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In L.A., speaking ‘Mexican’ to fit in

Bermudez is a Times staff writer.

Juan Carlos Rivera knew that if he wanted to get a dishwashing job at the MacArthur Park hamburger stand, he would have to pretend to be Mexican.

But the thought of lying made the Salvadoran anxious. He paced outside the restaurant, worried that his melodic Spanish accent, his use of the Central American vos, instead of the Mexican tu, would give him away.

Resolving to say as little as possible, Rivera remembers steeling himself and stepping inside -- into the world of Mexicanization.

In his best Mexican Spanish, the Salvadoran asked: ¿Tienen trabajo? (Do you have work?)

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When asked where he was born, he swallowed his pride and answered: Puebla, Mexico.

The job was his. For three days, Rivera scrubbed plates in conspicuous silence. He knew the Mexican cooks were onto him. Especially the one from Puebla.

“I would stay up late wondering, ‘What if they discover me? What if they take my job away? What if they beat me up?’ ” Rivera said.

Twenty years later, those fears have vanished but the 35-year-old continues to pretend. Life in Southern California is just less complicated as a Mexican, he says. Fitting in is easier. He introduces himself as Mexican. He says his closest friends are from Mexico and he eats nothing but Mexican food.

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Rivera and thousands of other Central and South American immigrants have left their native countries only to arrive in an American city dominated by Mexicans, who comprise L.A.'s largest Latino group and have access to most of the jobs sought by immigrants. The metropolis drives many to Mexicanize, to degrees big and small, often before they start to Americanize.

Change comes gradually, particularly through speech, as different words take over, intonations fade and verbs are conjugated in new ways. Some immigrants begin to mimic mejicanos even before they leave their homeland. They toy with Mexican curse words and awkwardly bend their accents to blend in as they cross Mexico into the United States.

There are more than 350,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles County, most living in the dense neighborhoods surrounding MacArthur Park.

They try to carve out a distinct identity. Their pupuserias dot the area, and each summer thousands gather to celebrate Salvadoran Day. Last year, parents succeeded in opening Monsenor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, named after a Salvadoran martyr, to help young Salvadoran children learn about their heritage.

Stifling the sense of where they came from can be painful -- even if it helps them get ahead, says Susana Rivera-Mills, associate professor of Spanish and diversity advancement at Oregon State University.

“There’s this feeling that you’re betraying yourself or not living up to what you’re supposed to be,” says Rivera-Mills, who is Salvadoran.

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Juan Carlos Rivera struggled to keep up his ruse even when the suspicious cook began to quiz him on popular Pueblan food, including Puebla’s specialty, the cemita.

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“How do you like it?” the cook asked.

“With pineapple,” Rivera said. Little did he know that what Salvadorans knew as caramelized sweet bread, Pueblans knew as a meat and avocado sandwich.

“I knew you weren’t Mexican,” the cook said smugly before running off to tell the manager.

Rivera was convinced he would be fired. But the manager liked his work and let him stay.

For a year, Rivera stuck around, more determined than before to fit in. He studied his co-workers’ accents, their language, their jokes and common expressions. He learned to stomach hot sauce. When the crew went out for beers, he tagged along, looking for the right time to proudly deliver a deep-throated Orale! And when the time came to apply for his second job, he sought the help of a Mexican friend. This time he would say he was from Mexico City. This time, he would learn the menu.

Salvadorans began pouring into Los Angeles in large numbers in the 1980s, many fleeing El Salvador’s brutal civil war. Many arrived disillusioned and powerless, and unlike Mexicans, their roots and networks did not date back centuries. Getting a job often meant getting the nod of a Mexican contractor, foreman or manager.

“It’s always Mexico, Mexico, Mexico,” said Jorge Mendoza, a 42-year-old painter, one of a group of Salvadoran men who gathered recently at MacArthur Park. “I turn on the radio and all I hear is Mexican music. If I want to watch a soccer game, I have to watch a Mexican team play.”

The same goes for Spanish newscasts, telenovelas, celebrity gossip -- all dominated by Mexicans.

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The greatest affront comes daily as most strangers assume Salvadorans are Mexican, said Julio Martinez Sarceno, 62, who moved to the United States 32 years ago. He carries his Salvadoran identification card in his wallet at all times, “just in case someone needs proof.”

Like him, most Salvadorans hold proudly to the distinctions of Central America’s smallest country: El Salvador’s independence day is September 15, the day before Mexico’s; the national menu is made up of pupusas and fried yuca, not enchiladas and menudo; Salvadorans flood the dance floor when a band sounds off a cumbia, not as a mariachi band belts out a ranchera.

But sounding Mexican sometimes is inevitable. The two communities have mingled at work, school and church for nearly three decades; they have intermarried, baptized each other’s children and cried at each other’s funerals.

Some have subconsciously picked up Mexican speech habits. They slip and use common Mexican expressions such as correle (hurry.) Others deliberately Mexicanize their speech to avoid confusion. They ask the ice cream vendor for helado, not sorbete, and fly a papalote (kite) instead of a pizcucha.

Others refuse to budge.

“I’m never going to change the way I speak,” Mendoza said. English should be the first priority for an immigrant, so why “run around speaking Mexican?” he asked. “Out of need,” argued Martin Fernandez, who left El Salvador for the San Fernando Valley in 1989.

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Alma Jimenez was fed up by the time she and her Mexican husband, Reynaldo Ortiz, faced off in the bunk bed debate.

Her traditional Salvadoran dishes had long been pushed aside by her husband’s Mexican fare. She had seen her kids adapt entirely to her husband’s Mexican way of speaking. (“I was born here. I wasn’t born in El Salvador,” 9-year-old Wendy Ortiz protests when her mother asks why she doesn’t sound more Salvadoran.) And when Jimenez least expected it, her husband’s Mexican words began to sneak into her own speech.

Things were different when they first began dating more than 20 years ago. Although she and her family felt that Mexicans had discriminated against them, they liked Ortiz because he “was never disrespectful to anyone,” she said.

But through the years, he has playfully turned his wife’s way of speaking into a running joke. Soon, his brother began tease her too, aping her “vos, vos, vos” when he visits.

“I tell him to stop bothering me,” Jimenez says. “Let me be who I am.”

Most days, their marriage flows like any other. But when a squabble erupts over whether to call something by a Salvadoran term or a Mexican one, Jimenez dives at the chance to protect that morsel of her identity. Before long, the row turns tense as Reynaldo tells his wife to “talk normal” and Alma snaps back that he can’t have everything his way. When Reynaldo mimics her dialect to persuade her that she talks “funny,” Alma storms out angrily.

There was the duel over the word “belt"(she said cincho, he said cinto), then the one over how to say “straw” (she said pajia, he said popote.)

And another one -- a big one triggered by their eldest daughter, Heidi -- over the term “bunk bed.”

“I called it a camarote because my mom always says camarote,” Heidi, 19, said. “But my dad told me, ‘No, it’s a litera. You have to say litera’. I told him, ‘I don’t know. I’m just going to stick with camarote.’ . . . So he got mad, then my mom got mad, and then they started arguing.”

The self-described “Salvi-Mexican” often stands by and watches her parents argue, then make up, only to argue once again. She hops back and forth between the two cultures without giving boundaries much thought. Like many second-generation Salvadorans, she is annoyed and puzzled by the tongue tango.

She doesn’t see the point.

“We’re all Latinos,” she said. “The thing that brings us together is that we all speak Spanish. Everybody needs to just get used to it and get along.”

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com


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