On Film, What They Left Behind

Photos of Intipucá by Mario Quiroz of Rockville:
Photos of Intipucá by Mario Quiroz of Rockville: "Funeral Marching Band for Lady Who Was 105 Years Old," left, and "Milling Corn for Tortillas." (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Parisians, New Yorkers and Londoners are used to seeing their home towns portrayed on the big screen. But natives of Intipucá, El Salvador? Not so much.

So it was with a certain amount of pride that Salvadorans converged recently at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre for the premiere of "Intipucá: 40 Años de Emigration," a documentary about the strong connections local immigrants have maintained with the Pacific Coast town. The film, made by Washington area Salvadorans, commemorates the 40th anniversary of the start of an exodus that would send 80 percent of the quiet town's 7,000 residents to the United States.

Many ended up in Arlington County, which is 16 percent Latino and home to one of the largest communities of Intipucans in the United States.

Although many Salvadorans settled in the District, Intipucans discovered Arlington early on, County Board Vice Chairman J. Walter Tejada (D) said.

"Arlington at the time was thought to be out in the boonies, but people were looking for larger places to live, and Arlington had two-bedroom apartments for less," Tejada said.

As a sister city to San Miguel, the largest city near Intipucá, Arlington has lured many immigrants from Intipucá and nearby Chirilagua, which has so many natives here that an area on the line between Arlington and Alexandria is informally known as Chirilagua.

"It's a very strong connection," Tejada said. "They have very close ties. These are folks who live in a dual world. Many of them are businesspeople who live in Arlington but go to Intipucá to spend a week or a few months. I know people who have gone for the weekend and then come back. It really is a very personal connection."

Early arrivals gravitated to the Washington region, and thousands followed. Part of the reason was that Washington was not as built up as larger U.S. cities, and it reminded them of home, according to Intipucans interviewed in the film.

"The truth is that Washington didn't have giant buildings. It had little tiny restaurants, and in all these places they would give us work washing dishes," said Diluvina Salinas, 64, who worked for 35 years in the Washington area as a dishwasher, cook and hotel maid and who, like many of her countrymen, retired in Intipucá.

In the film, Intipucan immigrant Salvador Arias, 70, who lived in Mount Pleasant and Arlington for more than 35 years working in restaurants and construction before retiring to Intipucá, recalled his cousin leaving for the United States in 1967, when the exodus for a better life began. "He came back and told us how it was. He told us that one could earn money, and we started fighting to go there."

The film documents the difficult journey many Intipucans had getting to the United States. Among them is Denis Blanco, 20, who recalls "walking, walking and walking" -- and then running, when border patrol agents gave chase near the U.S.-Mexico border. They did not catch him, and Blanco finally made it to the United States.

"I bathed for an hour. I brushed my teeth three times because I felt dirty, after the cow urine I had to drink," he said. He worked as a busboy in Washington for a short time before returning to Intipucá, which he missed.

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