Central American refugees find a haven deep inside Los Angeles

Juan Francisco, his teen-age wife and year-old son at his side, arrived in Los Angeles from Central America a few days ago, wearing a cowboy hat. He had emptied his wallet to buy a bus ride from Arizona - where he had been smuggled into the country - to Union Station, so he took the only recourse he knew. He walked, family in tow, to the nearest Roman Catholic church.

From there, it was a matter of hours before he was in the bosom of the Central American refugee community here. His family slept the first night in a small house converted to offices and a health clinic. The next night they stayed with a refugee girl who had offered them space in her apartment until her family returned to town.

Juan Francisco (who withholds his surname) has stumbled into a city within a city.

Los Angeles is a haven for Central American refugees. It is the second-largest city of Salvadoreans outside of the Salvadorean capital itself, San Salvador. And with at least 200,000 to 300,000 Salvadoreans, Los Angeles by most estimates runs a close second.

This makes up most of the estimated half-million Salvadoreans in the United States, most of whom have come since 1979, almost all of them illegally.

And in Los Angeles, Salvadoreans account for most of the Central American refugee population. Among them here are Nicaraguans, some Hondurans, and an increasing number of Guatemalans.

Juan Francisco is a Guatemalan Indian. His story is not atypical of the Central Americans who are trickling into the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, just west of downtown.

Eight months ago, he says, government soldiers came into his village of 2,600 and killed 400 people, including one of his younger brothers, a union organizer. By his account, there were only a thousand villagers still in town when he left recently.

A farm worker, Juan Francisco claims no interest in Guatemalan politics. He left, he says, because ''too many people were getting killed.'' In Mexico, he found that grape-harvesting season was finished and he heard that there were jobs in Los Angeles.

He paid a ''coyote'' to smuggle him and his family across the border into Arizona, where the family walked three hours before wandering into an Indian village. An Indian gave them a ride to a bus station in his truck, and Juan Francisco bought tickets to Union Station.

The church that the family turned to referred them straight to El Rescate, an organization backed by the Southern California Ecumenical Council to help Central Americans find refuge here.

El Rescate is tied closely to the Santana Chirino Amaya Refugee Committee, housed a block away, behind the Archbishop Oscar A. Romero Clinic. All these organizations form the heart of the Central American refugee community.

The clinic is a small, wood-frame house on a busy street of thrift shops and Central American restaurants. Its back porch has become the poster-lined offices of the refugee committee. The hard-packed dirt of the back yard has become a meeting ground, the shade of a fig tree on one side. Along the back fence, there's a jerry-built plywood roof where English classes are held in the evenings and during the afternoons a refugee band practices folk and protest songs.

A shed on one side of the yard holds medical supplies;another has food. The refugee committee has been feeding Juan Francisco and his family for four days now.

''We're trying to keep the community together,'' says Oscar Cruz, a Salvadoran refugee himself who works both in El Rescate and the refugee committee. Many refugees arrive saddened by the loss of relatives, sometimes remorseful for leaving families behind, and unsure of their footing in a new country, says Mr. Cruz, an engineering student at the time the national university was shut down in 1979.

The lure of the United States for Central Americans is twofold, as Cruz sees it. First, refugees believe there are jobs here. The coyotes - who smuggle them north for pay - often flash clippings of help-wanted ads from Los Angeles newspapers, according to Cruz. Second: ''There is a history of the US as a place where rights are respected and there is democracy.''

Cruz says refugees are often disappointed on both counts. ''Here there are no jobs, and there is persecution by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service).''

Nevertheless, the 325,000 Salvadoreans estimated to be living in California amount to some 10 percent of the population of El Salvador. Cruz helps many of the new arrivals find shelter with other refugee families. They are fed until they can get on their feet. And he tries to find them work.

Churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are the refugees' chief means of support, apart from each other. Government agencies have little contact with the Central Americans. ''They [the refugees] don't approach anyone,'' observes an aide to the local city councilman. ''But I see them sleeping in [MacArthur] park.''

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