What I Learned at a Big Fat Salvadoran Wedding

I arrived in El Salvador to attend a family wedding last week, just days before President Trump tweeted about this "shithole country," depicting it as a danger to and a drain on American society.  

In fact, El Salvador is a tragic country, a victim of American brutality and amnesia, as well as a beneficiary of and contributor to American prosperity. It is a beautiful, depressing, dangerous, and delightful place. The difference between hellish image and complex reality is the story of this small country on the Pacific Coast of Central America.

Trump’s tweet did not make big headlines in San Salvador’s daily newspapers, not like the 23 homicides that happened in one day during my stay. “Arrestan La Violencia” (Stop the Violence), one tabloid proclaimed rather hopelessly. Salvadorans have bigger things to worry about than Trump’s rantings.

Salvadorans in the United States have reason to worry about Trump’s decision to end the humanitarian program known as Temporary Protected Status or TPS. After a pair of devastating earthquakes struck the country in 2001, the Bush administration granted TPS to undocumented Salvadorans living in the United States. Now some 200,000 longtime U.S. residents will be subject to deportation in the next two years, and they will return to a country plagued by violence and unemployment, a daunting reality that both countries have barely begun to reckon with.

Reason to Celebrate

The wedding, held in a Catholic church with a reception at a Holiday Inn, belied Trump’s racist stereotypes. The celebration brought together two families neither rich nor poor, with a distinctly bicultural flavor. More than a few of the young people spoke decent English. The dance music skewed more Latin than American—more salsa than pop, more cumbia than hip-hop—but the inevitable favorite of the night was “Despacito,” featuring America’s heartthrob Justin Bieber.

Amidst this happy affair, the notion that Salvadorans “take” money from Americans seemed especially insulting. Salvadorans are, by reputation, the hardest-working people in the region. (The Prussians of Central America, one friend calls them.) The money they obtain in the United States is not taken, but earned with a superior work ethic.

One study of Salvadorans in the United States with TPS found 88 percent participate in the labor force, compared with 63 percent for the overall U.S. population. Nearly a quarter of them have a mortgage. And they share what they earn. Salvadorans living outside the country, most of them in the United States, remitted $4.6 billion into the country in 2016, accounting for 17 percent of the country’s economy.

The Forgotten War

The Salvadoran diaspora in the United States barely existed when I first visited, 35 years ago in the middle of the country’s civil war. The conflict, which lasted from 1980-1992, was set off by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a courageous defender of the poor majority, who had called on soldiers to disobey orders to massacre their fellow citizens.

The ensuing war pitted a leftist peasant army, organized by priests and aided by Cuba, against a U.S.-backed military, trained and armed by the CIA and Defense Department. Some 44,000 civilians were killed in the 12-year conflict, according to a U.N. Truth Commission, 90 percent of them by the U.S.-backed forces.

Today the Salvadoran civil war is all but forgotten, both by Salvadorans and Americans, as I learned from a visit to the Museum of the Word and the Image in San Salvador. The museum is dedicated to preserving the memory of Salvadorans who rebelled against an unjust social system. But these days, museum director Carlos Consalvi told me, much of its work focuses on the country’s most pressing social issue: violence prevention among the youth. 

The war reshaped both countries. To escape the violence, hundreds of thousands Salvadoran emigrated to the United States, legally and illegally. The large Salvadoran communities of Los Angeles, Houston and Washington, D.C., all took root in the 1980s.

The notorious MS-13 gang actually originated in Los Angeles and only afflicted El Salvador when its leaders were deported home in the 1990s. In a country awash in weapons and unemployed former soldiers, the gangs overwhelmed the police and established their regime of extortion and intimidation, which remains in place today both in El Salvador and some neighborhoods in the U.S.

“Given America’s history in El Salvador, one might think the United States owes the country’s citizens an apology, rather than disparaging epithets,” wrote former New York Times correspondent Ray Bonner in the Atlantic.

Americans might even learn something from El Salvador. The day after the wedding I attended a televised debate of the leaders of the country’s five major political parties, which are competing for votes in the March 4 National Assembly elections.

From the businessmen of the right-wing Arena party to the orthodox communists of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), these spokesmen made their respective cases to the voting public without resorting to fake news or conspiracy theories or even much personal negativity.

El Salvador, I realized, has a functioning democracy within a failing state, while the United States has a failing democracy within a functioning state. These two countries are knit together by history, tragedy and migration, and Trump seeks to tear that bond apart.

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