Family and Community Life

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

No systematic research has been conducted concerning the impact of immigration on the Salvadorean family, but impressionistic information points to a decline in the extended family and the household size. The most recent census in El Salvador gives 5.4 as the average number of people per dwelling, but this figure may be too low. According to some Salvadoreans, poverty and the shortage of housing often compel a married couple and their children to live with parents, siblings, and other relatives. One product of overall poverty and the inferior status of women in the homeland is that the fertility rate is notoriously high.

Almost two-thirds of the Salvadoreans surveyed in Toronto lived in households of four to six people, a figure higher than the Canadian national average of 2.8 persons, but probably smaller than the standard household in El Salvador. So far, one aspect of the extended family, that of grandparents living with children and grandchildren, has been less common in Canada, since the elderly rarely immigrate with their offspring. It is reasonable to expect that women in Canada will have fewer children than their counterparts in El Salvador.

Recent Salvadorean arrivals in Canada have used non-governmental community agencies to help meet their basic needs. Two studies involving small groups in Quebec and Ontario in the early and late 1980s respectively suggest that government allowances for refugees’ living expenses during the first year in Canada are frequently inadequate. Salvadoreans also report having been badly advised and even discriminated against by settlement workers and employment counsellors. Women from El Salvador have been the most numerous clients of the Toronto agency New Experiences for Refugee Women (NEW), an organization founded in 1983 to assist Latin American women to adapt to Canadian society. NEW provides English-language instruction, life skills, and employment training, and it helps women obtain work experience.

One of the means by which Salvadoreans have sought to foster a sense of community among themselves, as well as with Latin American and other immigrant groups, has been through cooperative housing. Salvador del Mundo (Saviour of the World) is a multi-ethnic cooperative in Toronto spearheaded by members of the community. Launched by a group called Casa El Salvador, it opened in 1993. A subsidy from the Ontario Ministry of Housing has meant that rent is adjusted to members’ economic circumstances. Further, the employment of a community worker has helped to make various recreational and cultural activities a regular feature at the cooperative.

An impressive array of organizations that work for social, cultural, and economic development in the homeland have been created by Salvadoreans in Canada. The number and diversity of the groups that emerged during the 1980s are a reflection of the plethora of non-governmental organizations in El Salvador and the activist inclinations that many Salvadoreans brought with them to Canada. Participation in these groups has fallen off somewhat, however, and several organizations that were active during the 1980s have declined or disappeared.

A few features are common to many of these groups. They often exist in several Canadian cities, sometimes under the same name. Their volunteer membership – salaried personnel are a rarity – typically includes a number of non-Salvadoreans. They usually support a non-governmental organization in the homeland that in turn works with a particular sector of society, such as women, peasants, workers, or the urban poor. The organizations in Canada collect funds and materials for these projects and keep Canadians informed about the groups that they assist. Associations in Canada have provided support to rural and urban income-generating projects, civic-education campaigns, the construction of schools and health clinics, the training of community health-care workers, and humanitarian relief after an earthquake in 1986 and a cholera epidemic in the early 1990s. In addition to social and economic projects, advocacy for non-governmental human-rights workers in El Salvador has been a major focus of collective action in Canada, especially during the civil war.

La Farabundo Radio Working Group, which was formed under a different name in Toronto in 1984, raises material assistance and awareness for a community radio station in El Salvador. The station, known as Radio Farabundo Martí or la doble F (the double F) from its call letters YSFF, evolved from a clandestine, guerrilla-controlled short-wave broadcast that provided crucial news and information to Salvadoreans about the civil war. Having obtained a licence to broadcast legally in 1993, it is now a non-partisan medium that strives to address the needs of the entire society, with an emphasis on the most marginalized sectors. The organization’s membership in Toronto and Hamilton is about evenly split between Salvadoreans and non-Salvadoreans. In addition to the radio station in El Salvador, the group supports other Central American organizations and recently began to manage an indoor soccer league in Toronto.

The Centre for Cooperation with El Salvador was formed in Montreal in 1988 by a group of Salvadoreans and other Québécois. In addition to supporting projects to promote health and agricultural and artisanal income in El Salvador, the organization has held events to inform the Montreal community about the situation in the homeland. Similar groups also exist in Vancouver and Ottawa. Several organizations are oriented to women’s development in El Salvador. The Asociación de Mujeres Salvadoreñas (Association of Salvadorean Women, or ADEMUSA), named after a group in the homeland, was founded in Toronto in 1990; there are also branches in Vancouver, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Montreal. The association holds events to raise awareness and material assistance for its projects. Together with other Salvadorean groups and representatives of Latin American communities, in 1991 it participated in a Toronto workshop called Rompiendo Silencios (Breaking Silences) that explored the origins and consequences of violence against Latin American women in Canada and the ways to confront it.

The dissemination of in-depth political, social, and economic information about El Salvador, rare in the mainstream media, is another role that associations in Canada have played. Outstanding in this respect is the Institute for Central American Studies (IECA), which, through its branch organizations in North America, Europe, and Australia, provides a cultural link between Salvadoreans abroad and the society to which they may return. IECA’s Canadian branch is in Toronto, where it began operations in 1993. The group regularly receives Spanish-language news about El Salvador and Central America from its offices in the region and reproduces it for subscribers in Canada. It also distributes its own analyses of events. In addition, the institute sells books by Salvadorean intellectuals, among them leaders of the FMLN and the Jesuit priests whose assassination at the Catholic University in El Salvador in 1989 shocked the world.