From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Salvadoreans/Lisa Kowalchuk

Immigrants from El Salvador are among the newest members of Canadian society. That the great majority arrived as refugees testifies to the tragedy that compelled their departure from their homeland, as well as to the possibilities that Canada opened to them, especially through its immigration policies.

Located between Guatemala and Honduras along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, El Salvador is the smallest but also the most densely populated country in Central America. Before its conquest by the Spanish in the 1520s, the region that is now El Salvador was populated by five Amerindian groups. Three of these were related to the hierarchical and structurally complex Maya of Guatemala, although the largest group, the Nahuatl-speaking Pipil, bore a closer resemblance to the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico.

After the conquest, El Salvador was part of a Spanish colony that extended from Costa Rica to the south of Mexico. European diseases and heavy labour extractions by the Spanish decimated and debilitated the native population in the decades immediately following the conquest. As a result, the indigenous Indian population offered little resistance to the colonizers’ reorganization of agricultural production. The Spaniards introduced cattle ranching and the cultivation of cocoa and indigo on large rural estates called haciendas. On the hacienda, a portion of land was dedicated to commercial farming, while peasants lived on and cultivated other parts of the estate in exchange for labour services or a share of their subsistence crops to the Spanish or to the mestizos (people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent) landlord. Although the haciendas often encompassed entire indigenous villages, and displaced or dispersed others, many native communities continued to exist. During the colonial period and until the late nineteenth century, the communal landholding pattern of the Indian communities that had not been displaced by haciendas was officially respected.

After three centuries of Spanish rule, El Salvador declared its independence in 1821 and two years later joined with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to form a federation known as the United Provinces of Central America. El Salvador was among the strongest supporters of the short-lived federation, which by 1838 had broken up as a result of civil strife, a shortage of revenue for the federal government, and the autonomous ambitions of each state. As an independent country, El Salvador for most of the nineteenth century experienced internal political turmoil characterized by conflict between the Conservative and Liberal parties and relations with foreign neighbours that ranged from military clashes to efforts (especially with Honduras and Nicaragua) to re-create the old federation.

Traditionally, El Salvador’s agricultural economy has been dependent on the export of a single crop: cacao in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; indigo from the eighteenth century; and coffee since the late nineteenth century. The economic and social structure, with its concentration of land ownership and income in the hands of a small elite, has impoverished the vast majority of landless peasants who periodically have tried to escape the poverty and civil strife in their homeland by fleeing abroad. To a large extent, these inequalities can be traced to the development model through which El Salvador took its place in the world economy as an agricultural exporter in the 1880s. At that time, a liberal government introduced measures to bring commercially untapped land and labour into the market and under the control of a few wealthy entrepreneurs. One of these measures was the outlawing of communal land tenure. A separate decree forced those who did not manage to secure private land deeds to work on the new coffee plantations. The fact that the best lands for growing coffee were located in regions occupied by indigenous communities meant that these liberal reforms were particularly destructive of the native culture and economy, more so than were similar measures in Guatemala.

From the late 1880s until the 1920s, El Salvador was ruled by an “exclusionary civilian dictatorship,” with elections contested by parties that represented slightly different factions of the coffee-producing elite. In 1932 the military overthrew the country’s only democratically elected president, and it continued to govern directly until 1984. To squelch a rural revolt against the dictatorship in 1932, security forces murdered between 15,000 and 30,000 peasants, far more than had actually participated in the uprising. Moreover, the anti-Indian racism that informed the selection of victims of this repressive incident, which is still known as the matanza, or slaughter, helped to dissuade many from identifying with their indigenous cultures and languages.

Although coffee continues to be the cornerstone of the Salvadorean economy, agricultural diversification was introduced after World War II. This led, however, to the displacement of peasants from lands that until then had served as a final refuge for those affected by previous expropriations. Moreover, few employment opportunities were available in the cotton, sugar, and cattle estates that expanded in this period, or in the burgeoning urban-industrial sector, both of which relied on capital-intensive production methods. The upshot was the pauperization of the majority of Salvadorean society; by 1980, 58 percent of the urban population and 75 percent of rural dwellers were unable to meet their basic needs.

Mounting repression by the Salvadorean government against peaceful demands for political and economic change in the 1970s prompted thousands of Salvadoreans to join or support the Frente Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN), a guerrilla force named after one of the leaders of the 1932 rural rebellion. The result was a civil war that lasted from 1979 to 1992 and that claimed 75,000 lives. After twelve years of conflict, the FMLN and the Salvadorean government signed agreements that called for the integration of guerrilla and army combatants into civilian life and that committed the government to military, political, judicial, and socio-economic reforms. Given that many aspects of the peace accords have still not been fulfilled, the durability of peace in El Salvador remains uncertain.

Although Roman Catholicism, brought by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, is the traditional religion of El Salvador, today only about 80 percent of the country’s population are Catholic and the remainder Protestant. Protestant churches have existed in El Salvador since the late 1800s, but their presence grew tremendously after the outbreak of civil war in 1979 as a result of energetic campaigns by fundamentalist organizations based in the United States, such as the Assemblies of God and the Campus Crusade for Christ. Most Protestant churches and missions in El Salvador are branches of religious organizations based in the United States. Except for the Lutheran and Episcopal churches, the Protestant groups discourage their congregations from challenging the political and economic status quo. This is in marked contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, in which the current of liberation theology among some priests since the early 1970s has stimulated social-justice activism. The conservative message of most Protestant groups appeals to many upper and middle class Salvadoreans, yet, because many of the evangelical organizations deliver material assistance to the poor, they also attract converts among the lower classes.

Available data on El Salvador’s ethnic composition vary widely. Estimates of the proportion of Indians range from 5 percent to 20 percent, while people of pure European background are reported to make up anywhere from 2 percent to 5 percent. The vast majority, ranging anywhere from 80 percent to 90 percent, are mestizo. The distinction between Indians and mestizos in El Salvador is difficult and depends on whether one relies on a person’s subjective self-identification or on the facts of native language, customs, and dress. Undoubtedly, indigenous “Indianness” is far less visible in El Salvador than, for instance, in neighbouring Guatemala. On the other hand, during the recent civil war, several indigenous associations did emerge to promote the revival of native culture and identity.

El Salvador’s official language is Spanish. Only a small number of people retain the native Nahuatl (also known as Pipil) or Lenca languages. But, considering the recent activation of militant efforts to defend and promote indigenous culture, the use of these languages may become more widespread in the future.