SAN SALVADOR — Her friends in the United States thought Lilian Aguirre was crazy. There she was, earning a good salary and living in a home she owned in a New York suburb. Voted teacher-of-the-year by the school district where she taught English. Rearing three children with her husband, a chef.
Why on earth, after all these years, would Aguirre give it up to return to her native El Salvador?
"I'd like to know the reason myself," she said with a laugh. "The truth is that it was always my dream to return to my country."
And so she did, joining a tentative but steady flow of Salvadoran expatriates who are coming home after years of civil war. Attracted by the formal end of their nation's 12-year conflict, repelled by the growing violence of urban America and often cushioned by a nest egg that will go much further here than in the United States, more and more Salvadorans are making the move.
Their arrival is changing a society struggling to recover and rebuild after years of brutal fratricide. As they return, Salvadorans are bringing with them new skills, customs and ideas. Gradually, a hybrid subculture is forming, one where kids speak Spanish with heavy English accents and dance to hip-hop instead of the typical \o7 cumbia\f7 ; one where men and women are challenging the tradition-dictated roles of gender and class.
They are opening businesses, building suburban subdivisions, reuniting long-divided families. And with them also come some of the ills of the society they left, including gangs and conspicuous consumption.
Some returning Salvadorans are uprooting lives constructed in foreign countries during a decade of exile; others, unable or unwilling to make a complete break, have become sort of binational commuters, one foot in each world.
"In the new El Salvador, it will be impossible to ignore a certain biculturalism," said Jose Alfredo Burgos, a former guerrilla who is dividing his time between his rediscovered home in San Salvador and his home of the last seven years, San Francisco. Some "Salvadorans will return and others will remain in the States. There will be many who go back and forth. There will always be a fluidity between the two cultures."
At the same time, the return poses a dilemma for the government, which argues that El Salvador's still-fragile postwar economy cannot absorb a massive repatriation or stand to lose the estimated $800 million that Salvadorans living abroad send home annually. To that end, the government is actually working to encourage Salvadorans not to come back--not yet.
The government's ally in that mission is the perception among many Salvadoran exiles that peace and stability in their troubled homeland may not be permanent. Although no one in El Salvador is predicting that the war will resume, many exiles still have doubts and no plans to return.
For those who do return, the adjustment can be difficult. "The El Salvador you left has very little to do with the El Salvador you come back to," said Horacio Castellanos, a writer who spent almost 12 years abroad. "For the first few weeks, there is euphoria. Then comes the crisis of adaptation."
Today's El Salvador, these prodigal sons and daughters find, has seen changes profound and superficial. Streets once deserted because of wartime fear are snarled with crowds and traffic. Radio and television stations once made bland by censorship are lively with political discourse. The wounds of war--the polarization, the mistrust--are fresh and deep.
Carlos Figueroa, an activist who left El Salvador as a young student 12 years ago and returned in November, 1991, said he was stunned by some of the physical changes, the new cars, the American-style clothing.
"San Salvador now is sort of a cheap copy of Los Angeles," said Figueroa, 28. "Going to Metrocentro (El Salvador's largest shopping mall) was like going to the Glendale Galleria. Of course, when you start to work and find the phones that don't work, the (haphazard) public transportation, the bureaucracy--you are reminded of the frustrations."
Using the skills he honed at Los Angeles' hip KPFK radio station, Figueroa became a popular music and talk show host at Radio Venceremos, the once-clandestine station now run by former guerrillas.
But he quickly realized that areas such as health care are still woefully underdeveloped. His wife nearly died after a complicated miscarriage. The couple returned to Los Angeles and have no plans to come back.
During this country's long conflict between U.S.-backed government forces and leftist guerrillas, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans departed for the United States, Mexico and Europe. One estimate put the exile community as high as 1 million, or almost one-fifth of the national population.