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.
El Salvador’s civil war made the country the largest source of refugees in Central America and was the most important factor behind Salvadorean immigration to Canada. During the 1980s fully one-quarter of El Salvador’s five million people were uprooted from their homes. More than half of these sought refuge outside their country. Despite the presence of a United Nations mission to monitor the peace, death squads were still attacking opposition politicians and labour and peasant leaders as recently as the spring of 1994.
Several major changes in Canadian immigration policy made this country a popular destination for Salvadoreans after the United States, Mexico, and other countries in the hemisphere. The first major opening for immigrants fleeing political turmoil was the revision of the Canadian immigration act in 1976, which regularized the admission of refugees. Then in the early 1980s lobbying by Canadians sympathetic to the plight of Central America prompted the government to introduce policies designed to ease the entry of Salvadoreans. In March 1981 special measures were implemented that allowed them to obtain permanent-resident status on humanitarian grounds, provided that they had relatives in Canada to support them. At the same time the “wellfounded fear of persecution” that refugee claimants must demonstrate began to be interpreted in a way that accurately reflected the extent of state terrorism in El Salvador.
Two years later a designated subclass of refugees was established for El Salvador that allowed its citizens to acquire refugee status while still in the homeland. Previously they had had to apply at Canadian consular offices outside the country. In June 1993 the designated category for Salvadoreans was changed to “political prisoners and oppressed persons,” a classification that grants refugee status to individuals accused only of activities that, in the Canadian context, would constitute the legitimate exercise of civil rights. In the same month Canada officially ceased to deport Salvadoreans whose applications as refugees had been refused.
This country’s comparative openness was decisive for Salvadorean immigration. One observer has commented that few individuals would probably have come to Canada at all if the United States had been more receptive to Salvadorean requests for asylum. That country, which had provided more than four billion dollars in military aid to El Salvador during the civil war, regularly deported Salvadoreans and rarely accepted their refugee claims. Three-quarters of those who arrived in Canada between 1980 and 1992 were admitted as refugees. Though that proportion later dropped sharply, individuals seeking asylum had not disappeared from the immigration figures by 1994.
Patterns in immigration indicate that although Canada’s policies were relatively generous, its response to the crisis in El Salvador was nonetheless sluggish. Arrivals in 1982 nearly tripled over the previous year, undoubtedly reflecting the special measures introduced. But Salvadoreans had already lived through the three most horrendous years, in terms of human-rights atrocities, in their country’s history when Canada introduced the designated refugee class in 1983. The most dramatic increase occurred that year, when Canada accepted 2,933 Salvadoreans, nearly twice as many as during the previous four years combined.
In the late 1980s, however, the Canadian government began to reverse its progressive immigration policies. Alarmed by the growing numbers of undocumented Central Americans arriving at its doors in the wake of tough new measures against illegal entries on the part of the United States, in February 1987 it abolished its moratorium on the deportation of Salvadoreans. Whether this measure contributed to a drop of almost 25 percent in the number of immigrants to Canada between 1987 and 1988 is unclear. It has been suggested that the decrease resulted less from official policies than from practices in the selection process abroad, which was converging with that of the United States. Statistical and anecdotal evidence points to unofficial quotas, whereby people seeking refuge from the left-wing Sandinista regime in Nicaragua were increasingly favoured over Salvadoreans in this period. Notwithstanding this shift, the number of immigrants from El Salvador climbed again in 1990 and reached a peak of over seven thousand the following year.
There are several official counts of the community in Canada. In the 1991 census almost 15,000 people reported that they were wholly (12,440) or partly (2,345) of Salvadorean ethnicity. Almost twice as many, or 28,295 individuals, were reported in the census as having been born in El Salvador. The difference may be explained by a possible tendency for some Salvadorean-born immigrants to regard themselves as members of European or other ethnic groups. A third, still larger figure is produced by annual immigration data collected by the federal government, which show that 33,860 Salvadoreans entered Canada between 1974 and 1991 and that a further 8,783 arrived by March 1994, for a total of over 42,000. It is conceivable that mistrust towards the government in the home country has produced in many individuals an aversion to official enumeration, leading them to avoid responding to the census. A number of Salvadoreans are believed to be living in Canada who are excluded from both census and immigration data; they would include those who are awaiting the determination of their refugee claims.
Almost 67 percent of Salvadoreans who immigrated to Canada were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. Only 8 percent were older than forty-five, and the remainder younger than fifteen. There are 2.7 percent more Salvadorean males than females in the country, according to the 1991 census. This disparity may be attributed in part to the fact that married men tend to arrive alone and bring their wives and children later. The disproportion between the sexes has varied over time, however, and across classes of immigrants.
The majority of Salvadorean immigrants, 42 and 28 percent respectively, have settled in Ontario and Quebec, while 13 percent chose Alberta and 9 percent British Columbia (see Table 1). The few refugees established by the federal government in other areas are known to have moved to new destinations. Individuals are occasionally reported to have returned to El Salvador, but for most immigrants the prevailing social and economic conditions in the homeland – high unemployment, paucity of social services, and a virtual epidemic of violence – make it extremely unattractive to do so.
It has been argued that the socio-economic status of Salvadoreans who migrated to Canada is high compared to the homeland. Although there are no data that confirm this assertion, one of the more representative studies lends it support. Of sixty-six Salvadoreans surveyed in Toronto in 1993, 46 percent had worked in
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white-collar occupations before coming to Canada, compared to 38 percent of the labour force in El Salvador. More than half of these workers, or 26 percent of the total sample, had been employed in a professional or managerial capacity. Skilled and unskilled manual workers made up just over a quarter of the group.
In terms of education, some 80 percent of Salvadoreans admitted as refugees between 1980 and 1987 had not finished high school in the homeland. About 17 percent had completed the secondary level, and 2 percent had graduated from university. The unavailability of equivalent statistics makes it difficult to compare these individuals with the Salvadorean population as a whole. Nevertheless, there is a clear disparity between the educational achievement of Salvadorean refugees sponsored by the Canadian government between 1980 and 1987 and those supported by private groups and individuals. A considerably higher level of schooling is found among the former, who represent the bulk of the refugee stream. Several commentators have criticized this apparent intrusion of so-called normal criteria, in particular, the capacity for successful establishment in Canada, into what are supposed to be humanitarian grounds for admission.
Conversation with Salvadoreans repeatedly reveals that their socio-economic status has declined dramatically in this country. This view is echoed in several studies of Salvadorean immigrants. Of the sixty-six individuals in the Toronto survey mentioned earlier, only 12 percent were working in professional or managerial fields, a drop of nearly 14 percent relative to the group’s pre-migration profile. The percentage employed in blue-collar occupations, on the other hand, was almost 17 percent higher, and that increase had occurred entirely in the unskilled category. Similar findings resulted from a study of forty Salvadoreans in Montreal in 1983–84.
This downward mobility can in part be attributed to the language barrier; it is all but impossible for Salvadoreans in Canada to find other than low-skilled, manual work until they have become proficient in English. For many adults who have not studied formally for some time, acquiring English can be difficult. Another problem is that the training and experience that individuals acquired in El Salvador tend to be unrecognized in this country. But instances in which Salvadoreans are passed over, even after occupational and language training in Canada, lend support to a belief that racism is a fundamental obstacle. The fact that almost half the Salvadoreans in the Toronto study had been in this country for at least four years suggests narrower opportunities than might be expected. On the other hand, the prospects of finding employment in fields for which
they have preparation or experience in El Salvador may eventually improve for those younger immigrants able to study in Canada.
Relative to the Canadian labour force as a whole, more Salvadoreans are concentrated in manual occupations and fewer in white-collar jobs. Data from the 1986 census show that only about 7 percent of the Salvadorean immigrants were in managerial occupations, compared to roughly 19 percent of the national population (see Table 2). When all white-collar occupations are considered, the gap grows to nearly 15 percent. Conversely, the proportion of Salvadoreans in blue-collar occupations is 8 percent higher than the national average. Not surprisingly, the limited data on the income of Salvadoreans in Canada reveal that they tend to end up in low-paying jobs. The unemployment rate among the group in 1986, at 25 percent, was more than twice that of the population as a whole.
The 1986 census shows that Salvadorean men and women are equally likely to find white-collar employment. Within that category, however, more women than men work in health-care and clerical fields, while the reverse holds for administrative, technical, and sales positions. In blue-collar occupations the proportion of Salvadorean men was some 18 percent higher than for women. Though this disparity may seem extreme, it is actually smaller than the gap of 28 percent for all Canadian blue-collar workers. More Salvadorean than other Canadian women are employed in blue-collar fields and fewer in white-collar ones, by 12 and 21 percent respectively. Regardless of the level of their income, virtually all Salvadoreans in Canada manage to remit a portion to their families in the homeland.
The occupational transition to Canada has been difficult not merely for former urban professionals and skilled tradespeople. Although no data are available on the proportion of farmers and rural workers among immigrants, anecdotal accounts suggest that many have had to adjust not only to a new country but also to a transition from rural to urban life. A few Salvadoreans, mostly men, have invested their attachment to the countryside, their farming skills, and sometimes their material resources in rural income-generating projects. The Latin Agricultural Cooperative in Beaverton, Ontario, and the Earthshare Cooperative in Kleefeld, Manitoba, both run by Salvadoreans, are among a number of community-shared farms in Canada, so called because, by paying in advance for a portion of a season’s harvest, customers share the risk of the enterprise with its owners.
Launched in the early 1990s, the two projects are supported by non-governmental agencies that market their organically grown produce to over 230 people in the Toronto area and 120 in Winnipeg. Earthshare was also assisted in obtaining a grant from the federal government by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, which started the farm as an experimental “welfare diversion” project. But the cooperatives face serious hurdles, ranging from inexperience with Canada’s soil and climate to having to educate customers about the slower growth and smaller size of organic produce. The Beaverton cooperative has been further handicapped by the higher cost of renting land in Ontario and by crop failures in two consecutive years. Unlike its Manitoba counterpart, it has not yet produced salaries for its eight members. With neither group able to purchase its own land, the future of both cooperatives looks uncertain.
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.
The culinary dimension of Salvadorean culture is well preserved in Canada. A guest invited to dine with members of the community is likely to be served several of the traditional foods, including beans, rice, tortillas, tamales, and pupusas, a uniquely Salvadorean dish in which tortillas are filled with cheese, beans, or pork. In several Canadian cities, restaurants, some owned and managed by Salvadoreans, feature this cuisine. With respect to leisure activities, soccer is a popular sport among men in Canada. Members of the community play on several mixed teams in the Hispanic soccer leagues of the major cities.
A number of Salvadorean artists, musicians, and intellectuals in Canada have used their work to convey the refugee’s perspective on the history of the homeland and to express solidarity with the struggle for justice there. The social and political relevance of Salvadorean artistic productions, especially those intended for public display, are evinced both in their content and the way in which they are presented. Events held in support of grassroots organizations in El Salvador commonly feature Latin American folk and “protest” music; the latter was especially common during the civil war. Numerous groups specializing in this genre have emerged in Canada since the early 1980s. One of the most durable was formed as part of the Movimiento Cultural Akatún (Akatún Cultural Movement), an umbrella organization that originally included theatre, poetry, and folk dance. Created in Hamilton in 1983 by Salvadorean refugees, the association aims to familiarize Canadians with Central American culture. The musical group Akatún, comprised of six Salvadorean men, dedicates money raised at its performances to ADEMUSA, with which it works closely, and to other Latin American organizations in the Hamilton area.
The financial assistance of humanitarian agencies and the unpaid help of translators and typesetters have been crucial to the publication of Salvadorean literature in Canada. One of such works is a bilingual collection of remarkably outspoken and passionate poems by María Luisa Villacorta, a woman who came to Canada as a refugee. Villacorta was seventy-seven when The Grandmother’s Poems/Poemas de la Abuela (1989) was published jointly by the Workshop of Popular Salvadorean Literature and Write-on Press Publishers in Vancouver. Most of her poems openly celebrate the FMLN as the champion of peasants, workers, and other oppressed groups.
Francisco Rico Martínez is a Salvadorean author of two books published since his arrival in Canada as a refugee. Both deal with the conflict in El Salvador. He conceived of Una Región Llamada Verdidulce (A Land Called Sweetgreen), published in 1993 with the help of the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communication, as a tool for intergenerational communication about the experiences of Central American immigrants in Canada. Based on interviews with children in Toronto, the book tells a fable whose main characters are animals native to Central America. Poverty, repression, and political exile are symbolized by flying monsters, rainbows, and other fantastic natural phenomena. Rico Martínez’s book has been translated into English for the benefit of children who, although born in Central America, no longer speak their native language.
Salvadoreans in Canada have found a modest forum for cultural and political expression in the alternative media, principally as guest speakers and volunteer announcers on the Hispanic programs of community radio stations and through (usually unpaid) contributions to the Spanish-language press. Perhaps one of the more notable achievements is the weekly, hour-long Latin American Program, broadcast live from McMaster University radio station CFMU. Managed since 1988 by the Akatún cultural movement, it features information and analyses of major events in Latin America, music from the region (with Central American folk music predominating), regular children’s, health, and literary features, interviews with social activists, and announcements oriented to the Hispanic community in the Hamilton area.
It is reasonable to assume that the religious identity of Salvadoreans in Canada resembles that of the homeland, which is about 80 percent Roman Catholic. That assumption agrees with the results of a Montreal survey conducted the early 1980s, which found as well that not all Salvadoreans practise their faith. Several Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in major Canadian cities that offer services in Spanish and English attract large numbers of Salvadoreans. As in the homeland, some individuals belong to Protestant denominations.
A number of Salvadoreans in Canada are members of Christian base communities, groups of people that meet informally for worship, often in private homes. In El Salvador and throughout Latin America these groups arose from efforts by the Catholic clergy to implement the social doctrines of the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65 and the Medellín conference of Latin American bishops in 1968. These concepts, which gave rise to liberation theology, stress the church’s obligation to address injustice and empower the poor to improve their conditions. The Christian base communities in El Salvador cultivated widespread support for the insurgent forces.
In Canada, Christian base communities have tried to establish a presence in various Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in order to promote the celebration of the popular Mass characteristic of the communities throughout Latin America. These attempts have not met with much success. Opposition by right-wing Central Americans obstructed the efforts of one community in several Catholic parishes in Toronto. Some members also attribute the lack of support to the Canadian clergy’s aversion to the political stance implied in their position on injustices in El Salvador.
Currently, the Salvadorean Christian base communities in Toronto hold popular Masses on special occasions and support a weekly “celebration of the Word.” A form of worship typical of the communities in El Salvador, this observance does not include the sacraments and is led by lay preachers rather than priests. Like the popular Mass, it incorporates a denouncement of social injustice and proposes solutions based on Christian faith. The concern of the communities for justice is also evident in their sponsorship of socio-economic projects on behalf of impoverished groups in the homeland.
No systematic information is available on the participation by Salvadoreans in Canadian political life. More prominent is their activism on behalf of their homeland, manifest in Canadian offshoots of the political organizations that together make up the FMLN. That organization was born when, in 1980, five groups, each consisting of a guerrilla army and a political organization, were unified under a single military command. These groups espoused divergent ideologies and revolutionary strategies, but their differences were submerged in the imperative of fighting the civil war.
Throughout Canada in the early 1980s, members of the component groups of the FMLN formed branches in such major cities as Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, and Montreal, a process that also occurred in other countries with Salvadorean immigrants. The structure of FMLN organizations in Canada and their relations with the parent groups in El Salvador became increasingly institutionalized in the mid-1980s, and they gradually established relations with Canadian labour unions, student groups, churches, and academics. Together with these organizations and individuals, the FMLN lobbied for changes in Canadian aid and immigration policy towards El Salvador, coordinated speaking tours by social activists, and denounced human-rights violations in the homeland. Despite their independent existence, the five organizations have occasionally worked together on common projects at the local level.
With the end of the civil war in El Salvador, the FMLN’s activities in Canada have focused on the peace process: petitioning the United Nations and the Salvadorean government for compliance with the peace accords and raising funds for the FMLN’s participation as a political party in the momentous elections of March 1994. In the aftermath of those elections, the culmination of more than a decade of collective action for many FMLN members in Canada, their work is unlikely to continue with the same intensity. It also remains to be seen how recent transformations within the FMLN in El Salvador, such as the withdrawal of two of its constituent groups and the unification of the remaining organizations, will affect the activities of members in Canada.
Impressionistic information about relations between Salvadoreans and other Latin American immigrants in Canada suggests that politics play both a unifying and a divisive role, depending on the group. Contacts between Salvadoreans and Nicaraguans are often cool. Occasionally the two groups have even clashed in situations where they have interacted, for example, in parishes where they participate with other Latin Americans in planning church activities. These conflicts result mainly from a collision between the propoor, leftist orientation of most Salvadoreans and the anti-socialist stance of most Nicaraguans in Canada, seen in their rejection of the Sandinista government in the homeland. Conversely, political affinities make for friendlier relations between Salvadoreans and Guatemalan and Chilean immigrants, since all three groups fled right-wing dictatorships. Some activists in Salvadorean cultural and political associations in Canada support activities organized by the Chilean community and vice versa.
The Salvadorean community in Canada is a recent one, and it has been concerned primarily with adapting to the new society. No research has yet been done that would determine the degree of ethnic commitment among its members. However, the extent of support for causes in the homeland and the cultural activities carried out in Canada suggest that Salvadoreans are endeavouring to preserve a distinct identity.
An excellent overview of the social, economic, and political conditions in El Salvador during the 1980s can be found in Tom Barry, El Salvador: A Country Guide (Albuquerque, N. Mex., 1990). Liisa North, Bitter Grounds: Roots of Revolt in El Salvador (Toronto, 1981), and James Dunkerly, The Long War: Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador (London, 1982), both trace the evolution of El Salvador’s exclusionary political system and distorted-development model from the late nineteenth century to the outbreak of civil war.
Although many Canadians – among them academics and writers – have been actively concerned for the welfare of the people of El Salvador, little has been written about the lives of Salvadoreans in Canada. Gertrud Neuwirth, The Settlement of Salvadorean Refugees in Ottawa and Toronto (Ottawa, 1989), touches on many fundamental aspects of Salvadoreans’ adaptation to Canadian society. The small number of people Neuwirth surveyed, however, limits the utility of her findings. Charles D. Smith, “Trials and Errors: The Experience of Central American Refugees in Montreal,” Refuge, vol.5, no.4 (1986), 10–11, presents similar data for a somewhat larger sample of Salvadorean immigrants surveyed in Montreal in 1983 and 1984. Examining the effect of Canadian immigration policy on the admission of Salvadoreans to Canada are Alan Simmons, “Latin American Migration to Canada: New Linkages in the Hemispheric Migration and Refugee Flow System,” International Journal, vol.48, no.2 (1993), 282–309; Tanya Basok and Alan Simmons, “A Review of the Politics of Canadian Refugee Selection,” in Vaughan Robinson, ed., The International Refugee Crisis: British and Canadian Responses (London, 1993), 132–57; and Phil Ryan, Compassion or Expediency: The Overseas Selection of Central American Refugees (Toronto, 1988).