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New lives, but old traditions

Two local Salvadoran festivals celebrate the customs of the Central American nation and the struggles of those who fled war and created lives here.

August 05, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

They came with no English, little money and a shellshocked psyche engraved with the memories of a savage civil war in their native El Salvador.

Now, more than 25 years later, Mario Fuentes, Werner Marroquin and Salvador Gomez Gochez have joined the U.S. mainstream middle class as citizens, homeowners, fluent English-speakers and labor and community organizers.

As El Salvador has settled down, with 1992 peace accords and democratic elections, so have many of its native sons and daughters who fled the war's violence for the safety of Southern California.

When peace came to their homeland, Fuentes, Marroquin and Gochez decided to turn from protesting the war back home to building a community here. This weekend, tens of thousands of Salvadoran Americans flocked to Exposition Park in Los Angeles to enjoy one fruit of their labor: a Salvadoran Day festival to celebrate their community's culture, heritage -- and progress.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 06, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Salvadoran studies: An article about Salvadoran American festivals in Sunday's California section reported that the nation's first Central American studies program is at Cal State L.A. The program is at Cal State Northridge.

"We want to open a window to the public and say, 'We are here,' " said Gochez, a founder of the Salvadoran American National Assn., which began the annual event in 1999. "We have our own culture that we want to share with other people in Los Angeles."

The El Dia del Salvadoreno festival featured cumbia music, cornmeal pupusa snacks and a string of Salvadoran speakers and performers. The celebration of El Salvador's culture and Christian heritage will climax today with an enactment of the transfiguration of the Divine Savior, El Salvador's revered icon -- a tradition that marks the nation's founding in 1525.

A few miles away, other Salvadoran American organizations threw another festival, Feria Agostina de Los Angeles, at MacArthur Park. Organizer Salvador Sanabria, executive director of the El Rescate immigrant aid organization, said the festival was aimed at celebrating Salvadoran traditions, along with "empowering the community" by offering information about financial services, housing, healthcare and legal aid.

By Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people had filled the streets featuring food stalls, venders hawking soccer balls, CDs, shirts and other paraphernalia marked by the blue and white colors of El Salvador.

Businesses -- including banks, real estate agents, travel agencies, remittance services, airlines and insurance companies -- set up booths at both fairs to snag a piece of the growing Salvadoran American consumer market.

The two festivals marked the Salvadoran community's striking progress since the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of people fled war for the United States, most of them settling in California.

The Salvadoran community is now the state's second-largest Latino immigrant group after Mexicans, with population estimates varying widely, from 800,000 by community estimates to 273,000, according to the 2000 Census.

Sometimes called the "Germans of Latin America" for their strong work ethic, Salvadoran immigrants in California had higher rates of employment, citizenship, voter registration, high school graduation and college attendance than their Mexican counterparts, according to a 2001 UCLA study. More Salvadoran immigrants than Mexicans also have computers at home, the study found.

In addition, a U.S. Census study of Latinos in America, released this year, found that Salvadorans had lower poverty rates than Mexicans and other Central Americans, and 41% of them owned their own homes with a median value of $221,000. Among Mexicans, 49% owned their own homes with a median value of $130,500.

In Southern California, Salvadoran immigrants have been civically and economically active. In less than three decades, they've managed to establish educational, medical and community organizations, build a small-business base, gain access to elected officials, lobby for the nation's first Central American studies program, housed at Cal State Los Angeles, and are seeking to designate the MacArthur Park-Pico Union area as "Little Central America."

Sister Patricia Krommer is a Roman Catholic nun who has worked with Salvadorans for more than 25 years, initially helping the refugees in Los Angeles and their beleaguered families left in El Salvador. She said she was immediately impressed with their political savvy, organizational skills and penchant for hard work.

"They didn't sit on their hands," she said at a City Hall reception for Salvadoran Day this week. "They came here and got right to work."

Sanabria, of the El Rescate immigrant aid organization, said many of the newer Salvadoran immigrants faced tough challenges, including illegal status, poverty and language barriers. He also said the community was still not receiving its "fair share" of political representation or public resources.

In addition, longtime community activist Isabel Cardenas, regarded as the godmother of the Salvadoran American community, said that a troubling rise in gang violence was a pressing issue.

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