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New Organizing Strategies and Transnational Networks of Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles -- Nora Hamilton



Nora Hamilton Norma Stoltz Chinchilla

Department of Political Science Department of Sociology

University of Southern California California State UniversityLos Angeles, CA 90089-0044 Long Beach, CA 90840-4606

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Introduction: Changing Conditions among Guatemalan and Salvadoran Immigrant Communities in Southern California 1New Forms of Organizing 5The Next Generation 8Legality, Citizenship, and Political Empowerment 11Conclusions 20Bibliography 21INTRODUCTION: CHANGING CONDITIONS AMONG GUATEMALAN AND SALVADORAN IMMIGRANT COMMUNITIES IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The 1990s has been a period of transition for the Salvadorans and Guatemalan immigrant populations in Southern California in the context of dramatic changes within the region itself. During the 1980s, Salvadorans and Guatemalans were widely seen as refugees or temporary immigrants. The 1990s has brought increased recognition of their status as a relatively permanent population group confronting many of the same problems and difficulties as other immigrant and inner-city groups. This paper addresses two questions: What have been the implications of this transition for the ways that Salvadorans and Guatemalans organize to meet their needs and confront the challenges of living in the Los Angeles area? How has it affected the way that they interact with their home communities and countries of origin?

The peace accords in El Salvador in 1992, and the negotiations in Guatemala resulting in a series of agreements between 1994 and 1996, presented many immigrants with a dilemma. Throughout the unexpectedly long war and continued conditions of political and economic instability, decisions to stay or return had been put on hold. As a result, many who had initially planned to return in a few years had remained in the United States much longer than originally intended, postponing decisions regarding possible return, and had become relatively settled in the Los Angeles area by the early 1990s.

In addition, many Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the area were skeptical regarding the political and economic prospects in their respective countries. A survey of 300 Guatemalans and Salvadorans in the Los Angeles area conducted by the authors in 1995 found that only a minority believed that the peace process would make a difference in the political (38.7 percent) or economic (36.3 percent) conditions of the country; approximately 47 percent believed that they would not make a difference, and the rest were uncertain. Understandably, Guatemalans were more pessimistic than Salvadorans, given the fact that the peace accords had still not been concluded at the time of the survey. A substantial proportion believed that they would be unable to find adequate employment or other form of livelihood if they returned to the home country. Thus, while the peace process made it feasible to return, most Salvadorans and Guatemalans were not prepared to do so, at least in the near future.

At the same time, conditions for Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Los Angeles were far from optimal. Many wanting to remain in the United States confronted problems of legal status. Nearly 75 percent of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the Los Angeles region in 1990 had come in the 1980s, and many if not most of them had been undocumented at the time of arrival. While some had obtained amnesty as a result of the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, and in some cases had become permanent residents, others were still undocumented or were protected by a temporary stay of deportation, which would expire in 1996. Salvadorans and Guatemalans continued to come to the United States in the 1990s; in 1994 the number of Salvadorans here was 50 percent higher than in 1990 (de la Garza, 1997). The situation was further complicated by the growing political hostility toward immigrants, evident in the favorable vote for Proposition 187 in California in 1994 and the 1996 national legislation restricting the rights of both legal and undocumented immigrants.

In the meantime, significant demographic and economic changes in the Los Angeles region during the 1980s and 1990s had an impact on Central American immigrants. Economically, the shift from a period of accelerated growth in the 1980s to a deepening recession in the early 1990s led to increasing unemployment and declining job opportunities which affected all levels of the population. In inner-city neighborhoods, the dearth of economic opportunities was a factor in the growing levels of crime, drug activity and gang warfare. In the early 1990s, the area of Westlake, a traditional immigrant entry neighborhood directly west of downtown Los Angeles where many Salvadorans and Guatemalans lived, gained the reputation of being one of the worst in the city of Los Angeles. MacArthur Park had become a major center of drug trafficking, and Salvadoran and Guatemalan youth had been drawn into gang activity through the 18th Street and other gangs (Chinchilla et al, 1993).

During the 1980s, the city of Los Angeles also experienced a significant demographic transition, as the combination of "white flight" to the suburbs and the large influx of immigrants, chiefly from Latin America and Asia shifted its demographic makeup from majority white (Anglo) to a majority of minority groups, and particular neighborhoods from ethnic homogeneity to mixed or multi-ethnic communities. Salvadorans and Guatemalans have been part of the process of demographic dispersion, many of them moving from Westlake into the neighboring areas of Koreatown, Echo Park, and Hollywood, as well as further east into East Los Angeles, south into South Central, northwest to the San Fernando Valley, and to the adjacent counties of Orange and San Bernardino. Over 80 percent of the respondents in our survey live in neighborhoods that are not predominantly Central American; and nearly half live in areas that are mixed or predominantly non-Latino. Some of these neighborhoods have been characterized by severe inter-ethnic tensions (e.g, between Latinos and African Americans in South Central).

Depressed economic conditions and ethnic tensions exploded in the uprising following the first Rodney King verdict in 1992. Although the media focus was largely on the African American and Korean communities, Latinos were also involved as victims and perpetrators, accounting for approximately one-third of the 60 deaths as well as over half of the arrests - most of them for curfew violations and looting, and an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the businesses lost. Westlake and Koreatown, both areas with large Central American populations, were among the neighborhoods most strongly affected by the violence (Pastor, 1993).

In many respects the 1992 uprising was a catalyst, demonstrating the extent and seriousness of discrimination, inner city depression, alienated youth, and inter-ethnic tensions, and leading to various efforts to respond to them on the part of city officials, non-government agencies, and community leaders, with a particular focus on improving inter-ethnic relations and working with youth. It also brought increased attention to the Salvadorans and Guatemalans as "new" - and relatively permanent - immigrant groups. The coalition Rebuild Los Angeles, formed in the aftermath of the riots, included a Salvadoran representative.

The change in organizational focus of Central Americans and Central American organizations has also been affected by differences in the Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities which is reflected in their organizing strategies. During the 1980s, both communities benefitted from the presence of a strong nucleus of activists who brought from their respective countries strong political loyalties and organizing experience which helped shape the organizations and movements that emerged in Southern California during the 1980s. Although this nucleus of activists was important in both communities, it was much stronger and more numerous in the case of Salvadorans. Thus one finds a stronger institutional continuity among Salvadoran organizations, and a larger proportion of previous Salvadoran activists involved in organizing efforts in the 1990s.

Several additional factors may explain the relative strength and endurance of the Salvadoran institutions compared with those of the Guatemalans. One is the climate of fear which has been noted by many observers of the Guatemalan community in Los Angeles, and which make its members reluctant to speak out on issues or join organized activities, a fear that in turn may reflect the trauma resulting from a long history of repression in Guatemala as well as more recent experiences of violence and persecution. In addition, the Guatemalan community in the United States, as in Guatemala, continues to be sharply divided between the ladino and indigenous populations. The fact that the United States was much more directly involved in the Salvadoran conflict than in Guatemala also strengthened the presence of organizations oriented to El Salvador in the Los Angeles region.

Also, during the early 1980s Salvadorans were active in the formation of refugee service organizations such as CARECEN and El Rescate which projected themselves as Central American and provided services for Guatemalans and other Central Americans as well as Salvadorans, but tended to be dominated by Salvadorans. The continued existence of these institutions into the 1990s and the continued involvement of Salvadoran activists in these and other organizations, have led to a certain continuity among the Salvadoran organizations that has been lacking in the Guatemalan community. Most of the Guatemalan organizations of the 1980s have disappeared, and the leadership is dispersed.

Among Salvadoran community activists, the changes of the 1990s raised numerous questions and debates regarding the future direction of their work. Should organization be based on political (and in some cases sectarian) loyalties, or should they collaborate with groups and organizations of different political tendencies on projects of mutual interest? Should organizational efforts be directed toward the needs of El Salvador - e.g., assisting their home communities - or to the more successful incorporation of Salvadoran immigrants into U.S. society? To the extent that they focus on the needs of Salvadorans here, should they concentrate on providing services to the general population, or should efforts be directed to developing community leadership? And given the dispersion of the Central American population throughout the Southern California area, should they continue to orient their activities to this population (and if so, what does this entail in terms of changing organization strategies) or to the geographically specific but ethnically diverse community of their immediate neighborhood?

In the case of Guatemalans, the institutional vacuum resulting from the disappearance of the organizations of the 1980s is being filled by a new cohort of professionals and businesspersons, most of whom have been in the region for at least ten years but who have recently begun to organize around the needs of the Guatemalan community in Los Angeles. In contrast to the extensive political and grassroots organizing experience that characterizes the Salvadoran activists, the leadership style of the Guatemalan organizations tend to draw upon their professional and business experience. The new Guatemalan institutions thus tend to project a unity of vision and purpose that may be lacking among the more diverse Salvadoran organizations. At the same time, the Salvadoran institutions appear have deeper roots and broader contacts among the Salvadoran community than the Guatemalan organizations. Despite their differences, many of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan organizations share an orientation toward the economic and political empowerment of their respective communities and have worked together toward common goals.

New Forms of Organizing

The peace process in Central America, the transformation of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities in the Southern California in the direction of greater permanence; the identification of youth at risk, inter-ethnic relations, and inner city poverty as major issues that need to be addressed in the Los Angeles area; and the ways in which city officials and civic leaders attempt to respond to these issues - have all had repercussions among Salvadorans and Guatemalans and their mode of organizing. As in the past, political and philosophical differences as well as personality conflicts among and within different Central American groups have also been instrumental in the formation, trajectories, fragmentation, and dissolution of different organizations. Nevertheless, several patterns can be observed that appear to characterize Central American organizing in the 1990s.

Some organizations, particularly those based on efforts to change U.S. policy or educate the US population regarding the conflicts in Central America during the 1980s, have disappeared of shifted their focus. An example of the latter is CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, actually a U.S. solidarity organization but with Salvadoran input, which continues to operate in various cities, including Los Angeles, albeit at a reduced level and with a different focus, e.g., supporting labor organization among maquila workers in El Salvador. At the same time, many Salvadorans and Guatemalans active in these and other organizations during the 1980s have transferred their experience to such areas as labor organizing, community or service agencies in minority neighborhoods, or political campaigns.

Multi-function organizations, such as CARECEN and El Rescate, formed in the 1980s to provide a range of services to Central American refugees and immigrants, have attempted to combine services to needy sectors of the Central American population with the training of new leadership. While retaining their programs of legal counseling and representation and some services such as ESL instruction they have also initiated programs geared to the empowerment of a more permanent population (partly indicated in CARECEN's name change from Central American Refugee Committee to Central American Resource Committee). CARECEN is working on programs of leadership development, particularly oriented to youth. El Rescate was instrumental in the organization of a credit union to provide loans to low-income residents in the Pico Union area.

In addition, new organizations have been formed in an attempt to respond to the needs of a more permanent population. SALEF, the Salvadoran American Leadership and Education Fund, is initiating programs oriented to the civic education of Salvadorans (and others) who are new or potential U.S. citizens and providing training for potential political leaders from this group. A new Guatemalan organization, GUIA (Guatemalan Unity Information Agency) opened in Los Angeles in 1997 to provide counseling and other services for Guatemalans attempting to legalize their situation in the United States. GUIA, which also has offices in Washington and is planning to open additional offices in Chicago and New York, also lobbies on behalf of Guatemalan immigrants and provides classes to enable Guatemalans to obtain secondary school diplomas. Both the Salvadoran Leadership and Education Fund and GUIA see existing organizations, such as MALDEF (Mexican American Leadership Development and Education Fund), NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected Officials), and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project as models.

Central American organizations have also been acting increasingly in coalitions - with each other, with other community organizations, and with government agencies. This process is the result of several factors: growing recognition on the part of city officials of the permanence of the Central American community, a concern to avoid duplication of efforts, and the desire of different organizations to consolidate forces and strengthen long-term relations among organizations sharing similar interests. One example is collaboration among several organizations - CARECEN, CHIRLA, El Rescate, GUIA - on issues related to the legal status of Central Americans; activities include immigrant counseling and workshops for asylum applicants as well as extensive advocacy and lobbying.

Another type of coalition is LA Bridges, a city-wide effort to coordinate and expand programs for youth in middle schools through the collaboration of local government agencies, schools, and community organizations. CARECEN works with teachers from Belmont High School and volunteers from Occidental College to provide tutoring, computer instruction, skills training, and art programs for students from Berendo Middle School in Pico Union; the program also incorporates a family integration workshop for students and their parents. CARECEN is also involved in a collaborative program with the Korean Youth and Community Center and the Youth Empowerment Program of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to provide leadership training in inter-ethnic relations for youth from Pico Union, South Central, and Mid Wilshire.

There has also been collaboration across political lines on issues of mutual interest in ways that would have been unthinkable in much of the 1980s. This has been particularly true in the Guatemalan community, where the Guatemalan consulate has supported the formation of service organizations such as GUIA and is involved in other programs. Collaboration has been more tentative among Salvadoran groups, some of which continue to be politically oriented, but there has been some collaboration between Salvadoran organizations and the Salvadoran consulate on issues related to immigration, and there are mutual invitations to participate in receptions for visiting officials or business leaders from El Salvador.

The dispersion of the Central American population has resulted in increased reliance on the media to provide information on legal issues, immigrant counseling programs, and upcoming community events. Organizations and activists have thus taken advantage of the growing availability and diversity of Spanish language media in Southern California. Salvadorans and Guatemalans with access to the internet have also formed national and international discussion groups.

Finally, while the focus of most organizations is on issues affecting Salvadorans and Guatemalans in this country, the maturing of these communities in Los Angeles (and elsewhere) has resulted in new kinds of transnational interaction. New grassroots transnational organizations began to appear in the late 1980s and 1990s in the form of hometown associations, established by Salvadorans and Guatemalans from specific communities generally for the purpose of raising funds for particular projects in these communities. Business groups and government agencies in El Salvador have also initiated efforts to forge more formal links with the communities in the Los Angeles area as well as other regions in the United States.

In summary, the 1990s has brought an increased emphasis on problems of a more permanent community; concern with issues related to youth, which in the case of the immigrant communities meant the second and "1.5" generations (those who came as young children but were socialized in the United States); an orientation toward empowerment and leadership training; a growing tendency to work in coalition with other organizations, collaboration among groups that were previously politically polarized; and new forms of transnational organizing and networking. In the following we examine local and transnational interaction and organizing in response to three types of problems and needs: social problems affecting youth, political incorporation, and economic development.

The Next Generation

International migration often places severe strains on family relations, or exacerbates existing problems. Salvadorans and Guatemalans had a long history of internal and intraregional migration prior to the massive increase in migration to the United States in the 1980s, so the problems of family separation are not new. However, the difficulties and distances involved in migrating to the United States (crossing three borders in the Salvadoran case) as well as the added trauma of war and violence in El Salvador and Guatemala, meant that many immigrants from these countries experience long periods of separation from other members of their families. In some cases children have lost one or both parents to violence. Some were sent by parents to live with distant relatives in the United States they hardly knew; still others came with one parent, leaving father or mother and often other siblings in their home countries.

Family reunion after long years of separation may bring new tensions, particularly if high expectations on both sides are not met. Different experiences between those who have been in the United States and those who are newly arrived from El Salvador and Guatemala may result in different norms and values (Menjivar, 1997). Inter-generational conflicts also arise from different norms and patterns of upbringing between parents, who seek to impose a relatively strict discipline characteristic of their respective countries, and their children, who become quickly aware of more lenient child-rearing practices in the United States.

In addition, many children and youth coming to the United States had directly witnessed or experienced violence in their respective countries; some had been part of guerilla or government armies. These experiences may be reinforced by violence witnessed or experienced on the streets of Los Angeles or other depressed urban areas, and can have severe psychological consequences, in some cases resulting in anti-social and even pathological behavior (Vlach, 1992).

The combined effect of separation or estrangement from parents and experience of violence is undoubtedly a factor in the growth of gangs in areas such as Westlake, where Salvadorans and Guatemalans have joined existing gangs and Salvadorans have formed their own gang, the Mara Salvatrucha. The INS practice of deporting actual or suspected gang members has also led to the reproduction of Los Angeles gangs in the streets of El Salvador and Guatemala as well as Mexico. Some of these gang members were actually born in the United States or came when they were relatively young. Others were victims of El Salvador's long civil war: as noted above, some lost one or both parents in the war, some were born in guerrilla camps; some were forced to join the Salvadoran army at a very early age.

The violence and brutality they had witnessed and in some cases participated in undoubtedly helps to explain why the Los Angeles police consider the Mara Salvatrucha the most dangerous gang in the city; as expressed by one member of Mara Salvatrucha, "the young dudes here keep the war going" (cited in Rodriguez, 1995; see also Wilkinson, 1994). Today the fastest growing branch of the Mara Salvatrucha is in San Salvador, formed by return migrants as well as alienated youth in El Salvador; these and other gangs have also appeared in some of the more remote areas of the country. The dual experiences of violence in both sending and receiving country are graphically depicted in the tatoos of gang member Victor Diaz, which tell the story of the murder of his father by Salvadoran government soldiers and the death of his brother in a Los Angeles gang war. (Rodriguez, 1995).

Churches, NGOs, and community activists in Central America have attempted to respond to the proliferation of U.S. based gangs in El Salvador and other sending countries. In 1996, Chicano activist Magdaleno Rose-Aviles helped to form an organization of gang members in San Salvador, Homies Unidos. Based on recognition that gangs constitute a response to real problems and in many cases an alternative family, Homies has focused not on taking people out of gangs but removing violence from gangs. One of the first activities of the members was to conduct a poll of 1,000 gang members with the help of the Public Opinion Center of the Central American University in San Salvador. The study found that a large majority wanted a life free of violence and desired jobs, education and training. With support from a Salvadoran-based foundation, Save the Children, Homies has formed workshops for skill training and established small enterprises employing gang members in San Salvador.

Homies Unidos is linked to similar organizations in the Los Angeles area, such as the Gang Violence Bridging Project at Cal State Los Angeles, the National Coalition of Barrios Unidos, and Proyecto Pastoral at the Dolores Mission, which includes programs such as Homeboy Industries and Jobs for a Future which help gang members to acquire skills and job opportunities. These and other organizations are part of the Peace Process Network, formed to support efforts to end gang violence. In 1997, several members of these groups traveled to San Salvador on a delegation arranged by state senator Tom Hayden, where they met with their counterparts in Homies Unidos, and the network has incorporated goals such as reducing deportation of gang members and enabling members of Homies Unidos to come to the United States to organize to reduce violence among Salvadoran gang members here.

Central American organizations in Los Angeles have also become involved in efforts to work with youth from immigrant families living in problematic neighborhoods. In collaboration with city agencies, colleges and universities, middle and high schools, CARECEN and other organizations have initiated programs that address a problem common to many youth in depressed inner city neighborhoods who have no place to go after school except the streets or a locked apartment. Programs such as CARECEN's Safe Haven and Nueva Generacion enable middle and high school students to interact in a safe environment while receiving skills and training that can enhance their future opportunities. Nueva Generacion began in 1992; its students participate in internships in community organizations such as the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights, the Clinica Romero, and the Gang Violence Bridge Program. Safe Haven is part of LA Bridges, a program instigated by LA City Council members Mark Ridley-Thomas, an African American representative from South Central, and Mike Hernandez, representing the Westlake area, to bring together different programs and initiatives related to students in middle schools; CARECEN was one of approximately 12-15 organizations chosen to work with students from Berendo Middle School in the Westlake district. The program has 30 students, equally divided between Mexican and Central American.

By the mid-1990s, Salvadoran and Guatemalan youth had begun attending colleges and universities in the Los Angeles area in increasing numbers, particularly the California State University system. As students, they have become active in existing organizations or in some cases formed their own Central American organizations, and some have played an important role in university politics.

One example is Vladimir Cerna, a Salvadoran who came to the United States in 1986 at the age of 13, after having witnessed the assassination of both his father and uncle. He attended California State University at Northridge, where he majored in Sociology and Chicano Studies and was elected president of the student body. While at Northridge he was active in organizing against Proposition 187 and other immigrant issues, and was a counselor in CARECEN's Nueva Generacion program. Subsequently he with other young Salvadoran activists formed SALPAC, the Salvadoran Political Action Committee, to promote the election of candidates sympathetic to the needs of immigrants.

In summary, Central American organizations and activists have taken an active part in local and binational efforts to address problems confronting youth in inner city neighborhoods in Los Angeles and in the home countries, and to train leaders from the 1.5 and second generations. Individuals from these generations are now beginning to take an important role in community activism and leadership.

Legality, Citizenship, and Political Empowerment

The transformation of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities from one of temporary migrants and refugees to a relatively permanent settlers coincided with the growth of strong anti-immigrant feeling in California and the United States, evident in the favorable vote for proposition 187 in the 1994 California elections, which attempted to deny services to undocumented immigrants, and the 1996 Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which reduced certain benefits for immigrants and raised the costs for bringing family members to the United States. Increased hostility toward immigrants aggravated the uncertainty and vulnerability of undocumented immigrants and those with temporary legal status (which ended for Salvadorans in January 1996), as well as new Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants who arrived after 1990. The result has been in a growing concern with the empowerment of Central Americans as permanent residents, citizens or future citizens in the United States. At the same time, many among the Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities want to maintain their legal and political as well as cultural ties with their home countries.

During the 1990s organizations such as CARECEN, CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles), El Rescate, ASOSAL (Asociacion Salvadorena - formerly CRECEN, an grassroots organization of Salvadorans linked to CARECEN) and the recently-formed GUIA (Guatemala Unity Information Agency) as well as other Immigrant Rights organizations have continued programs of legal counseling and representation of undocumented Central Americans and other Latinos attempting to legalize their status. These efforts have focused on working with Salvadorans and Guatemalans eligible for asylum or stay of deportation through the ABC and NACARA programs. The ABC program was based on a class action suit brought by the American Baptist Church allowing those who had been previously denied asylum during the 1980s (the vast majority of those who applied) to reapply. Some would also have been eligible for suspension of deportation under the previous rules (i.e., prior to the 1996 legislation), which would grant it for those "of good character" who had been in the United States for at least seven years and could demonstrate that deportation would result in hardship; those who received stay of deportation could then apply for permanent residence and eventually citizenship.

With the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, however, the wait was extended to ten years and the applicant must demonstrate that his/her deportation would result in severe hardship for a family member who is a US citizen. Subsequently, NACARA (the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act) reinstated legal options to enable Guatemalans and Salvadorans who arrived prior to 1990 and are part of the ABC program to apply for cancellation of removal and to seek permanent residency. The act also provides automatic cancellation of departure for Nicaraguans and Cubans who arrived prior to 1995. As noted above, these efforts have involved collaboration among the different organizations as well as with the respective consulates. They are also working with a new Honduran organization, HULA (Hondurans United of Los Angeles), formed in January 1998, to secure similar rights for Honduran immigrants.

These organizations are also lobbying in support of the Gutierrez bill being considered by the U.S. Congress, which would give Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Haitians amnesty and permanent residence if they arrived before 1995 - i.e., the same conditions Nicaraguans and Cubans received under NACARA. Following Hurricane Mitch, the United States has agreed to a temporary protected status of eighteen months for undocumented immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua, the countries most damaged by the hurricane, and efforts are being made to extend this status to Guatemalans and Salvadornas.

The push toward obtaining U.S. citizenship was given particular impetus by Proposition 187, which brought home to many in the immigrant community the costs of disenfranchisement and the lack of input in local and national politics. Mobilization against Proposition 187 was also a factor in increased collaboration between Central American and other Latino organizations, especially Mexican/Mexican American. There is also increased recognition on the part of Latino organizations of the significance of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans among the new Latino groups. The inclusion of Central Americans as part of the growing political presence of the Latino community has been promoted by SALEF receptions honoring prominent Latino politicians, such as Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. Several prominent Latino politicians were also present at a party in honor of two elected Salvadoran Americans: Liz Figueroa, a member of the California Assembly, and Oscar Rios, a member of the Watsonville City Council.

The significance of the renewed Latino political mobilization became evident in the 1998 statewide elections, in which the Latino vote jumped from 8 percent of the electorate in 1994 to 13 percent. The elections brought three additional Latinos into the state Assembly, bringing the number to 17, and three new Latino senators. With the selection of Rod Pacheco as leader of the Assembly Republicans, both leaders of the assembly are Latino. Latinos also won the races for lieutenant governor, Los Angeles county sheriff, and mayors of San Jose and Salinas.

Many if not most Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants are too immersed in their immediate problems and too uncertain of their future status to take an interest in U.S. politics. However some have become involved at the community and local level, as in elections to local school boards. Individuals and agencies are promoting voter registration among new Central American citizens, and several organizations are specifically oriented to political empowerment and leadership training. SALEF plans to create five internships in local, state, and national government annually and currently has placed interns with Victoria Castro of the Los Angeles School Board and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. SALPAC, the Salvadoran Political Action Committee was formed by previous SALEF activists as a for profit organization in order to campaign actively for political candidates responsive to the needs of Central Americans.

At the same time, many members of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities retain an interest in political events in their respective countries, although the FMLN (which made the transition from a guerrilla organization to a political organization in the early 1990s) is the only Salvadoran (or Guatemalan) party with a significant presence in the Los Angeles area, dating from the activism of the 1980s. Several organizations have sponsored or co-sponsored Los Angeles visits of Salvadoran officials who are also associated with the Salvadoran opposition. During 1997, these included Dra. Victoria Vel·squez de Aviles, Procuradura for Human Rights in El Salvador; Salvadoran Assemblywoman Violeta MenjÌvar, and Hector Silva, Mayor of San Salvador.

Sponsorship of visiting government officials and opposition politicians continues a practice already widespread in the 1980s, when political figures ranging from Ruben Zamora, representative of the FDR (the Democratic Revolutionary Front, diplomatic arm of the FMLN) to Roberto D'Aubuisson (founding member of the right wing ARENA) visited Los Angeles. Although less polarized than in the 1980s, the reproduction of the politics of the home countries continued during the 1990s and may become more pronounced if citizens of the respective countries are permitted to vote from the United States. Both El Salvador and Guatemala permit dual citizenship, although at present neither government permits its citizens to vote outside the country. A recent initiative of the Guatemalan community has been the Comite CÃŒvico, which has undertaken a drive to enable Guatemalans to vote outside of Guatemala. If this movement is successful, Guatemalan political representatives and issues may have an increased presence in Los Angeles and other areas of Guatemalan settlement, as has already been the case with Salvadoran, Mexican, and other immigrant communities. Thus transnational political activism continues even as growing numbers of Salvadorans and Guatemalans are becoming empowered to act politically in the United States.

Salvadoran and Guatemalan organizations have also formed national level coalitions. The Red Nacional Salvadorena Americana includes CARECEN, El Rescate, and other organizations in the Los Angeles area as well as counterpart organizations in other US cities working on immigrant issues. In November 1998 the National Congress of Guatemalan Organizations, was formed, grouping Guatemalan organizations throughout the United States, ranging from immigrants rights agencies to soccer clubs. Its purpose is to promote community empowerment and the political influence of Guatemalans in the United States through various projects, among them scholarships for Guatemalan youth (Tovar, 1998). Both coalitions and their member organizations have been active in lobbying with members of congress on behalf of temporary protected status for Central Americans in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, as well as the Gutierrez bill to give permanent residence to Salvaorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans here since 1995.

Economic Empowerment and Development

A decade of war and violence left El Salvador and Guatemala economically devastated. The new economic model promoted by the United States and international lending and development agencies, and pursued by the governments of both countries, has not been effective in addressing the problems of landlessness, unemployment and poverty affecting large sectors of the respective populations (Spence et al, 1997; Spence et al, 1998). The two countries were also economically damaged by Hurricane Mitch, although less so than Honduras and Nicaragua.

At the same time, Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the Los Angeles area, especially new arrivals, are among the most impoverished residents of the region; as noted above, many of them live in depressed areas characterized by high levels of crime and delinquency. The economic development of the region and the economic empowerment of Salvadorans and Guatemalan immigrants present numerous challenges to both immigrants in this country and their compatriots at home.

Despite their poverty, Salvadorans and Guatemalans in the Los Angeles area and elsewhere have demonstrated a high propensity to save. Numerous studies, including our own, have found that even immigrants whose incomes are marginal manage to send a substantial proportion of these funds to their home countries. Our findings also support other studies indicating that a substantial proportion of remittances go to subsistence needs and consumption of families in the home country (Krikorian, 1996; de la Garza, 1997). Very little go directly into production, although they may have implications for future production through the development of human resources (e.g., through expenditures on health and education), or stimulate productive activities indirectly (e.g., through the purchase of food, clothing, household equipment). In addition, some remittances and/or resources brought back by return migrants have been used to establish small businesses in the migrant sending communities, but most of these seem to be oriented to services and commerce rather than production (Lopez and Seligson, 1991; Lungo et al, 1997).

Remittances from the United States also constitute a significant contribution to the foreign exchange, and thus to the balance of payments, of the respective countries: in the case of El Salvador, they are over $1 billion, exceeding earnings from exports (CEPAL, 1996). Government officials in the sending countries are thus concerned that increasing obstacles to migration to the United States as well as the possibility of massive deportation of immigrants might undercut a major source of foreign exchange.

Family reunification as well as length of stay would also appear to result in reduced remittances. According to our survey, the single most important factor in sending remittances and also in the frequency of remittances is binational families. Fifty-nine percent of those whose spouses were not in this country were likely to send remittances, vs. only 38 percent of those whose spouses were in the U.S. The presence of children in the sending country is even more important: only 29 percent of those with no children, and 28 percent of those whose children were all in the United States, sent remittances at least once a month, compared to 62 percent of those who had at least some children in the home country and 97 percent of those whose children were all in the home country. Remittances also tend to decline with the length of time in the United States. This may reflect the costs associated with becoming more settled in the receiving country, and particularly the reunification of families.

However, Salvadoran and Guatemalan remittances from the United States to their respective countries have in fact increased over time. Salvadoran remittances increased from $322.1 million to $966.7 million (200.12 percent) between 1990 and 1994; while those from Guatemalans have also increased substantially. This undoubtedly reflects new immigration: as noted above, the number of Salvadorans in the United States was 50 percent higher in 1994 than in 1990 (de la Garza, 1997). In short, the amount of remittances appears to be negatively related to the length of stay of immigrants and extent of family unity/reunification, and positively related to the continuation and increase in immigration (de la Garza, 1997).

The fact that remittances could be reduced has led to other efforts targeting migrant earnings. Increased recognition of the permanence of the Central American communities has also led to cultivation of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities as a market and a source of investment by both Central American and U.S. based businesses. According to a public relations official of Curacao, a large department store with branches in several Central American countries as well as Los Angeles: "When some people in the community qualified for amnesty [as result of 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act], it became clearer to investors that the Central American presence would be a permanent one." Efforts by home country enterprises to tap the market here include the establishment of branches of several Salvadoran and Guatemalan banks, as well as branches of Curacao and of Tapachuleta, a Salvadoran supermarket.

Businesses in Central America as well as Central American firms in the United States use the Salvadoran and Guatemalan newspapers here, among other media, to publicize their products and services. Among the major advertisers in these newspapers are travel agencies and courier and transport services. Salvadoran and Guatemalan real estate and development companies, recognizing that many immigrants in this country think in terms of a return to their countries of origin some day and constitute a potential market, also advertise in the weekly Salvadoran and Guatemalan newspapers in Los Angeles. In July 1996 Salvadoran construction companies which had been confronting a slow market in El Salvador staged a week-long convention (subsequently held over) in Los Angeles to attract Salvadorans wanting to buy property or homes for eventual return to El Salvador (Darling, 1996).

Salvadoran and Guatemalan cultural and business organizations in the United States have also promoted expositions highlighting opportunities in El Salvador and Guatemala. In October 1997 a Guatemalan trade fair (Guatemala Expo) was organized by the Casa de la Cultura de Guatemala, which included exhibits on tourist attractions, handicrafts, environmental displays, marimba concerts, real estate agents, and representatives of La Prensa Libre and attended by Attorney General Acisclo Valladares Molina (Mozingo, 1997). The Casa de Cultura of El Salvador and the Camara de Comercio El Salvador-California sponsored a trade convention - Encuentro El Salvador-Los Angeles in July 1998, attended by approximately 400 persons, including 60 business representatives from El Salvador.

A more formal effort to incorporate Salvadorans in Los Angeles as potential investors and markets was represented by a Salvadoran government proposal , Construyendo las Ventajes Competitivas de El Salvador: Recomendaciones: Comunidad Emigrante, part of Programa Nacional de Competitividad, calling for collaboration between Salvadoran businesses and business agencies in El Salvador and the United States, the Salvadoran government, and international agencies. Among other initiatives, it recommended the creation of a web site and data base which would inform Salvadorans in the United States of investment opportunities in El Salvador, and the reorientation of remittances from consumption to investment in production in the Salvadoran community which would benefit both the community itself and the Salvadoran business in the United States.

In the meantime, Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities have taken the initiative to form their own grassroots development institutions in the form of hometown associations (termed fraternidades among Guatemalans) The earliest Salvadoran association was apparently that of Armenia, formed in the early 1980s, and one of the most recent is SIMA, Sociedad Internacional para el Mejoramiento de Atiquizaya, formed in 1995, but the majority of the associations were formed in the early 1990s. This appears to be true of the Guatemalan fraternidades as well, although some originated earlier as burial societies to assist families in sending the bodies of deceased Guatemalans back to Guatemala for burial and to provide assistance to the families.

The origins of the associations varied. In some cases, the initiative resulted when immigrants returned to visit their homes for the first time in several years, and were shocked at the devastation caused by war and the poverty in which many people were living. Some were also critical of the lack or insufficiency of government support for rebuilding. Founders could be a single individual, a family nucleus with members living in both the United States and the home countries, or a social circle based on a soccer club. Or sometimes the initiative came from a community leader in El Salvador or Guatemala, such as the parish priest, who encouraged members in the United States to form an association to maintain links with and assist the home community (Berestein, 1995; Popkin, 1996).

The associations serve two basic functions: to raise funds for specific projects in their respective home communities, and as a means to reinforce the social contact of members here, by bringing together people who may be dispersed throughout southern California around their identity with a particular Salvadoran or Guatemalan place of origin. SIMA, which claims that there are some 500-600 families from Atiquizaya (a town in the department of Ahuachapan, about 8 miles from the Guatemalan border) in the Los Angeles area, has several picnics as well as three major fundraising events. The 18 member Board of Directors meets weekly at the home of a member on a rotating basis; refreshments are served and families are invited to participated.

It has been estimated that there are as many as 56-57 Salvadoran associations, or comunidades, and 35-45 Guatemalan fraternidades, but the organizations are very fluid; some disappear or remain dormant over long periods, and their membership and levels of activity vary. The Guatemalan fraternidades are divided between indigenous and ladino fraternidades; in addition to their fundraising and social functions, the indigenous Guatemalan associations are also concerned with the preservation of their respective languages and traditions.

For most part, the associations consist of a directorate, a small core of active members who take responsibility for planning and implementing fundraising events, and community members and their families who attend these events and who often number in the hundreds. The most active participants appear to be relatively settled immigrants, some of whom were involved in political organizing in the 1980s. Most work with an individual or counterpart organization in their home community. The Santa Elena association, the Comite de Amigos de Santa Elena (CASE), consists of member organizations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Virginia as well as in Santa Elena which agree upon projects to be funded.

Money is raised in the United States through parties, concerts, picnics and other events at which airline tickets, television sets or other items donated by local business firms are raffled off. Funds are used to buy supplies to be sent to the community, such as medicine, books, sports equipment, school busses, fire trucks, or ambulances, or may be sent directly to the community for a specific purpose, such as clinics, schools, scholarship funds for children, parks, street paving, potable water, and reforestation. The Club Pro-Estanzuelas de Los Angeles sent an ambulance to its home community; the hometown association of the town of Perulapia in Cuscatlan assisted in having the streets paved; the Comite de Amigos de Santa Elena has been responsible for a children's park as well as projects in health and education; it is currently planning a sports complex.

Some of the associations are grouped in umbrella organizations. The Comunidades Unificadas para Asistencia Directa a El Salvador (Comunidades) was formed with the help El Rescate in 1993; it provides coordination and some guidelines and helps with fundraising activities. The Asociacion de Fraternidades de Guatemala was formed in 1990, initially to group the different fraternidades. Under new leadership as of 1997 it has become broader in scope, incorporating other organizations serving the Guatemalan population in the area, such as GUIA. Both the Salvadoran Comunidades and the Guatemalan Asociacion hold major fundraising events, distributing the receipts to participating organizations, although many member organizations also hold their own events. At present, the AFG includes only ladino fraternidades, although it has worked with the indigenous fraternidades on specific projects. Both the Comunidades and the Asociacion have experienced splits, and a number of associations remain outside of the respective coordinating organizations.

For most part the hometown associations have attempted to maintain their independence of specific political and religious perspectives. However, there are exceptions; taking advantage of the prestige conferred by association with the United States, one Salvadoran home town association has made a point to issue invitations to specific candidates from their home community to come to the United States in an effort to bolster their electoral prospects, a ploy that has apparently had some success. And in contrast to most of the Salvadoran associations and the Ladino Guatemalan fraternidades, the indigenous organizations have a strongly religious component which is divided between traditional Catholic, charismatic Catholic, and evangelical orientations (Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, 1997).

Some of the associations have also been wary of collaboration with government agencies, although they or their committees in Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities have negotiated with the respective governments for specific types of assistance. A Salvadoran association in Los Angeles lobbied successfully to obtain a vehicle and fax phone line for a hospital it was supporting in El Salvador, and Guatemalan associations have also negotiated with Guatemalan officials for specific needs of their respective communities (Eekhoff, 1994; Popkin, 1996: 37). CASE, the Santa Elena committee, received an estimated $25,000 between 1990 and 1993, which represented 17 percent of the municipalities budget; while the bulk of these funds came from the associations in the United States CASE also received assistance through its contact with government officials in El Salvador (Baires, 1996: 28). At the same time, the Guatemalan Asociacion has sought to expand its contacts with different types of organizations and works closely with the Guatemalan consulate on specific projects, although remaining formally autonomous.

While fundraising activities focus on the needs of home communities in El Salvador and Guatemala, the associations have also been concerned with the needs of their constituencies here. The Salvadoran Comunidades and El Rescate were instrumental in the formation of the Comunidades Federal Credit Union with the assistance of several banks and credit agencies. The credit union was inaugurated in October 1997 to provide low income residents and workers in the Pico Union community (encompassing the area between Olympic Blvd. and the Santa Monica Freeway (10), Normandy and the Pasadena/Harbor freeway (110)) with access to basic financial services and credit. Through an agreement with FEDECACES (Federacion de Asociaciones Cooperatives de Ahorro y Credito de El Salvador), the family of immigrants who are members of the Comunidades Credit Union here may have access to credit in El Salvador.


Salvadorans and Guatemalans confront numerous problems and challenges as they attempt to build a life in the United States even as they work to maintain social and cultural ties with families, communities, and countries of origin. While some have successfully adjusted, improving their job situation and economic prospects, a large number confront problems common to other low income families in the Los Angeles region of poverty, unstable and low wage jobs, and depressed neighborhoods, which may be aggravated by problems of legal status, family separation, and the psychological trauma resulting from previous experience in violent and war-torn countries. In their countries of origin, the end to hostilities has led to a shifting focus to problems of economic development and particularly the lack of economic opportunities for large sectors of the population who may in turn become potential migrants.

The shifting problems and needs of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Southern California have led to changes in the orientation and mode of organizing of community activists and institutions. Both communities have been characterized by a shift in the focus of organizing from a temporary refugee population to relatively permanent settlers, with particular attention to political and economic empowerment and to the needs of youth. Legal efforts on behalf of the undocumented have continued with increasing emphasis on permanent residence and citizenship.

The dilemmas or "trade-offs" raised by different groups in their efforts to deal with the multiple needs of the respective communities seem to work themselves out to some extent through the process of organizing around specific initiatives and responding to specific needs, as well as to opportunities that present themselves. First, multi-function organizations such as CARECEN and El Rescate have continued to provide services meeting basic needs while instituting programs oriented to community empowerment and leadership training. Among the latter are programs such as CARECEN's collaboration in the multi-ethnic training of community leaders and SALEF's political internship program, as well as the formation of national level coalitions such as the Red Nacional and GUATENET.

Second, while continuing to serve their population base in the Central American community, using multiple media outlets to reach a dispersed population, organizations such as El Rescate and CARECEN have also instituted programs addressing the needs of the neighborhoods in which they are located, which may incorporate Mexican Americans and in some cases other ethnic groups as well as Central Americans. The target population of the Comunidades Federal Credit Union is a specific region, Pico Union. Approximately half of the students of Berendo Middle School who participate in CARECEN's Safe Haven program are Mexican American; the rest are Central American. Given the fact that many Salvadorans and Guatemalans live in mixed Latino or multi-ethnic neighborhoods, targeting populations which cross cultural and ethnic boundaries could also have an effect in relieving inter-ethnic tensions.

Third, settlement in the United States has not precluded continued ties with countries and communities of origin, which have also taken new forms in the 1990s. The home town associations raise funds for specific agreed upon projects in their home communities. CISPES works with organizations in El Salvador on labor issues in the maquiladora industries, as well as other issues. The Comite CÃŒvica of the AFG seeks to enable Guatemalans here to vote in elections in Guatemala. At the same time, local programs may have a transnational dimension. The Comunidades credit union serves the population of the immediate neighborhood, but through the agreement with FEDECACES it will also provide credit for their families in El Salvador. The involvement of Salvadoran and Guatemalan youth in local gangs has become a transnational problem with the deportation of gang members to their home countries; Homies Unidos represents one effort to provide alternative options for gang members in El Salvador and the United States.

Finally, what seems to enable these organizations to pursue multiple goals is that fact that many if not most of their activities have been based on coalition building through alliances with other immigrant organizations, different ethnic groups, educational institutions, community organizations, local government agencies, and/or business organizations. Depending on the issue or objective, such alliances enable member organizations to maximize outreach, strengthen their negotiating position, and access needed resources (such as information, markets, financial resources, technical training, etc.). Given the magnitude of the problems confronting Central Americans here, their intersection with broader problems of the Los Angeles region, as well as continued concern with the problems and needs of their communities of origins, these forms of networking would seem to constitute an effective model for future organization and activism.


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This study represents part of a project: The Impact of Migration to the United States on Salvadoran and Guatemalan Sending Communities, funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. In the Los Angeles area, the project included interviews with representatives of business organizations, directors of NGOS, representatives of the respective governments, and community leaders and activists. It also included partial analysis of the data of a survey of Salvadorans and Guatemalans in Los Angeles conducted in 1995. We would like to express our appreciation to those we interviewed, and also to Ruth Capelle, Susan Kandel, Angela Sambrano, and Elana Zilberg for comments on earlier versions of this paper.

The survey was funded by a grant from the North-South Center of the University of Miami. It was based on a snowball sample using multiple points of entry and including Salvadoran and Guatemalan men and women from a variety of social and economic backgrounds and a range of occupations. We are therefore confident that the results, although not generalizable to the respective populations, are strongly indicative of their situation and attitudes.

Pico Union is the southern part of Westlake; it is the term generally used by Central Americas to refer to the area where many of them live, even though some live outside of Pico Union proper.

Women in the organization had objected to the original name - Homeboys Unidos.

Of those who reported on the use of remittances, the majority used them for basic consumption; only 1 percent reported using them for business, and .5 percent for buying land.

 Our study found that the most recent arrivals were more likely to send remittances more frequently. Fifty-four percent of those who arrived between 1991 and 1994, and 50.5 percent of those arriving bet