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In L.A., speaking 'Mexican' to fit in

COLUMN ONE

For many Salvadoran immigrants, adopting the words, customs and foods of the city's largest Latino group simplifies life here.

November 03, 2008|Esmeralda Bermudez | Bermudez is a Times staff writer.

Juan Carlos Rivera knew that if he wanted to get a dishwashing job at the MacArthur Park hamburger stand, he would have to pretend to be Mexican.

But the thought of lying made the Salvadoran anxious. He paced outside the restaurant, worried that his melodic Spanish accent, his use of the Central American vos, instead of the Mexican tu, would give him away.

Resolving to say as little as possible, Rivera remembers steeling himself and stepping inside -- into the world of Mexicanization.

In his best Mexican Spanish, the Salvadoran asked: ┬┐Tienen trabajo? (Do you have work?)

When asked where he was born, he swallowed his pride and answered: Puebla, Mexico.

The job was his. For three days, Rivera scrubbed plates in conspicuous silence. He knew the Mexican cooks were onto him. Especially the one from Puebla.

"I would stay up late wondering, 'What if they discover me? What if they take my job away? What if they beat me up?' " Rivera said.

Twenty years later, those fears have vanished but the 35-year-old continues to pretend. Life in Southern California is just less complicated as a Mexican, he says. Fitting in is easier. He introduces himself as Mexican. He says his closest friends are from Mexico and he eats nothing but Mexican food.

Rivera and thousands of other Central and South American immigrants have left their native countries only to arrive in an American city dominated by Mexicans, who comprise L.A.'s largest Latino group and have access to most of the jobs sought by immigrants. The metropolis drives many to Mexicanize, to degrees big and small, often before they start to Americanize.

Change comes gradually, particularly through speech, as different words take over, intonations fade and verbs are conjugated in new ways. Some immigrants begin to mimic mejicanos even before they leave their homeland. They toy with Mexican curse words and awkwardly bend their accents to blend in as they cross Mexico into the United States.

There are more than 350,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles County, most living in the dense neighborhoods surrounding MacArthur Park.

They try to carve out a distinct identity. Their pupuserias dot the area, and each summer thousands gather to celebrate Salvadoran Day. Last year, parents succeeded in opening Monsenor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, named after a Salvadoran martyr, to help young Salvadoran children learn about their heritage.

Stifling the sense of where they came from can be painful -- even if it helps them get ahead, says Susana Rivera-Mills, associate professor of Spanish and diversity advancement at Oregon State University.

"There's this feeling that you're betraying yourself or not living up to what you're supposed to be," says Rivera-Mills, who is Salvadoran.

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Juan Carlos Rivera struggled to keep up his ruse even when the suspicious cook began to quiz him on popular Pueblan food, including Puebla's specialty, the cemita.

"How do you like it?" the cook asked.

"With pineapple," Rivera said. Little did he know that what Salvadorans knew as caramelized sweet bread, Pueblans knew as a meat and avocado sandwich.

"I knew you weren't Mexican," the cook said smugly before running off to tell the manager.

Rivera was convinced he would be fired. But the manager liked his work and let him stay.

For a year, Rivera stuck around, more determined than before to fit in. He studied his co-workers' accents, their language, their jokes and common expressions. He learned to stomach hot sauce. When the crew went out for beers, he tagged along, looking for the right time to proudly deliver a deep-throated Orale! And when the time came to apply for his second job, he sought the help of a Mexican friend. This time he would say he was from Mexico City. This time, he would learn the menu.

Salvadorans began pouring into Los Angeles in large numbers in the 1980s, many fleeing El Salvador's brutal civil war. Many arrived disillusioned and powerless, and unlike Mexicans, their roots and networks did not date back centuries. Getting a job often meant getting the nod of a Mexican contractor, foreman or manager.

"It's always Mexico, Mexico, Mexico," said Jorge Mendoza, a 42-year-old painter, one of a group of Salvadoran men who gathered recently at MacArthur Park. "I turn on the radio and all I hear is Mexican music. If I want to watch a soccer game, I have to watch a Mexican team play."

The same goes for Spanish newscasts, telenovelas, celebrity gossip -- all dominated by Mexicans.

The greatest affront comes daily as most strangers assume Salvadorans are Mexican, said Julio Martinez Sarceno, 62, who moved to the United States 32 years ago. He carries his Salvadoran identification card in his wallet at all times, "just in case someone needs proof."

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