The Salvadoran diaspora in the United States grew monumentally in the 1980s. As a US-funded civil war ravaged the Central American country, much of the population were displaced. Between 1980 and 1990, the Salvadoran immigrant population rose from 94,447 to 465,433.

Though they fled the carnage of war in their countries, Salvadoran refugees were met with a more subtle form of violence in the United States. It came in the form of working multiple jobs in exploitative environments and surviving in a country that added to the political destabilization in the tiny country they left behind.

As products of Salvadoran immigrants, we’ve inherited our parents’ broken hearts, their American dreams, and their longing for home. We have internalized a culture of pain that informs our collective and intergenerational trauma. Even though Salvadorans are the third largest Latino group in the United States, we’ve developed of feeling of not belonging. As the media portrays us as nothing more than dead bodies, gang members, and tragic statistics, we so rarely see ourselves depicted in positive ways.

Thankfully, the internet has given us a space where we can express that pain and begin healing. Through the mechanisms of art, Salvadoran creatives are writing their own narratives of what it means to be Salvadoran in the United States and countering inaccurate stereotypes about our community, many of whom are survivors of war. Their work proves that there’s no quintessential Salvadoran experience and that the continual building of the Salvadoran diasporic identity will require a sense of fluidity and acceptance.

To honor the important work they do, we spoke to six creatives to learn what it means to be Salvadoran in the US and how this inspires their work. Here are their stories:


Additional reporting by writer and photographer Yeiry Guevara. 

1

Johanna Toruño

In spaces where they want this the least is where my lil bat signals live.✊

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Johanna Toruño is the founder of the Unapologetically Brown Seriesan audio and visual series set to empower communities of color. Johanna creates colorful posters with positive and affirming quotes said by women of color and wheat pastes them around New York City. As a street artist, she is also very deliberate about the placement of her posters. She places posters with messages like “Protect Central American children and their families” in affluent neighborhoods to counter the xenophobic narrative of the Central American refugee crisis.

What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the US?

It’s meant a lot of protecting my country and the perception people have on it. It’s meant a lot of researching and holding onto as much as I can of El Salvador since leaving. Salvadoran culture can get lost in everything else, so when I find those communities I hang on for dear life. Anything to keep home as close as possible.

filling the street with your glory ✨ 12×18 in Bushwick

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How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity?

I use my art as activism by blending messages and the streets. I want to highlight the Salvadoran / Central American experience by bringing light to it through my posters. So much of my work is a direct transport of what I have brought from El Salvador through memories. Mural work and street work is monumental in El Salvador & I never forgot that.

2

Sayre Quevedo

Documentary photographer and writer Sayre Quevedo is the creator of the Re:Construcción Project, an interactive multimedia exhibit that focuses on the legacy of the Salvadoran Civil War as well as the contemporary byproducts of the Civil War. The travelling exhibit consists of old family photographs, household items, and oral interviews of six individuals and families as well as an interactive wall where the Salvadoran community can contribute their own thoughts and perspectives on how the Civil War impacted them.

What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the US?

For me, being Salvadoran has been in many ways defined by my isolation from the larger Salvadoran community growing up here. As a kid [my mom] taught me the history of El Salvador, but for a long time I did not feel Salvadoran because I lacked a personal history and an inventory of shared cultural markers to identify myself with others in the community.

Being Salvadoran has meant reconciling that sense of loss with the desire to feel like I belong to a community. I’ve see this same feeling of disconnection throughout the diaspora, especially with people my age, and I actually think it can be a positive thing. Each of our stories–however disjointed or different– are the stories of diaspora. What seems like a hole in our identities and histories is actually a wide open space for us to add and complicate things, to show that being Salvadoran in the US can mean many things for many people.

CLICK FOR SOUND "I'm afraid of having to stay here or stay longer than what I imagined because everybody's in danger here and at any moment, at any time anything could happen." In December of 1989 Carlos and his family fled from El Salvador to Los Angeles, California. Seven and a half years ago, he was deported back. For the project he shares the story of reconstructing his identity and life in a country he barely knows. ———————————————— "Tengo miedo de quedarme o quedarme por más tiempo que me imaginaba porque todo el mundo aquí están en peligro y en cualquier momento cualquier cosa puede pasar." En Diciembre de 1989 Carlos y su familia huyeron de El Salvador. Hace siete y medio años él fue deportado a El Salvador. Nos contó la historia sobre cómo está reconstruyendo su identidad y vida en un país que no conoce bien. #documental #periodismo #elsalvador #americalatina #reconstruccion #photojournalism #journalism #documentary

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How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity?

My work is largely about individuals, whether I’ve pointed the microphone towards myself or someone else. In that sense I mean that I’m not drawn to “types” and I don’t like simple stories. I’m interested in making art that honors people as complicated and unique. If a visitor listens to the stories from Re:Construcción and says, “I see myself or someone I know in this” that means I’ve done my job. If you can see yourself in someone you’ve never met then you’re that much closer to caring about other people in the world and that’s the first step to doing something.

3

Dichos de un Bicho

Cartoonist Victor Interiano, aka Dichos de un Bicho, uses satirical cartoons and Púchica Puchín memes to call out white supremacy, the Mexican hegemony, good ol’ white liberals, cishet activist men, and many other types of bayuncadas that sometimes go unchecked. When he is not critiquing systems of power and their beneficiaries, he is creating a dictionary of Salvadoran caliches (Salvadoran sayings and slang) or working on a cartoon series of flora and fauna in Central America.

What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the US?

My feelings about being Salvadoran in the U.S. are very much marked by my experience growing up during Reagan’s America in the 1980s. Every morning at school meant being forced to do the Pledge of Allegiance while staring at the portrait of Reagan, almost as if praying to a saint, all the while his administration was training and arming the Salvadoran military to kill my own people. At the same time, through a sort of cultural osmosis, “America” as an idea was fomenting a civil war inside me as a young person, arming a burgeoning American patriot with a sense of superiority whose orders were to destroy the Salvadoran in me. All this conflict to become a “Salvadoran-American,” a creature with a brown face that spoke like a white man.

At the same time as I was trying to navigate through my identity crisis brought on by the hegemonic tidal wave of whiteness, growing up as a Salvi kid in 1980s Los Angeles meant I was also subjected to a secondary cultural force of nature: the Mexican hegemony. What made conditions intolerable as a young Salvadoran were the passively xenophobic stares of puzzlement my parents would get from Mexicans in our neighborhoods. These microaggressions at the adult level then filtered down to their children and transform into the violence and bullying I endured from Mexican kids who would beat me up for saying the word “gaseosa.” I think that I have described the whole experience as drowning in a sea of competing hegemonies.

How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity?

The art I tend to create is polarized almost to a ridiculous degree. My political art as it relates to existence in the U.S. is hypercritical of and wrathful toward all systems of power, institutions, ideologies. But the sentimental art I create about El Salvador, my parents, and Central America as a whole is imbued with almost a childlike reverence; it’s funny, compassionate, loving, deeply spiritual, and full of life. And so, the political and the spiritual are always at play inside of me, sometimes working on their own, sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing with each other.

There is a small Salvi brown boy inside of me, full of love, anger, anxiety, nerdiness, sincerity, black humor, and magic who spent over three decades working through his pain and trauma to finally find peace in self-love. And all he wants is help create a world where no one is harmed, and everyone is loved. And if my shit talking artwork can push that process a bit further, entonces para algo serví, as my mama would say.

4

Edyka Chilomé

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Edyka Chilomé is a queer poet and writer whose work is centered around healing from intergenerational traumas. In her poetry book, She Speaks | Poetry, she explores queer mestizaje in the diaspora and engages in spiritual activism for the healing of herself and her community.

What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the US?

For me being a Salvadoran in the U.S. means I am a displaced survivor of war that comes from a resilient people. It also means I am a person who has found herself a prisoner of capitalism, of eco violence, and of anti-indigeneity. Existing as a documented Salvadoran in the U.S. means I help bring over the queso duro, the horchata, and the art that reminds us we are never forgotten by our lands or our people. It means I am a culture creator and ambassador for new transnational identity politics and storytelling. It means I am a Lenca Maya mestiza, radical as fuck, and unapologetic about it.

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How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity?

My storytelling has been used as a tool to heal the generations of war trauma in myself, mentally, spiritually, and physically. In my poetry and writings, I talk about what it means to be of a people that have survived US trained death squads and torture, lethal environmental racism, and severe spiritual and cultural violence. Through my work, I also intentionally position myself as a descendent of indigenous autonomous peoples that do not acknowledge colonial borders and that have migrated up and down this continent freely for thousands of years. As an artist, I know when I choose to do this intentional healing out loud, my people heal with me, and so do my ancestors and my descendants. This is the beauty of our ways – we survive together and we can heal together. As young U.S. born Salvadoran Artists, our work is no different. It remains aligned with our history as un pueblo de lucha, de colores, y de fe – que nuestros cipotxs tendran un mundo mejor.

5

Linda Nuves

Linda Nuves is a member of Radio Pulgarcito, a Salvadoran DJ collective that spin vinyl music from El Salvador as a way of staying connected to their culture, ancestors, and roots. Linda is also a member of the Chulita Vinyl Club in Los Angeles, sings in her dad’s band, and writes and sings her own music.

What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the US?

Our stories are rarely shared, our traumas and triumphs overlooked by the masses, yet our history/culture runs deep from miles and miles away. It means creating and participating in spaces where I can express myself, make a difference and represent my culture.

How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity?

My art is personal and that in itself is political. I am claiming my existence, sharing my perspective, and expressing more than just myself when I put myself out there. I use my art to explore my identity and create a space for myself. Having been born in Southern California + being a light skinned Latina, I was usually assumed to be anything but Salvadoran. I am reminded of a quote from the movie, Selena… where at times I feel I have to prove to Americans how American I am, prove to Latinos how Salvadoran I am. And yes, it’s exhausting but I’m proud to do it.

6

Esau Rosales

Esau Rosales is a documentary street photographer based in Los Angeles. Esau uses street photography as a way of reimagining the Salvadoran diaspora and the conflicting ideologies some Salvadorans embrace.

What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the US?

My experience being Salvadoran in the US is that of opposing identities and ideologies. My parents love this country, they loved Reagan, but subconsciously it was a forced love, a love born out of circumstance. My mother came to age in El Salvador when the movement was taking shape and like it or not, those ideologies and traumas were inadvertently passed down to me.

Words like “imperialismo”, “guerillero”, “toque de queda”, “esquadron de la muerte” were real to my parents and a curiosity for me, I always wanted to learn more. Naturally a distrust of the system was established, and growing up in South Central LA in the 90’s only further cemented it. Going to schools in the San Fernando Valley early on showed me what inequality is, my summers were spent cleaning houses with my mother and not at summer camp.

How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity?

As a teenager I was very involved in the Punk scene in LA. The covers of Punk records were usually decorated with war/conflict photography, as I grew older I began to recognize the power that an image holds. Initially I just wanted to take pictures from what I would see every day, I was a punk rocker and I was always in the streets, street photography began to really intrigue me. Without direction or real purpose, I began to shoot in places in LA I knew were not on the tour map. As the project began to take shape the idea of self-identity began to emerge. The images were beautiful, they were not images of crime/murder scenes that typically make it onto the newspaper, but they contained the same [Salvadoran] people.