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A Piece of the Pie : From the Arts to Politics, Salvadoran War Refugees Are Carving a Niche for Themselves in the U.S.


WHEN HE STEPPED OFF A PLANE IN EL SALVADOR IN JULY, leading a delegation of bank officials and economists, Carlos Vaquerano had finally come full circle since fleeing the war-torn country 13 years earlier.

Vaquerano, like tens of thousands of other Salvadoran refugees during the 1980s, arrived in Los Angeles to face an uncertain future. He had no idea how long his country's civil war would last, or whether he would ever be able to return.

By the time the former student activist returned this summer, he had carved a niche for himself in his new country, becoming community relations director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), based in Pico-Union, and a board member of Rebuild L.A. His work with those high-profile organizations provided important contacts that helped Vaquerano arrange the July trip to study the possibility of starting some sort of financial institution in postwar El Salvador.

"I have access to people who I never imagined I would meet," said Vaquerano, 33, whose three brothers were killed by right-wing death squads in El Salvador.

Many Salvadoran war refugees who came here with dreams of returning to their homeland have become tied to their adopted country. Like Vaquerano, who will be eligible for citizenship next year, many have decided to stay in the United States for good.

Many have started successful businesses. Others have graduated from college and launched careers, while still others have entered a work force in which even menial jobs pay far more than could be earned in El Salvador. Many bore their children here. And while some still hope to return to El Salvador, political and economic uncertainty there is keeping them here for the time being.

From political activism to the arts, these new immigrants have made their presence felt and changed the face of areas such as Pico-Union and Westlake, home to the largest concentration of Salvadorans in the nation. In little more than a decade, they have transformed the Salvadoran population in Los Angeles from a refugee enclave of several thousand into a thriving immigrant community currently estimated at 500,000.

"What we're seeing is that the Salvadoran community is starting to knit itself together and make inroads into the larger society as a whole," said UCLA Prof. David Hayes-Bautista, a leading expert on Latino demographics. "They're following the path of immigrant communities that came before them."

Within the next six months, Hayes-Bautista plans to analyze 1990 U.S. Census data to determine work-force participation rates, household composition, income levels and other characteristics of Los Angeles' Salvadoran community.

The influx of Salvadorans was triggered by their country's 12-year civil war, during which more than 75,000 combatants and civilians were killed. The fighting formally ended in December, 1992, when the right-wing government signed a peace treaty with leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. By war's end, an estimated 1 million Salvadorans--about 20% of El Salvador's population--had fled to the United States.

Some of the refugees flocked to San Francisco, Houston and Washington. But for many, the destination was the Westlake and Pico-Union area. The old neighborhoods just west of the Downtown skyscrapers had for years been home to a large population of Mexican descent.

"It had the flavor, the culture. But above all, it was a place where Spanish was spoken," said Francisco Rivera, a Salvadoran who is an editor at La Opinion, Los Angeles' largest daily Spanish-language newspaper.

Today in Pico-Union and Westlake, the rhythms of salsa and cumbia blare from discotecas , or record stores. Sidewalks are filled with street vendors who hawk everything from cigarettes to mangoes sprinkled with chili powder. And Salvadoran restaurants, once scarce in Los Angeles, dot the main streets.

But the area is also one of the city's most crime-ridden and one of the nation's most densely populated. Near MacArthur Park, there are as many as 147 people per acre--or four times the average density of Manhattan and 10 times that of Los Angeles as a whole. Many families are crammed into ramshackle apartment buildings and residential hotels.

Dagoberto Reyes, 45, a sculptor and painter, was one of the refugees who settled in Pico-Union during the early years of the war.

Reyes said he was targeted by death squads because his works highlighted the suffering of the Salvadoran underclass. He left in January, 1982, shortly after his poet friend's mutilated corpse was found on a street in the capital of San Salvador.

The security officers who arrested the poet at a cafe showed an employee there an album that contained photographs of suspected leftists they were hunting. Reyes said he was told his photo was in the album.

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