The flying bullets, economic chaos and violent repression that engulfed El Salvador in the late 1970s caused many social activists to flee their homeland for the United States. Those experiences still resonate for Salvadoran Americans in places like Los Angeles, which became a home for a generation in exile from the Central American nation that had been embroiled in a disastrous 12-year civil war.
The resilient spirit of this generation, and its legacy of fighting for social justice and united community action, will form the backdrop for Salvadoran Day this Saturday and Sunday, which will take place at the corner of Avenue Normandie and the boulevard Venise, in the heart of the city’s downtown. American Diaspora.
Inaugurated in 1999, Salvadoran Day combines a strong political component with a cultural and religious element in a resounding affirmation of collective identity. Community leaders and leftist politicians regularly show up to proselytize.
Activities this weekend will include a music festival, typical Salvadoran food and, to close Sunday, a religious procession dedicated to the divine Savior of the world, which will depart from St. Kevin’s Catholic Church on Beverly Boulevard. It will be followed by a mass similar to those celebrated in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, since 1525.
While the occasion will be marked in other US cities, Salvadoran Day has a distinctly LA pedigree. It grew out of a resolution passed by Congress in July 2006, supported by then-U.S. Representative and current LA County Supervisor Hilda Solís, responding to a request from LA community leaders.
“With Hilda Solís we did it at the federal level. That is why it is celebrated everywhere,” said Isabel “Chabelita” Cárdenas, activist and co-author of the Congress text.
One particular organization played a pivotal role in establishing Salvadoran Day: the Salvadoran American National Association (SANA), whose members included Cárdenas and Salvador Gómez Góchez, Mario Fuentes, Mario Beltrán, Fidel Sánchez, Werner Marroquín, and Raúl Mariona. They sought to create an annual event that would express the traditions and aspirations of the Salvadoran refugees who began arriving here in their thousands during the war.
Currently, 2.3 million people of Salvadoran descent live in the United States, roughly tied with Cubans as the third Latino descent group in the country, after Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. . Many are clustered in Los Angeles, greater Washington, DC, and a handful of other cities.
“Salvadorians have made contributions in law, medicine, activism, science and several other disciplines that don’t give us much credit,” said Salvador “Chamba” Sánchez, professor of political science at Los Angeles Community College, who arrived from New York. El Salvador. in 1982 amid the wave of migration that followed the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, on March 24, 1980.
Cárdenas, who arrived in Los Angeles aged 9 with her family in 1948, said that for many years the only Salvadorans she knew were relatives. Many Angelenos seemed to not even recognize the country.
“When we said we were from El Salvador, they asked us, ‘What part of Mexico is it in? “”
She did not begin to meet other Salvadoran nationals until she joined the Committee of Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which had been founded by Juan Ramirios, Ricardo Zelada and Ana Gloria Madriz to denounce the human rights violations and provide assistance to Salvadorans fleeing the fratricidal war. war that left more than 75,000 dead and around 8,000 missing.
Cárdenas also co-founded the Monseñor Romero Clinic in the Pico-Union neighborhood — there are now two facilities, one in the MacArthur Park area and one in Boyle Heights — and the El Rescate organization, which provided health services and legal advice to migrant refugees. .
Salvadoran trade unionist Yanira Merino arrived in Los Angeles in 1978, was expelled two years later and returned permanently in 1984, when she was 19. Four years ago, Merino, 57, became the first woman elected president of the Labor Council. for the Advancement of Latin America (LCLAA) after spending more than two decades organizing workers and serving as national immigration coordinator at the International Union of North American Workers.
She believes the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, launched in 1990 by the Service Employees International Union and including activists and organizers from El Salvador, opened the doors of the American workforce to Salvadoran workers. .
“This is where new leadership emerges,” said Merino, whose organization represents the interests of more than 2 million Latino workers.
In the mid-1990s, Merino organized his co-workers at a seafood packing plant in downtown Los Angeles. After six months of struggle, they managed to form a union, bargain collectively and win a contract that improved their working and economic conditions.
“I was fired twice during this campaign,” Merino recalls.
Many migrants who had been persecuted and imprisoned in El Salvador for their union activities brought well-honed organizational skills and a fierce commitment to the growing labor movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Merino remembers attending union meetings as a child with her parents, who were also active in their community and in their Catholic parish. Before leaving El Salvador for good, she got involved in the student movement, an experience she took advantage of when she saw the working conditions at the packing plant.
“In my home, I saw the need to organize and unite with others,” said Merino, who moved from Los Angeles to Washington, DC several years ago.
Celia Lacayo, a sociologist at UCLA, believes Salvadorans “have made this society stronger and better” through their work on social justice causes.
“The efforts of Salvadoran immigrants who came out of the struggle in their own country gave more strength to the American labor movement, because they already had experience,” Lacayo said.
Another native of El Salvador who arrived in the middle of the greatest wave of migration was Oscar Chacón, who came to New York in 1980 at the age of 18 and joined the Action Committee for the Salvadoran Popular Struggle and participated in Casa El Salvador. Chacón, now 60, moved in 2001 to Chicago, where Alianza Américas, a coalition of 59 organizations, is based, and became its executive director in 2007.
The origins of Alianza Américas can be traced back to the work done by the Salvadoran American National Network to support beneficiaries of the first Temporary Protected Status granted by the US government to Salvadoran migrants in the 1990s in response to the devastation of war.
“The great wave of Salvadorans that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a generation that arrived with a good foundation of training in organizational processes, and that’s what led us to position ourselves in leadership roles in multiple areas,” Chacón said.
Salvadoran American activists were once again spurred into action in January 2018, when then-President Trump announced he would roll back TPS affecting nearly 200,000 Salvadorans. It was then that Evelyn Hernández joined protests and caravans of Salvadorans traveling to Washington to raise awareness of the dangers facing the deportees.
“When I started, I didn’t even know I could become the voice of our Salvadoran community, which was in the same immigration limbo as me,” said Hernández, 47, who entered community service. when his eldest was in kindergarten in Los Angeles. In his neighborhood, Latino families facing a school deficit rallied around a 2004 initiative that resulted in the creation of at least three new secondary schools. Currently, Hernández is an organizer and coordinator of the TPS committee in Los Angeles.
Despite their long history of fighting for social justice, Salvadorans have not achieved broad power in the political arena. Only three Salvadoran women hold elected office in California: Reyna Díaz, president of the Duarte school board; Wendy Carrillo, State Deputy for District 51; and Myrna Melgar, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
And only four others of Salvadoran descent have held political office in the Golden State: former city council member Mario Beltrán of Bell Gardens; Víctor Martínez de Mendota, in the San Joaquin Valley; and Cecilia Iglesias from Santa Ana; and former state senator Liz Figueroa, the San Francisco-born daughter of Salvadoran immigrants.
In the Washington, D.C. metro area, Salvadoran women are represented only by Rocío Treminio-López, Mayor of Brentwood, Md., and Celina Benítez, Mayor of Mount Rainier, Md. In recent years, six other Salvadoran Americans have occupied different public positions, such as city council members, school board members, county supervisors, and state legislators.
“We are invisible. Salvadorans didn’t have the political and civic sense to participate,” said Ana Sol Gutiérrez, 80, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 2003 to 2019.
“There are smaller groups from other countries that already have members in Congress, like Colombians and Dominicans, who have organized and supported candidates with donations, and we’re still in our infancy.” , added Gutiérrez.
Political strategist Luis Alvarado believes that a new generation of office holders is gradually emerging from the ranks of local and state officials and their staff, as well as social justice activists.
“These young people, the second generation, who are educated in American schools and understand the political process, have the enthusiasm to participate,” he said.
Jesse Acevedo, a political scientist at the University of Denver, said Salvadoran candidates for public office in cities like Houston and Los Angeles have faced an uphill battle to compete with longer-established Mexican American political networks. .
Acevedo, who taught at UCLA from 2015 to 2018, said the fervent social activism that characterizes the Salvadoran community will be key to growing its political power and influence in the decades to come.
“You can’t talk about Los Angeles and Washington, DC, without the Salvadorans. It is the result of decades of activism as a foundation,” he said. “We are going to see many politicians of Salvadoran origin in the years to come. It will be very soon.