TO HEAR MARILU Ramirez talk, you would not believe that two of her brothers have been killed by the Salvadoran military; that she has been separated from five of her nine children since she fled her country in 1987, and that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is trying to have her deported. There is little trace of anger or despair in the voice of the 37-year-old housekeeper from Sonsonate in western El Salvador.
"There are many people suffering what we are. . . . At least we have a roof over our heads," Ramirez says quietly in Spanish as she sits in a one-bedroom apartment shared by more than a dozen relatives. "I know a lot of people who don't even have this. There are people living on the streets."
Ramirez, who asked that her real name not be published, to protect relatives in El Salvador, came to Los Angeles after soldiers detained and tortured her for six days in 1987. She says members of her family were targeted for repression because military officials accused them of being "subversives" linked to leftist guerrillas.
Like many of the 350,000 Salvadorans who have come to Southern California, Ramirez lives in Pico-Union, a community just west of downtown Los Angeles. Pico-Union is mostly a community of exiles, the product of a decade of revolution and civil war that has ravaged their tiny country. Today, only San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, has a larger Salvadoran population than L.A.
The community is a cross section of Salvadoran society. There are country people like Ramirez but also city dwellers from San Salvador's working-class barrios. Exiled guerrilla fighters have formed a local support network for the revolutionary movement, and they coexist with several thousand former soldiers and National Guardsmen who also have found refuge in Los Angeles from their country's violence and economic difficulties. There also is a small sampling of well-to-do businessmen.
Although exact figures are not available, Nina Lockard, a social services coordinator at the Central American Refugee Center, calculates that about 60% of the Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles are undocumented. Perhaps about 70% are unemployed, she says, and probably living at or below the poverty line.
Despite the growth of the community, there are many Salvadorans who hope that Los Angeles will not become their permanent home. Maria Hernandez, 32, says she still dreams of the day she can return to El Salvador, which she left six years ago, a victim of political repression.
Once a sociologist working for El Salvador's Ministry of Education, Hernandez says she survived two assassination attempts after she published a study highly critical of the Salvadoran government. Her desire to return one day to El Salvador, however, is not shared by her 19-year-old daughter, Margie, who was born in El Salvador but who has grown into adulthood in the United States.
"I'm pretty sure that I could go back if the situation improves so that my life isn't in danger," says Hernandez, a caseworker at a Pico-Union legal aid clinic, who also asked that her real name not be published. "But I'm also 90% sure that my daughter won't go back. She says life is easier here because no one is watching us or following us."
Hernandez now lives in suburban Azusa; raising children in the Pico-Union barrio, she says, was difficult. She is currently studying for a master's degree in political science, and Margie is a first-year student at Cal Poly Pomona.
Although she is grateful that both Margie and her other daughter, Fatima, 12, have adjusted well to life in Southern California, Hernandez says she worries about the effect of television, "materialism" and other American institutions on her family.
The same concern over American culture and traditional Salvadoran family values is shared by Ramirez. She says she has done her best to make sure her teen-age children avoid the problems of gang violence and drug abuse that have affected other Salvadoran youths in Pico-Union. The Los Angeles Police Department says the largest of the Salvadoran gangs, the 150-member Salvatrucha gang, deals drugs in Pico-Union and has been growing and becoming more violent.
"In El Salvador, children listen to their parents," Ramirez says. "And there is always someone home when your children come home after school. Here, our young people seem to be lost to us."
Ramirez says raising her children would be easier if she could make more money. If she could afford to pay more rent, for instance, they wouldn't have to live in such crowded conditions: Before the manager of her building complained, 26 people were living in her apartment.
The problem, Ramirez says, is that only she and two of the other eight adults living with her--brothers, sisters and in-laws--can find work. The others don't have work permits because the Immigration Reform and Control Act granted amnesty only to those illegal immigrants who came to the United States before 1982-- effectively excluding the Salvadorans, most of whom began arriving in the mid-1980s.
Despite the law, Ramirez says she has plans to bring more of her relatives to Los Angeles, where they will be safe from the violence of the Salvadoran countryside. Recently, one of her brothers has undertaken three trips from Tijuana to El Salvador and back to guide family members to California.
"We're used to living close to each other," she says of her family. "We can't be all together right now, but we still have to try to help each other all we can."