International Programs since 1924

Author: Margaret Eastman Smith

Experiences of the Subsequent Generations: A Salvadorian-American Conversation

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Adrienne Castellón, Program Associate, IWA
Margaret Smith, Director of Trauma Healing and Community Resilience, IWA

  1. Executive Summary

This pilot project convened a group of subsequent generation Salvadorian-Americans (2nd generation and 1st generation who came over as children/adolescents) with strong ties to community work to discuss and better understand the experiences and needs of the Salvadorian-American and Salvadorian community in the DC Metropolitan area.

Needs identified by the discussion group sessions included: increase access to opportunity, destigmatize and promote mental health, and strengthen a sense of community and identity.

Participants shared a concern about the poverty narrative that dominates the portrayal of the Salvadorian community and functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, reducing expectations of what is possible. They underlined the need for a different, positive narrative that highlights accomplishments and presents stories of success.

They also emphasized that the refugee history of the previous generation points to a legacy of inherited trauma that is still being negotiated.

The group brainstormed projects that could make a difference.  All agreed that the idea of a cross-generational oral history and art project held particular promise since engaging in artistic endeavors can provide a socially acceptable way to express and process trauma.

The proposed follow-up project would consist of oral recordings, written accounts, or artistic renderings of personal stories from first and subsequent generation Salvadorians, particularly in the context of emigration/immigration, the civil war, and acculturation in American society.

This project will piece together a history of collective experiences and exhibit them as an attempt to help heal fragmentation, preserve history, foster shared identity and heritage, and create a more positive narrative for this community going forward.

  1. Project Background

The “Experiences of the Subsequent Generations – A Salvadorian-American Conversation” was conceived as a pilot project that would explore the sense of identity, the aspirations, and the needs of second-generation Salvadorian-Americans living in the metropolitan Washington, DC region. The pilot project was carried out in a discussion group format and endeavored to encourage honest dialogue about how participants viewed their experiences, how they saw their current status and, as consequence, choices made about the future.

The project was supervised by Margaret Smith, Director of Trauma Healing and Community Resilience at the Institute of World Affairs (IWA).  Adrienne Castellón, IWA Program Associate, served as the project manager and discussion facilitator. 

“The expectation projected upon the refugee is that the past is less relevant than the future…”

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Book Review

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Abrams Press, 2018.

Viet Thanh Nguyen has become perhaps the most eloquent voice of the past decade of the immigrant experience in the United States.  Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer (2016) stakes out a very particular angle on the Vietnam war and challenges all Americans who think they know the meaning of that war to think again. Philip Caputo’s 2015 New York Times’ book review described the book as “giving voice to the previously voiceless [in other words the Vietnamese perspective] while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.” …  

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