arrived at a young age and do not want to return, said Oscar Andrade, El Rescate’s executive director.

“That’s the price we are paying for coming here. Many of our kids are Americans who don’t want to go back,” said Andrade, 33, a former architecture student and university organizer who left El Salvador in 1980.

Andrade plans to permanently return to El Salvador next summer, saying his children, ages 3 and 1, are still young enough to adjust to a new life there.

But that is not the case with Edelma Castro, a 20-year-old Cal State Los Angeles student who came to South-Central when she was 12.


“Here I feel like I have everything I want,” said Castro, who enjoys the latest American fashions and listens to techno and house music. “If I had to go back, I feel like I would have to start my life over.”

Castro wants to be a teacher and works part time as a bilingual teacher’s aide at Wadsworth Elementary School in South-Central. Despite her fondness for American culture, she has not forgotten her Salvadoran roots and is active in the campus Central American Student Assn. The association, which was founded two years ago by Salvadorans at Cal State L.A., has chapters at five Southland colleges and raises money for scholarships and counsels high school students.

With most Salvadorans expected to stay, officials at El Rescate and CARECEN say they are shifting some of their focus from refugee services to areas such as business development for Salvadoran entrepreneurs, citizenship drives and coalition building with other organizations to fight what they perceive as an anti-immigrant sentiment. CARECEN is even planning to drop Refugee from its name and replace it with another word that begins with R.

The July trip to El Salvador by Vaquerano of CARECEN was to explore economic development opportunities that would link Salvadorans in the United States and El Salvador. The organization would like to start a financial institution with branches in Los Angeles and El Salvador.


He was accompanied by a vice president of community development for Bank of America, a UCLA economist and others. During the weeklong trip, they met with officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development, representatives of the Salvadoran business sector and members of community organizations.

“We hope that the trip will provide us with the opportunity to develop a new way of dealing with economic problems in our community and provide opportunities for both the United States and El Salvador,” Vaquerano said.

Similarly, El Rescate is drafting a business plan for a community bank with officials from Communities for Accountable Reinvestment, a Downtown-based coalition of nonprofit organizations that monitors banking practices nationwide. Andrade said El Rescate workers are polling Pico-Union residents to determine whether they would support such a bank.

“The idea is to recycle money back into the community,” Andrade said.


Community leaders say Salvadorans will continue to make inroads as they become more established in their new country.

“I think the Salvadoran community has come a long way,” said Roberto Lovato, executive director of CARECEN. “We’ve made positive contributions and will continue to play an important role in the future of the city.”