Sometimes I feel like a fake salvadoreña

shots of L.A. by yours truly

I grew up in Los Angeles after my mother took me there from El Salvador on July 9, 1989. At that time there weren’t as many Salvadorans as there are now, and one of the first places I lived in was Compton. From what my mother told me, her plan was for us to be there for two years so she could learn English and how to use computers. We were extremely fortunate to have obtained tourist visas, meaning we skipped crossing Guatemala and Mexico to get to the US.

Of course, life had its way and once my mother wanted to return to El Salvador, one of our relatives suggested that she’d be better off staying in the US. We overstayed our visas and my mom was able to get a work permit, but this meant we couldn’t just visit El Salvador whenever we wanted. Like many current DACA recipients, we would have had to get advanced parole. But that’s not the worst part, my mother paid for both our permits, but we only get hers until this was corrected when I was about 11.

When I was a kid I remember being extremely proud of being from El Salvador, but that feeling started dissipating as the years went by because I never had the chance to visit as a child. My mother was single until I was 12, so she spent my formative years working 6-7 days per week, and talking about culture wasn’t much of a priority.

Suddenly looking at pictures of my family became like looking at pictures of strangers in magazines. This was before cell phones or WhatsApp, and far before having internet at home was common. Making phone calls was expensive and as the years went by I ran out of things to talk about. I had several relatives who were able to get tourist visas to the US, and thankfully my grandfather was one of them, so I was able to see him as a child. My mother was the 11th out of 12th children, so he was in his late 70s when I was a kid.

Several relatives also obtained tourist visas, and some of them even obtained green cards over the years. The distance had already played a pivotal role in my lack of patriotism. It didn’t help that almost everything I heard about El Salvador throughout my life was negative. First I had to hear about a Civil War I could barely remember, but which was the reason why I had a lot of nightmares as a child. Now even strangers find it suitable to ask me about MS-13, as if I could possibly have all the answers about them.

Some of my aunts were married to toxic men and when I was a child I asked my mother not to allow a certain aunt to babysit me after church on Sundays. Her husband wasn’t just abusive but he gave me the creeps and still does. My image of Salvadoran men wasn’t a good one, and I had my biological father to thank for part of this since he wasn’t around.

Growing up with an extreme fear of men from your own culture makes you want to stay away from it. I had a mother who had to work, lived in Huntington Park, where most immigrants were Mexican and lived in L.A., which never showed Latinxs on film or TV despite being full of us. It was also hard to get some Salvadoran ingredients when I was a kid, though it’s now easier to get queso duro and other items now. My mother also didn’t cook elaborate traditional dishes when I was a child because she had to work constantly, was involved in church, and because buying traditional ingredients would have been too expensive for us at the time. I don’t have a Salvi accent either.

I grew up without really eating Salvadoran food except or some tamales, pupusas, quesadilla, or other easy to find things that were available in restaurants or that other relatives could cook. I actually at Iranian take-out quite often, a lot of Mexican, Armenian, and Thai food because of my parents’ jobs. I didn’t grow up enjoying dishes that were harder to make, and there are actually several Salvadoran dishes I don’t think I’ve tried. Loroco isn’t something that agrees with my palette, and I’ve eaten some pretty weird things in my travels or thanks to fellow immigrant friends from other countries.

We got our green cards when I was 15, literally a week before the 11th September attacks. It took us about two years to save up enough to go there for the first time because my sister and two younger brothers were born. I was a teenager and my parents have to save up to pay for six of us to be able to travel.

By the time I got there I had become an expert in being a weirdo who watched Daria, indie films, and played my guitar. I couldn’t name a single Salvadoran singer except for Crooked Stilo. Most of the Latin American music I listened to was from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Chile. You know, Maná, Celia Cruz, Shakira, Soda Stereo, La Ley, and a bunch of other people—just not from anywhere in Central America.

A beach in El Salvador, and a dark picture of me with one of my cousins

When I arrived at San Salvador I was 17 and had no recollection of the city. Neither did my parents. It changed so much that they needed help going to certain places. It was 2003 and the country had been using USD as its official currency, so I never got to use colones. I tried new dishes and spat out shuco. Thankfully my aunt was gracious about it since it was totally a reflex. I still couldn’t eat loroco but at least I had some mariscada and a lot of semita.

Mostly I remember being angry. I was angry at the extremely negative news coverage of El Salvador. I’m not saying that everything the media says it’s wrong, but it paints a single story that can warp the brains of Salvadorans who don’t have a chance to engage in their own culture. Despite Central America’s many problems (many of which stem from colonization and intervention from the US and other world powers), we still had a lot to be proud of. As a kid I was always obsessed with jungles, and I started drinking coffee very young. Seeing the greenery all over the country made me realize why.

I still have a lot to learn about my own country. I don’t believe in patriotism and never felt that about the US. I’ve also been fortunate to have lived in several countries and to work in a profession that allows me to travel. I once even had the ambition of being the first Salvadoran to visit every country in the world.

Answering questions about El Salvador is difficult. Whenever I’ve visited family they never let me out of their sight because of fears of what might happen to me. It’s both my privilege and naivete that allows me to say I haven’t felt as afraid of being in El Salvador as the rest of the world wants me to feel, but this doesn’t negate that the rights of women, the LGBT community, and others aren’t respected, and that colorism is rampant.

I feel like a fake Salvadoran sometimes because when I’ve got nothing else to hold on to I have the place listed on my birth certificate. Answering that I’m from the United States no longer feels accurate. Most Spanish speakers listen to the way I talk and can grasp that I lived in Argentina for a long time, and they can pick up the Mexican hints.

I also know that feeling like a fake salvadoreña isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s not El Salvador’s fault, not my mother’s and not mine. After Huracán Mitch I saw more Salvi places popping up in L.A. Once again, trauma caused people to move, just as the trauma of gangs is causing people to leave El Salvador today. Large cities with Salvadoran communities are becoming more and more gentrified, and I predict that many Salvi families will choose to live in smaller states, as my family chose to relocate to Mississippi several years ago due to rising costs of living in L.A. They too will feel what I felt, or rather, what I didn’t feel when I was growing up.

It was never my family’s fault that our green cards took so long to process and we couldn’t get the ingredients we needed. Or that my parents had to work extremely hard and we couldn’t eat out at restaurants enough for me to taste everything El Salvador has to offer. Or that actors, directors, and musicians from El Salvador don’t receive the publicity that other artists get. Perhaps assimilation isn’t when an immigrant chooses to “be an American” or “to be white,” but its the painstaking reality of losing your culture under a system that makes you carry your burdens, work to make it rich, and force you to have no time to dedicate to celebrating what is rightfully yours.

(As a side note, I’m glad that any Central American who lives alone or in smaller states has the internet for spaces such as #CentralAmericanTwitter, but if I’m honest, I don’t participate in the conversations there. I use what’s there to catch up on what I didn’t get as a kid).

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#central american twitter#civil war#el salvador#immigration#los angeles#mississippi#salvadoran

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