Saul Solorzano touched thousands of lives in D.C.’s Central American community

September 3, 2011

There was a terrible, quiet irony to Saul Solorzano’s death.

He had grown up in the maelstrom of a vicious civil conflict in El Salvador that decimated his generation and killed many of his childhood friends. He had survived an illegal desert crossing into the United States as a teenager, then spent years as a semi-clandestine organizer in national movements that opposed U.S. policy in El Salvador and provided a haven for undocumented war refugees.

For the past two decades, as head of the nonprofit Central American Resource Center in the District, known as Carecen, he had fought to obtain legal amnesty for Central American refugees and helped thousands in the Washington area secure a perch in American society.

Meanwhile, he earned two college degrees and became a legal resident and U.S. citizen. Only in the past several years had he found time to marry and start a family. Even more recently, he had begun exploring a career in politics. At 49, he was finally beginning to enjoy life.

Then, late on the night of Aug. 16, while his family was asleep, Solorzano went down to the basement. He often stayed up e-mailing associates or working on grant proposals, and he may have been rummaging for a soda in the storage area. He either passed out or stumbled and fell, striking his head on something sharp. Early the next morning, his wife, Wendy, found him lying motionless. He never regained consciousness, dying later that day at Washington Hospital Center.

“Sometimes he seemed like a child himself, rolling in the yard and swinging on the swings with his daughter,” Wendy said last week, sitting in their remodeled brick townhouse in upper Northwest while 4-year-old Camila watched cartoons. “I don’t think he had much time to be a child in El Salvador.”

It was the most mundane of passings, an abrupt and unsatisfying end to a life lived in the thick of political battles and community turmoil, first in the shadows and increasingly in the limelight. Solorzano, who left a laptop bursting with ideas, contacts and plans for the future, died in mid-sentence.

Luckily, he had already achieved his major goal: the transformation of Carecen from a tiny, shoestring agency to a pillar of the community. It was a journey that mirrored the evolving priorities, needs and conflicts of the region’s Central American immigrants, and it had consumed him for 20 years.

“A lot of us would go out to bars or to the beach, just to relax a little, but Saul never wanted to go. He was always serious, like a catechist,” said Mauricio Alarcon, a Salvadoran-born education specialist in Arlington County who served on the board of Carecen for many years. Over time, many such activists moved to the suburbs and drifted away from social causes. “Not Saul,” Alarcon said. “Carecen was his whole life.”

Salvadoran solidarity

Among certain Salvadoran Americans in their 50s and 60s, the mention of Solorzano evinces pangs of nostalgia for an old and faded cause. Like him, they were once young leftists who fled illegally to the United States in the early 1980s and joined campaigns to promote “solidarity” with El Salvador’s poor and sanctuary for its refugees. Their nerve center was Los Angeles, where Solorzano landed at 18 and plunged immediately into the movement.

“We were all companions in struggle, and we worked around the clock,” recounted Carlos Baquedano, a longtime activist in Los Angeles who organized a memorial service for Solorzano there last week. “Every Sunday, we would meet to share the latest news from El Salvador — who had died, what to do next. Then we would go out and sell tamales to raise money.”

For the memorial, he went through old boxes of photos.

“Saul was very young, and we were all thinner then,” Baquedano said with a faint laugh. “It was a long time ago.”

Barely into his 20s, with no legal papers and fledgling English, Solorzano crisscrossed the country, camping in apartments and hopping from city to city. He organized meetings, formed committees, gave talks about human rights abuses and worked with American church leaders who defied the law to shelter illegal refugees. He accompanied several groups of human rights monitors to El Salvador, a risky role that led to several confrontations with Salvadoran military officials.

Solorzano also came to Washington, along with thousands of others, to protest U.S. military aid to El Salvador and to seek legal protection for its war refugees. The relief was granted in bits and pieces, through various court cases and legislative bills. Congress first granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Salvadorans in 1990, shielding them from deportation and allowing them to work. Later it extended and expanded the amnesty for more than half a million Central Americans. Solorzano was involved at every step.

“Saul was a passionate and relentless advocate for the rights of his countrymen and his community,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said last week. During the amnesty fight in Congress, McGovern was an aide to the late Rep. Joseph Moakley, the chief legislative sponsor of TPS. “It was not an easy sell, but Saul was one of those who fought tirelessly for it. He helped save a lot of lives and keep a lot of families together.”

A nonprofit’s shift

When Solorzano moved to Washington in the early 1990s, it was a promising but tense time for the area’s burgeoning Central American populace. The amnesty fight was largely over, and the Salvadoran war ended with the peace accords of 1992. But a riot in the Latino-filled neighborhood of Mount Pleasant drew national attention to the continuing problems of the uprooted, largely uneducated refugees. Solorzano went to work at Carecen and never left.

The Central American Refugee Center began with a strong focus on war issues and legal aid. Solorzano, who became executive director in 1992, led its strategic shift to serving broader immigrant needs, including jobs and affordable housing, and pointedly changed its name to the Central American Resource Center.

Over the years, the agency helped tens of thousands of immigrants through various stages of obtaining legal status, and Solorzano was its guiding force. Carecen also served as his base for dozens of crusades — whether it was hurricane relief or the DREAM Act. Friends described Solorzano as an introvert who hated giving speeches, but he was also a restless strategizer, always looking for new issues, projects and acolytes to promote. A workaholic who finished college and graduate school while running Carecen, he rarely took a break.

“When we started a time sheet system, there was no point in Saul filling his out,” said Ana Negoescu, a longtime Carecen staff member. “He was just always there.”

As with any community nonprofit group, Carecen was often on the brink of financial crisis. There was fierce competition for grants with other groups. There were periodic staff mutinies and clashes among board members over priorities and positions on various issues. Not everyone got along with Solorzano, who could be sarcastic and crafty, and a few associates and rivals never reconciled with him.

But even community leaders who differed with him expressed admiration last week for his tenacity, commitment and political savvy. Among the struggling immigrants who benefited from Carecen’s help over the years, the tearful testimonies at several crowded memorial services last month and the painstakingly penned messages in a condolence book at the Carecen office spoke eloquently of his impact.

“You will live in the heart of every immigrant,” one woman wrote in broken Spanish.

Changes in work, life

Like the community it serves, Carecen has continued to reinvent itself. Once housed in shabby rowhouses and church basements, the agency now owns and occupies a handsome brick building in Mount Pleasant, offers classes in citizenship and civics, and advises homeowners on how to avoid foreclosure.

Solorzano, too, had recently gone through a series of public and personal changes. In 2006, he married for the first time, and Camila was born a year later. Last year, he stepped aside as Carecen’s executive director, becoming president with reduced administrative tasks so that he could devote his time to public advocacy. He made a first foray into politics, seeking appointment to a vacant at-large seat on the D.C. Council. In recent months, he was contemplating a run for an elected seat.

His health was not good, and he had undergone a heart bypass. Friends said he was worried about Carecen’s financial survival and chagrined because he had to cut back on staff, including several longtime aides. But by all accounts, both his spirits and ambitions were high.

In a recent fellowship application, Solorzano said he was inspired by past heroes, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and also by the ongoing struggles of “my neighbors” in poor communities.

“My vision for social change is a constant movement where we — the people — can go from having small to big victories” in a permanent push for “positive change,” he wrote. “I am always impressed by the phrase — make it happen.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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