A View From Within: How First Generation Salvadoran Americans See Themselves & Why It Matters

EDITOR’S NOTE: Published this week in LatamThought (via Aleszu Bajak), Ivan also approached us to cross-publish his piece. He gave us permission to share his article on our site. Ivan posted it originally on his own page.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California to a Mexican father and a Salvadoran mother. Both came to the United States as migrants in the late 60’s in search of a job that would pay them enough money to both eat and help out their families back home. At the time, this was a luxury their respective home countries could not afford them. My parents met and entered a domestic partnership in the U.S. when it was not so common to see a “Hispanic” in the streets of downtown Los Angeles (there were less than 70,000 self-identified Spanish speakers in all of California according to the 1970 census). My mother often recalls how she used to do a double take whenever she spotted a “Latin looking person” when she first arrived in 1969. Of course this is something unimaginable in today’s Los Angeles.

My parents eventually separated after I was born in 1981 and my father moved back to Mexico. My mother was left to raise three children on her own. Despite this, my siblings and I would spend large parts of our summers in Mexico for most of our youth. We never went to El Salvador. I was 12 years old when I first visited El Pulgarcito and was promptly mugged at knifepoint (a welcome home of sorts) in a popular water park. So although I have spent more time in Mexico and lived there for a year as a baby, I consider myself more Salvadoran because my mother raised me and I grew up associating with all of her sisters, my aunts and their children, my cousins.

I grew up with a dual cultural friction that was only made worse by my host American culture. I was truly confused on whether I was Mexican, Salvadoran, or maybe (U.S.) American. My Spanish was not Mexican enough, my cultural customs were not Salvadoran enough, and my skin color and neighborhood were not American enough. To add to this crisis of identity, I was raised in Venice, California, at a time when it was known simply as the ghetto by the sea, so I have a little bit of an urban slang and drawl in my everyday vocabulary.

Most of my high school friends were of Mexican descent and it never seemed to matter that my father was Mexican, one word out of my mouth in Spanish and I was instantly branded a “cerote” (I will let you do the research on this and all other terms you are unsure of in this piece). Incidentally, I only ever met a handful of Salvadorans or Salvadoran Americans within my formative educational years. The few I did meet turned out to become lifelong friends, perhaps due in large part to our shared mutual experience of isolation, real and imagined.

Why does all of this matter? It matters because last summer the Pew Research Center reminded us that Salvadorans were to became the third largest U.S. Hispanic group in the Unites States (the 2010 census counted 1,648,968 Salvadorans; surely closer to 1,700,000 by now) behind Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. What is really known about us however? Who are we and how did we get here? Aside from Puerto Ricans and the occasional Cuban, aren’t the rest of the Hispanics in this country just Mexican? Echoing the sentiments of a lot Americans: you all speak Spanish, and you like your food spicy, what else do we need to know about you? Well, a lot actually. Salvadorans don’t even do spice.

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Compared with Mexican Americans, the largest Latino ethnic group in the country, Salvadorans (not ‘El’ Salvadorans) have not been in the United States a very long time. The first big wave began in the early 1980s as many fled the gruesome civil war that devastated El Salvador for 15 years. Between the years of 1981 to 1990, over one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans migrated north to escape the strife at home. In 1990, Congress passed legislation allowing then president George H.W. Bush, to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to certain groups in need of a “temporary safe haven” spurred on by the tens of thousands of asylum seekers specifically from El Salvador. Since then Salvadorans have stamped their migrant history within the different ethnic enclaves of the U.S., particularly in Los Angeles.

Current official numbers have Salvadorans accounting for just over 3 percent of the total Latino population in the United States. This percentage does not take into account the unspecified number of undocumented Salvadorans arriving almost every day. Los Angeles is home to over 9 percent of all counted Latinos in the country in 2010, comprised of mostly Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The Salvadoran population grew significantly between 2000 and 2010, increasing by 180 percent. Consequently, there are more Salvadorans in Los Angeles than any other place in the world outside of El Salvador, with the second largest concentration in the U.S. being in the D.C.-Maryland area.

With such a big concentration of Mexicans and Central Americans in one city, intercultural relations have not always been smooth. Ethnographic research evidence over the last two decades indicates that the notorious MS-13 gang began in in the streets of Los Angeles as a direct response to the bullying Salvadoran youth experienced when first arriving in the early to mid 1980’s. And if we revisit the history of Mexican migration beginning with the Bracero Program of the 1940’s, we realize that Mexican migration has shifted and evolved over six decades to form into the large and influential (potentially) U.S. population it is today; the modern U.S. Salvadoran community is barely half that age.

I don’t feel a lot of people would disagree with the statement that most Americans are not entirely clear on what today’s Mexican American community looks like. Much more ambiguity surely exists regarding today’s Salvadoran American community. For the sole purpose of confining a better idea of what it means to be Salvadoran in the United States today, I conducted a mini-survey of 33 Salvadoran Americans (they were either born here or migrated at a very young age) currently living in Southern California, and asked them a series of questions aimed at answering what it means to be a Salvadoran-American.

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Certain broad themes emerged from the survey, five of which I list below. Once again, I will not define the terms italicized in the responses below, as the process of self-discovery is always a holistic one in my view.

The pupusa

Food is the most common symbol with which Salvadoran-Americans choose to define themselves. The pupusa, a thick handmade corn tortilla made from cornmeal dough usually filled with cheese, beans, chicharrón (cooked pork meat ground to a paste), or any combination thereof, is the most iconic symbol of what El Salvador is, according to the survey respondents.

To both Salvadorans and non-Salvadorans, the pupusa is a delicious icon that is known world over. Whether here in the States or traveling abroad, invariably the first thing people say to me when I mention that my mother is Salvadoran is, Oh, I love pupusas! . And it’s also common knowledge that every Salvadoran American thinks their individual mother, aunt and/or grandmother makes the best pupusas. The funny thing is, depending on the day and particular taste, they are usually right.

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When asked to describe a favorite memory of growing up Salvadoran in the U.S., the respondents equated ethnic identity with this influential cultural dish (as a side note, the term Salvi is short for Salvadorans):

“When I was little and tried to grasp the concept of the differences between Salvadorans or Mexicans, it confused me. At one point I believed my aunt was Mexican because she liked eating jalapeños, and one of the stereotypes was that Salvis couldn’t eat spicy food, so in my eyes she HAD to be Mexican, but she was very much Salvadoran.” – Kevin, 23, Bell Gardens, CA

The food is definitely what I associate with being Salvadoran. Mexican food is obtained easily, but any other ethnic food is more challenging to get.” – Ángel, 21, Burbank, CA

“Obviously the food culture is my favorite! Yuca frita con curtidoempanadaspupusastamales deelote, etc. I was always excited when family would go visit and bring back food that’s only indigenous to El Salvador, like paternas! I connected most with my ancestral country through food.” —Trixia, 22, Los Angeles, CA

“Having my grandmother come visit from El Salvador and make us homemade pupusas with cheese and ingredients that came from El Salvador. Love my mom’s cooking especially the panes con pollo; growing up having panes con pavo on Thanksgiving instead of a traditional ‘American’ style Thanksgiving is a big memory for me.” —Odalys, 26, Los Angeles, CA

A minority within a minority

Growing up as a minority within another minority, the relationship characterized between Salvadorans and Mexicans in the United States, a sense of ethnic alienation is developed. Language, and in particular, cultural customs are also sources of increased ethnic dissonance early on in the lives of Salvadoran Americans:

“I remember me really grasping my Salvadoran difference in middle school. Someone asked me what I was and I said I was Salvadoran, then they said ‘oh so you’re a cerote’… I was so confused. I had no clue what acerote was. Also for some reason every time someone found out I was Salvadoran, they always seemed a little disappointed or surprised (this reaction was from Mexican kids)… Although what I do see is that when I do meet people my age who are also Salvadoran-American, there is a sense of bonding; like we automatically have each other’s backs since we’re outnumbered and it’s cool that there’s someone else with a similar background. As if we’re a special few.” —Kevin, 23, Bell Gardens, CA

“People didn’t understand that part of being Latino meant that there was a whole continent full of people with sub-cultures, so trying to enlighten people of my differences was sometimes annoying and difficult. Some didn’t want to hear it and just wanted to categorize everyone as ‘Mexican’ buy some were so interested. They wanted to know everything about the food, and mostly the language and accent. In other words, what makes me unique and awesome is also what makes me easily dismissed… Growing up was kind of difficult since the vast majority of everyone else in our neighborhood was Mexican. Especially as a kid it would kind of suck because others would gang up to make fun of the Salvis. But I felt it helped me to embrace my identity because being Salvi is what set me apart from everyone else. However, I had to develop mechanisms to exist in that reality. My Spanish slowed down in order for my Mexican friends to understand me. Ultimately though, I feel like my family’s culture is what really kept me grounded in my identity. We would link up every weekend and hang out with all my uncles, aunts and cousins. We would be secure in our Salviness then.” —Betsy, 23, Bell Gardens, CA

“Both my parents are Salvadoran and going to schools that were mostly Mexican American and Caucasian, it was important for me to label myself as Salvadoran, although it was very hard to do so. Back in the 80s there weren’t too many Salvis in South Central or in the Southeast [L.A.]. I remember in school constantly getting called cerote and such. But I was fortunate to grow up in a home where the culture was very strong. We ate casamiento and pupusas, we listened to cumbias, and we spokecaliche. It was almost a resistance thing for me, whereas my older brother and sister tried to hide theirSalvi heritage and pass as Mexican or American. I had two other friends who were Salvis who preferred to pass as Mexican in order to not get bullied.”  —Andrés, 32, South Gate, CA

“When I moved from Hollywood, it was then that I found myself having to identify who I was. The new school was primarily Black and Latino, and by Latino I mean Mexican. During elementary school was when I began hearing these terms (i.e., cerote) about Salvadorans from Mexicans and I went home and told my mom. She told me to pay them no mind, but even then I recognized this ‘hatred’ they have against us. It was a difficult road but I realized that at the end of the day what matters is how you view yourself and I am a proud Salvadoran.” —Karla, 30, Los Angeles, CA

“I go to a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts, and all the Latinas are grouped together and called Mexican and our pan-Latino organization has actually been called the Mexican club. The sad part is that the statement is partly true. There is a majority in our membership of students of Mexican descent so a lot of the issues talked about/speakers brought in are concerned with Ch/Xicana identity, and there is almost no attention or consideration about issues of students of Central American descent… Within my group of Salvi friends we would joke about shared experiences growing up with Salvi families and take pride in our food and music. To the ‘Mexican kids’ we were made fun of because of our soccer team and just for being lesser, I guess. I was never told anything directly, but I know Salvis were the butt of jokes.” —Kathy, 19, Panaroma City, CA

“There were a lot more Mexicans in my neighborhood than Salvadorans. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Most of my friends were Black and a lot of my friends and neighbors would not see the difference between Mexican and Salvis. I thought it was the most ignorant thing, but that is how it was. Mexican friends would joke with me with regular jokes. Call me pupusa or cerota. It was all in fun, so I was never really offended. I actually felt very unique because most Hispanics in my area were ‘just’ Mexican as opposed to me…I was both Mexican and Salvadoran… One of the challenges included having to explain myself constantly. Whether I was explaining something to my Mexican or black friends. It seemed as if I was the advocate for the entire Salvadoran community; which then led me to seem as if I was solely identifying or ‘rooting’ for Salvadoran people. I also had to defend my Mexican side to my Salvi family. As I am very sure you are familiar with the rivalry, my Salvi side of the family could be ruthless with jokes and prejudice towards Mexicans. I always had to defend my Mexican side to them.” —Jennifer, 24, Los Angeles, CA

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Salvadoran dialect

Language and dialect both distinguish and serve as a point of ethnic pride for most of the respondents. Salvadoran Spanish is markedly different from Mexican Spanish, just as Spanish from Spain sounds very different from any other Spanish spoken anywhere in Latin America. Salvadoran Spanish tends to be faster, less enunciated, and is filled with very particular lingo. Alternatively, the Salvadoran dialect can also cause confusion and/or estrangement, especially for school-aged children of Salvadoran descent.

“I really, really, love the language. I love the accent and the fast pace; the fact that sometimes R’s don’t exist in our conversations.” —Betsy, 23, Bell Gardens, CA.

“I think many people have the misconception that all Salvis speak vulgarly and have very little class, which isn’t the case.” —Edgar, 32, Los Angeles, CA.

“I love the accent! Vos sos un bicha chucaVení y traeme una paílita my dad would say. I appreciated the different words for things as well as pronunciations.” —Jennifer, 24, Los Angeles, CA.

“I love our music and slang. Our slang, caliche as I think it’s called, can be used as a funny and unifying thing—my friends and I are fans of Salvadoran vines on Facebook, it’s like we’re seeing ourselves in those vines i.e. ‘that’s my tia right there!!’” —Kathy, 19, Panaroma City, CA.

“When I went to middle school and high school, I kept my Spanish to a minimum because I didn’t want people asking where my parents are from and then having them say those terms. I felt it was just better if I didn’t identify myself. I battled finding my identity in high school to the point where I began losing my Spanish” —Karla, 30, Los Angeles, CA

“When it came to school, I never brought it up that I was Salvadoran, not until I was about fifteen or sixteen… It was an issue to be Salvadoran, at least it was when I was growing up in the Elysian Park area. No one was Salvadoran, everyone was Mexican. There was one Nicaragüense, and the only reason we knew we were Central American was because in the 1st grade we had to sing a Cinco de Mayo poem and our teacher got mad at us because we were not reading it the way she expected us to do so. She said we were singing the poem, not reading it. For a long time, I was a closet Salvadoran.” —Carla, 27, Los Angeles, CA

Going back to visit

Unlike a great portion of first generation Mexican Americans, first generation Salvadoran Americans seem to visit their parents’ homeland more often. Respondents in this survey said they have visited El Salvador several times or go back regularly for a variety of reasons. This suggests the cultural connections between first-generation Salvadoran Americans and their ancestral home country remain intact, at least on some level, and that they go beyond food, music, or linguistic identities.

“To me, being Salvadoran is more than just pupusas. We are influenced by so many different things that we don’t really know who we are anymore. I feel some Salvadorans here are trying to rescue their Salvadorean-ness, they want to go to Nahuizalco, they want to go to Izalco, they want to speak Nahuatl, they want to connect.”  —Carla, 27, Los Angeles, CA

“I went twice; once when I was 16 and again when I was 25. The first time, I was there for a month and it was to connect with family. The second time, I was there for only three weeks and was for the previous reason.” —Jasmine, 27, Los Angeles, CA

“The first time I had gone to E.S. was when I was 2 so I don’t remember anything. But I recently went in 2013 for two weeks. And in 2012, for 3 months, so that was an experience. Reason for trip: it was just long overdue. Went to go see family I hadn’t seen in such a long a long time. Went to visit the mother country.” – Kevin, 23, Bell Gardens, CA

“Yes, we try to go about once a year. My parents actually purchased a house there about 6 years ago and other relatives that live here {U.S} have homes over there too. We usually go for about 2-3 weeks. We visit family and also do the tourist stuff.” – Betsy, 23, Bell Gardens, CA

“Yes, I was lucky to return often. One of my mom’s many forms of making money was to take items from people in L.A. to their families in El Salvador. She would use the pounds that she was allowed for her luggage to take items such as clothes, shoes, books or any other requests made by family members in El Salvador. She would also take clothes from “Los Callejones (in L.A.)” to sell over there. In return she would bring items sent by family, as well as, beans, Salvadoran cream and cheese to sale over here. For most of the 90’s my mom took these trips some were quick just for business and others were long when we went on family vacation. With this business my mom was able to pay for our tickets and make income. So I was able to return to El Salvador often. Mostly for 2 weeks but up to 2 months.” —Jennifer, 32, Los Angeles, CA

“My father for a very long time did not want to return to El Salvador nor did he want my sisters and I to go. He had a very hard upbringing, his mother passed when he was 6 and his father died when he was 11. These tragedies were all happening during the Salvadoran Civil War. I am assuming this is the reason why he did not want us to go back. He does not like to talk about it. I went to El Salvador for the first time during my junior year in college for a study abroad trip. It was such an amazing trip. I wanted to trace my roots and so I went to Central America.” —Jennifer, 24, Los Angeles, CA

The golden rule

LASTLY, not to engage in stereotypical falsities, but as someone who was raised by one, I know this to be somewhat true: do not get a Salvadoran woman upset.

“I grew up with stories of very strong Salvadoran women, women who were courageous, gave birth, had visions, owned a business, were artists, and stood up to violence and alcoholism. Women in Mexico – or the stories of them were very different. It felt as if women from El Salvador were more independent and had different challenges. My mother and grandmother lived many things compared to the women in my family living in Mexico (who seemed much more sheltered and protected) but that could just be a reflection of the different family dynamics.” —Rocío, 33, Los Angeles, CA

“The idea that some try to use as a negative, which is don’t get a Salvi woman mad, I think this comes from Salvadoran woman having to adopt strong survival skills that’s just about being a bad ass. So although I know people are trying to talk smack, I enjoy knowing that people think Salvi women are strong enough that they will stand up for themselves. Of course, there are a lot of vulnerable Salvi women but I also believe that Salvi women have impressive survival skills. I loved going back to ElSalvador and connecting what I did in L.A. and where it came from.” – Jennifer, 32, Los Angeles, CA

“Yes, both my parents are Salvadoran but I was raised by only my mother. She’s strong-willed and taught me to be self-sufficient. She’s an amazing role model and I feel like that has a lot to do with her culture and having come from true poverty. I admire that and feel like she’s raised me to have that same drive.” —Katie, 27, Los Angeles, CA

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Salvadoran Americans are an ever-increasing population. We are coming of age very quickly. Older and younger cousins are getting married, to other Salvadorans, having children, buying homes, and in some cases even having grandchildren. This fact is important because if the now third largest Latino community in the United States is to be understood better, or at all, existing Salvadoran-Americans must step up their efforts to express their unique experiences to a larger audience.

We are not “Mexican” or simply “Central American,” as most in the mainstream would like to categorize us as. We have much more to offer as a community than just great-tasting pupusas. As Carla, 27, from Los Angeles aptly put it, “We are not a ‘generational community’ yet. I would say that I’ve never met a third generational Salvadoran here [in U.S]. It’s very rare. Mexicanoshave established their community and their culture here. But I think we are getting there.”

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Iván Villanueva is a freelance writer and Spanish teacher born and raised in Los Angeles. He has written for The Boyle Heights Beat, The Fair Observer and The Advocate Magazine, primarily on immigration and cross-cultural social issues. You can follow him @IvanVilla.

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