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Finding American Dream, in El Salvador

February 09, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

SACACOYO, El Salvador — The 170 laborers ensconced at the Hacienda San Clemente here consider themselves the champion sugar cane cutting team of El Salvador.

They work seven days a week. The youngest and strongest of them can cut 12 tons of cane stalks in one shift.

"One day, I'm going to tell my children what we did here," Adrian Sanchez Corrales, 53, said proudly.

Salvadorans take pride in calling themselves the hardest-working people in Central America. But Sanchez Corrales and his team aren't from El Salvador; they're migrants from Honduras.

Thousands of Salvadorans have immigrated to the United States, legally and illegally, sparking a labor shortage in their homeland. In addition to the sheer number of workers lost, the dollars those immigrants send home discourage those who remain behind from performing low-paying, backbreaking labor like that of the sugar cane harvest.

The Hondurans at the Hacienda San Clemente are more than eager to fill the labor gap.

In November, Salvadoran Agriculture Minister Mario Salaverria announced that 15,000 foreign workers would be needed to complete the cane, cotton and coffee harvests here.

The labor shortages are being felt across the region. Mezcal producers in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, coffee plantations in Nicaragua and chile farmers in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas have found themselves in a similar predicament because so many local people have left to seek better wages elsewhere.

"The problem is that remittances [from the U.S.] have made Salvadorans comfortable and they don't want to work cutting cane," said Italo Escrich, harvest supervisor for the Central Izalco sugar refinery, which contracted the workers.

In addition to the Hondurans, who come from the province of Choluteca, Escrich also hired 25 Nicaraguan workers.

Traditionally, migration between the neighboring countries has gone in the other direction. In fact, the presence of thousands of Salvadoran immigrants in Honduras helped precipitate the 1969 "Soccer War" between the two nations. But for the poor of Honduras and Nicaragua today, Escrich said, "El Salvador has become the Central American dream." For the Hondurans, the relative abundance of El Salvador is, unlike the faraway United States, just a day's bus ride away.

People here get paid in dollars -- El Salvador adopted the U.S. currency in 2001. The local currency, the colon, has all but disappeared from circulation. The Honduran migrants find that the dollars earned in El Salvador go much further when they are sent home and converted to Honduran lempiras.

"Here, a pound of cheese can cost you $3 or $4," said Jose de la Cruz, 22. "For that much money, I can get 3 pounds in Choluteca."

Raymundo Calderon, a sociologist at the University of El Salvador, says the supply of Salvadoran laborers for arduous work such as cutting cane has declined in part because of the country's cultural and economic contact with the United States.

It's common for Salvadoran families to have at least one relative living in the United States. About one in nine people born in El Salvador moves to the United States, according to the most recent census figures for both countries.

"Most of the Salvadorans who have migrated to the United States are not well educated," Calderon said. "But when they get to the U.S., they have access to better housing and better pay. Their view of the world changes, and they communicate this to their families in El Salvador."

There is some concern here that Salvadorans are losing their industrious self-image, a vision celebrated by poets such as Roque Dalton, whose "Love Poem" recounted the exploits of Salvadoran laborers up and down the Americas.

In November, Interior Minister Rene Figueroa issued a plea for Salvadorans to work the harvests.

"Today some sectors are telling us that they have enough with their family remittances," he told a Salvadoran newspaper. "It's not possible that we are abandoning our own fields and that we have to bring in labor from abroad."

Figueroa's appeal to the "fame" of the Salvadoran worker did little to stop the buses bringing in thousands of Honduran and Nicaraguan laborers.

The Hondurans at Hacienda San Clemente have been living since last fall in two warehouse-like buildings near the town of Sacacoyo, about 25 miles west of San Salvador. The accommodations are spare: bunk beds and two color televisions for the 170 men.

And yet the men speak with great optimism and a sense of gratitude about their situation, not least their pay: as much as $125 a week for the best cutters.

"The engineer [Escrich] told us that we were in first place in the whole country," De la Cruz said. No other brigade of cutters had knocked down as much sugar cane in a day as they had.

During one memorable day recently, their boss informed them that they had cut twice as much cane per man as a group of Salvadorans working alongside them, De la Cruz said.

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