The Heart, Soul and Engine: Salvadorans in the U.S.
The Heart, Soul and Engine

Aquiles Maga¤a writes about Salvadorans in the United States
and their role in the solidarity movement.

     During the last 50 years hundreds of thousands of
Salvadorans have migrated to the United States, seeking
relief from chronic economic crisis and sanctuary from the
political violence that engulfed El Salvador for decades.
Salvadoran refugees sought to build a new life for
themselves, and also politically to challenge the emerging
role of the U.S. government in propping up a brutal social
order in El Salvador.
     One of the first waves of Salvadoran immigrants came to
the U.S. after the 1932 bloodbath. More than 30,000
Salvadorans were killed in less than a month while demanding
better social conditions and protesting a coup d'etat
against the reformist civilian president who was introducing
modest social and democratic changes. This same year the
first link was established in a chain of ruthless military
governments that would rule El Salvador for 60 years.       
     During the 1970s, social unrest and the government's
political violence dominated the life of El Salvador. To
avoid persecution and violence, many Salvadorans decided to
leave. In 1979 the civil war exploded and the largest
migratory wave in Salvadoran history began. One-fifth of the
Salvadoran population left the country and became refugees.
Of the estimated one million Salvadorans currently living in
the U.S., some 90 percent arrived after 1979.
     Since the very first day of their arrival Salvadoran
immigrants learned that survival was not going to be easy.
The conditions in many neighborhoods were very similar to
those left behind. The words of the country's national
anthem had a special meaning for refugees: the U.S. is
indeed "the land of the free and the home of the brave,"
where everybody is free to come but has to be brave to
     In a short time, Salvadoran immigrants have been able
to make important socio-economic and political contributions
to their community, as well as to their native country,
despite their minimal resources and the language barrier. As
soon as Salvadorans arrived they began to tell their
personal stories of what they, their friends and family had
suffered at the hands of the government. The 1980s were one
of the most violent times in Salvadoran history. Between
1980 and 1983 an average of 20 Salvadorans were killed every
day by the military and the death squads. By raising public
consciousness about the government's violence, Salvadoran
refugees hoped to save the lives of those still in El
     Salvadoran refugees were the heart, soul and engine of
the most important solidarity movement since the Vietnam
era. Through personal testimonies and tireless organizing,
strong solidarity and refugee organizations were created.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens were persuaded to
actively oppose the U.S. foreign policy and military
intervention in El Salvador.
     One of the first national actions carried out by
Salvadorans was the 17-day Walk-A-Thon from New York City to
Washington D.C. in summer 1983. The lack of legal
immigration status, limited English, and inadequate
knowledge of the geography of the U.S. did not stop the more
than 60 Salvadoran refugees from walking 400 miles to share
their tragic experiences with 22 communities on their way to
the White House. Religious leaders and church members,
elected officials, professionals, industrial and farm
workers, school teachers and students, journalists, peace
and community activists learned first hand what their
government was doing with its deadly investment of almost
$1.5 million per day being sent to the smallest country in
Latin America.
     The Salvadorans told stories of opposition activists
tortured and killed with sadism and cruelty, piles of
beheaded corpses appearing on the main streets of the
cities, citizens kidnaped and disappeared by the so-called
"Security Forces" and massacres of hundreds of peasants.
These reports moved thousands of U.S. citizens to
participate in solidarity actions. Diverse forms of moral,
political and material solidarity were generated in response
to the refugee testimonies. The religious community through
the Sanctuary movement challenged the immorality of the U.S.
involvement in El Salvador and provided refuge for thousands
fleeing the war. Hundreds of churches, universities and some
major cities declared themselves sanctuaries and actively
opposed the U.S. government's deportation policy. Large
marches were organized throughout the country. Federal
buildings and elected officials' offices were the scenes of
creative protest actions every time that a human rights
violation occurred. A very effective system of emergency
responses was set up to prevent opposition leaders and
activists from being killed when captured by the Salvadoran
     Thousands of telexes and faxes protesting human rights
abuses inundated the presidential office in El Salvador.
Civil disobedience actions were staged at the U.S. Capitol,
Pentagon entrances and military bases where the Salvadoran
Army was being trained. The tenacity and hard work of
Salvadorans and North Americans in the solidarity movement
helped prevent higher levels of U.S. intervention, saved the
life of many Salvadoran citizens, and legitimized the
democratic opposition peace proposals.
      Besides generating solidarity with the democratic
opposition in El Salvador, Salvadoran immigrants have
achieved much for their own community in this country. One
important victory was winning the political refugee status
which in 1987 led Salvadorans to gain permanent residency
for more than 300,000 refugees through the Immigration
Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Later, in 1990, 287,000
Salvadorans that did not qualify for amnesty were given a
temporary protected status (TPS) which allowed them to
legally remain and work in this country for 18 months. Last
year temporary safe heaven was extended another year and a
half. These victories had contributed to increased respect
for immigrant rights, and recognition of the potential of
the Salvadoran community.
     In less than 15 years Salvadoran immigrants have
reached a substantial size in most urban areas throughout
the U.S. and have integrated into this society. A sizeable
number of former "illegal aliens" are now permanent
residents and in many cases naturalized citizens. Once an
anonymous community, Salvadorans are now at the forefront in
defending social, civil and immigrant rights, and creating
the institutions and organizations that will help the
community to meet their immediate needs. At the same time,
Salvadoran immigrants are looking ahead toward new
challenges. Peace agreements to end 12 years of civil war
were signed in January 1992 between the Salvadoran
government and the democratic opposition, including the
FMLN. This package of modest reforms will initiate a period
of transition from war to peace, and from a dictatorial
system to a democratic one, in which Salvadorans will have
the opportunity to recover their civil rights, to rebuild
their lives, and achieve reconciliation in the society.
     After one and half years of a fragile peace in El
Salvador, initial progress has been clouded by the
reactivation of the death squads and the intransigence of
the government about reforming El Salvador's socio-economic
structure and ending the impunity of the Armed Forces. The
integrity of the March 1994 Elections, in which Salvadorans
will elect a new president, 84 new legislators and 262 new
mayors, and the institutional overhaul of the government, is
threatened by this stonewalling. Once again Salvadorans
living outside El Salvador, and especially those in the
U.S., have the patriotic responsibility to support the
democratization of their country by educating and mobilizing
the U.S. public as they did during the past decade.
     The Salvadoran community is a community in transition
that is still identifying the opportunities and dangers
ahead. The community has gained a prominent place in the
U.S. and the respect of other communities which enabled them
to get out of the "American nightmare" and to move onto
pursuing their own version of the "American dream."