The flying bullets, economic chaos and violent repression that engulfed El Salvador in the late 1970s pushed many social activists to flee their homeland for the United States. Those experiences still resonate for Salvadoran Americans in places such as Los Angeles, which became a hotbed for a generation in exile from the Central American nation that had plunged into a catastrophic 12-year civil war.
The resilient spirit of that generation, and its legacy of striving for social justice and united community action, will form the backdrop to Salvadoran Day this Saturday and Sunday, unfolding at the corner of Normandie Avenue and Venice Boulevard, in the heart of the city’s Central America diaspora.
Inaugurated in 1999, Salvadoran Day mixes a robust political component with cultural and religious elements in a resounding affirmation of collective identity. Community leaders and left-leaning politicians regularly show up to proselytize.
This weekend’s activities will include a music festival, typical Salvadoran food and, to close out Sunday, a religious procession dedicated to the Divine Savior of the World, which will depart from St. Kevin Catholic Church on Beverly Boulevard. It will be followed by a Mass similar to those held in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, since 1525.
While the occasion will be marked in other US cities, Salvadoran Day has a distinctly LA pedigree. It was born from a resolution passed by Congress in July 2006 backed by then-US representative and current LA County Supervisor Hilda Solís, heeding the request of LA community leaders.
“With Hilda Solís, we did it at the federal level. That is why it is celebrated everywhere,” said Isabel “Chabelita” Cárdenas, an activist and co-author of the congressional text.
One particular organization played a central role in establishing Salvadoran Day: the Salvadoran American National Association (SANA), whose members included Cárdenas and Salvador Gómez Góchez, Mario Fuentes, Mario Beltrán, Fidel Sánchez, Werner Marroquín and Raúl Mariona. They were looking to create an annual event that would express the traditions and yearnings of Salvadoran refugees who began arriving here by the thousands during the war era.
At present, 2.3 million people of Salvadoran descent live in the United States, roughly tied with Cubans as the nation’s third-largest Latin American-descended group, after Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Many are clustered in Los Angeles, greater Washington, DC, and a handful of other cities.
“Salvadorans have made a contribution in law, medicine, activism, science and several other disciplines that don’t give us much credit,” said Salvador “Chamba” Sánchez, a political science professor at Los Angeles Community College, who arrived from El Salvador in 1982 in the midst of the migratory wave that followed the assassination of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, on March 24, 1980.
Cárdenas, who arrived in LA as a 9-year-old with her family in 1948, said that for many years the only Salvadorans she knew were relatives. Many Angelenos seemed not even to recognize the country.
“When we said we were from El Salvador, they asked us, ‘What part of Mexico is it in?’”
She didn’t begin meeting other Salvadoran nationals until she joined the Committee of Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which had been founded by Juan Ramirios, Ricardo Zelada and Ana Gloria Madriz to denounce human rights violations and provide assistance to Salvadorans escaping the fratricidal war that left more than 75,000 dead and around 8,000 missing.
Cárdenas also co-founded the Monseñor Romero Clinic in the Pico-Union neighborhood — there now are two facilities, one in the MacArthur Park area and one in Boyle Heights — and the organization El Rescate, which provided health services and legal advice to migrant refugees .
Salvadoran trade unionist Yanira Merino arrived in Los Angeles in 1978, was deported two years later and made her way back for good in 1984, when she was 19. Four years ago, Merino, 57, became the first woman elected president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) after spending more than two decades organizing workers and serving as the national immigration coordinator at Laborers International Union of North America.
She believes that the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, which was launched in 1990 by the Service Employees International Union and included activists and organizers from El Salvador, opened the doors of US labor to Salvadoran workers.
“That’s where a new leadership emerges,” said Merino, whose organization represents the interests of more than 2 million Latino laborers.
In the mid-1990s, Merino organized her co-workers at a downtown Los Angeles seafood packinghouse. After six months of struggle they managed to form a union, enter into collective bargaining and obtain a contract that improved their working and economic conditions.
“I was fired twice during that campaign,” Merino recalled.
Many migrants who’d been persecuted and jailed in El Salvador for their union activities brought well-honed organizational skills and a fierce commitment to the growing labor movement of the 1980s and ’90s.
Merino remembers attending union meetings as a child with her parents, who were also active in their community and within their Catholic parish. Before permanently leaving El Salvador, she became involved in the student movement, an experience she took advantage of when she saw the working conditions at the packing plant.
“In my house, I saw that one had to organize and unite with others,” said Merino, who relocated from LA to Washington, DC, several years ago.
Celia Lacayo, a sociologist at UCLA, believes that Salvadorans “have made this society stronger and better” through their work on social justice causes.
“The efforts of Salvadoran immigrants who came out of the struggle in their own country gave more strength to the American labor movement, because they already had experience,” Lacayo said.
Another El Salvador native who arrived in the middle of the greater migratory wave was Oscar Chacón, who came to New York in 1980 as an 18-year-old and joined the Action Committee for the Salvadoran Popular Struggle and participated in Casa El Salvador. Chacón, now 60, moved in 2001 to Chicago, where Alianza Américas, a coalition of 59 organizations, is based, and became its executive director in 2007.
The origins of Alianza Américas date to the work carried out by the Salvadoran American National Network to support beneficiaries of the first Temporary Protected Status that was granted by the US government to Salvadoran migrants in the 1990s in response to the war’s devastation.
“The great wave of Salvadorans that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a generation that arrived with a good foundation of training in organizational processes, and that is what has led us to position ourselves in leadership roles in multiple fields,” Chacón said.
Salvadoran American activists again were spurred to action in January 2018, when then-President Trump announced that he would cancel TPS affecting nearly 200,000 Salvadorans. That’s when Evelyn Hernández joined the protests and caravans of Salvadorans traveling to Washington to raise awareness about the dangers facing deportees.
“When I started I didn’t even know that I could become the voice of our Salvadoran community, that was in the same immigration limbo as me,” said Hernández, 47, who stepped into community service when her eldest child was in kindergarten in Los Angeles. In her neighborhood, Latino families facing a school deficit mobilized around a 2004 initiative that resulted in establishing at least three new secondary schools. Currently, Hernández is an organizer and coordinator of the TPS committee in Los Angeles.
Despite their long record of social justice struggle, Salvadorans haven’t gained broad power in the political arena. Only three Salvadoran women hold elected positions in California: Reyna Díaz, president of the Duarte school board; Wendy Carrillo, state assemblywoman for District 51; and Myrna Melgar, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
And only four others of Salvadoran origin have held political office in the Golden State: former city council members Mario Beltrán of Bell Gardens; Víctor Martínez of Mendota, in the San Joaquin Valley; and Cecilia Iglesias of Santa Ana; and former state Sen. Liz Figueroa, the San Francisco-born daughter of Salvadoran immigrants.
In metropolitan Washington, DC, Salvadoran women are represented only by Rocío Treminio-López, mayor of Brentwood, Md., and Celina Benítez, mayor of neighboring Mount Rainier, Md. In years past, six other Salvadoran Americans have held different public positions, such as city council members, school board members, county supervisors and state legislators.
“We are invisible. Salvadorans have not had the political and civic sense to participate,” said Ana Sol Gutiérrez, 80, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 2003 to 2019.
“There are smaller groups from other countries that already have members in Congress, such as Colombians and Dominicans, who have organized and support the candidates with donations, and we are in our infancy,” Gutiérrez added.
Political strategist Luis Alvarado believes that a new generation of office-holders is gradually emerging from the ranks of local and state officials and their staff, as well as social justice activists.
“These youth, the second generation, who are educated in American schools and understand the political process, have the enthusiasm to participate,” he said.
Jesse Acevedo, a political scientist at the University of Denver, said that Salvadoran candidates for public office in cities such as Houston and Los Angeles have faced an uphill struggle in competing against longer-established Mexican American political networks.
Acevedo, who taught at UCLA from 2015 to 2018, said that the fervent social activism that characterizes the Salvadoran community will be key to increasing its political power and influence in the decades ahead.
“You cannot talk about Los Angeles and Washington, DC, without Salvadorans. That is the result of decades of activism as a foundation,” he said. “We are going to see many politicians of Salvadoran origin in the coming years. It will be very soon.”