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Special to El Observador

 California is the state with the highest number of Salvadorans: 573,956 according to the 2010 census. After Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans make up the largest Latino population in the U.S. What initially caused such a massive wave of immigration from the smallest country in Central America, that has resulted in such a concentrated Salvadoran population? Unfortunately, it was a brutal 12 year-long civil war that pushed many families to rebuild their lives here in the Bay Area and beyond.

Although other Latin American countries were also experiencing economic and political conflicts in the 1970s and 80s that was causing immigration to the U.S., the brutality and length of the Salvadoran civil war- which included the use of death squads, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as many human rights violations carried out by the military set the stage for a mass exodus.  Disturbingly, the U.S. Carter and Reagan administrations invested millions of government aid, weapons, and military training to fuel the war: $5.7 million was allocated in 1980 alone!

Two crucial events that drove many Salvadorans out of the violent country was when Archbishop Romero was assassinated while giving mass (March 24, 1980) and when, at his funeral a week later, government-sponsored snipers opened fire on mourning citizens in which 42 people died from being shot or trampled! It is still not known exactly how many people “disappeared”, but official UN reports document that at least 75,000 people were killed in this vicious war that lasted from 1980 to 1992.

During the 1980s, the Bay Area had a blossoming Latino community, mostly made up of Mexicans and recent immigrants from other Central American countries. But as the civil war in El Salvador kept escalating, so did immigration to the U.S. And as more families followed their networks, more and more Salvadorans came to call the Bay Area home. I was one of those kids who was born and raised here after my parents fled the horrors of this war. I remember my mom telling me about the piles of dead bodies she’d see on her way to school in the morning and the fear she felt at hearing the curfew bell at night, knowing she would be instantly killed if the military caught her out on the street.

It was not until I attended college and took an Ethnic Studies course, that I was able to deeply grasp the historical context and significance of my personal immigrant family reality. As I sat there reading the statistics and historical facts, I connected the dots as to why so many Salvadoran youth in the U.S. had got caught up in gangs. War, trauma, poverty, and immigration cause so many ripple effects on families and communities. It was also this college class, “Latinos in the U.S.,” that opened my eyes to one very important similarity, not only among all us Latinos, but also with immigrants from any other country in the world: the struggle for a fair economic and political system is paramount.

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