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Salvadoran Migration: The Business of Crossing the Border
by Jennifer Re
This paper, by Santa Clara University student Jennifer Re ('04), was supported in part by a Hackworth Grant for student research on applied ethics.
(In Their Words)
(In My Words)
A woman with outstretched hands stands in front of a line of policía, clearly labeled by the block print on their plastic shields, over-armed. Seen from the back, wearing second hand, mismatched clothing that fits her brown wrinkled skin unevenly, the woman is simultaneously harmless and incredibly threatening. It is 1987 in San Salvador, El Salvador, and the woman is alone among the papers dropped by other protesters who have since fled this anti-riot protection mob.
Sitting in my room in Santa Clara in 2004, this photo from page 114 of Images we Must not Forget in my lap, I am no longer phased by several things: the ceiling fan of my large single room, my laptop on the desk, my full sized bed and imported comforter, haphazardly scattered clothing I bought. At one point, the contradictions of where I had been and where I continue to exist were too much to handle. Now I see that the contradictions in my life are poignant but easy to bear-they are nothing compared to those many Salvadorans face every day.
Studying in El Salvador in the fall of 2002 was for me the beginning of the discovery of what is missing-in my own life, in American society, in Salvadoran policies. Luckily, encounters with enough faith-filled people, brimming with underappreciated strength, have given insight into the fullness that can exist in any circumstance, that can take the place of the empty and the inexplicable.
Memories of the faces of the people I met, the people who let me so easily into their lives even though I fit there so clumsily, overcome me with their extraordinary force and depth. The plentitude of stories that compose their lives seems unending. Yet the testimonies of Salvadorans do not overwhelm any bookstore's shelves. El Salvador is a subject treated in histories, journalism, economic studies, photography of unending gruesomeness, liberation theology, and literature. Testimonies, like Life Out of Death: The Feminine Spirit in El Salvador , are becoming more plentiful as the voices raised by grass-roots organizations grow more powerful. Simultaneously, however, the world becomes less personal, and stories seem less important.
I came to realize that in a society like El Salvador-industrializing rapidly and without much room for planning, battling its history of corruption and violence, only recently made a global marketplace-the declared "hard truth" is not as easy to trust as we would like to believe. The most telling information about a society comes not only from the studies done in universities but also from the lived experiences of the people composing it.
I remember my frustration with a little book published by the UCA titled ¿Donde se van? It set out to explain succinctly the push and pull factors that lead to migration from El Salvador to the United States, an economic decision being made more and more frequently, despite El Salvador's peaceful and presumably stable condition. The book gave some insight on cultural factors such as networks available to Salvadorans in the United States, but where were the stories? Where were the situational examples? Furthermore, if everything that book said was true, why were there any Salvadorans left in El Salvador at all?
Migration was something I could see affecting the people I met in El Salvador; it was also something I could personally relate to. I was myself a temporary migrant of sorts-spending 4 months in a place that anyone could objectively say I didn't belong. Everyone I met there seemed to have some family member or friend in the United States, or had been there themselves. We could relate, they thought. One knew what the other was talking about when we talked about "the differences" between here and there ("here" sometimes meaning "there")-different protocol for interactions, different standards of living, different laws, different cultures.
Migration was visible as not just an economic force, but a cultural reality. It was a subconscious entity. It will continue to go on. Migration is multi-sided-it is a reality in the United States just as much as it is in El Salvador. The experience is not just one of trying to make it past the border patrol but also of trying to navigate a life in an unknown land, of trying to develop a sense of self among conflicting cultures.
Would it be possible to use the opportunity I had as a University student (and therefore, as a Jesuit priest and friend once said, a "social project") to explore the deeply personal truth of a marginalized people? I had to try. Salvadorans showed me that the might of effort is enough to make a huge statement on its own. Recognizing I could not live the stories I would be telling, I wanted to see how close I could bring myself to them, how close I could bring others to their stories. I wanted to know, in their words, why Salvadorans really migrated and what they went through in the process.
This was, after all, the land where Anita quit the sisterhood in her conservative parish in order to start her own cooperative during a time when such an action meant she would not be able to walk the streets without fear of being shot as a subversive. This was the land where Julio would forego his university education so that he could join his family as refugees in Mexico because that meant that the murderers of his father would be put on trial. This was the land where Maria would watch her infant be thrown in the air and shot, but still maintain the courage to help the rest of her family flee the guerilla forces. El Salvador is a land where the word "sacrifice" is inherently underestimated.
Sacrifice is only one of the themes that emerge from the migration stories I collected in El Salvador. Other themes are often contradictory. Love and disintegration, anger and generosity of spirit, luck and misfortune, deception and deep honesty fill these pages. I have done my best not to shape the stories themselves to fit specific themes, but have put them together in such a way that shows how difficult it is to classify the migration experience, and how much more is involved in it than economics. I have written these stories, above all, because my spirit needed to process the experience of the people I met. I have chosen El Salvador because I have come to know it deeply, but also because it is an important place to take note of, and an often unrecognized center of migrant production. El Salvador is an extreme example of Latin American violence and politics in many instances, but is also a place that is uniquely complicated, struggling to create its own identity as a nation. I hope that a secondary benefit of these stories is that they contribute to a fuller understanding of the Salvadoran, the migrant, and the American realities that shape our own lives, directly or indirectly, and most definitely the society of which we are a part.
Pitching the American Dream
Luis exists somewhere between El Salvador and the United States. More concretely, he might be located between his quiet hillside town near the Honduran Border and San Salvador, Mexico, or-if serendipity is much kinder than we think-Washington, D.C. It all depends on how haphazardly Luis's family wishes to hope. They know for sure only the magnitude of the space where he used to be.
Not two months ago, Luis was making his daily trek, sweat dripping, up the only path that led from the main road to his family's two-room home. The path, slimy with mud where it is not dotted unevenly with stones, would be a near-impossible trek for someone with less experience. Luis used to make the hour journey close to daily, this trail leading to his isolated community of Cerro Grande ("large hill"), in the department of Chalatenango, El Salvador. Cerro Grande just recently received national recognition-a three-paragraph article on the 4th page of the national paper-because of a slight blunder by the government. The children of Cerro Grande had received no public education until 1999 because the government had considered the place a myth. In addition to being far from any resources (of the economic variety, that is), Cerro Grande had been heavily attacked during the Civil War, and no one believed that anyone would have liked to resettle it, even ten years later. A journalist got a whiff of the story when he heard a determined young teacher was giving lessons to Cerro Grande's children under a cenizero tree. After the article was published, funds came in quickly to build a new schoolhouse.
Luis passed the newly built one-room school on his way to the family corn field. The fog was rising in the distance over the Honduran mountains, framing the rows and rows of tall green stalks. Along the path leading to the field, sugar cane was springing from the ground. Luis chopped down a stalk with a machete, husked it and chewed casually on it. What wasn't stolen of the plot's harvest, Luis's family tried to sell to the people in Cerro Grande. After that, there's not much else to do with it. Much like agriculture everywhere in the country, sugar cane does not fetch a price that merits the trouble of cutting and milling it and taking it to town to sell.
That same week, Luis's father went to a regional meeting of farmers. The group, gathered from all over Arcatao (a region including many small towns like Cerro Grande), was planning a protest against the government's push for industrialization. For too long, the right-winged ARENA party had been enacting policies that seemed to be steering small-and even large-scale farming toward extinction. "They won't get me in any factory," Luis's father said often, menacingly and with pride, over dinner. The government's pressure to industrialize, however, had not been verbal but came in the form of neglect. The government appropriated no money for education, health care, or bringing water to rural zones like Cerro Grande. It is assumed that the people there would be, in a very passive way, forced out of their subsistence lives by desperation, and, in turn, the government would no longer have to accommodate them.
Don Castulo, father and experienced complainer, was the family's self-proclaimed patriarch. He gave Luis a sour frown when he arrived back from the sugar cane field. Luis hadn't worked in days. He was spending too much time showing "the gringa" (myself, the most obvious of visitors) around. He hadn't been milking the cows. He let the rice that needs shelling pile up in the back of the house. He didn't spray the fields. German, Luis's younger brother, shouldered Luis's neglected tasks without complaint except for a film of sadness he let fall over his eyes.
Don Castulo, ignoring his hard-working prize of a middle son, saw the root of Luis's laziness in the year he spent in the capital. Since he returned, Luis spent the majority of his time planning his immigration to the United States. He chose the dangerous and expensive path of going illegally through a coyote.
As Luis understood it, there would be a man waiting for him in the city of Chalate. Luis would ride in the back of his truck to Mexico. Luis was convinced that, once he made it to Mexico, there would be a plane to take him to Washington, D.C. He couldn't have known what airport security in the United States was like, and the coyote, with his appealing promises, could easily take advantage of such ignorance. "Do you have a contact in Washington, D.C.?" I asked him. "Yes, a friend," he answered. But he hadn't spoken to this friend since she became "an American," more than two years ago. Luis was confident that it would all work out-that he would be able to find work through his friend once he reached Washington, D.C., and send it back to his family. First he would pay off the $5,000 coyote fee ($2,500 up front, $2,500 upon arrival), then help the children buy the things he never had growing up: soccer shoes, new clothing, notebooks for school.
The Castulo family lost 6 children to infant deaths, a tragedy typical for families living in such a state of poverty. Their oldest son was killed just before war broke out in Arcatao, accused of being a guerilla. Luis and his family never knew the truth about whether he had actually been a member of the rebel armed forces. Those in the family who did survive early childhood did not do so casually. In June of '81, Luis's family was lucky enough to have several hours' notice of the arrival of government troops as the civil war exploded in Chalatenango. A breathless and barefoot neighbor brought news that they were raking Arcatao for traitors and dissidents: guerillas, family of guerillas, supporters of guerillas, and anyone who couldn't unequivocally prove they supported the national army. While technology has yet to spread to Cerro Grande, word has always spread fast. The Castulos gathered their small family at the time-their daughter and only son, Luis, who wasn't yet old enough to walk-and whatever they could carry and joined the rest of the community as they trekked across the Honduran border. Such a journey meant three days without food or water, generating a state of starvation that heightened the constant paranoia that troops-or, equally fear-inducing, the guerrillas-were waiting in the bushes, poised at their triggers to kill the first thing they saw.
But Luis didn't remember being carried from his home. Were he to trust his memory, Honduras would be nothing more to Luis than a relatively safe environment with plenty of people-some of whom accepted him (he later noted, the Salvadorans) and others that ignored him (Hondurans). What was freshest in his mind about Honduras was the constant tone in the house: work hard all day and reserve the right to complain all evening about how hard life is. Since the age of 7, Luis had helped his father in the cooperative milpa, where corn was grown for tortillas. His father took comfort in the routine of explaining to Luis every day the details of what he'd do once he got his own rich land back. Meanwhile, the national army was torching livestock, smashing homes with bombs, and sowing salt into the earth on the other side of the border.
In 1992, when it was safe for the family to return to Cerro Grande, Luis, his sister, and his parents, plus three not-so-recent additions (German, Marixa and Samuel) left their temporary situation in Honduras. Such transplantation did not bring respite from hard work. It meant for dozens of families a new beginning-a concept wrapped up in hope, anxiety, fear, and energy. It meant for Luis a continuation of his position as second in charge. The springs dried out, the chickens grew from chicks, the house walls grew a musky odor, and Luis grew up. Luis's older sister got married and moved to the city. Luis's younger sister, Marixa, grew in age but stayed the same developmentally-she never learned to walk or speak, and spent her days wobbling her extremities in different patterns from the hammock on the porch. German learned how to tend the corn.
It happened in 1999 that Luis, 19 years of age, visited his sister and brother-in-law in the capital. What started as a one-week visit turned into a year of Luis's discovering his independence. He didn't exactly like the way the smog cut the clouds horizontally on the dawns of hot days, or the number of times he almost got run over by huge buses with bad (or just underutilized) breaks. He couldn't stand eating pan francés, the dry and airy white bread sold on street corners as a staple instead of tortillas, and he hated working construction. But Luis's encounter with his freedom made the city into an almost enchanting place. Meanwhile, German, then 15 years old, learned more: how to shuck the rice, when to milk the cows, where to cut the sugar cane, and why you always did everything Papa said. Luis had been replaced in practice, but his duties hadn't changed. Returning home, Luis was an entirely different person. But Cerro Grande was the same.
Luis, 21 by the time he undertook his more epic journey, was not thrilled by the idea of filling his father's dung-caked working boots. Throughout his childhood, Luis was constantly pulled from school to work in the fields. It became impossible to get through even the fourth grade when the family had to move to Honduras. Once the family moved back to their original land, Don Castulo became even more attached to the little they had. For Luis, the land contained only memories of the restrictions of having to work as a young child and of the horror and confusion of the war.
When asked about his father, Luis said nothing but made a face that encapsulated frustration and contempt. Don Castulo is a character you'd have to watch in interaction truly to believe. Aside from having been a very active leader in Cerro Grande, and, compared to the rest of the community, having succeeded somewhat (he has a serene plot of land on which his two milk cows graze, and a private natural water source), his personal traits left much to be desired. He sat in his hammock all day long, grunting orders at his wife, berating German, and ordering his youngest son at any moment to tie his shoes for him. He played a wicked snore-belch-fart-loogie-hocking medley every night, and had been known to use his cow whip to quiet Marixa, guilty only of being an invalid, when she wouldn't cease her moaning. He liked to bathe his corpulence on the front steps, insisting that everyone should be so bold-"everyone has skin," after all. His behavior exceeded general machismo, so he must be understood in the context of the war and violence he had survived. In any case, he made escape seem very tempting indeed.
Marixa, through no fault of her own, was also a case from which one might wish to flee. She couldn't walk and so scooted when necessary with her long bony arms along the floor. She spent all day in the hammock rotating between playing with her drool, swinging back and forth, and moaning hauntingly. The human heart could take only so much of her suffering, or, what may more accurately be described as her helpless non-personhood. She was nothing but a nagging presence to her family, ignored when possible like the pigs in the yard. The only reliable contact she received was to be fed three times a day. She smiled briefly once, when Luis spun her around and yelled her name enthusiastically while he moved her from the inside hammock to the outside one. But she had no way of responding, no way of telling Luis just how much she appreciated his attention.
Luis's youngest brother, Samuel, was usually the one who fed Marixa. He had a developmental disability that affected his height and athletic (i.e., soccer) abilities. He was inordinately shy, but gregarious after his first impression. He took a support role in showing me around his community, coloring pictures for me, and telling me the names of all the flowers and plants we would pass by. At the age of eleven, he looked like the world's most adorable six-year-old but with confident pre-teen wisdom. He was an excellent tour guide on the more adventurous visits to the other families in the community, which involved thorn-pricking, bush-hopping treks through the wilderness. A machete would have been appropriate but would have outweighed him. When Luis bickered with his father, or when Don Castulo made German cry from his stinging remarks, Samuel involved himself only more deeply in his drawings or playing with the kittens. Luis hesitated leaving Samuel with no one to stick up for him against their gruff father. Samuel, because of his physical handicap, would never be held up to the expectations that had troubled Luis, but he had been suffering under the general tumult of his brother's absence.
Maura, the mother, was clearly the stable foundation of the family that kept the walls, crumbling from stress and poverty, from caving in altogether. She rose before 4 every morning to begin the four-step, sweat-involving process of washing, milling, grinding, and "tortilla-ing" (no direct translation exists for this process of molding the dough into circles). When there was no "con que"-something to eat with the tortillas such as soup, cheese, or beans-at least there were tortillas. She prepared the coffee for her husband, always promptly, but never before he could ask for it. She washed the dishes, swept, spent hours washing the family's clothes on a rock platform with homemade soap and water collected from the rain in oil barrels, and fed the animals around the house. Frowning, she would brush the front porch with a tree branch, trying to bring some order to the ever-replenishing dirt around her. But she had no shame about anything she did and never complained. The only negative words from her came in the beginning and end of the days when she detailed the pain of her headache. Between her constantly-moaning invalid daughter, and the mentally disabled yet energetically-blessed neighbor who always invited himself over to scream and bang on barrels and take things from their proper places, and her husband always complaining about something, I'm not surprised that she never went a day without a headache. Luis wasn't around very often to witness his mother's tireless persistence, but he was no fool. "She is a saint," he said, following after a pause with, "She is the strongest woman you will ever meet."
"I will never get along with my father," Luis said on more than one occasion. "But in my heart, I know it will be hard to leave." Cerro Grande, that subtropical jewel at the top of the Salvadoran mountains, would be hard for anyone to leave. Plants and flowers grow with incredible fertility around every path, and what is left of rivers and natural springs water the land and murmur soothingly. Living without electricity or running water out there just somehow made sense. Everything needed for survival came from the land. Survival, however, was not enough-not when Marixa needed medicine, and Maura hasn't a moment's rest, and Samuel, who is incredibly bright, would never be challenged by the few academic resources available to him. Luis was told that some "make it" in the United States, finding their own lives there and being able to send monetary support home to their families. As long as this possibility exists, mere survival in Cerro Grande would never be enough for Luis.
Luis planned to leave on November 20th, which became the 27th, which became after Christmas, until one day he was just gone. When Luis left, he had a vague idea of a destination-the city of Washington, DC-some food money, and little else. For Luis, like so many other Salvadoran families' sons at any given moment, life is, for now, an indefinite transition.
Ramon's first indication that Mexico matched the rumors in El Salvador came when he encountered the PCR-the Mexican national police. After a long trip through Central America, tired but unscathed, Ramon figured his luck was about to change. He looked at the jagged fence of the Mexico-Guatemala border at Chiapas wondering where trouble lurked. It seemed deserted, but only minutes after he crossed into Mexico he was approached-not by vigilante thieves, but thieves with badges.
"Where are your papers?" Two men in PCR uniforms asked. Snickering at Ramon's slow response, the shorter of the two officers remarked, "Central Americans don't do well here." The other officer, broad shouldered and tall, stepped in front of Ramon and gave him a little shove.
"Hey!" shouted Ramon. He was more tired and thirsty than he'd ever been in his life. It hurt to raise his voice and say, indignantly, "What about our human rights?" As soon as he'd said it, the officer in front of him gave him a smile filled with dark pleasure. The other officer moved quickly from behind Ramon, distracting him while the officer in front of him slammed his baton over Ramon's chest. The air robbed from his lungs, Ramon stumbled back. Ramon's companion, Hector, caught Ramon as he fell back and dragged him up.
"Do you want more?" the officer with the baton asked.
"No, no…just tell us how much," Hector said from behind Ramon.
"It's not a fixed price," said the officer. Then the two officers approached Ramon and Hector and searched them for money, sticking their hands in Ramon's and Hector's pockets. Whatever they found, they kept. With a slight bow, they bid Ramon and Hector safe passage-then kicked them after they passed.
* * *
Ramon lost his job with Banco Cuscatlan along with 20 other employees in March of 1999. A change of bank presidents meant layoffs in an effort to increase profit margins. Ramon was disappointed and angry, but not destitute. He knew he could find another job. But somehow the layoff became an opportunity to explore ideas he'd been putting off. The time off sharpened his attention to the growing delinquency and overall level of danger in the city. Just existing in the space of El Salvador was suddenly unsavory.
Against the urgings of his family, Ramon decided to nurse a dream growing louder and louder in his mind: the dream to travel to the U.S. "para conocerlos," to get to know it, to work in a well-paying job for a short while and come back all the wiser, having solved his mother's economic troubles in Usulutan. Traveling for adventure as much as necessity, Ramon didn't think it necessary to enlist a coyote. A slight man with a trustworthy face, wearing a stiff collared denim shirt-and a banker no less-Ramon's persona does not immediately lend itself to an adventurous casting. But there is a latent insistence in his voice that implies he wouldn't say anything he didn't mean.
* * *
Once in Mexico, Ramon and Hector weren't quite sure what to do. Their plans to buy bus tickets had been made impossible, as neither of the men had hidden any money where the officers couldn't find it. Penniless, they wandered north until they found a dusty town with a church on its outskirts. Mass had just gotten out, and Ramon decided to approach the priest, to see if he had any godly advice.
The priest gave Ramon and Hector a look filled with sympathy. "It happens all the time, unfortunately," he said. "There is a place to help people in your situation." He took Hector and Ramon into an office adjacent to the church. He took out a piece of paper and drew on it with a pencil. "This is a map to a shelter for immigrants," he said.
Ramon and Hector followed the lines on the paper to a large one-story building that looked like a remodeled school. They sensed a change in atmosphere around them. Young men sat on the corners playing cards, some of their tattooed friends playing basketball on a court with a very crooked basket. A drunk or two displayed their passed-out bodies halfway over the sidewalk in front of the vendors and discount electronics shops. Ramon and Hector entered the shelter and found a place where they could sleep among the 40 other individuals in a similar situation. They chatted with the people around them and soon narrowed in on a group of 8 people who were Salvadorans like themselves.
"I'm sick of being in this place," said one of the 8 Salvadorans. "There's a park across the street. I think we should go see what it's all about." A few in the group nodded and some others shrugged. Six of them decided they should go to the park.
"We should go," said Ramon, who knew how important it was to make friends quickly. Hector, glazed over in the eyes ever since he'd seen a bed and the idea of sleep had been introduced to him, maintained a posture of resistance. "Are we doing this together or not?" Ramon asked. His best friend nodded and followed.
The group of Salvadorans entered the park and sat on the grass by the entrance. One man pulled out a pack of cigarettes and passed it around the group.
"Don't get too comfortable," came a threat from a voice behind them. A boy about 19 years old followed by a large group of friends was glaring at them. Many of the teenagers had "sangre" tattooed on their arms and exposed chests. "We own this park," he said, pointing with his thumbs to the intimidating people behind him. It sounded like they were telling them to get out, Ramon thought, but the slang the boy used was very thick. The other Salvadorans looked confused.
"Immigrants!" the boy said, their confusion confirming his suspicion.
"We should leave right now," said a Salvadoran in the group. The men stood up to leave. Hector was the last one to get up, and before he was fully standing there was a hand on his shoulder.
"People like you are this country's garbage," said the boy. "Worthless."
Hector removed his hand quickly. By then, some of the men had started running toward the shelter. Hector tried running after them, and Ramon ran too.
Then Hector screamed. Ramon turned around and saw his best friend staggering, a growing circle of blood staining the middle of his shirt. He fell forward and Ramon saw the knife embedded in his back. The rest of the gang seemed excited by the blood and took up chase. Ramon ran as fast as he could, unable to say goodbye to his friend.
"I can't stick around here," Ramon told the director of the shelter as soon as he made it back. Others from the group were telling everyone they saw in the shelter what had happened. People walked by Ramon as he spoke to the director, patting him on the back, giving him sad looks.
"I have a name for you, then," the director said. "This is a very kind family. They've been helping out immigrants, our emergency cases as we call them, for a while." He told Ramon how to get there and gave him bus fare. When he got off the bus, Ramon was to ask for the "Sanchez Watermelon Farm."
* * *
Ramon sat with a strange forced half-smile on the stairs of the Day Worker's Center in Mountain View, California, several years later. "My best friend-the only companion on my journey-was killed that night, our first night, in Mexico." It came out like an indistinct sentence, disconnected from the life he was more immediately living.
Despite the intense tragedy Ramon witnessed, Ramon had encountered a number of organizations that helped him along the way. Once Ramon found the Sanchez family farm, he went to work immediately earning enough money for him to eat and get along; there was never quite enough to save up. Ramon decided to stay in Chiapas with the family, and as two years passed, he became a part of the Sanchez family and earned his papers as a legal Mexican resident.
The Sanchez family cried the day they saw Ramon off at the bus station. Ramon decided to go through Sonora to Arizona. He crossed near a town called Yuma, where he climbed into the luggage compartment of a bus. At the bus's first stop, he snuck back out and bought a train ticket for Phoenix. From Phoenix, he took a bus to Los Angeles, where he met up with a friend. This friend helped him find his cousin, who was living in the Bay Area. He moved in with his cousin and slept in the living room. In Mountain View, it was even more important than in Mexico that he find a job and earn income. It was time to start sending his family back home the money he'd promised to help them survive.
It wasn't long before Ramon got up the courage to visit an establishment set up to help immigrants like him find work. The Day Worker's Center in Mountain View is housed in the church reception center with low ceilings and enough space for about 10 folding tables. There is an open kitchen on one side where the day workers, the clients of the center, take turns preparing breakfast and coffee. The T.V. blares Telemundo in the corner. Carlos, assistant to the only full time employee of the center, Maria, fills jobs and checks people off the list as they come in. The list is organized so that the people in the beginning of the list have the first choice at jobs (provided they possess the skills specified by the employer) and then after they fill a job they are placed at the bottom of the list. Anyone who doesn't show and sign in for a day is also placed at the bottom of the list. Several other laborers help Maria make job announcements and get things organized.
Ramon now comes to the Day Worker's Center about 3 days a week. He begins his day at roughly 7 a.m. He gives his name to Carlos to check him in on the list. If someone on the top of the list is ill or does not come, he or she logically forfeits the spot to someone who showed up. The list is functional and egalitarian and miles shy of bureaucratic. If a client requests workers of a specific skill (English, painting, gardening, etc.), then the person with that skill whose name appears highest on the list is selected. Ramon doesn't yet know English, but is enthusiastic about learning. The Day Worker's Center offers free English classes almost daily. There is also a lawyer associated with the center, and traditional Mexican and Central American holidays are celebrated at the site. It's not exactly a big happy family at the Day Worker's Center, but it is a place where most immigrants feel comfortable.
Has Ramon reached his dream? He continues to hold on to it, at the very least. He works two to three times a week with the aid of the Mountain View Day Worker's Center. He lives by his day's work and hasn't the security of a regular salary, but manages to gather $150 to send home every two weeks. He enjoys free meals at the Day Worker's Center and rents a room from his cousin for $200 a month. There are hundreds of day workers in Mountain View alone, patching together a living by the only legal means they are given. Ramon has found there a place that is often pleasant, and almost always safe. Despite all he's been through to get there, those two criteria, on top of his being able to earn a modest sum, have been enough to make him feel he is getting closer to the original dream that brought him there.
Afterward: As American as Tamarindo Pie
Near the end of my second stay in El Salvador, I found myself on a bus, listening to Chris Deburgh's "Lady In Red"-or so I thought-on the radio. Something about the song was more than slightly off. As trumpets blared in the background and the tempo met that of my pulse, it became apparent that the "Lady in Red" was dancing the meringue. The words were the same as the early '90s version I'd come to appreciate with the same abandon as most songs of that era, but the artist and the tempo were unfamiliar. I thought the song was strange for a moment until I realized-it was perfect.
Salvadorans have a way of claiming American popular culture-and, even more so, its quirks-and making them their own. Whether it's American-flag (or, sometimes, confederate-flag), oversized steering wheel covers coupled with a bright plastic mesh driver's chairs in the public buses, or a troubling business strategy of constructing in overabundance "play places" that remain unused at fast food restaurants, there is something incongruous about the translation of American culture to El Salvador. Much the same thought passed through my mind while riding the rusty Stairmaster among Salvadoran beauty queens at the Bally Fitness Center, and while enjoying a rum and Coke sample at the "Super Selectos" grocery store.
I could spend hours on the buses along the freeways of metropolitan San Salvador and still often not know or believe where I was. The Comapala Expressway-one of the newest roads in El Salvador, linking the capital and the national airport-is an illusion, a case in point. The faded paint crawling up the young deciduous trees and the fresh asphalt combine naively with the ancient jungle foliage of the crumbling hills above to create a setting that is uniquely self-conscious. And yet billboards try-one would think in vain-to yank the traveler's vision away from such potentially immersing scenery to the matter at hand: namely, to consume. Worry not, urges one billboard advertising designer tile. "If you want to live well, there are options." A sleek black and white kitchen, appropriate for Manhattan and just about nowhere else, is situated next to the slogan on the 12-foot-tall sign nestled in the hillside. The next sign, for SIMAN, El Salvador's exclusively upper class shopping metropolis, features beautiful laughing white women with shopping bags. If this sign is correct, SIMAN is the place to go to fulfill all your needs.
Less than ten miles away from the expressway lies the community of La Chacra. The poorest, most densely populated portion of the capital, La Chacra is infamous but well-hidden. I remember the exact moment I felt myself move outside my body among those unpaved and confused streets. I was exiting a dark, pungent tin room of a house, what Salvadorans nonchalantly call "microwaves," and was hit violently by the sunlight and the voices of children covered in more dirt than clothing. "Photo," they all chanted, making clicking motions and snapping noises. Living in pieced-together housing, made all the more precarious by the railroad that ran behind them, the children were indeed photographable, objectifiable symbols of poverty among everything else they were (industrious, joyful, sometimes hopeful). The reality of their acute self-awareness seemed to add an element of responsibility to my visiting El Salvador and to any witnessing of this place.
"Salvadorans are very open about their contradictions," an UCA professor once told me. Surviving a bloody civil war has left El Salvador raw and naked, vulnerable to first impressions. On my first taxi ride into the country, the driver told me immediately after introductions, "You see this road? The government built this road right after the earthquake a couple of years ago. Thousands of people were left without homes and the government told them that there wasn't the money for it. It was because of this freeway, because the government wanted it to look good for business travelers flying in." Salvadorans have a firm grip on Salvadoran realities. And still many of them (often the poorest) manage to be among the most hopeful people I can imagine. There is struggle beneath the surface, and a great amount of indignation.
American visitors, in contrast, are not given as much credit in perceiving reality. They might see the billboard on the newly paved Comapala Expressway and think, "El Salvador is classy. I can't wait to spend my money here." The shopping, however, purports to have all the image of Hollywood but does not come close to achieving the Hollywood façade, containing even less substance. Advertising of some grander lifestyles behind bored guards and the gates of mansions in the hills seems almost ghostly in this place where poverty stands over most people as a constant reminder that life is fragile. The media urge, spend money as though it existed. The culture of spending then spills into policy-making-campaigns for privatization, city beautification projects, an insistence on hosting international events. Again the upper class-small in numbers but giant in influence-is held up in favor, and the assumption remains that, as their power and prestige are flaunted, everyone in the country somehow comes closer to achieving it.
My fascination with El Salvador is tied to the role I play in it. El Salvador becomes more and more intriguing as I begin to understand more and more that it is (popular) culturally and economically a total head case. This reality, one of few I feel comfortable professing, did not achieve its contemporary form within an isolated El Salvador. U.S. foreign policy and media play a part in creating Salvadoran ideals. American television, politics, and enterprise are paramount in Salvadoran decision-making-whether at the government level or in simple consumer decisions.
In plainest language, the products, the TV shows, and the fitness centers seem to say, "The proudest Salvadoran emulates the American ideal." While trying to use the American image to improve their own, the Salvadoran elites are simultaneously sending the message that the United States must, after all, be a better place to live. Combine these unintended pull factors (to the U.S.) of image with the harsh economic reality of El Salvador beneath its public parks exterior, and you have migration, which initially became prevalent because of dangers of the Civil War, still on the minds of 1/3 of the Salvadoran population over a decade after peace has been declared.
In spite of corporate advertisers, the government, and foreign companies putting up new factories and telling Salvadorans that life is getting better, people continue to leave El Salvador. The mass migration of Salvadorans has not abated like the War that originally caused it. Such a phenomenon begs the question: are things really better in El Salvador since the Peace Accords in 1991? Such a question was one I had to keep asking in El Salvador, because each person I asked answered with a twist on or contradiction of what the previous person I talked to had said. I don't think El Salvador is ready for answer.
Despite the near exodus of Salvadorans from their country, for every handful that leaves, often one or two come back. Just as the Salvadoran returned home can feel alienated, and even display an air of superiority, she can be eternally grateful to be home again. The recently repatriated Salvadoran is his own entity, his own mixture of citizens and consumers, existing in a space between grateful and disgusted, between retired and invested. American culture, then, no doubt gains a good deal of its indecisive influence in El Salvador from the abundance of people who have migrated, are migrating, or have family members who have migrated to the United States. Their influence is complicated.
A proudly spoken sentence by a drunken landlord I met in San Ramon still floors me: "The United States should just buy El Salvador and take care of all its problems." The flying spit from his mouth added emphasis and sincerity to his claim, as did the broken English. "Look what happened when this country democratized," he said. "Before, marijuana was the only drug problem, and now they have crack and heroin. Crime has gotten worse. Corruption is everywhere." The alternative, in his view, was that the U.S. establish a totalitarian regime with American leadership and laws. His words demonstrate an important, somewhat prevalent disconnect-between the land he'd left and the land he'd returned to-compounded by the changes that had taken place within him while he was gone. This man in particular had learned through real estate how to make his money make money. While he was gaining capital, he fell into alcoholism. When he returned to El Salvador, much of his family had left or died. He felt so distant from the town and the country around him that he found no trouble arguing that "at least war can serve as population control." In a country where every other sentence ends in "civil war," "Romero," or "the government," where war and integrity are granted the utmost respect, such a statement is brazen enough to seem insane. A lot happens on the journey to the United States and throughout a Salvadoran's experience in that foreign land to forever change the migrant-whether he returns or not.
Truth becomes subjective and temporally sensitive to the migrant and the inhabitants of the borderland-any place influenced by migrating people. El Salvador, an exemplary borderland, becomes at once a proud homeland, a whitewashed dreamland, a dangerous place to raise a family, a faith-filled land of truth, a normal place to go out to lunch, and a sacred ground for deceased martyrs, among its thousands of other identities. There are many versions of the truth and levels of internal and external borders; there is no one true story, no one true border here.
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