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Central and South American community thrives in the Valley

As the stream of Mexican immigrants to California slows, an influx of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Ecuadoreans and Peruvians is changing the central San Fernando Valley.

August 19, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Sidewalk vendors make and sell pupusas, a Salvadoran culinary staple, at Delano Recreation Center in Van Nuys. The greater Van Nuys area, with its apartment-rich neighborhoods, has become a thriving hub not of Mexican immigrants as much as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Ecuadorans and Peruvians.
Sidewalk vendors make and sell pupusas, a Salvadoran culinary staple,… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

It was a tough game that almost came to fisticuffs when one player fouled another. But in the end, it was the red-shirted Salvadorans who beat the Mexicans, 4-2, during a recent adult league soccer game at Delano Recreation Center in Van Nuys.

Giovanni Molina, the top scorer with two goals, celebrated at a sidewalk grill where the Nunez family was frying handmade pupusas, a doughy, cheese-and-bean-filled tortilla sold on every corner back home in El Salvador.

Molina bought six — three for dinner and three more for tomorrow's lunch. Four years ago, the 23-year-old crossed two borders and settled here, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.

"Back home, I had no future. Now I have work. I have my team," said Molina, who swings a hammer on a construction crew. "And I still have a little bit of home."

Indeed, the greater Van Nuys area, with its apartment-rich neighborhoods, has become a thriving hub not of Mexican immigrants as much as Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Ecuadoreans and Peruvians. They are blending into towns next door — Panorama City, North Hollywood and Reseda — to form a sprawling colony of sorts.

Recent studies show how the stream of Mexican immigrants to California is slowing, and residents, educators and business owners in the central San Fernando Valley say they see that happening. But in their place, a bustling Central and South American community is taking root.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than along Delano Street, just west of the Van Nuys Civic Center, where vendors ply the sidewalks outside apartment houses selling pupusas, fried plantains and a vinegary slaw called curtido, all Salvadoran specialties.

Elvira Melgoza, who sells fresh fruit, vegetables, canned foods and candy from three large produce trucks on Delano Street, says Guatemalans have taken the place of Mexican neighbors who used to dominate the block.

On a recent day of triple-digit weather, a steady stream of women pushing strollers made their way to the back of Melgoza's truck to buy mangoes, papayas, peaches, water and Top Ramen noodles.

Her biggest-selling item? Calling cards, Melgoza said with a wide grin.

"Mucho for Guatemala!'' she said. "Mucho!"

In the local churches, community events often focus on heaping buffets, a Guatemalan tradition, and less on the grilled meats, energetic folklorico and brass music favored by Mexican families. And at Delano Recreation Center, Mexican teams that used to dominate the adult soccer league now account for only 35%, recreation director Ramon Cerrillos said.

In their place, Cerrillos said, are players from Central American countries, especially El Salvador. In fact, many of the Mexican players told him they were returning to their home country — something the immigration studies also indicated. Others, he said, just disappeared.

"With all the apartments nearby, this tends to be an area in transit," Cerrillos said, and these immigrants "are just the newest."

A broad change in immigration patterns is underway, according to researchers with the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

Central American immigrants still account for just a fraction of immigration from Latin American countries. An estimated 31 million Mexicans have made their home in the United States over the last 30 years, compared with 3.8 million from Central American countries.

But as more and more Mexican immigrants return home, get intercepted at the border or don't bother to come, poverty, violence and high unemployment in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are still prompting tens of thousands to leave their home countries every year. They make the often perilous 2,000-mile journey by train, bus, van and, sometimes, foot.

The illegal Mexican population peaked in 2008 at just over 7 million and then dipped to 6.6 million in 2010, according to the most recent numbers from theU.S. Department of Homeland Security. At the same time, immigrants arriving from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continued to climb, from a combined 1.3 million in 2008 to just under 1.5 million in 2010.

Demographers say a core reason is that Central American countries remain mired in high unemployment and widespread poverty except for Mexico, which has made somewhat of a comeback in recent years. Mexico suffered a recession from 2007 to 2009, but its gross domestic product has since grown faster than that of the U.S., 5.5% in 2010 and 3.9% in 2011, said Jeff Passell, senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Research Center.

With fewer jobs in the U.S., tougher border enforcement, higher deportations and an increasingly hostile attitude once they get here, many Mexican immigrants have decided the risk is no longer worth the potential benefit, Passell said.

But many Central Americans still see the U.S. as an attractive option, even after adding in the $4,000-to-$7,000 cost of paying a coyote to smuggle them across the border, he said.

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