Maria Montenegro became one of the first Salvadoran restaurant owners in Los Angeles when she opened El Migueleno on Vermont Avenue in 1969, financed by a $5,000 loan sealed on a handshake.
Back then it was a tiny kitchen in a neighborhood dominated by African Americans and Mexican immigrants. Customers would eye Montenegro’s cheese-filled pupusas and ask why the restaurant served such thick tortillas.
Today, El Migueleno has more than doubled in size and customers. In the past her family sold off their jewelry and cars to keep the restaurant afloat. Now, as jeweled bracelets jangle from her arm, she points around her restaurant, describing how she has upgraded her kitchen and paid off her loans.
The neighborhood itself has come a long way too. Last month Los Angeles officials declared a section of Vermont Avenue as the El Salvador Community Corridor, the first designated Salvadoran neighborhood in the city.
Many Salvadorans say it’s about time. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants fled a violent civil war in El Salvador in the 1980’s and settled in Los Angeles. They arrived as refugees overshadowed by an established Mexican populace, some hoping to return to their country someday and rebuild.
But many stayed, and now Salvadorans are opening more businesses, naming schools and roads after community heroes, and even reaching for political power. At least four Salvadoran Americans are running for City Council this year, and for the first time, there is a Salvadoran candidate for mayor. Even the pupusa — a quesadilla-like creation — has a seat at L.A.'s ethnic cuisine round-table.
Businessman Oscar Dominguez, who led the effort for recognition, says the corridor is an important step for the community — a chance to promote Salvadoran culture and lure investment to a poor neighborhood. But even Dominguez will admit that the proud, impoverished community has a ways to go.
“We’re starting over here. We need to create our own economic power,” Dominguez said.
Jaime Tejada is one of many Salvadoran business owners counting on the corridor’s success.
He and more than 30 Salvadoran investors pooled their money to open El Nuevo Ilobasco Family Restaurant last year, an ambitious space on Vermont with high ceilings, cooled by carved wooden fans. There’s a stage for karaoke or a quinceanera, and fresh-cut flowers bloom on dozens of polished wood tables.
But on this night at least, every chair is empty.
“Business? It comes and goes,” said Tejada.
Many Salvadorans feel the community’s economic power has lagged its population growth. The 2010 Census estimates that there are more than 350,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles, and the Salvadoran consulate contends that number is closer to 1 million.
Yet Dominguez said most Salvadoran businesses are mom-and-pop operations that never grow beyond a single storefront.
Dominguez said he hopes the corridor can change that. His example is next-door Koreatown, where a steady supply of foot traffic sustains Korean businesses and strengthens the sense of community.
Many Salvadoran businesses have signed on. There are more than 25 restaurants and 80 other businesses around the corridor, which stretches from 11th Street to West Adams Boulevard. Dominguez said. Grand opening signs are a common sight and a popular fast-casual Salvadoran restaurant named Caveman Kitchen is considering a franchise.
But the El Salvador Community Corridor still needs to develop its identity. For now, it is a concrete and asphalt expanse of jutting telephone poles, check-cashing businesses, auto repair shops with the occasional pupuseria — 10 blocks that could be from any immigrant neighborhood.
Some leaders worry that efforts to turn the corridor into a “Little El Salvador” could be diluted by competing plans. For example, sometime this month the City Council is expected to weigh a proposal to designate parts of the surrounding Pico-Union neighborhood as the Central American Historical District.
Longtime activist Isabel Cardenas said the Salvadoran community has a habit of splitting its efforts.
“There are people out there who are just trying to outdo each other,” said Cardenas, who is known locally as the godmother of El Salvador for her activism over the years.
Even in victory, Cardenas said, Salvadorans compete. Congress recognized Dia Del Salvadoreño — the Day of the Salvadoran American — in 2006, and this August, it was celebrated at three separate Los Angeles events hosted by three different groups.
The city’s Salvadoran community celebrated another victory in April when a plaza on the corridor was named for Bishop Oscar Romero, a Roman Catholic archbishop slain during El Salvador’s civil war. But if another group of Salvadoran leaders is successful, there will be another Bishop Oscar Romero Square in MacArthur Park as early as the fall.
“We just have to believe in the corridor,” Dominguez said. “All these years we’ve been so involved with another country, we have neglected to care about where we live. Now is the time for us to care about where we live.”
Dominguez’s ideas for improving the area are simple: Light the street at night; clean up the trash; help Salvadoran entrepreneurs expand their businesses.
He has personally invested $20,000 into a property on the corridor that he hopes will serve as a community center for art exhibitions and film screenings. The next step is applying for a business improvement district to help fund the cleanup.
Business leaders say there is a new generation of Salvadoran leaders setting an apolitical agenda focused on economic development. That means reaching out to nearby Koreatown, uniting with other Central Americans, even acknowledging the importance of the group that has always overshadowed them, Mexican Americans.
Meanwhile, expectations are high on Vermont Avenue. Toward the back of the corridor, near the 10 Freeway, one business owner is already preparing for the crowds. The rich odor of frying pupusas drifts from the street side eatery’s barred windows, and a tinny cumbia blares from a tiny speaker.
Overhead, a hopeful sign declares: “Restaurant El Corredor.”