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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 U.S. Needs to Look to Iran’s Youth and Future

An iconic image from 2015 is of young Iranians dancing in the streets of Tehran when news of a preliminary framework agreement with the West on Iran’s nuclear program was announced. There was genuine hope among a younger generation of Iranians that the nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would usher in a new era of economic improvement and greater people-to-people contact between Iran and the West.

Although much has happened in the intervening years, particularly during the Trump presidency, which saw US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and an overall decline in US-Iran relations, a 2019 poll showed that 57 percent of Iranians were dissatisfied with their own government’s performance on improving ties with the United States and the West.

At the same time, there has been growing opposition among Iranians to the country’s political system. In one poll, some 79 percent of respondents said they would vote “no” if a free and fair referendum were held on a continuation of the Islamic Republic. In another poll, taken shortly before the March 2020 parliamentary elections, 68 percent of respondents said they did not plan to vote.

Popular disaffection has continued right up to the present. In the run up to the June 18 presidential elections, only 34 percent of Iranians indicated they would vote. In the end, voter turnout was reported at approximately 37%, the lowest recorded in the Islamic Republic’s history. This, perhaps, is not surprising since the Council of Guardians, which vets presidential and parliamentary candidates, approved only 8 candidates for president, 6 of whom are hardliners. The ultra-conservative cleric and judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won.

Iranians are not only upset with their political system and choice of candidates but with their economic status. The cost of food and housing is prohibitively high when compared with an average wage earner’s salary. Even for middle class Iranians, who earn on average $400 to $700 a month, income cannot keep pace with inflation. Many are falling into poverty.

Favorable views of the United States have decreased largely because of the imposition of sanctions, yet a majority of Iranians support US-Iranian talks if the US returns to the JCPOA and lifts sanctions. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that Iranians blame their own government more than the United States for their predicament, noting the loss of resources due to corruption and foreign adventures. In a 2019 poll, some 57 percent of Iranians voiced the opinion that the economy is run by “a few big interests.” During anti-regime protests in the 2017-2019 period, the protestors refused to step on American flags that the regime placed as props. Some of the protestors chanted: “Our enemy is right here; they lie when they say it is America.”

That Iranians, particularly of the younger generation, want interaction with the United States is evident by their use of technology. About 57 million Iranians (out of a total population of 80 million) are internet users, with 47 million active on social media. Persian is the 9th most used language online in the world, all the more revealing when one considers that this language is spoken by just 2 percent of the world’s population. The high-rate of internet and communication technology (ICT) suggests that Iranians want greater exposure to and interaction with the West. Moreover, with many Iranians, especially middle-class young people, getting their news from sources outside the country, regime narratives fall on deaf ears or are accepted by elements that are undereducated or who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Approximately 60 percent of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. Young Iranians are educated and technologically-savvy. They are Iran’s future and should be supported by foreign policy influentials who want to see change and political liberalization in the country. It would be prudent for US policymakers to pursue a course of action that separates the regime from the people and to think about a long-term strategy that capitalizes on opportunities presented by changing demographics. To be sure it is not in the interest of the United States to alienate the very people who yearn for better ties.

Getting back into the JCPOA is a start. Should the talks currently being held in Vienna succeed, Trump era sanctions would be lifted, and bilateral relations improved. But the Biden administration needs to do more. Promoting and not just giving lip service to business deals between American and Iranian firms after a nuclear deal is reached would bring more jobs and technology to Iran and have the added benefit of more people-to-people interaction. In addition, there should be more cultural and athletic exchanges between the two countries (some of this was done several years ago but has since been in abeyance) as another way of improving public diplomacy. For example, Iranian filmmakers and artists should be granted visas to come to the United States to interact with American counterparts, which could result in reciprocal visits by Americans. Museums in the United States should be encouraged to showcase Iran’s rich cultural heritage. Virtual tours of the exhibits should be made accessible to Iranians demonstrating Americans’ appreciation of their culture, which would reap enormous benefits in good will.

These measures would improve the image of the United States in Iran, increase the hopes of millions of Iranian young people for a better economic and, potentially, political future, and underscore the value of more amicable relations with the west.


Gregory Aftandilian is an Adjunct Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

Off Script with Bruce Johnson: Dr. Gregorian on the chemical attack on innocent civilians in Syria

Children are among the dead following a chemical attack on innocent civilians in Syria. Prof. Hrach Gregorian, the Director of the International Peace and Conflict Resolution Program at American University, weighs in during Off Script with Bruce Johnson.

Michel Aoun: Lebanon’s New President

At last, and after more than a two year wait, the Lebanese parliament has elected former Army General and disputed Prime Minister, Michel Aoun, as the country’s next President.

Lebanon: Mosaic of Sects or Budding Nation-State?

It has been almost thirty years since the adoption, in October 1989, by the Lebanese Parliament of the Taif Accord.  The agreement put an end to a civil war that engulfed Lebanon for more than 15 years.  Between 1989 and 2005, the Taif Accord remained largely unimplemented because of internal disputes between Christian and Muslim Lebanese and foremost because of Syria’s heavy-handed manipulation of politics in the country.

Boko Haram, a Presidential Election, and the Price of Corruption in Nigeria

The Mouse that Roared

What is to be made of the recent crisis in Nigeria that pitted the outgoing government of Goodluck Jonathan against Boko Haram? How is it that a rebel group consisting of a core of some 7,000 to 10,000 fighters using mostly small arms and bombs has been able to resist, and often rout, the largest army in West Africa? Why has this conflict lasted for close to six years? Why was the presidential election scheduled for February 14 postponed for six weeks, and why in the interim were foreign mercenaries brought in to do battle with homegrown insurgents?

Reap the whirlwind: Climate change and terrorism

The dire predictions contained in the recently released UN climate change panel report are upon us. In Africa, the effects of climate change have stalled — and are reversing — generations of progress made against poverty and hunger.

The sad fate of Mohammed Morsi

History has again repeated itself as farce. This time, the protagonists were Mohammed Morsi and the head of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. On June 22, the General advised the President to take immediate steps to defuse a situation that was quickly spiraling out of control, to initiate a national dialogue, inclusive of all the opposition movements, and to express a commitment to building bridges across a highly fissured political landscape.

Egypt’s hip-hop uprising

Egypt has just entered a tunnel darker than the one that, just a year ago, produced Mohammed Morsi and ushered in the short, sad reign of his Freedom and Justice Party. With the military’s ouster of the country’s only freely elected president, a new era begins with little promise of lasting solutions to the problems that plague the country.

The Salafist Winter: Aiding Post-Conflict Statebuilding in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya

Executive Summary

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are confronted with major structural adjustment challenges that cannot be solved without the help of regional and international donors and private investment. After decades of one-man rule, their economies are in tatters, political institutions are fragile, civic society is underdeveloped, and security has yet to be firmly established. Progressive minded secularists are engaged in an uneven battle with conservative Islamists intent on consolidating power. The situation in all three countries is fluid, dynamic and dangerous. Violence is never far from the surface, and when it flares up regimes are shaken and unable to mount an effective response. These close neighbours are entering new territory with an untested leadership and with an administrative apparatus sorely in need of technical assistance. Only Libya possesses sufficient natural resource wealth that properly managed can help it recover without international financial assistance. The military takeover in Egypt has quieted the street for the moment, it remains to be seen if in its aftermath the country can be put on a sounder political and economic footing. Like Egypt, Tunisia requires substantial foreign aid and investment to right its economy. Security, education, employment, all must figure prominently in national development strategies. Support for secularist parties is essential to balance political power and to avoid the rise of religious tyranny. In all cases, international actors should be supportive of locally generated solutions, and highly attentive to sensitivities about foreign intervention. Outside engagement should be broad-based, and include regional intergovernmental organizations such as the Arab League. Such engagement must be sustained over a sufficient period of time to increase the likelihood that there will not be political and economic backsliding.

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