Roberto Lovato feels good about the agency he heads.
The Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles, founded in 1983 to aid Salvadorans and Nicaraguans who fled civil war and uncertainty in their homelands, is the largest organization of its kind in the country. It offers a wide range of services, from English and government classes to becoming a U.S. citizen to how to protect a home from a devastating earthquake. CARECEN has grown so much that it had to leave the two-story house it used as its headquarters in recent years and move into spacious quarters in an office building on West 8th Street.
It also took the unusual step of opening an office in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital, in recognition of the fact that CARECEN’s efforts benefit not only Salvadorans in L.A. but also their friends and relatives back home.
But as happy as he is over the agency’s growth, Lovato as its executive director admits he also has concerns about it, because in some instances, CARECEN finds itself forced to work side by side with officials, both American and Salvadoran, whom it once despised.
“Weird, huh?” he concludes.
CARECEN works with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in what might be called a love-hate relationship. Nowadays, they work together to process the refugees who are eligible for political asylum in this country. CARECEN’s grass-roots efforts to publicize this legalization campaign make the INS’ job easier.
But the activists still don’t trust U.S. officials; to CARECEN staffers, the INS is still la migra , the enforcement arm of the agency.
On the other side of the ambivalence about working with former U.S. foes is CARECEN’s struggle to find a relationship with the Salvadoran government. It’s an uneasy alliance that at times troubles the activists who established CARECEN in 1983.
In those years, the Salvadoran government, dominated by the right-wing ARENA party, was considered the enemy. It was seen as the driving force that fueled the civil war in El Salvador and wrecked the nation’s economy. The Salvadoran refugees who fled to the United States feared the repression and death squads that came to be associated with the government. CARECEN staffers routinely told stories of how shadowy characters, believed to be death squad members, threatened to kill them even here.
But it’s a new era in El Salvador. There is now peace in a land where teen-agers carrying government machine guns were a common sight.
Government officials, knowing that Salvadoran immigrants in L.A. contribute to the economy by sending money home, want to forge a new relationship with the Salvadoran community, which at more than 500,000 is the largest in the U.S.
That means making friends with former enemies. but that’s easier said than done.
For example, Lovato says CARECEN is gearing up for a large outreach campaign to persuade the more than 200,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. who are eligible for political asylum to apply for it. If they don’t, they face possible deportation.
The deadline to apply is Jan. 31.
The Salvadoran government has opened storefront offices around the United States to help eligible Salvadorans apply, but Lovato and others can’t shake their distrust. “These are the guys who were responsible for Salvadorans fleeing their own country in the first place,” he begins. “You have to wonder about it. I mean, I understand why they’re doing it. They want stability [in El Salvador]. I want stability. It’s in everybody’s interest to have peace and stability there.”
Government officials have even extended practical help to CARECEN’s new office in San Salvador.
“But still . . . " is how Lovato expresses his reservations.
Lovato says his suspicions are well-founded. Last month, for example, a 27-year-old former soldier was killed in El Salvador by police at a protest over the government’s failure to pay benefits to former combatants under the peace accords that ended the civil war. Lovato says the killing is an unforgivable violation of human rights.
As such, Lovato and others held a vigil Sunday night to protest an award given at a Century City dinner by the Anti-Defamation League to Salvadoran President Armando Calderon Sol for the government’s role in saving 30,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II.
Lovato has no problem with honoring anyone who saved Jews, but finds it ironic that the award goes to a government that he says still persecutes its own people.
When I called the Salvadoran Consulate in L.A. for reaction to Lovato’s comments, an official said, “We are friends with CARECEN. We’ll always be friends with CARECEN.”
With death threats from 10 years ago still echoing in their ears, more than one CARECEN staffer cringed when I passed that along.