New lives, but old traditions

Times Staff Writer

They came with no English, little money and a shellshocked psyche engraved with the memories of a savage civil war in their native El Salvador.

Now, more than 25 years later, Mario Fuentes, Werner Marroquin and Salvador Gomez Gochez have joined the U.S. mainstream middle class as citizens, homeowners, fluent English-speakers and labor and community organizers.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 6, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Salvadoran studies: An article about Salvadoran American festivals in Sunday’s California section reported that the nation’s first Central American studies program is at Cal State L.A. The program is at Cal State Northridge.

As El Salvador has settled down, with 1992 peace accords and democratic elections, so have many of its native sons and daughters who fled the war’s violence for the safety of Southern California.


When peace came to their homeland, Fuentes, Marroquin and Gochez decided to turn from protesting the war back home to building a community here. This weekend, tens of thousands of Salvadoran Americans flocked to Exposition Park in Los Angeles to enjoy one fruit of their labor: a Salvadoran Day festival to celebrate their community’s culture, heritage -- and progress.

“We want to open a window to the public and say, ‘We are here,’ ” said Gochez, a founder of the Salvadoran American National Assn., which began the annual event in 1999. “We have our own culture that we want to share with other people in Los Angeles.”

The El Dia del Salvadoreno festival featured cumbia music, cornmeal pupusa snacks and a string of Salvadoran speakers and performers. The celebration of El Salvador’s culture and Christian heritage will climax today with an enactment of the transfiguration of the Divine Savior, El Salvador’s revered icon -- a tradition that marks the nation’s founding in 1525.

A few miles away, other Salvadoran American organizations threw another festival, Feria Agostina de Los Angeles, at MacArthur Park. Organizer Salvador Sanabria, executive director of the El Rescate immigrant aid organization, said the festival was aimed at celebrating Salvadoran traditions, along with “empowering the community” by offering information about financial services, housing, healthcare and legal aid.

By Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people had filled the streets featuring food stalls, venders hawking soccer balls, CDs, shirts and other paraphernalia marked by the blue and white colors of El Salvador.

Businesses -- including banks, real estate agents, travel agencies, remittance services, airlines and insurance companies -- set up booths at both fairs to snag a piece of the growing Salvadoran American consumer market.

The two festivals marked the Salvadoran community’s striking progress since the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of people fled war for the United States, most of them settling in California.

The Salvadoran community is now the state’s second-largest Latino immigrant group after Mexicans, with population estimates varying widely, from 800,000 by community estimates to 273,000, according to the 2000 Census.

Sometimes called the “Germans of Latin America” for their strong work ethic, Salvadoran immigrants in California had higher rates of employment, citizenship, voter registration, high school graduation and college attendance than their Mexican counterparts, according to a 2001 UCLA study. More Salvadoran immigrants than Mexicans also have computers at home, the study found.

In addition, a U.S. Census study of Latinos in America, released this year, found that Salvadorans had lower poverty rates than Mexicans and other Central Americans, and 41% of them owned their own homes with a median value of $221,000. Among Mexicans, 49% owned their own homes with a median value of $130,500.

In Southern California, Salvadoran immigrants have been civically and economically active. In less than three decades, they’ve managed to establish educational, medical and community organizations, build a small-business base, gain access to elected officials, lobby for the nation’s first Central American studies program, housed at Cal State Los Angeles, and are seeking to designate the MacArthur Park-Pico Union area as “Little Central America.”

Sister Patricia Krommer is a Roman Catholic nun who has worked with Salvadorans for more than 25 years, initially helping the refugees in Los Angeles and their beleaguered families left in El Salvador. She said she was immediately impressed with their political savvy, organizational skills and penchant for hard work.

“They didn’t sit on their hands,” she said at a City Hall reception for Salvadoran Day this week. “They came here and got right to work.”

Sanabria, of the El Rescate immigrant aid organization, said many of the newer Salvadoran immigrants faced tough challenges, including illegal status, poverty and language barriers. He also said the community was still not receiving its “fair share” of political representation or public resources.

In addition, longtime community activist Isabel Cardenas, regarded as the godmother of the Salvadoran American community, said that a troubling rise in gang violence was a pressing issue.

And some Salvadoran Americans acknowledge that internal political and personal rivalries have retarded the community’s progress. The two Salvadoran festivals on the same weekend mirrored earlier situations in which different groups vied to be the first to win Los Angeles City Council approval of a sister-city relationship with San Salvador. Currently, two groups are both trying to win city approval of the “Central American” designation for the MacArthur Park-Pico Union area.

Sanabria said the differences stemmed from “ego and power,” but politics has also played a role, according to community experts. At the Exposition Park event, for instance, El Salvador’s liberal FMLN party had a prominent booth, while the MacArthur Park festival featured a booth from the Salvadoran government, which is currently controlled by conservatives.

“Yes, there is a handicap, and the handicap is a lack of political maturity,” Sanabria said. “When the next generation comes of age, they will take care of this.”

Despite the challenges, more established immigrants say they’ve managed to grab their share of the American dream. One advantage is their relative longevity in America -- the UCLA study found that two-thirds of Salvadoran immigrants arrived here before 1988. Another is the ability of many of those earlier immigrants to win legalization under the amnesty bill passed in 1986, a change that immigrants said made a huge difference in their ability to find good jobs and get ahead.

Others say learning to speak English well has boosted their success. Fuentes, for instance, taught himself by reading newspapers and listening to public radio while he worked as a parking lot attendant, one of many odd jobs he held before landing his current work as a lead organizer at UCLA for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Marroquin, whose two brothers were killed in the Salvadoran civil war, said he forced himself to learn English so he could speak out about the conflict -- and the U.S. government’s role in it -- to U.S. churches and community groups. Today, he works as a union organizer at UC Riverside for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But most say their success came from plain, hard work.

Nicolas Orellana, 52, has worked his way up from factory work at $118 a week in 1981 to owning six sporting goods stores that turn an annual profit of $300,000. Despite that -- and the six homes he owns -- Orellana said he still works seven days a week.

At Exposition Park, real estate agent Rick Valencia said he arrived here illegally in 1980 as a 14-year-old boy, but benefited through his mother, a housekeeper, under the amnesty program.

He learned English, graduated from high school, took courses in bank telling and worked his way up in the financial services world.

He also slowly built up his financial assets, first buying a $68,000 condo in Sylmar in the early 1990s. Last year, he bought a home for more than $500,000, drives a Mercedes Benz and enjoys a big-screen TV.

“My mother always taught me to work hard for what I want,” he said.

Gochez began cleaning mirrors for $135 a week in 1980, worked in the parking lot industry for 25 years and is now the Salvadoran American National Assn.’s general director.

Now Gochez and other Salvadoran Americans say their next step is to give back to their community, maintain strong ties with El Salvador and, though festivals like Salvadoran Day, make sure their children don’t lose the culture they’ve tried so hard to maintain.

Their work is cut out for them. At Exposition Park, Valencia’s 10-year-old son Ricky said he preferred English to Spanish and confessed that “I’m not really Salvadoran; I’m part American.”

Gochez said one daughter was interested in her Salvadoran heritage, but that the other responded in English to his Spanish and preferred visits to Little Tokyo over trips to El Salvador.

“My daughter says, ‘You are Salvadoran, but I’m American,’ ” Gochez said. “In cities like L.A., where there are so many different cultures, your mind can change dramatically.”