Central and South American community thrives in the Valley

Central and South American community thrives in the Valley
Sidewalk vendors make and sell pupusas, a Salvadoran culinary staple, at Delano Recreation Center in Van Nuys. The greater Van Nuys area, with its apartment-rich neighborhoods, has become a thriving hub not of Mexican immigrants as much as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Ecuadorans and Peruvians.
(Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times)

It was a tough game that almost came to fisticuffs when one player fouled another. But in the end, it was the red-shirted Salvadorans who beat the Mexicans, 4-2, during a recent adult league soccer game at Delano Recreation Center in Van Nuys.

Giovanni Molina, the top scorer with two goals, celebrated at a sidewalk grill where the Nunez family was frying handmade pupusas, a doughy, cheese-and-bean-filled tortilla sold on every corner back home in El Salvador.

Molina bought six — three for dinner and three more for tomorrow’s lunch. Four years ago, the 23-year-old crossed two borders and settled here, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

“Back home, I had no future. Now I have work. I have my team,” said Molina, who swings a hammer on a construction crew. “And I still have a little bit of home.”


Indeed, the greater Van Nuys area, with its apartment-rich neighborhoods, has become a thriving hub not of Mexican immigrants as much as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Ecuadoreans and Peruvians. They are blending into towns next door — Panorama City, North Hollywood and Reseda — to form a sprawling colony of sorts.

Recent studies show how the stream of Mexican immigrants to California is slowing, and residents, educators and business owners in the central San Fernando Valley say they see that happening. But in their place, a bustling Central and South American community is taking root.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than along Delano Street, just west of the Van Nuys Civic Center, where vendors ply the sidewalks outside apartment houses selling pupusas, fried plantains and a vinegary slaw called curtido, all Salvadoran specialties.

Elvira Melgoza, who sells fresh fruit, vegetables, canned foods and candy from three large produce trucks on Delano Street, says Guatemalans have taken the place of Mexican neighbors who used to dominate the block.


On a recent day of triple-digit weather, a steady stream of women pushing strollers made their way to the back of Melgoza’s truck to buy mangoes, papayas, peaches, water and Top Ramen noodles.

Her biggest-selling item? Calling cards, Melgoza said with a wide grin.

Mucho for Guatemala!” she said. “Mucho!”

In the local churches, community events often focus on heaping buffets, a Guatemalan tradition, and less on the grilled meats, energetic folklorico and brass music favored by Mexican families. And at Delano Recreation Center, Mexican teams that used to dominate the adult soccer league now account for only 35%, recreation director Ramon Cerrillos said.

In their place, Cerrillos said, are players from Central American countries, especially El Salvador. In fact, many of the Mexican players told him they were returning to their home country — something the immigration studies also indicated. Others, he said, just disappeared.

“With all the apartments nearby, this tends to be an area in transit,” Cerrillos said, and these immigrants “are just the newest.”

A broad change in immigration patterns is underway, according to researchers with the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

Central American immigrants still account for just a fraction of immigration from Latin American countries. An estimated 31 million Mexicans have made their home in the United States over the last 30 years, compared with 3.8 million from Central American countries.


But as more and more Mexican immigrants return home, get intercepted at the border or don’t bother to come, poverty, violence and high unemployment in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are still prompting tens of thousands to leave their home countries every year. They make the often perilous 2,000-mile journey by train, bus, van and, sometimes, foot.

The illegal Mexican population peaked in 2008 at just over 7 million and then dipped to 6.6 million in 2010, according to the most recent numbers from theU.S. Department of Homeland Security. At the same time, immigrants arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continued to climb, from a combined 1.3 million in 2008 to just under 1.5 million in 2010.

Demographers say a core reason is that Central American countries remain mired in high unemployment and widespread poverty except for Mexico, which has made somewhat of a comeback in recent years. Mexico suffered a recession from 2007 to 2009, but its gross domestic product has since grown faster than that of the U.S., 5.5% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2011, said Jeff Passell, senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

With fewer jobs in the U.S., tougher border enforcement, higher deportations and an increasingly hostile attitude once they get here, many Mexican immigrants have decided the risk is no longer worth the potential benefit, Passell said.

But many Central Americans still see the U.S. as an attractive option, even after adding in the $4,000-to-$7,000 cost of paying a coyote to smuggle them across the border, he said.

“The question is, are there more job opportunities here than at home? Will they be able to pay off the cost of getting to the U.S.?” Passell asked. “That’s the calculation they make in deciding whether to come.”

For Gricelda Garcia, the answer was yes. But it hasn’t been easy, said the single mother of Edgar, a bright-eyed 8-year-old who attends a local elementary school. She worked as a housekeeper and on an assembly line before moving from downtown Los Angeles to Van Nuys three years ago to provide a better life for her son.

Now in a clerical job, she takes buses everywhere, juggles after-school care for Edgar and sends $100 a month home to her mother in Guatemala City. It’s hectic, but Edgar is doing well in school and loves his taekwondo lessons, Garcia said.


And sometimes she has a few dollars to buy him extras, like a new Xbox game, she said.

“I can say I have a really good life here,” Garcia said at the end of a 12-hour day, sitting down to a meal with Edgar in Van Nuys, where she rents a room. “There was no future for my son in Guatemala.”

Miguel Arajo came to Van Nuys from El Salvador when he was 34. Now 67, he’s owned Mi Ranchito Salvadoreño, a restaurant featuring his native country’s dishes, near the corner of Vanowen Street and Van Nuys Boulevard for 23 years.

He contends it was the first Salvadoran restaurant in the Valley. Now there’s more than 140, he said with a laugh. He has noticed the shift in his customer base, with many more recent arrivals from Central America.

“No one comes here to go on vacation,” Arajo said at the start of a busy dinner shift, his pink face sweaty with exertion. “They come to work.”

The search for employment doesn’t always go smoothly.

Miller Hernandez watched two cousins from Guatemala struggle to find work in 2007, after paying $5,000 each to get across the border. Dispirited, they were heading back home when another relative, living in San Francisco, told them to come north.

Now one works in a hotel and the other for a security firm. “Two years go, they were like, ‘What are we doing here?”’ said Hernandez, a naturalized citizen who came to Van Nuys 25 years ago.

Even those Mexicans who made the crossing years ago understand why the patterns are in flux.

For Laura Gomez, 35, a naturalized U.S. citizen who illegally crossed into California from Jalisco when she was 18, the motivation to immigrate is questionable. When she arrived in 1995, jobs were plentiful and she put herself through school to become a medical assistant.

Now married with two children, a good job and a house, Gomez advises friends and relatives still in Mexico to stay home despite her own success.

So much has changed — starting with a terrible economy, Gomez said.

“Even if they can get a fake ID, which is a risk in itself, there are no jobs,” she said. “They will get their cars impounded and face harassment and possible deportation. They are really risking everything for sometimes nothing. Is it really worth it to leave families behind?”

Get our Essential California newsletter