El Salvador

El Salvador
South Korea

El Salvador

by Teresa Castellanos

Context for Salvadoran Immigration

History and Government

El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, about the size of Massachusetts. Because of its size and its density, land issues have been at the heart of many of the conflicts in El Salvador. El Salvador has a history of social conflicts that have resulted in the repression of the civilian population.

The Pipil Indians, related to the Aztecs of Mexico and the Maya, were the original inhabitants of El Salvador. The Spanish arrived in 1524. Pedro de Alvarado conquered the territory now known as El Salvador. After three centuries of colonial rule, El Salvador declared its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. It was part of a federation of Central American states until that union was dissolved in 1838. In 1833 an unsuccessful rural upraising led by Anastacio Aquino was followed by brutal retaliation by landowners.

In 1930 Agustin Farabundo Marti led another rebellion. It led to the systematic murder of 35,000 civilians in retaliation. This event is known as “la matanza” or massacre.

During the 1970s social conflicts, political instability, civil unrest and the struggle for power led to the civil war of the 1980s. From 1979 until 1992, the country faced an internal conflict in which the United States supported the oligarchy militarily and financially. The atrocities committed during the civil war gave El Salvador a worldwide prominence. An estimated 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives during this conflict.

The current form of government is a republic. The government is made up of three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. The President and Vice-President are elected by popular vote for five-year terms. The current President is Francisco Guillermo Flores Perez from the ARENA Party. The major opposition party is the FMLN, a grouping of ex-guerrilla organizations.


El Salvador has a poor economy, which has suffered from the effects of a civil war, factory closings, the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, weak world coffee prices and, most recently, devastating earthquakes and aftershocks. Remittances from the large numbers of Salvadorans living abroad make up an important part of the economy. El Salvador’s economy is largely agricultural. A large portion of the population remains in the countryside to work the coffee plantations and other farms. The labor force is made up of 2.35 million people. The labor force by occupation is as follows: 30% agriculture, 15% industry and 55% services (1999 estimates). An estimated 48% of the population lives below the poverty line (1999 estimates).

Salvadoran Immigration

The immigration of Salvadorans from their homeland has had both economic and political causes. The flight of Salvadorans from their homeland was one of the most dramatic results of the civil war. Fear of persecution led to 20-30% of the population fleeing the country. During the 1980s, death squads murdered many suspected leftists. These squads were secretly connected with Salvadoran government security forces. At the height of persecution, from 1980 to 1982, an average of 800 bodies were found each month. More than half of the refugees of the civil war immigrated to the United States–between 500,000 and one million.

When Salvadoran public assistance recipients were asked to identify the main reason for leaving their country, the top reason given was “war in homeland” (77%).

Despite the fact that the U.S. government’s role in the Salvadoran conflict was unique in sustaining the prolongation of the civil conflict, the government and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) extended little sympathy to the people affected by the war. In the 1980s, the INS granted only 2% of political asylum applications, claiming that democracy existed in El Salvador and that reports of U.S. and government-sponsored “death squads” were overblown. As a response to the U.S. government’s failure to address the situation of Salvadoran refugees in the U.S., American activists established a loose network to aid refugees. Operating in clear violation of U.S. immigration laws, these activists took refugees into their houses, aided their travel, hid them and helped them find work. This became known as the “sanctuary movement”.

In 1990, a federal lawsuit brought against the INS named American Baptist Church (ABC) forced the INS to apply a fairer standard in their judgment of Salvadoran political asylum applications. Prior to this suit it was the U.S. position that government sponsored persecution did not occur in El Salvador. The settlement of this case required the INS to reopen the asylum applications it had previously denied. The INS also had to make determinations based upon individual claims of persecution, not based only upon State Department reports. Nevertheless, many Salvadorans had already gained their residency as a result of an amnesty law passed in 1986, which legalized undocumented immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982. In 1992, Congress approved Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans who were in the U.S. since 1990.

This special status was scheduled to expire at the end of 1994, at which time Salvadorans had to apply for asylum. This put most Salvadorans in a difficult position. After having fled the war, they were allowed to stay in the U.S. with this fragile status allowing them only to work and live here, without the benefits of a green card or citizenship. Once the war ended, most asylum claims were very difficult to win, but this was the only option. By this time many Salvadorans had lived in the U.S. for six years, ten years, and some for over fifteen years, having come at the beginning of the war. Salvadorans were in a tenuous position, most of them at risk of being deported. Recently the limited TPS status has once again been offered to Salvadorans, as a result of the devastating 2001 earthquakes.

Relationships among family and persons from the same town are close and lasting. In the migration to the United States, people came to communities where they had family and friends from the same towns. Salvadorans also maintain close ties with family and friend who stayed in El Salvador. Salvadoran Americans visit El Salvador with great frequency. Although the war is over, many Salvadorans have established roots and raised children in the U.S. According to an LA Times poll conducted on December 27, 1992, 70% of Salvadorans surveyed did not intend to return, even if they knew it was safe to do so.

Social Characteristics of the Salvadoran People

Ethnic & Religious Diversity

El Salvador’s ethnic population is made up 90% mestizo (Amerindian and European mix), 1% Amerindian, and 9% white. El Salvador has small Indian populations who speak Nahuatl. The dominant religion is Roman Catholic, but there has been extensive activity by Protestant religions throughout the country. By the end of 1992 there were an estimated one million Protestant evangelicals in El Salvador.

Family Life

The traditional family in El Salvador is close-knit. The father exercises authority and, together, both parents maintain control over their children. The immigration process and different life conditions in the U.S. have affected Salvadoran family dynamics. Due to the nature of immigration into the U.S., many refugees made the journey alone. In some cases, entire families were separated. Some parents were separated from their children for a long period of time during the immigration process. When they were finally reunited, they realized that the relationships of authority and control had changed. Teenagers have grown into adulthood under U.S. cultural influences. Children learned English and adapted to U.S. culture faster than their parents did. The children’s ability to speak English converted them into their parent’s translator, defender or controller of information. The role–reversal of parent and child changed both generations. Many Salvadoran parents fear that their children will lose their cultural identity.

Of the Salvadoran public assistance recipients with children under 12 years old, 57% stated that children are taken care of by the mother, 21% by the father, 21% by a grandparent and 7% by a relative. With regards to care for senior or disabled Salvadorans, these respondents preferred in-home care by family members or trained caregivers as opposed to institutional care.

Health Care Practices

In the mid 1980s, El Salvador was among the countries in the western hemisphere most affected by malnutrition. Malnutrition was particularly high among young children. The poverty responsible for the malnutrition in the country was also reflected in the poor living conditions and substandard homes. Mortality rates are high for children (about 125 per 1,000 live births) and malaria is a major concern in rural areas. Water-borne diseases are common and one of the major factors in the high mortality rates. Leading causes of death include diarrheal diseases, pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Medical facilities are inadequate for the general population. The costs of the war, including less funding for health care as more was spent on the military and the destruction of hospitals, severely affected the health care system. Health care and mental health care have not been readily available to the majority of people in El Salvador. As a result there is a custom of self-care for symptom management.

Traditional healing practices and herbs are used in El Salvador as well as in the United States. Many Salvadorans may fail to seek early or preventative care due to lack of resources or understanding of how the medical institutions work. Depression and other mental health illnesses can be attributed to a tangible event. Those who have experienced traumatic life events associated with the civil war in El Salvador may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or phycological distress. Because of the continued polarization of society, the reconstruction of the infrastructure, and the national healing which still must occur, there has been limited research on the mental health consequences of the civil war on the Salvadoran population.

In the United States, undocumented Salvadorans are often hesitant to visit doctors or clinics, out of fear of being reported to the immigration authorities. Some Salvadorans carry deep emotional scars from what they suffered and witnessed in their country during the civil war, and from their quest to arrive to the U.S. Some are affected by anger, fear and guilt at escaping the violence that affected their home country. As a result some Salvadorans suffer from depression, alcoholism and erratic behavior. Few Salvadorans can afford to receive the psychological help necessary to work through the trauma of having survived a war.

Educational System in El Salvador

Education in El Salvador is free and compulsory. The Salvadoran public education system includes one year of preschool, nine years of basic education, three years of high school (secondary) education, and four years of higher education at a university or postsecondary institution. Access to these public institutions is governed by the family’s socioeconomic status. In addition, countrywide statistics show that education levels are lower in rural areas and higher in urban areas. During the civil war, government expenditures for education declined and are still low. According to official statistics 71% of the population is literate. A higher illiteracy rate exists in rural areas.

Salvadorans in Santa Clara County


Salvadoran respondents who answered the public assistance recipients survey indicated that they average 4.71 persons living in their households, compared to 3.43 in U.S.-born households. When asked if they have non-family members living in the household, 50% of the respondents answered affirmatively. Most Salvadorans live in San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View.

Of these respondents, 29% had received 1-6 years of formal education, 50% had received 7-12 years of formal education, and 21% had received 13 years of formal education or more. About 70% of respondents had household incomes of less than $30,000.

Social Customs

Interpersonal Communication

Salvadorans use formal Spanish rather than informal forms to show respect when addressing elders or strangers. When addressing another person where there is a relationship of trust, “vos” is used in place of “Usted”. Most Salvadorans are friendly, cordial and hospitable. As in most Latino cultures, touching is common between members of the same sex. Non-verbal gestures are also commonly used. Salvadorans do not require the same amount of personal space as most European cultures.

Emotional Support

When asked who they talk to if they have emotional problems, Salvadoran public assistance recipients answered the following: no one (46%), spouse (39%), a friend (23%), or a relative (23%). None of the respondents answered doctor, religious advisor, mental health specialist or community leader.


Contemporary western clothing is worn including dresses, shirts, tee-shirts and jeans. Guayaberas (traditional dress shirts) are used by men for dressing up or by professionals. Traditional clothing may be worn on special occasions such as Independence Day celebrations or religious festivities. Traditional clothing consists of an embroidered shirt or blouse and traditional pants or a skirt.


Salvadoran food is similar to Mexican food but is sweeter and milder. A mainstay of Salvadoran food is corn meal tortillas, rice, salt and beans. Pupusas are a traditional meal made out of corn meal, spices, cheese, beans, and/or pork. Pupusas are served with curtido, a cabbage salad made with vinegar.

Religious Traditions and Holidays

Many Salvadoran Americans celebrate Independence Day, which for all Central Americans is on September 15. The first week in August is the most important religious festival honoring Christ, El Salvador’s patron and namesake. Different communities also might celebrate the memory of the town from which they came, or celebrate victories by soccer leagues, which are made up of families from the same town.

Challenges in Santa Clara County

In the survey of Salvadoran public benefits recipients, 29% were male and 71% female. The average age for Salvadorans who answered the survey was 48 years old and the average number of years living in Santa Clara County was 7 years. Approximately 50 percent of the survey participants stated that they had non-family members living in their households. The top three identified needs in the survey were medical care, eye care and ESL needs.

In the Central American focus group, the top five identified concerns were 1) the need to legalize immigration status, 2) employment discrimination, 3) education, 4) housing and 5) mental health issues. In the discussion of legalization the problems of low wages, lack of drivers’ licenses, lack of access to health care, discrimination, and family separation were attributed to the lack of immigration status. One participant stated “I always tell my daughters: ‘The person who doesn’t have papers in this country is the one who suffers the most’.” A female participant said “Many people drive without a driver’s license, and they only do it because they need transportation and the places where they work are too far away. And what do the police do? They see a Latino and they persecute him. This is what happens. And they take away the car! We lose so much! Our jobs, everything! This must be changed, especially if a person presents himself well, is a hard worker, is a good person, they should take this into account.” She added, “I have a friend who has lost three different cars because he was driving without a license, because without papers, he can’t get a license.”


Salvadoran public benefits recipients stated that they feel most discriminated against by job interviewers, employers and then co-workers, in that order. Participants identified immigration status, lack of English, low wages and lack of job stability as the causes of wage and job discrimination. One Salvadoran woman stated, “Even though we don’t speak English, employers need to respect our skills, our abilities, and respect us as human beings. We deserve respect.”

Barriers to Services, Education & Benefits

When asked what has kept Salvadoran public assistance recipients from obtaining education, services or public benefits, the two top answers were “not enough English” (69%) and immigration status (31%).

Employment & Working Conditions

Occupational Data and Barriers

The top occupations identified by public benefits recipients were agricultural worker, service worker, custodian, office worker and homemaker. When asked why their occupation is different in the U.S. than in their native country, the top answers were lack of employment training, limited English, and the lack of licenses or credentials in the U.S. Salvadorans in the Central American focus group felt that their prior education has not been adequately recognized in the U.S.

Working Conditions

When Salvadoran public assistance recipients were asked about their working conditions, many indicated a lack of medical benefits, sick leave, paid vacation, and pension plan. About 17% stated that they have two employers at the same time, and also have two or more family members who work. These public benefits recipients work on average 29 hours per week.

Small Business

The biggest obstacles identified to starting or managing a business were “knowing legal and permit requirements,” (63%), “information on how to get started” (63%) and “knowing who can help” (55%).

Public Benefits in the Salvadoran Community

Knowledge and Adequacy of Benefits

Approximately 92% of public benefits respondents did not know the requirements for CAPI (Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants), 91% did not know the CalWORKS requirements, and 63% did not know the food stamps requirements. On the other hand, 92% of the respondents knew the requirements for MediCal. When asked whether the benefits received were adequate, 50% of the MediCal and food stamps recipients said “no”.

Culturally Competent Services

Salvadoran recipients of CalWORKs, MediCal, and food stamps generally felt that their county worker in these areas treats them with respect, communicates well, and knows something about Salvadoran culture. About two-thirds stated that they receive written information and phone calls in a language they understand, but only about half indicated that orientations are conducted in a language they understand.

Educational Access in Santa Clara County

K-12 Education

Of the public benefits recipients who answered the survey, 64% stated that they had children under 18. Most Salvadoran parents prefer their children to be taught bilingually. School services received by the children of these public benefits recipients included information in a language the parents understand (71%), parent meetings (57%), after-school activities (29%), and special education programs (29%). School services that are under-utilized were school lunch and breakfast programs, health programs, Healthy Start, tutoring, homework centers, on-site child care, transportation, and academic counseling.


When asked to evaluate their English skills, Salvadorans receiving public assistance rated their skills as average (46%), poor (15%) and none (39%). The most important needs identified for English were for daily living situations, filling out paper work, and being involved in the community. When asked the best ways to learn English more quickly, the top three responses were: classes closer to home, weekend classes, and better transportation. Salvadorans in the Central American focus group identified a need to have bilingual teachers in entry-level ESL classes, to feel comfortable. They were also concerned about the long waiting lists for beginning English classes and about the little time they have available to attend classes.


When asked which citizenship services they need, the top three answers of public benefits recipients were 1) help in filling out the application, 2) legal advice, and 3) help paying the INS fees.

Communication & Outreach in the Salvadoran Community

When asked where their families get important information, the top three answers of Salvadorans on public assistance were Spanish TV, Spanish newspapers, and Spanish radio. When asked what means of communication respondents have in their homes, the top four answers were TV (100%), telephone (100%), radio (79%), and VCR (64%).