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Immigration is a hot topic in America — but nearly always from the perspective of a host country coming to terms with what some perceive as an excess of immigrants. A delegation from Washington D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church heard the opposite perspective while meeting with professors and a student at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador.

From the perspective of leaders and families in El Salvador, migration causes problems of its own. Security issues during the civil war of 1980-92 and economic anemia since that time has led to a situation in which 25 percent of the population of El Salvador lives outside the country. Many of those work abroad so they can send money back to their families at home — so much so that 16.1 percent of the country’s gross national product comes in the form of remittances from expatriots. Even so, about 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty level — defined here as about $600 per month for a family of four.

While adding wealth in some ways, the exodus of immigrants also impoverishes the country, as many of the best and most dedicated workers are lost to the El Salvadoran work force and human resources infrastructure. In some cases, resentment grows in small villages where people live in close communion, but an economic disparity develops when some families have income from family members abroad, while others do not.

The group experienced a sharp transition when, after two hours of talking about the economics and sociology of immigration, we walked a short distance to an educational center dedicated to the memory of Monsignor Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980. The center was once home to six Jesuit priests who were brutally murdered by government forces on Nov. 16, 1989, just as revolutionaries from the FMLN (Fernando Marti National Liberation Front) attacked San Salvador in an effort to press the government into rejoining preace negotiations.

We saw graphic photographs of the slain priests, some of whom were dragged out of bed and onto a small lawn, where they were shot to death — one with his brains literally blown out and lying beside his head. A housekeeper and her daughter who had sought refuge there were also murdered. Later, the housekeeper’s husband, who was a gardner, turned the bloody lawn into a rose garden where a granite plaque now honors the martyrs.

The afternoon was spent visiting poor families in southeastern San Salvador, the kind of people the priests and even some evangelical leaders like Edgar Palacios, now an associate pastor at Calvary, were trying to help prior to and during the civil war. For added security, three undercover police officers in jeans, two men and a woman, accompanied us on our walk through several neighborhoods in the “zona marginal,” or “marginal zone,” a polite way of saying “slums.”

Violence of various types is an ongoing problem in El Salvador, including the domestic kind. As we walked through several of the poor areas, we saw stenciled words of hope painted on the walls of houses and apartments: “En esta casa qeremos una vida libre de violencia hacia las mujeres” — “In this house we want a life free from violence toward women.” 

Some of the families we visited were squatters living in abandoned apartment buildings along a deep river bank. Others lived in a small gated compound on a hill where they shared a community kitchen (left) and simple bathrooms. 

Still others were refugees from an earthquake in 1998 who found a bare patch of land on a hill and fashioned long buildings of wood and corrugated metal to provide shelter (below right). A “city council” made of women organizes the community and keeps it clean despite the dirt floors in some of the buildings.

Many of the homes we visited had eight to 10 extended family members living in a single room, usually divided by curtains made of bedsheets or tablecloths. Yet, there was no apparent embarrassment at having a dozen Americans invade their homes. They seemed honored that we had come to learn more about their situation.

On the steps of one rickety four-story building of cinder blocks, we bought hot alto from a man carrying what looked like two small milk cans wrapped in insulation. Two flights up a questionable stairway, we visited his wife, who had prepared the drink by toasting corn and mixing it with cinnamon and cashews, then having the mixture finely ground in a mill. She mixed that into hot milk with sugar, resulting in a drink far better than several things I’ve tried at Starbucks — and at a cost of 30 cents.

The day closed with dinner in the hotel’s sheltered dining area, where students receiving Calvary’s Shalom Scholarship were invited to come and tell us about themselves, their studies, and their hopes for both their lives and their country. It was a long and eventful day that began with a raucus flock of green parrots swarming the hotel grounds, and ended with a refreshing shower of rain. 

Heading for bed in our small but pleasant hotel, I’m sure I’m not the only one who listened to raindrops pelting the windows and wondered if the folks in the zona marginal were staying dry.

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