Young Salvadoran Americans embrace their roots

Nancy Zuniga knew her mother would be upset if she found out about her trip to El Salvador.

Three decades after escaping the civil war, her mother was still haunted by scenes of student activists gunned down during political rallies. And here was Zuniga, a 24-year-old UCLA senior born and raised in Venice, flying back with other Salvadoran American students to press the government about human rights and the upcoming presidential election.

“All my life El Salvador was a mix of my mom’s horror stories and my romantic ideas of the country,” Zuniga said. “I wanted it to be something real in my mind for once.”

Today, a historic election is unfolding in El Salvador, offering the left-wing party a chance to gain power for the first time. Across the United States, thousands of Salvadoran immigrants on both sides of the political spectrum have mobilized their influence and resources, hoping to persuade voters back home.


At the core of the movement, however, is a new generation of young political activists like Zuniga. Many are college students on a mission to uncover their Salvadoran roots. Others are a bit older, with deep-seated political ideologies that match or, in some cases, collide with those of their parents.

What most have in common is that they are the sons and daughters of immigrants who flooded major U.S. cities by the tens of thousands through the 1980s. Most never experienced the war, never heard the bombs or saw any of the 75,000 bodies, strewn about like litter in El Salvador’s streets and landfills.

They grew up far from the devastation in neighborhoods like Pico-Union and Pacoima that two decades ago were teeming ports of entry for America’s newest immigrant wave. Their parents, often hoping to forget, kept quiet about the past.

But now in their 20s and 30s, many of these Salvadoran Americans are digging their way back into the old country’s politics.

Locally, they are leading both right- and left-wing organizations. They run blogs, organize long-distance phone banks and plan rallies and caravans. They view the Central American country not through open wounds and old grudges, but through textbooks and American democratic ideals. This weekend many will be in El Salvador to monitor and, in a few cases, vote in the election.

Growing up Venice, Zuniga knew nothing about the decades-long rancor that triggered El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, pitting military forces against a guerrilla coalition. She knew little about the right-wing Arena party and the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party, or FMLN, the initials by which it is known in Spanish.

She would just see her mother sob day after day over Zuniga’s older brother, whom she left behind in El Salvador with his grandmother. And now and then, she heard her mother criticize leftists and warn her to steer clear of politics.

“She tried really hard to keep it all from me,” Zuniga said. “She would always tell me, ‘You’re American. You were born here.’ ”


But after graduating from Venice High School, Zuniga enrolled in community college and slowly began to piece the past together. She taught herself about the war using textbooks, choosing to delve more and more into the atrocities and political rivalries for school research papers. Soon, her mother’s pain and silence made sense.

Zuniga knew that telling her the truth about the trip to El Salvador last month would frighten her, so she kept quiet.

She boarded the plane unsure how to feel about the parties’ competing candidates -- Arena’s Rodrigo Avila and the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes. She and about 30 members of the Salvadoran Union of University Students, a 2-year-old organization with a growing presence at various California college campuses, set out to learn about an election most can’t vote in because they are American citizens.

Zuniga and the group spent a week interviewing government officials and members of nonprofit groups about politics, the economy, health and the electoral process. She bonded with Salvadoran college students who, like her, fervently demand candidates to effectively tackle El Salvador’s extreme poverty and gang invasion. She returned to the United States with her mind made up, preferring the left party’s nominee.


“I’m going to do as much as I can to help before the election,” she said.

Though many young Salvadoran Americans end up identifying more with the left, those like Erick Munoz offer a different perspective.

The first time the Marshall High School graduate donned an Arena T-shirt in public, he braced for the worst. Would he be beaten up? Spit upon? Shunned? At an early age, the 31-year-old director of the local Arena chapter learned that he and other supporters of the Salvadoran right were outnumbered on the streets of L.A.

The thousands of refugees who originally poured into the area in the early 1980s, when Munoz’s family immigrated to Hollywood, were largely left-leaning. They went on to organize vast political networks that left conservatives, like Munoz’s mother, out of the picture.


Munoz grew up with a deep pride in his native country. His parents taught him about El Salvador’s beaches, balmy climate and enterprising spirit, and he taught himself about the war.

After he wore the T-shirt to a Salvadoran parade (eliciting boos and cheers), he became ardent about the country’s politics. He joined the Eighth Sector, Arena’s fledgling organization in the United States. At 24, the American citizen was the youngest of eight members of the L.A. chapter.

The group met discreetly in one other’s homes, not wanting to rouse leftists. When Munoz took control in 2006, he initiated significant change. The group publicized itself and quadrupled in size. As champions of the left-wing party grew bolder in the last few months about their chances to grab the presidency, Munoz organized caravans and rallies in Culver City and Van Nuys.

“Things have gotten more serious with this election,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury to just sit back and watch what happens. We have to be more aggressive. We have to proselytize.”


Douglas Carranza Mena has seen this election awaken a new energy in his students at Cal State Northridge. The associate professor is director of the Central American Research and Policy Institute at the university. Young people who spilled into Los Angeles grade schools traumatized by the war now pore over books and studies, captivated by their history. Many of their parents have gone from downtrodden service workers to successful business owners.

“It’s like they wake up one day, and say, ‘I am Salvadoran too, and I can help,’ ” Carranza Mena said.

While many seasoned Salvadoran politicos in Los Angeles are proud to see a new generation carry a torch for El Salvador, others don’t view youth as a plus. They consider the young activists who never lived through the war too naive, too extreme or too brash.

Siris Barrios, 29, is considered a veteran among the youth. The community organizer has been heavily involved with Salvadoran groups for nearly a decade. Through the years, she’s heard it all. “There are people who don’t acknowledge the impact a war can have on a child,” she said. “Some of us may not have experienced it, but we heard all the stories from people crossing over.”


Growing up, Barrios saw relatives arrive every few months. At one point she shared a two-bedroom apartment in Watts with 22 people, many of them war refugees.

She cannot vote in today’s election, but she spent months saving $1,200 to witness the event in El Salvador. “It’s my country as much as it is my parents’ country,” she said.