In Los Angeles, on the corner of Pico and Vermont, there is a mural dedicated to Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose 1980 assassination triggered the Salvadoran Civil War. The mural reads, “I’ve frequently been threatened with death. I must say that as a Christian I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran community.” As if to prove this, the archbishop’s face appears frequently along the roughly 12 blocks spanning the El Salvador Community Corridor, from 11th Street in Koreatown to Adams Boulevard near the University of Southern California campus along Vermont Avenue. For this community, he is a symbol of El Salvador, hope, and the rebirth of a culture left thousands of miles away.
More than other LA micro-communities, the corridor is dense with evidence of its micro-culture. The blue and white colors of the Salvadoran flag decorate nearly every store. There are business where you can buy pan dulce, charamuscas, and newspapers from home. Most of the 100 businesses here provide services that connect Salvadorans to their home. The corner stores sell calling cards. The banks are dedicated to remittances. Though the corridor sits in one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged parts of Los Angeles, and though Salvadorans make up one of the poorest populations in the United States, with a median earning of $20,000 a year, money wired from here keep the home country going.
The inside of Banco Agricola, one of the most popular banks, is bright yellow and cheery, with pictures of identifiably Central American landscapes decorating the walls. Paulina, a Salvadoran woman that has been living in California since 2005, stands in line here every Wednesday morning. She’s friendly and outgoing and has conversations with everyone in the small bank; she is a regular. She says that she gets direct deposit paid to her every other Wednesday at midnight, wakes up on Wednesday morning and withdraws from a nearby Bank of America, and makes her way to Banco Agricola to immediately send money back home to El Salvador. She sends multiple sums and they add up quickly: $40 to her mother, $30 to her son back home, $20 to her aunt, $20 to her cousin and baby niece, and $60 to her mother’s mother. Her grandmother’s situation has been difficult lately because she needs more and more expensive medication as she gets older. Paulina rubs her left temple and stares at a fern in the bank as she explains the family dynamic in Spanish: “My mother cares for my son and they are the most important so they get the most money. But my grandmother is sick so I need to pay for all her medicine and food because she cannot work. My aunt helped raise me so she also gets money, but if I don’t give money to my cousin, then my aunt will just give all her money to my cousin.” When a man in the line asks why Paulina’s cousin doesn’t work, Paulina throws her head back and lets out a loud laugh. “YOU try telling my aunt that!”
The people in line start trading stories about their own family members, laughing with each other and sighing heavily when they need to. They too speak of sick grandparents, aging parents, young children back home, their own extended family members, and that one cousin that just won’t work. “I think people think every neighborhood in LA is Beverly Hills and that we’re all rich just for being here,” a man wearing a USC baseball cap and wrinkled button-down blue shirt says. “I just want to shout at them: ‘I sell fruit!’ They don’t understand. No matter how much I try to explain it, they just don’t understand.” Paulina lets out a long sigh and says, “At least we’re here.” And one by one the group quietly agrees. “Yes, by the grace of God we are here.”
El Salvador is a beautiful country with a violent history. Its devastating Civil War (1979-1992) claimed over 75,000 lives and drove the vast migration of Salvadorans to the United States. And it happened to drive them to precisely the country that was providing their government’s death squads with funding and political cover.
“Oh yeah, Reagan,” mutters Lorenzo, standing outside his apartment building. He came to the United States in the early 1980s as a teenager and is now in his 50s and a US citizen. He speaks fluent English, gesticulating with his hands. “The US didn’t like Cuba or the Soviet Union, and both of them were helping the FMLN rebels in El Salvador during the war. So, the US decided to help the Salvadoran government in order to beat the rebels. They helped them with money, weapons, and even sending some troops down there. But the Salvadoran government was committing war crimes against civilians and essentially killing anyone they wanted in horrible ways.” Lorenzo looks up at the sky and nods. “That’s the short version. And that’s why I got out of there.”
Hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran immigrants would follow suit, seeking asylum, and many more come now. Though the war ended over twenty years ago, political and economic unrest continue to affect the country. Gang violence and economic instability — sometimes described as low-level civil war — continue to push Salvadorans to make the long and dangerous journey through Mexico to the United States. It’s hard to get ahead in the United States, but that’s preferable to the difficulty of surviving in El Salvador.
To get by here and still send money home, many Salvadoran immigrants work double the hours of their American counterparts, working multiple jobs as nannies, maids, gardeners, and fruit vendors. It’s a remarkable balancing act of labor and frugality. The contributions that Salvadorans living in the United States send back home to their family members account for close to 20% of the Salvadoran Gross Domestic Product. One in every three households in El Salvador receives remittances from family in the United States. Paradoxically, one of the poorest populations in the United States is helping keep their home country from collapsing with every contribution of $30 for their cousin, $60 for their grandmother, adding up to billions for the homeland.
The corridor serves as a small comfort to these heroes. Traditional colorful dresses and jerseys supporting the Salvadoran soccer team adorn the front of clothing stores. Older women sit at fruit stands, offering bags of sliced mango for $2 and gossiping with each other in their unique Salvadoran drawl. Restaurants and bars blast Salvadoran music, and it’s difficult not to be moved to dance along with the infectious smiles on everyone’s faces. For a moment, it feels like you could step outside into the home country’s lush greenery, rather than LA’s endless concrete. The Archbishop’s wishes, then, have come true in a way, as prophecy, with El Salvador being reborn every day in LA.
Photos by the author.