Salvadoran Day celebrates a community’s cultural identity and march toward social justice

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

The resilient spirit of this generation and its legacy of striving for social justice and united community action provides the backdrop for this Saturday and Sunday’s Salvadoran Day, unfolding at the corner of Normandy Avenue and Venice Boulevard in the heart of the downtown America diaspora.

Inaugurated in 1999, the Salvadoran day mixes a strong political component with cultural and religious elements in a vocal affirmation of collective identity. Community leaders and left-leaning politicians regularly show up to proselytize.

This weekend’s activities include a music festival, typical Salvadoran food and, to conclude the Sunday, a religious procession dedicated to the divine Redeemer of the world, departing from St. Kevin’s Catholic Church on Beverly Boulevard. A mass follows, similar to that which has been held in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, since 1525.

While the occasion is also celebrated in other US cities, Salvadoran Day has a strong LA pedigree. It grew out of a resolution passed by Congress in July 2006, supported by then-US Representative and current LA District Manager Hilda Solís, in response to a request from LA community leaders.

“With Hilda Solís we made it to the national level. That’s why it’s celebrated everywhere,” said Isabel “Chabelita” Cárdenas, activist and co-author of the congress 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 wanted to create an annual event that would express the traditions and aspirations of the Salvadoran refugees who arrived here by the thousands during the war.

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

“Salvadorians have made contributions in law, medicine, activism, science, and several other disciplines that don’t do us much credit,” said Salvador “Chamba” Sánchez, a political science professor at Los Angeles Community College, who traveled from El Salvador in 1982 amid the Wave of migration following the assassination of Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Arnulfo Romero on March 24, 1980.

Cárdenas, who came to LA with her family in 1948 when she was nine, said that for many years the only Salvadorans she knew were relatives. Many Angelenos didn’t even seem to recognize the country.

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

She only began to socialize with other Salvadoran nationals when she joined the Solidarity Committee with the People of El Salvador, set up by Juan Ramirios, Ricardo Zelada and Ana Gloria Madriz to denounce human rights abuses and help Salvadorans fleeing fratricide to help war with more than 75,000 dead and around 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 permanently in 1984 at the age of 19. Four years ago, 57-year-old Merino became the first woman to be elected chair 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 the Laborers International Union of North America to serve.

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, opened the doors of the US workforce to Salvadoran workers.

“There is new leadership emerging here,” said Merino, whose organization represents the interests of more than 2 million Latino workers.

In the mid-1990s, Merino organized her colleagues into a seafood packing house in downtown Los Angeles. After six months of struggle, they managed to form a union, start collective bargaining and win 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 for their trade union activities in El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s brought well-trained organizational skills and a strong commitment to the growing labor movement.

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

“In my house, I saw the need to organize and unite with others,” said Merino, who moved to Washington, DC from LA a few years ago.

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

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

Another El Salvadoran who arrived in the midst of the great wave of migration was Oscar Chacón, who came to New York in 1980 at the age of 18 and joined the Action Committee for the Salvadoran People’s Struggle and attended Casa El Salvador. Chacón, now 60, moved to Chicago, home of Alianza Américas, a federation of 59 organizations, in 2001 and became its executive director in 2007.

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

“The great wave of Salvadorans that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a generation that arrived with a good foundation in training in organizational processes, and that has led us to position ourselves in leadership roles in multiple fields ‘ Chacon said.

In January 2018, Salvadoran-American activists were spurred into action again when then-President Trump announced that he would end TPS, which had affected nearly 200,000 Salvadorans. At this point, 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 that I could become the voice of our Salvadoran community, which was going through the same immigration difficulty as I was,” said Hernández, 47, who entered community service when her eldest child was in kindergarten on Lot Angeles. In their neighborhood, Latino families facing school deficits mobilized a 2004 initiative that resulted in the creation of at least three new secondary schools. Hernández is currently the organizer and coordinator of the TPS committee in Los Angeles.

Despite their long history of fighting for social justice, Salvadorans have not achieved widespread power in the political arena. Only three Salvadoran women hold elected office in California: Reyna Díaz, President of the Duarte School Board; Wendy Carrillo, Member of Parliament for District 51; and Myrna Melgar, member of the San Francisco Board of Directors.

And only four other Salvadoran ancestry has held political office in the Golden State: former Bell Gardens councilman Mario Beltrán; Víctor Martínez from 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, Md., and Celina Benítez, Mayor of neighboring Mount Rainier, Md. Six other Salvadoran American women have held various public offices in recent years. such as city council members, school board members, county supervisors, and state legislatures.

“We are invisible. Salvadorans didn’t have the political and civic sense to get involved,” 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, like Colombians and Dominicans, who have organized and funded the candidates, and we’re still in our infancy,” Gutiérrez added.

Political strategist Luis Alvarado believes that a new generation of officials is emerging from among local and state officials and their staff, as well as social justice activists.

“These youngsters, the second generation, being educated in American schools and understanding the political process, have the enthusiasm to get involved,” 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 competing with longer-established Mexican-American political networks.

Acevedo, who taught at UCLA from 2015 to 2018, said the passionate 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. This is the result of decades of activism as a foundation,” he said. “We will see many politicians of Salvadorian origin in the years to come. It will be very soon.” Salvadoran Day celebrates a community’s cultural identity and march toward social justice

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