Recounting his seemingly endless flight here from war-ravaged El Salvador nine years ago, Ismael Moreira's face clouds as he describes the years filled with immigration papers, discrimination, and homesickness. Ironically, tentative peace in his homeland only brings more concern for the direction his life might take.
But the burly man's graying mustache curves into a broad smile when he speaks of his job as a deli food preparer. "I work one block from the White House," he says beaming.
Like Mr. Moreira, many Salvadorans emigrating to the United States to escape El Salvador's 12-year civil war saw the nation's capital as a representation of the American dream - a city full of opportunities, patriotism, and, most of all, jobs. Despite the fact that many were disappointed by urban problems like unemployment, inadequate housing, and lack of services, their pride in Washington, D.C., remains strong.
Now that the war in El Salvador has ended, Salvadoran immigrants here and across the country are focusing on questions about the future for the first time in a decade: Will they remain here where they have carved a niche for themselves, raised children, and earned more money than they ever would back home? Or will they return a homeland, where family, friends, and a former life await them?
The decision will not be solely theirs. Many came into the US under a temporary amnesty program.
Urged by both the Salvadoran government and relief agencies across the country, the Bush administration decided to allow the 185,000 Salvadorans in the program to remain another year. After June 30, 1993, the US government will have to either begin deportation proceedings or extend the program another year.
In El Salvador, though, "after 12 years of destruction, we cannot expect reconstruction to take place in one year," says Rafael Alfaro, the Salvadoran Embassy's counselor for political affairs. Indeed, the reconstruction depends heavily on the expatriate Salvadoran community remaining abroad. Deportation of Salvadorans living here would mean drastic cuts in the amount of money they send there. Sending money home
That money - estimated at $700 million a year - is an important factor in keeping the Salvadoran economy alive, says Mr. Alfaro. He predicts that confidence due to peace accords and a six-month-long cease-fire will push that figure to $900 million this year.
Because of the rebuilding needed, many Salvadoran immigrants don't want to return yet because they know that jobs are scarce there, says Pedro Aviles, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center in Washington, D.C. He estimates that the unemployment rate in El Salvador is as high as 40 percent. Many people, Mr. Aviles says, also fear that the political situation is still dangerous and that they would be victims of human rights abuse.
Margarita Prieto, a staff attorney at Ayuda, a legal and immigration-aid organization in Washington, says a mass exodus of Salvadorans from here would be administratively impossible. "It's naive to think that this very large community is just going to go away," she says.
An estimated 150,000 Salvadorans live in Washington, far surpassing the numbers of the Old Guard - the name used by earlier immigrants from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Salvadorans have settled in the multicultural neighborhoods of northwest Washington and in the suburbs of Arlington, Va., where one section is known as Chirilagua, named for a town in El Salvador.
Salvadoran immigrants initially came to Washington in the early 1980s because they heard that jobs were easy to find in the booming construction, restaurant, landscaping, and office cleaning industries. Community leaders say many Salvadorans - particularly those from rural areas who equate El Salvador's capital city of San Salvador with prestige and opportunity - were lured by an idealized vision of what it means to be in a capital city.
The majority of Salvadorans here come from the eastern states of La Union and San Miguel, rural regions heavily hit by the war, Aviles says. He says this is because they are told that Washington is where they are sure to meet friends and neighbors.
Teresa Molina, 18, came here from La Union with her three-year-old child a year ago. She found work as an au pair; she makes enough money to send $100 a month home to her parents. She expects to return to her country some day, but for now her family is counting on her, she says.
Jose Rodriguez, an unemployed house painter, says his friends in El Salvador write to him about the continued mass looting and robbing of houses by bitter guerrilla soldiers.
As he watches his young daughter play on a swing set in a city park, Mr. Rodriguez says he desperately wants to return to El Salvador as soon as conditions improve. He was a fisherman there, he says wistfully. He thinks he has a better chance of finding a job back home than in Washington.
Rodriguez, however, may be an exception to the majority of the 600,000 Salvadorans in the US.
A 1986 study of Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan immigrants who had lived in southern California for several years revealed that few would voluntarily return to their countries.
Despite the peace agreements, there are other factors that begin to influence immigrants, says Leo Chavez, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Irvine, who conducted the study. "They begin working regularly, raising families, and establishing community ties," he says. "All of these changes start working on them." Questions about returning
Some Salvadorans, like Boris Canjura, are content with returning to El Salvador once or twice a year for a visit.
"I grew up in this [American] society. To go back to live in my country would mean I would have to assimilate all over again," says Mr. Canjura, who came to the US at age 18.
Canjura, director of a local Salvadoran agency that helped push for an extension of the amnesty program, says he continues to send money to relatives there even though his immediate family does not need it anymore.
"It is a conscience thing for Salvadorans," he says. "The sending [of money] will never stop."
It may prove to be the only constant in a year that holds uncertainty for Washington's Salvadoran community.