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San Salvador Mayor Visits Expatriates in L.A.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hector Ricardo Silva, mayor of San Salvador, sought a firsthand view of Southern California’s Salvadoran community, the largest outside of Central America. What he saw in recent days shattered his preconceptions of impoverished multitudes just hanging on for survival.

“It’s true that many Salvadorans here are struggling, but what is new for me is to see how many have set down roots, have become citizens and are taking an active part in the lives of their communities,” Silva, 50, a U.S.-educated gynecologist, said Tuesday on the final day of a two-day visit here.

Sponsored by a nonprofit Salvadoran-American Leadership and Educational Fund, the mayor’s visit underscores how Southern California has become a regular stopping point for foreign politicians--from Korea to Armenia to Mexico--eager to woo ethnic constituencies that play important economic roles in their homelands.

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Increasingly, political developments abroad also reverberate here. Mexican activists, for example, regularly stage rallies on behalf of candidates and causes.

Silva’s life reflects many of the cross-cultural and political influences that shape contemporary El Salvador, a Vermont-size country of 6 million.

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He was born in Boston while his father, also a physician, was studying at Harvard. The mayor completed his residency at the University of Michigan and earned a degree in health administration from Johns Hopkins University.

Back home, Silva is now considered a prime contender for the presidential elections scheduled for 1999. He is the best hope of a leftist coalition that includes ex-guerrillas that one day could give former rebels the ultimate victory they sought in the battlefield against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.

Silva’s left-wing coalition scored stunning legislative victories in March, including his ascension to what is widely considered the nation’s second-most powerful elected post. But democracy remains a fragile thing in El Salvador, a nation still traumatized from more than a decade of bloody civil war that finally ended in 1992.

The mayor’s visit served as his official introduction to L.A.’s influential Salvadoran community. Salvadorans in the United States send more than $1 billion home each year, generating three times as much hard cash as the nation’s principal export, coffee.

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During his two days here, Silva sidestepped questions about his political aspirations, saying he is too engrossed in being the mayor of the capital city of 500,000.

The former rebels have a strong presence in Los Angeles and were out in force to hear his talk Monday evening at a church hall near downtown. Representatives are cautious about this decidedly moderate mayor who stresses compromise and free-market solutions.

“We want to be sure the principles of our struggle are not betrayed,” said Mario Cuellar, an L.A.-based representative of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, known by its Spanish initials FMLN, which fought the Salvadoran military to a standstill.

Mayor Silva is not rank-and-file FMLN. But he has strong humanitarian credentials, had to flee the country for four years after receiving death threats and survived at least one assassination attempt, presumably ordered by a right-wing death squad.

With the war over, many Salvadorans are now preoccupied about a different kind of violence--rising crime, much of it blamed on the spread of L.A. street gangs. A steady stream of deportees from California prisons and jails bolsters the gangster ranks.

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After meeting with Salvadoran community representatives, Mayor Richard Riordan and City Council members, Silva voiced the hope that L.A. and San Salvador may become sister cities, facilitating greater cooperation on issues such as the prevention of gang violence.

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“I would hope we could work together to find solutions to these shared problems,” said Silva, who will go to San Jose today for more meetings with immigrant groups and officials.

During his trip, the mayor also espoused greater investment in his nation and enhanced cultural ties between the two countries.

The visit, Silva said, renewed his resolve to rename one of his city’s many squares as the Plaza del Inmigrante, with murals depicting the wartime diaspora that saw the tiny Central American nation lose one in five of its inhabitants.

“Let’s hope the day will come when our people won’t have to leave anymore,” said Ricardo Zelada, a Salvadoran immigrant and L.A. apparel factory worker who came to hear the mayor speak. “That will be real progress.”

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