Estela’s Story: The Human Face of Emigration in El Salvador

Author’s Statement: I have lived in El Salvador with Estela and her children Jorge and Lupe for the last seven months. I came here to work as a volunteer, teaching popular theater and art to youth in the rural flatland communities of the Bajo Lempa. These communities were formed by repatriated Salvadorans-in-exile and ex-combatants of the FMLN after the war.

Having worked with immigrant communities in the States, I came with a desire to understand more about immigration issues on this side of the border. Now that I have lived for the last seven months in a community where one third of the population has left for the United States, my heart is overflowing with names and faces and stories full of suffering, hope and contradictions.

A few months ago the kids had left to go play with their friends. While Estela shaped and pounded the milled corn into tortillas, I asked her where their father had gone. The tortillas became salty as the tears rolled down and mixed with the corn paste.

She sat down and the words slowly spilled out, one after the other. He left nine years ago, like many others to cross the border, hoping to find work and send for his family. And like many others, he remarried in the United States, unbeknownst to her. For years she waited and money came back, but he never sent for her or the children.

"I don’t want his money." she had said bitterly that morning, flinging tears from her eyes as if they had betrayed her. "Money can’t replace a father. My children hardly know him. Jorge often refuses to speak with him on the phone when he calls." Estela is a woman who normally doesn’t talk about the years of pain, of lonely nights, of broken promises, of the daily struggle of raising her children alone, deceived by a system who disappeared her husband under the flag of an American Dream.

Communications Worker
Estela worked as a deejay in the community radio station, earning $80 a month. She had learned how to operate a radio with Radio Venceremos after she joined the guerrilla movement during the civil war of El Salvador at the tender age of 13. Her entire family went into exile in Panama, fleeing from the persecutions and the massacres. She stayed in her country to defend the rights of the poor and campesinos, barely in her first training bra.

She has walked day and night through the rugged hills of El Salvador with the heavy load of radio, pack and rifle strapped to her back.
She received an unexpected call two weeks ago from her ex-husband, who offered to send her the $6,500 for a coyote to bring her to the United States. He had saved enough to pay for her passage and one of the kids. At first, she had rejected the offer as she did not want to split up the kids or leave them here alone. She also did not trust that if they went together first, that he would send for her later.

She mulled it over deeply and came to her decision without telling anyone, except for her mother, who will soon fly out from Canada to take care of Jorge and Lupe. I found out the day before she left. It is typical for people to slip out in the night without saying goodbye to life-long neighbors or friends.

I asked her why she had changed her mind. She told me that she couldn’t bear the thought of joining the long line of single mothers whose children have migrated and left them to live their lives alone. I asked her if she was afraid. Having fought in the war for 12 years, she told me that the journey itself didn’t frighten her. She knows that she can endure the physical suffering of cold, fatigue, hunger and heat. She is willing to take the risk that she may not make it across the desert or that she could be raped along the way or imprisoned at the border.

What frightens her is the possibility of not seeing her children again. She holds onto the plan that she will go first and send for both of the kids once there is enough money to pay the coyote’s fees. Although I hope that they will be reunited soon, I dread the thought of them crossing the border on foot at the age of 11 and 13.

The Departure
The air was heavy the day before she packed her bags to set off, to walk again day and night through mountain passes and hostile deserts, this time not to defend her country but to leave it. Drops of grief slipped from her eyes every time she thought of leaving her children behind. Jorge and Lupe cried themselves to sleep that night, their small bodies heaving with sobs at the imminent loss of their mother.

Her story is a common one here in Ciudad Romero, which, like many other small villages dotting the landscape of Central America, is filled disproportionately with single mothers, whose children grow up to face the same dismal prospects of unemployment and join the northern migration. There is simply no work here. For those who have jobs their daily bread is an average of 4 dollars a day.

Two days of work in El Salvador is equivalent to one hour of the U.S. minimum wage. It is a tempting carrot but so much is sacrificed. The popular movement is drained of its leaders and the government is free to continue its policies unabated, relieved of the social pressure to provide their citizens with a dignified life.

The remittances sent home, which now make up the principal economy of El Salvador, do not serve to alleviate poverty, only to relieve its extremes. The average family remittance is $157 a month. This money is usually spent in the commercial centers and in the consumption of products for the home such as milk, eggs, beans and tortillas. Little is left over to save or invest in a small business.

This means that the remittances only help to maintain the basic survival of those who receive them and to sustain the wheels of the country’s economy.

Who Profits from Remittance Dollars?
The money that is earned by the hard labor of millions of immigrants goes into the U.S. tax coffer and directly into the pockets of big bankers who, without an ounce of sweat, charge a 20% commission fee for the service of sending remittances. Those who profit most are the corporations and businesses of the United States that employ cheap Salvadoran labor and those that export to El Salvador.

Remittances create a consumer market for big corporations to be able to import their goods. In a vicious circle, the remittances arrive in the country and then return again to the U.S. For example, when Estela received her monthy remittance, she would go to buy food at the local Dispensa de Don Juan who deposits the money in Banco Cuscatlan which then loans or invests the money in U.S. corporations that import their products to El Salvador.

In other words, the governments, banks and multinationals get richer and the poor stay poor. If those who benefit are not the Savaldorans who risk life and limb to take the journey, why do they go? Why are they willing to leave their families and accept sub-slavery working conditions?

Looking back into history’s mirror, I discovered a shocking increase in the last half century. In El Salvador during the 1960s, 350,000 people left from the country, most of who had been displaced from their lands for the cultivation of cotton. In war during the 80s, Salvadoran immigration shot up 73% under U.S.-sponsored dictatorships. Thousands of people left the country owing to the repression, persecution, lack of security, lack of employment and the violent confrontations between the armed forces and the guerilla resistance movement.

Through the 90s, immigration began to grow more and more, reaching 185,000 a year, or 493 people a day. By the year 2002, a total of 2,778,286 Salvadorans were living in other countries, with 90% of them residing in the United States. Since 1998, under the right wing governments of ARENA, immigration has gone through the roof. More people have left the country in the last 8 years than in the past 47 years combined, speaking volumes of the desperation and damage caused by ARENA’s neoliberal economic policies.

The Impact of Free Trade
CAFTA is in full swing. Already telecommunications, electricity and transportation have been privatized, resulting in steep price hikes while salaries have either remained frozen or fallen. The owners of national businesses cut salaries in order to reduce costs so that they can compete with products from the U.S. Wageworkers are left without employment when small and medium-sized businesses go bankrupt.

Sweatshops from the U.S., Korea and Taiwan are filling the country, where flexible labor laws will allow big business to contract workers under deplorable working conditions with the freedom to fire them whenever they want. Workers who try to organize or women who get pregnant are especially targeted. The maquilas can contract workers to fulfill production quotas that are impossible to achieve without working extra hours, for which there is no overtime pay.

Salvadoran campesinos will face the same fate as Mexican farmworkers whose crops and livelihoods shriveled under the scorching heat of NAFTA, unable to compete with the flood of U.S. state-subsidized, cheaply imported corn. The unemployment, poverty and insecurity of the country are like a pressure cooker. More and more will be driven to the point where they will leave behind their families in order to sustain them.

They will face the racist and scapegoat hostility of the United States, where immigrants are either blamed for "taking our jobs" or are depicted as terrorists, the latter seen in the proposed Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Control Act.

They will arrive to the land that infamously "receives the tired and the poor", where it may be considered a felony for a non-citizen to be in the U.S. without documentation or for teachers or health care workers or priests — or anyone for that matter — to help an immigrant in any way, where $1.9 billion of U.S. taxpayer’s money has recently been approved to increase "border security" in Arizona, where it has been ironically suggested that the wall dividing the North from the South be built by immigrants themselves, serving hard labor in concentration camps.

All of these will not deter the flood of immigration; it will only cause more to die trying.

I feel a tremendous sadness for what Estela will face in these next years. She will be sure to confront the discrimination of employers where she will have to take demeaning and low-paying work. She will be sure to discover the isolation of being illegal, of not speaking the language, of not having access to basic services. But she is strong and a survivor, like most Salvadorans. I can only offer her my emotional support and solidarity by challenging the neo-liberal policies that break up families and drive millions into poverty.

Two weeks later, we received a call that she made it across safely. She had walked for days and nights, at times without shoes, through mud up to her knees. It was a hard road, but she made it, for better or for worse. She has successfully joined the millions of others, now in search of a job and a scrap from the fable of the American Dream. Next week, ten more from this community are scheduled to leave on the same well-trodden path.

Equipo Maiz, Emigracion y Remesas: Alivio de los Pobres, Negocio de los Ricos, Diario Co Latino, Viernes 16 de junio de 2006.

Equipo Maiz, Tratado de Libre Comercio entre Centroamerica y Estados Unidos, El Salvador 2003.

Martinez, Elizabeth (Betitia), Latinos Create a New Political Climate, Z Magazine, June 2006.