Salvadoran Day celebrates a community’s cultural identity and marches towards social justice

The flying bullets, economic chaos and violent repression that swept through El Salvador in the late 1970s forced many social activists to flee their homelands to the United States. Those experiences still resonate for Salvadoran Americans in places like Los Angeles, which became a hotbed for a generation in exile from the Central American nation plunged into a catastrophic 12-year civil war.

The resilient spirit of that generation, and its legacy of the pursuit of social justice and united community action, will set the stage for Salvadoran Day this Saturday and Sunday, which unfolds at the corner of Normandie Avenue and Venice Boulevard, in the heart of the central city center. America diaspora.

Salvadoran Day, inaugurated in 1999, combines a robust political component with a cultural and religious element in a resounding affirmation of collective identity. Community leaders and left-wing politicians regularly show up to convert.

This weekend’s activities include a music festival, typical Salvadoran food and, to close out Sunday, a religious procession dedicated to the Divine Redeemer of the World, departing from St. Kevin’s Catholic Church on Beverly Boulevard. It will be followed by a Mass similar to that held in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, since 1525.

While the occasion is celebrated in other US cities, Salvadoran Day has a distinct LA pedigree. It arose from a resolution passed by Congress in July 2006, backed by then-U.S. Representative and current LA County Supervisor Hilda Solís, in response to the request of LA community leaders.

“With Hilda Solís, we did it at the federal level. That’s why it’s celebrated everywhere,” said Isabel “Chabelita” Cárdenas, an activist and co-author of the conference text.

One organization played a central role in the creation of Salvadoran Day: the Salvadoran American National Association (SANA), whose members are Cárdenas and Salvador Gómez Góchez, Mario Fuentes, Mario Beltrán, Fidel Sánchez, Werner Marroquín, and Raúl Mariona. They wanted to organize an annual event that would express the traditions and aspirations of Salvadoran refugees who began arriving here by the thousands during the war era.

There are currently 2.3 million people of Salvadoran descent living in the United States, roughly tied to Cubans as the third largest group of Hispanic descent after Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Many are clustered in Los Angeles, greater Washington, DC, and a handful of other cities.

“Salvadorans have contributed in the fields of 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 is from El Salvador came. in 1982 amid the wave of migration that followed the assassination of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, on March 24, 1980.

Cárdenas, who arrived in LA with her family as a 9-year-old in 1948, said the only Salvadorans she knew were relatives for years. Many Angelenos didn’t even seem to recognize the land.

“When we said we were from El Salvador, they asked us, ‘What part of Mexico is it in?'”

She only started meeting other Salvadoran citizens when she became a member of the Committee of Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which was founded by Juan Ramirios, Ricardo Zelada and Ana Gloria Madriz to denounce human rights violations and provide assistance to Salvadorans who escaped the fratricide. war that left more than 75,000 dead and about 8,000 missing.

Cárdenas also co-founded the Monseñor Romero Clinic in the Pico-Union neighborhood — there are now 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 returned for good in 1984, when she was 19. Four years ago, Merino, 57, became the first female chair of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) after spending more than two decades organizing workers and serving as national immigration coordinator at Laborers International Union of North America.

She believes that the “Justice for Janitors” campaign, launched in 1990 by the Service Employees International Union and involving activists and organizers from El Salvador, has opened the doors of American workers to Salvadoran workers.

“That’s where new leadership emerges,” said Merino, whose organization represents the interests of more than 2 million Latino workers.

In the mid-1990s, Merino hosted her colleagues in a fish warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. 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 recalls.

Many migrants who had been persecuted and imprisoned in El Salvador for their union activities brought with them good organizational skills and a fierce commitment to the growing labor movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

Merino recalls attending union meetings as a child with her parents, who were also active in their community and Catholic parish. Before leaving El Salvador for good, she became involved in the student movement, an experience she took advantage of when she saw the working conditions in the packaging factory.

“In my house, I saw that you had to organize and unite with others,” said Merino, who moved from LA to Washington, DC several years ago.

Celia Lacayo, a sociologist at UCLA, believes Salvadorans have “made this society stronger and better” through their work on social justice.

“The efforts of Salvadoran immigrants coming out of the struggle in their own countries gave the American labor movement more strength, because they already had experience,” Lacayo said.

Another resident of El Salvador who arrived in the midst of the larger wave of migration was Oscar Chacón, who came to New York in 1980 as an 18-year-old and became a member of the Salvadoran Popular Struggle Action Committee and participated in Casa El Salvador. Chacón, now 60, moved to Chicago in 2001, which is home to Alianza Américas, a coalition of 59 organizations, and became its Executive Director in 2007.

The origins of Alianza Américas date back to the work of the Salvadoran American National Network supporting beneficiaries of the first temporary protected status granted to Salvadoran migrants by the US government in the 1990s in response to the ravages of war.

“The great wave of Salvadorans that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a generation that arrived with a good foundation for training in organizational processes, and that’s what led us to position ourselves in leadership roles in multiple areas,” Chacón said.

Salvadoran-American activists were again spurred into action in January 2018, when then-President Trump announced that he would cancel the TPS that affects nearly 200,000 Salvadorans. Then Evelyn Hernández joined the protests and caravans of Salvadorans who traveled to Washington to raise awareness of the dangers faced by deportees.

“When I started, I didn’t even know I could become the voice of our Salvadoran community, which was in the same immigration limbo as I was,” said Hernández, 47, who entered community service when her oldest child was in kindergarten. Los Angeles. In her neighborhood, Latino families with a school shortage mobilized around a 2004 initiative that resulted in the creation of at least three new high schools. Currently, Hernández is the organizer and coordinator of the TPS committee in Los Angeles.

Despite their long track record in social justice, Salvadorans have not achieved widespread power in the political arena. Only three Salvadoran women have elected positions in California: Reyna Díaz, president of the Duarte school board; Wendy Carrillo, Stateswoman for District 51; and Myrna Melgar, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

And only four others of Salvadoran descent have held political office in the Golden State: former city councilor Mario Beltrán of Bell Gardens; Víctor Martínez of Mendota, in the San Joaquin Valley; and Cecilia Iglesias of Santa Ana; and former state senator 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, Maryland, and Celina Benítez, mayor of neighboring Mount Rainier, Maryland. In recent years, six other Salvadoran Americans have held various public positions. such as city council members, school board members, provincial regulators, and state legislators.

“We are invisible. Salvadorans did not have the political and civic sense to participate,” said Ana Sol Gutiérrez, 80, who served in the Maryland House of Representatives 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 supported the candidates with donations, and we are still 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 staffs, as well as social justice activists.

“These second-generation youth, 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 Salvadoran candidates for public office in cities like Houston and Los Angeles have had an uphill battle to compete with long-established Mexican-American political networks.

Acevedo, who taught at UCLA from 2015 to 2018, said the fervent social activism that characterizes the Salvadoran community will be key to increasing its political power and influence in the decades to come.

“You can’t 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 descent in the coming years. It will be very soon.”

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