Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Salvadorans outside of El Salvador, the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. Salvadorans comprise the second largest Latino population in Metro Los Angeles as well as the second largest foreign-born population. For this week of National Hispanic Heritage Month, they are the focus of this entry of No Enclave.
The Republic of El Salvador (República de El Salvador) is a small country bordered by Guatemala, Honduras, and the Pacific Ocean. Although the blue bands of Central American flags represent the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, El Salvador is the only country in Central America that shares no border with the latter. What’s now El Salvador was historically the homeland of several Native American peoples, including the Alaguilac, Cacaopera, Lenca, Mangue, Maya (Ch’orti’ and Poqomam), and Xinca. Later, the Pipil entered the region from the north and established one of the largest kingdoms. The Spanish Empire conquered all in 1525 and incorporated them into the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which had its capital in Mexico City.
In 1609 the area became part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The First Mexican Empire, including El Salvador, declared independence from Spain on 15 September 1821. In 1823 it became part of the Federal Republic of Central America and in 1838, that short-lived republic’s capital moved from Guatemala City to El Salvador’s largest municipality, San Salvador. The Federal Republic of Central America dissolved in 1841, at which point El Salvador became a sovereign nation. From 1895 to 1898 it was part of another short-lived union with Honduras and Nicaragua, the Greater Republic of Central America.
As with its neighbors, El Salvador has suffered from chronic political and economic instability characterized by corruption, civil war, military coups, and dictatorships — a situation often deliberately exacerbated by its powerful neighbor to the north, the United States, the government and military of which has generally intervened in order to protect what various leaders regard as their country’s interests — which are often at odds with the forces of Salvadoran democracy and sovereignty.
The most infamous example of American-inflamed unrest was the bloody Salvadoran Civil War, which lasted from 1979 till 1992, during which President Ronald Reagan‘s administration famously defied an international embargo by selling weapons to the Islamic Republic of Iran and then funneled the profits to anti-democratic, genocidal, Right Wing death squads in El Salvador. As a result of the war, an estimated 80,000 people died, 8,000 “disappeared,” 550,000 were displaced, and 500,000 fled to other countries, primarily the US.
Mara Salvatrucha Stoners started in the mid-to-late 1970s as a stoner gang — that is, one of numerous Latino gangs of that era (e.g. the East Los Angeles Stoners, Hillside Stoners, Hole Stoners, and Mid City Stoners) whose members listened to bands like AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Dio, Judas Priest, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica; dabbled superficially in the Satanism and the occult; and whose crimes consisted primarily of smoking cannabis (then still illegal) and loitering in the parking lot of a Wilshire Center 7-Eleven. Stoners were basically the Latino equivalent of mainly Anglo heshers.
By the mid-1980s some members of MS were engaged in extortion and drug trafficking, which put them in direct competition with Mexican American Sureño gangs. In 1985, in an alley between 6th Street and Virgil Avenue, members of the Crazy Riders 13 beat to death an MS member, “Black Sabatt.” They hardened further in the prison system where they became aligned with the American prison gang, the Mexican Mafia, aka “la Eme,” and thus changed into Mara Salvatrucha 13 (“M” being the 13th letter of the alphabet). Although most members of the gang were American citizens, the US began “deporting” (many had never even been there) members to El Salvador, where, until then, criminal gangs of that scale were largely unknown. Local authorities trained by American forces in “counter-terrorism” were then unleashed on them. The cycle of trauma ratcheted up, the result has predictably been an increase of violence.
Mara Salvatrucha might be the most high profile Salvadoran American organization but they’re not the only and arguably, not the most significant. The religious and political campaign known as the Sanctuary movmement was also founded by Salvadorans, who in the 1980s sought to create safe haven for civil war refugees for whom obtaining asylum was made difficult by US federal immigration policies. The movement, which was akin to the 19th century Underground Railroad, first took hold in US-Mexico border region. Beginning in the mid-1980s, however, the Immigration and Naturalization Service Agency (INS) launched an effort, called Operation Sojourner, which sought to infiltrate the movement in order to disrupt the efforts of churches and temples which provided sanctuary to war refugees. The movement has spread, however, with numerous municipalities now declaring themselves Sanctuary cities — that is, cities which refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities which seek to deny asylum to refugees as guaranteed by the 1951 Geneva convention.
In the English language, there is one official demonym for people from El Salvador, “Salvadoran.” Nevertheless, in Los Angeles, one regularly encounters all sorts of colloquial variations, including “Salvadorean,” “Salvadorian,” and their bizarrely inelegant siblings, “El Salvadorean” and “El Salvadorian.” Consider how dissonant it would sound to refer to someone from the Philippines isn’t known as “a the Filipino” or someone from Los Angeles as “a Los Angeleno.” And yet, there is an even more distasteful diminutive, “Salvi.” Maybe it’s just me but to my ear, it reeks of tweeness. A less obnoxious nickname, for those in need, is “Guanaco” which, the etymology of which — despite what any outrage addict might tell you — is unknown.
As of 2010, there were officially 358,825 Salvadoran-Americans living in Los Angeles County. There are, to my knowledge though, rather few Salvadoran-Angelenos on the whole who can be reasonably described as public figures and virtually known whose public recognition approaches the level of celebrity. Although I’ve had Salvadoran friends, co-workers, bosses, an uncle, and a roommate — none of them can properly be characterized as (nor have any aspired to be) public figures. That’s not, of course, to suggest that they are less important; that there aren’t Salvadorans working in the fields of arts, sciences, and sports; or that it’s for lack of Salvadoran efforts — rather it seems to me that the mainstream media is generally both clueless and indifferent about Salvadorans except when American politicians are screaming about the gang they had a direct and sustained hand in creating.
Salvadorans working in film and television include actors Adrian Bellani, Ana Villafañe, Anita Page, J. D. Pardo, Maurice Benard, and Rolando Molina; and actor/director Nancy C. Mejia. Salvadoran-Angeleno musicians include singers Allison Iraheta, Nirin (née Martha Perez), and Sabi; hip-hop duo Crooked Stilo, and drummer Joey Castillo (of Danzig). Salvadoran-Angeleno artists include RETNA, Curly Velasquez, Esau Rosales, and Dichos de un Bicho (né Victor Interiano). Poet Yesika Salgado is Salvadoran, as is journalist Esmerelda Bermudez. Model Christy Turlington, who dated Christian Slater in 1993, has a Salvadoran mother.
Salvadoran athletes who’ve at one time or another lived in Los Angeles or played for Los Angeles teams include association football players Carlos Menjívar, Derby Carrillo, Dustin Corea, Edwin Miranda, Efrain Burgos, Jr., Gerson Mayen, Hugo Pérez, and Steve Purdy; boxer Carlos Hernández; tennis player Rosemary Casals; mixed martial artist Roger Huerta; American football player José Cortez; and baseball player Steve Rodriguez.
Less frequently overlooked (in Los Angeles anyway) but still under-appreciated is Salvadoran cuisine. Salvadoran cuisine, not surprisingly bears a resemblance to and shares many dishes with the cuisines of its neighbors. Some of the most well-liked desserts enjoy a popularity that extends beyond Central America. Pastel de tres leches is a desert of European origin and torta Maria Luisa is more often associated, in my experience, with Colombia. Though neither is native to North America, fried cassava (yuca) and plantains (ask a Southerner how to pronounce it before you say “Plan-Tane”) are also popular throughout El Salvador and Central America.
It would probably surprise many Southern Californians (as it did me) to learn that horchata is originally from the Maghreb — although no one that’s had the Salvadoran version, which uses calabash, specifically jicaro seeds, would confuse it with the Mexican version, in which rice is the primary ingredient. Another popular beverage is the refresco de ensalada, which though it roughly translates to “salad soft drink,” is thankfully more similar to a fruit salad than it is to a green, potato, or egg one blended with carbonated water. El Salvador is also known for its coffee — although arguably not as well-known as it should be. Linda Gonzalez‘s Cafe Artesanal Juayua and Cristian Quintanilla‘s Don Leo Coffee are two local coffee importers whose product is shipped straight from El Salvador and carried at various local cafés (or can be purchased online).
Culinary items more closely associated with El Salvador include alguashte (a seasoning made from ground pumpkin seeds), pan con pollo (a type of shredded chicken sandwich), and the most emblematic of Salvadoran dishes, the pupusa. Pupusas are essentially thick maize/corn (or occasionally rice) tortillas stuffed with savory fillings, and topped with both a mildly spicy cabbage slaw called curtido, and a (usually) mild tomato salsa. They are simple. When food writers cover them, the adjective “humble” is unfailingly evoked; however, they are no more “humble” than, pizza — an item likewise based around a combination of dough, tomato sauce, and toppings — and yet whereas pizzas have been the subject of countless books, articles, blogs, and conversations, it is the coverage of pupusas that can better be described as humble.
That the pupusa has not yet conquered the world or even the US is a bit of a mystery to me since they are invariably cheap, satisfying, and most importantly, delicious. Perhaps some of the blame is owed to the fact that, with the untimely passing of Jonathan Gold, there are no prevalent food writers for whom those qualities seem to matter. Los Angeles may have the world’s greatest food scene but it does not have a food writer scene up to the task of honoring it. Jonathan Gold was a great writer in part because he had a voice and in part because even when writing about food he was always writing about more than just food. On the other hand, most local food critics when they write about food aren’t even writing about food, caught up as they are in the superficial distractions of over-hyped restaurant openings, “Instagramability,” James Beard awards, sleb chefs, kitchen gossip, gimmicky food fads, &c.
Six years ago the once-great LA Weekly reduced the region’s hundreds of pupuserias to a listicle of ten. Other sites usually only mention pupuserias when they’re closed and set to re-open as Australian coffee shops, ramen bars, or whatever it is the trend-obsessed bourgeoisie are into this season. Perhaps, too, some of the pupusa’s failure to conquer the globe owes to the fact that its niche is already filled in other parts of the country by pizza, gyros, cheesesteak, &c. Consider the fact that even in Los Angeles, where “Little Central America” neighbors Koreatown, pupusas — which are almost like jeon topped with kimchi — haven’t made significant inroads into the Korean kitchen whereas Korean-Mexican fusion is now broadly popular and represented by several food trucks and restaurants.
It’s also just hard to imagine pupusa fans bragging and complaining the way pizza fans do. Is there any Angeleno who hasn’t had to tolerate a whiny New Yorker complaining that even if the water and ingredients are imported from Brooklyn and made in an Italian oven by a veteran pizzaiolo from Naples, no pizza made in Los Angeles will ever be as good as the worst slice in New York? Angelenos are generally more humble and helpful than that.
Last week I heard Bostonian asking an Angeleno what a pupusa was. The Angeleno described it and recommended loroco, and cheese. The Bostonian seemed alarmed at the prospect of an unfamiliar plant and informed the Angeleno that he’d be ordering pork and cheese. I’m sure he enjoyed it although it’s worth noting that neither chicharrónes nor quesillo were known to Salvadorans until they were conquered by the Spanish. In fact, pre-Columbian pupusas were (when not filled with the meat of grasshoppers) generally vegan with traditional indigenous fillings including beans, chipilín, mora, mushrooms, squash blossoms, and zucchini.
The word “pupusa” possibly comes from a Spanish rendering of “popotlax” — a combination of the Pipil words “popotl” (meaning large, stuffed, bulky) and “tlaxkalli” (meaning tortilla). Although delicious and invariably affordable, pupusas surprisingly are not widely known outside of El Salvador with the exception of neighboring areas of Guatemala and Honduras, and Salvadoran neighborhoods in the US. In fact, until the 1940s, the popularity of pupusas was limited primarily to central El Salvador. It wasn’t until the Salvadoran Civil War that pupusas found their way to new regions, including Los Angeles, and it was only in 2005 that the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly declared pupusas the national dish of El Salvador.
In 2018, though, most spellchecks don’t even recognize the word “pupusa.” Whereas taco and burrito are accepted in Scrabble, “pupusa” is not… and yet what is the English word for “pupusa” if not “pupusa?” On the other hand, the Scrabble Dictionary just added “twerk,” a mere eighteen years after Ying Yang Twins had a massive hit with “Whistle While You Twurk,” so less an indicator of the quickly evolving English language than it is an indicator of stuff the white mainstream has heard of and, outside of farmer’s markets, it’s still pretty rare to see mainstream white folks eating pupusas.
In my nearly 20 years in Silver Lake, I’ve seen all of the neighborhood pupuserias die like culinary canaries in the gentrification coal mine. I used to mourn this fact attempting to map the city’s Salvadoran businesses has taught me that they are still quietly thriving even if never celebrated by food writers at the Los Angeles Times or Eater LA.
Despite nearly every day in the US being designated some sort of national food day — and unlike El Salvador, where every second Sunday of November is observed as “Día Nacional de las Pupusas — the US so far has no holiday honoring the national dish of its fifth-largest immigrant population. Los Angeles, however, has had a few. The Annual Pupusa Festival, despite its name, was as far as I know held only in 2008 and 2009. The Pupusa Festival del Valle, on the other hand, takes place more regularly, with the last having just occurred on 9 September.
Pupusas are not limited to communities with substantial Salvadoran populations. The Pupusa Festival del Valle, for example, has taken place in Woodland Hills — a suburb dominated by Iranian, German, and British-Americans. They do, however, tend to be found in communities with substantial Salvadoran populations, which locally include Pico-Union, Adams-Normandie, Bell, Boyle Heights, Cudahy, East Los Angeles, Echo Park, Exposition Park, Florence, Glendale, Huntington Park, Hyde Park, Inglewood, La Puente, Leimert Park, Lynwood, Maywood, Montebello, North Hollywood, Reseda, San Fernando, South Gate, South Park, University Park, Van Nuys, Vermont-Slauson, Vermont Vista, Watts, West Adams, Westlake, Whittier, and Willowbrook.
Speaking of Salvadoran neighborhoods — and steering the subject away from pupusas for those still with us — although the efforts of Salvadoran (and other Central American) activist to receive recognition for Little Central America (or Pequeño Centroamérica) have so far not reached fruition, in 2012 the city granted recognition to a stretch of Vermont Avenue in Pico-Union and West Adams as the El Salvador Community Corridor.
SALVADORAN COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS & OBSERVATIONS
Other Salvadoran festivals include the Annual Salvadoran Day/El Dia del Salvadoreño, Feria Agostina, Salvadoran Independence Day, and ¡Chévere!
Organizations serving the local Salvadoran community include the Consulate General of El Salvador in Los Angeles, El Rescate (founded in 1981), the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN, founded in 1983), the Association of Salvadorans of (or in) Los Angeles (ASOSAL, founded in 1991), Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund (SALEF), Salvadoran American National Network (SANN), Radio Pulgarcito, the aforementioned Salvies Who Lunch, and LA CISPES— the Los Angeles chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.
If you’d like to learn to cook Salvadoran cuisine, check out Karla T. Vasquez, who teaches cooking classes (including online) through SalviSoul. Also check out Salvadoran-Mexican Bernadette Molina‘s cookbook, Herencia Cookbook: Celebrating and honoring SalviMex culture and matriarchs through food.
The Hollywood Kid: The Violent Life and Violent Death of an MS-13 Hitman by Óscar Martínez and Juan José Martínez, 2019