This article was originally published in Spanish for El centro que somos, el sur que no ven, part of an editorial initiative by Ala Izquierda (Mexico City), on May 3rd, 2016. An English version was published on May 18, 2016.
Always say you’re Mexican
Always speak ínglish en la calle
They’ll leave you alone
It’s a regular Monday at the pupusería near my house. The owner is not in and two patrons ask don German, her husband and administrator of the pupusería, what had happened to her. “Her papers came through[i]. She’s gone to her family in L.A.” He said the magic words: all of a sudden, ten patrons with nothing in common but their dinner start sharing stories. If we count the pupuseras and don German, we’re 17 altogether. We all have relatives living in California.
To many people in El Salvador, arriving to California feels like reaching the Promised Land. The majority of the Salvadoran immigrants are there. You can find full blocks in Van Nuys, in Pico-Union, where you can hear voseo[ii]. In the DC-Maryland area, there are stores where you can get corvos[iii] and Kolashampán[iv], pupuserías as big as a basketball court. Both areas, however, differ from one another in one crucial aspect: while most Salvadorans living in the United States are in California, they’re not the largest Latino community there: they amount to a 15%. However, Salvadorans are the largest Latino community in the DC area, with 32%.
But those are numbers and they don’t mean a big deal: it’s still easier to get around in L.A. if you just speak Spanish than it is in the DC area. We should consider, however, what kind of Spanish are Salvadoran immigrants speaking?
There are a two million Salvadorans living in the United States, currently surpassing the Cuban community by 100.000 individuals. As a reference, Cubans are the third largest Latino community in the US. But while everyone seems to be aware of the Cuban accent, very few people know what a Salvadoran accent sounds like. Sometimes, not even Salvadoran descendants do.
The evening falls in Van Nuys. It’s September 15 and my uncles, my whole family on my father’s side, is drunk in the yard: it’s Independence Day in Central America[v] and the whole block is celebrating. Their neighbors, all Central Americans, have gathered to make some tamales, nacatamales[vi], atol and pupusas. The neighbors from the next block, all Mexicans, are complaining about the noise and call the police. We’ve started the party too early, they say, because Mexico’s Independence Day Celebration starts at midnight on the 16th. La Calle de los Cerotes is about to have an issue with the neighbors again.
Cerote is Central American slang. It literally means a piece of shit, so it’s an insult. However, when used by close friends, cerote becomes a pet name. “How are you, cerote?” is a common salutation amongst friends in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But when “cerote” is used by anyone else, it’s is a huge insult. Cerote is also the pejorative term that some Mexican communities in California use to refer to Central Americans.
Central Americans in California, even those who didn’t have to mask their accent when traveling across Mexico, even those born in the United States, find out sooner or later than becoming Mexican may be necessary in order to get a job, to make friends, to get into academia[vii], or even to avoid being bullied at school. To some families, mine included, the ultimate way to become Mexican is marrying a Mexican. Since they’ve been in the US longer, they are normally the ones with their own established business (which means employment opportunities for the new Salvadoran relatives) or have medical insurance, so many Central Americans base their stability in being perceived as Mexicans, even when they’re Salvadorans and theirs is the fourth largest Latino community in the United States.
Despite the large number of Salvadorans in the US, ours is a relatively new migration. Third generation Salvadorans are hard to find, while fifth or sixth generation Mexican-Americans are not. Both geographic proximity and the country’s own geopolitics make Mexican migration to the US the oldest, strongest, most permanent Latino presence in the US, therefore when most Americans say “Latino,” they are usually referring to a Mexican cultural trait, at least on the West Coast.
Always say you’re Mexican
They’ll think you’re from here
Mexicans have always been here
This used to be Mexico
Becoming Mexican is also important to the eyes of the gringos. Most of them assume that Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are located somewhere in Mexico. That assumption makes them feel comfortable because they are familiar with Mexico and Mexicans. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala sound like war, death, and gangs. Nobody wants that in their business. Mexicans, on the other hand, are reliable workers. So in order to get employed by a gringo, being perceived as Mexican is crucial.
To many first generation immigrants, their Central America-ness is something they keep secluded at home. Vosear, their accent, the words that sound like home ─—chunche[viii], chilero[ix], lápiz tinta[x], diacachimba[xi]— need to stay in private, safe amongst those who, like you, come from a smaller, farther off, more problematic place than Mexico. The price of leaving, of being able to escape and getting to the Promised Land is leaving your national identity at home.
This wouldn’t seem so serious to me if I felt any affection at all for the country I was born in, so convulse, so sadic. Mobility is a second nature to those from the Northern Triangle, which probably is a more elaborated way to say that our countries are impossible to live in. That’s why the idea of packing up and live in a place where no one has heard of El Salvador is almost idyllic to me. At least that’s what I thought before my uncles took me to a soccer game in California.
El Salvador’s national team was playing a friendly game with Honduras. The built-for-american-football stadium was surrounded by dozens of kiosks with Salvadoran and Honduran food, carne asada, and flags; it almost felt like a carnival back in my parents’ hometown. A game like that, if played in El Salvador or Honduras, could have been tense due to our century-long history of border disputes, but in Los Angeles, it felt like an ode to Central America-ness. My uncles, the kind of cerotes that need to pretend they’re Mexican in order to get by, were thrilled to hear their accent coming back, to find more recent immigrants amongst those sitting next to them, the kind that still have a strong accent, the one that sounds like home. Then our national anthem started.
I’ve never felt passionate about that song that is supposed to represent our country. I haven’t been tempted to, as it says; salute my country as its proud daughter, but there’s something extremely powerful about seeing thousands of people with their hearts on their throats, crying because of a song that means nothing to my San Salvador born and based heart. To them, however, that song, singing it in public, meant perhaps the only time of the year when they could be Salvadorans in public. Thousands and thousands of Salvadorans cried their origin out loud while standing in a place built by others just like them, those who replaced Jocoro[xii] with Guerrero when asked where they came from. Now they could finally say El Salvador in public.
The invisibility of Salvadoran-ness is also important when it comes to learning and speaking English. Speaking Spanish is always risky when you haven’t mastered the Mexican intonation and mannerisms yet. According to Pew Research, half of Salvadoran homes in the US claim to speak English when they leave their home.
When you speak inglish en la calle
And you say you’re Mexican
They’ll leave you alone
My uncles rarely leave L.A. They don’t need to: they’re usually able to find a Salvadoran supermarket and bank downtown. They can also find a Pollo Campero, a fried chicken Guatemalan franchise that Salvadorans adopted almost 50 years ago. But in Los Angeles they’ll always speak with a Mexican accent, no matter where they are, just because it’s more practical. José Luis stopped calling himself that 30 years ago, when he first came to L.A. and became first Pepe, and then, when he learned English, he became Joe. But Pepe or Joe or José Luis, whatever my uncle calls himself in private, takes a plane every 3 months in order to go have a couple of pupusas not in his hometown, not in San Salvador, but in Washington DC. It’s there, inside a giant pupusería the size of a basketball court, with a huge Salvadoran flag hanging from the door, where he sits down before a couple of revueltas de arroz after he’s greeted every pupusera and, for a while, gets to be who we has before he came to Los Angeles: Chepe[xiii].
Always Say You’re Mexican is an essay by Marlon Morales available at Izote Vos: A Collection of Salvadoran American Writing and Visual Art (Kim et al, 2000). I will be forever grateful to him for speaking up on behalf of the pain of thousands and thousands of Salvadorans.
[i] Meaning she got her Green Card.
[ii] Voseo: the use of the pronoun vos instead of tú when speaking Spanish.
[iii] A corvo is a machete with a curved tip.
[iv] Kolashampán is a Salvadoran soda.
[v] Meaning the original Provincias Unidas de Centroamérica: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, in 1821. At the time, Belize was a part of Guatemala and Panama was still a part of Colombia.
[vi] A nacatamal is a larger tamal. The word literally means “meat tamal.” They’re originally from Nicaragua, however, they are made in the eastern portion of Honduras as well.
[vii] While Mexican or Chicano Studies are established fields in academia, Central American Studies still fight to be recognized as an equally important field and are usually absorbed by the Chicano/Mexican Studies departments.
[viii] Chunche: in Central America, a thing. Anything can be a chunche.
[ix] Chilero: in Guatemala, something really nice, as in “¡Qué chilero!” = how nice!
[x] Lápiz tinta: in Honduras, a pen.
[xi] Diacachimba: in Nicaragua, something really nice. “¡Qué diacachimba ese carro!”= what a nice car!
[xii] Jocoro is a northern village in El Salvador.
[xiii] Chepe is a short form of José in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.