• Findings

In the initial evaluation, it became clear that nearly all of the participants shared a desire to learn from one another and build community. The exploratory nature of the Salvadorian-American discussion group pilot project not only helped answer the inquiries raised in the goals and objectives, it also helped identify shared experiences and points of departure that began to flesh out the facets of the spectrum that comprises the Salvadorian-American experience. Furthermore, we were able to construct shared goals and objectives for future projects within the community that can eventually be applied to communities outside of the Salvadorian-American community. 

It was apparent early on that connection to Salvadorian culture is largely grounded in family ties. There are also prominent trends of negative associations with language usage due to shame that has been perpetuated by outside parties (non-Salvadorians) judging the Salvadorian Spanish dialect as improper. Not all of the participants speak Spanish fluently, many expressed that their language of choice is “Spanglish”. Given the inextricable link between language and culture, this may be a reflection of the merging of both cultures. There is certainly a need for strengthening fluency in formal and colloquial Spanish, as well as pride and ownership of the dialect. The majority of Spanish usage among Salvadorian-Americans is oral, as it is learned at home, and not in an academic setting. Oral fluency does not always line up with reading and writing skills. Programming around improving access to Spanish language education for the Salvadorian-American community would be pivotal in strengthening a secure sense of identity. More than one participant participated in collegiate level Spanish language, Latin-American culture and history coursework of their own volition, and found it to be healing and affirming.

As noted by a participant in one of our earlier meetings, “the more education Salvadorians access, the less they’re seen as Salvadorian”. Due to socio-economic conditions, survival is naturally prioritized over education, and education is certainly prioritized over art as a form of self-expression. Often, education is only valued in relation to its ability to yield financial benefits. Access to a liberal education naturally creates a mentality that is distinct from family and community members, which can be isolating, and enforce “outsider status”. A common and recurring thread was feeling the need to prove their latinidad, and having their “Salvadorian-ness” questioned by family members. Diverging stances on polarizing issues like religion and politics (topics mentioned include but were not limited to homophobia, abortion, racism against the black community, colorism, and machismo + marianismo) create and augment this feeling. There is a feeling of fragmentation around community, particularly because membership is often affirmed and constructed around membership in family units and religious institutions. Over and over, participants expressed how validating and gratifying it was to connect to other subsequent generation Salvadorian-Americans who held similar viewpoints and shared similar experiences. This feeling of un-rootedness is further exasperated by the feeling of ni de aqui, ni de alla (not from here, not from there) – the double consciousness of existing in between worlds.

Scant and one-dimensional representations in the media and mainstream do little in the way of helping construct a healthy sense of identity and cultural pride. These representations are dominated by conflation with Mexico, South America, and associations with MS-13 and criminality. There was a shared perception among participants that Salvadorians are not perceived as a flourishing people, both by members and non-members of the community. The focus on poverty, while relevant, dominates the portrayal of the Salvadorian community. It is limiting and dehumanizing. There is a desire for a positive narrative to emerge that highlights accomplishments, and presents stories of success. Salvadorian-Americans navigate a society that is often dismissive, and at times hostile; they are often placed in positions where they have to advocate for ourselves with scant knowledge and resources. This happens over and over, at home, at work, and at school. Additionally, they often find themselves playing cultural ambassador for both Salvadorians and Americans, this often involves being a resource for family members e.g. translation. This role is constantly thrust upon them, whether they welcome it or feel equipped to carry it out (often beginning at a young age). While there is a great deal of resilience, as with any immigrant community, there is a need for community programming that helps bolster this resilience, that provides support, hope, broadens a sense of possibility, disseminates knowledge, and creates access to opportunities.

These opportunities would contribute to personal and collective self-sufficiency. Due to a legacy of neo-colonialism and war, there is a strong and pervasive culture of remittances that impedes the Salvadorian-American community’s ability to create personal and generational wealth. Programming that bolsters the economy in El Salvador would bolster the well-being of Salvadorian-Americans, the symbiotic link that exists between the two should not be underestimated. Communities in El Salvador are willing to come together to work towards common needs, but there is a distinct lack of resources. Oftentimes, the resources provided by los hermanos lejanos (distant brothers and sisters, Salvadorians in the diaspora) are the only significant direct aid Salvadorians receive. One participant shared that his uncle brought internet to his family’s village; while the community helped with installation, he ultimately provided the resources needed to bring this about.

Due to the lack of recognition around refugee status for Salvadorians, American aid has been limited. This has had resounding implications for financial well-being, immigration status, and social acceptance within the Salvadorian community.

There are many topics that were raised, but mental health was at the forefront, as was lack of financial and educational resources – particularly for youth. There is a great need for youth mentorship, middle school and high school were identified as critical times for establishing sense of possibility. Other issue areas that were identified are legal services e.g. notario fraud, misinformation, LGBTQIA rights, PTSD for war survivors, subsequent generations inheriting PTSD, and indigenous issues.

While access to education is certainly a key issue area, so is access to the arts. As a subsequent generation refugee community, trauma abounds, and the legacy of inherited trauma is still being negotiated. Art is a powerful vehicle for trauma healing and reconciliation, and there are certainly intersections between art and healing. Engaging in art can provide a socially acceptable way to express trauma, it also transcends barriers set in place by social divisions e.g. age, culture, sex, gender etc. During the course of our final meeting and brainstorming session, the idea of a cross-generational oral history art project emerged. The project would consist of written or oral recordings of personal stories from first and subsequent generation Salvadorians. The goal would be to piece together a history that traces the Salvadorian/Salvadorian-American experience.  Salvadorian history is largely and traditionally oral, has not been consistently recorded, and in many ways is inaccessible due to fragmentation and dispersion caused by the war. If history is not recorded, ultimately it is lost. An exhibit, whether virtual or physical, that presents these stories, can trace diaspora and bridge divides between experiences unique to first or subsequent generation Salvadorians by exposing the shared threads of experiences. Participants felt there were little to no spaces where they could commune with one another and express shared feelings of isolation, abandonment, yearning, duality/multiplicity, and outsider status. There is certainly a legacy of survival and resilience, but this does not negate the deep-seated yearning to belong. Two of the participants had an exchange on the topic of belonging, one expressed feeling like a tourist when he went back to El Salvador, the other participant who had never been back, felt that was not possible. He yearned for a homecoming. Neither is wrong, and both positions strike a different chord. The second participant poignantly asks, “where else are we going to go?”.

An art project is not the only way to foment community or support resilience. If we turn to the issue of mental health, for example, members of subsequent generations are uniquely positioned to have difficult conversations and introduce new ways of coping, emoting, and healing. These are conversations that members of the first generation would likely not engage in with outsiders. Therefore, it may be strategic to target the Salvadorian-American community when developing supportive programming.

Other potential next steps that emerged from collective brainstorming were having a cultural center, conducting social media outreach, forming partnerships with pre-existing organizations, creating community resources, and starting a podcast. As this generation comes of age, they find themselves living in the nascent stages of a collective movement as they negotiate identity and rootedness like so many other movements before them, perhaps the most similar being the Chicano movement, although there are too many to list. The movements are interlinked and inform, bolster, and build off of one another. In the not-so-distant past there were little to no dedicated spaces for this form of cultural expression in mainstream American consciousness and culture.

The erasure of indigenous history is also a vital component of the construction and reconstruction of shared culture and identity. A good starting point is making plain the existing linkages between indigenous legacies and culture (e.g. speech, food etc.). When some of the little-known Mayan history of El Salvador was shared with participants, there was sadness around the inaccessibility of their history, and a desire to impart this history to others. Simply put, there is a desire to combat the erasure of identity. To reclaim indigenismo. One participant aptly stated, “We need museums and archives, and as a generation we should band together to plant those seeds…we need to rebrand what Salvadorian is…”.

While someone might be interested in this information, the reality is that most are willing to consume it but not as willing to dedicate time to researching it or compiling it. A podcast was suggested as a viable solution, as it would provide an accessible platform that disseminates this type of information. A podcast would enable the creation of content that provides a more nuanced picture of El Salvador, not erasing the negative but rather fleshing out the positive, to create a nuanced and comprehensive narrative of Salvadorian and Salvadorian-American experiences and history.

Ultimately, whatever approach is employed, the goal is to capture what people have lived through and are living through. There is a need still for reconciliation and healing post-trauma for the older generation of Salvadorians. Another participant suggested creating a group that would function as an informal network with therapeutic components without the label and structure of therapy, this might circumvent reticence to engaging in direct therapy. The importance of addressing trauma appropriately and ethically is present for everyone, not everyone will be willing to share, and the risk of re-triggering someone is very real. Keeping trauma close to the vest is engrained in the culture.

Overall, the collective desire, from the outset, to engage in direct action, and interest in eventually expanding and engaging in public service outside the immediate community was pleasantly surprising. The yearning for belonging and community was deeper than expected, and unanimously felt. The emphatic sharing of this desire surprised, validated, and saddened the facilitator.

In the final session, Margaret suggested holding more discussion groups in the future to further the Institute’s learning (formatting can be tailored as needed). In the event of another discussion group project, the smaller group size would be preserved, regardless of in-person limitations. A smaller group is ideal for establishing bonds and the intimacy needed in order to facilitate sharing, storytelling, and information gathering. In future, it may be beneficial to replicate this discussion with a group of participants who are not directly engaged in community work and do not have a clear commitment to public service, responses and needs may differ, although there would likely be shared motifs.