Melida Molina sits at a table in her newly opened Salvadoran restaurant on 18th Street and squints as she tries to answer a difficult question about the country she left 11 years ago and still misses. "I think," she says cautiously, "the elections are a good thing."
A short, dark-haired Salvadoran who arrived in the United States less than three weeks ago emerges from mass at a church near his country's embassy on California Street and says he is "not interested" in the elections, which "everyone knows are a fraud."
Up some creaky stairs and behind a purple door tucked between the Idle Times Bookstore and the Cafedon Restaurant on Columbia Road is yet a third view of the election in El Salvador, scheduled for Sunday. In a front room cluttered with desks and plastered with posters supporting El Salvador's political left, a few ex-university students laugh and say it is only a "pretext for U.S. military intervention" in their tiny country of five million people.
Anguished by the war that has ripped apart their cozy, tropical homeland, Washington's Salvadoran commmunity, one of the largest in this country, views the coming election with ambivalent feelings of hope and despair and a noticeable lack of "election fever."
Whatever their opinion of the significance of the election, which the United States and the American-backed junta hope will bring them an advantage in the war with leftist insurgents, few Salvadorans questioned here voiced much enthusiasm for the voting that will take place without their participation. Even fewer believe it will deliver what most want more than anything else--an end to the brutal war being fought with the lives of their friends and relatives at home.
"For sure, everyone believes there will be change after the election, for better or for worse," said a young Salvadoran who like many did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation against relatives by one side or the other in the conflict. "But most think it will be for the worse because the leftists will continue fighting and the war will get worse."
It is in large part due to the war that the Salvadoran community is the Washington area's fastest-growing ethnic bloc. The El Salvador embassy estimates there are at least 30,000 of its citizens living in the area, a concentration they say is about the same as New York's and smaller only than the community in the combined Los Angeles-San Francisco area. Clerics and social workers involved with the Salvadorans believe the number here is even larger than the embassy's figures suggest.
One of Washington's most established Hispanic groups, the Salvadorans are a diverse group that includes professionals, small businessmen and students, many of whom have been here several years. But by far the largest number are rural peasants, often illiterate, who have arrived in the past couple of years, spurred to emigrate clandestinely to the United States by what one Salvadoran woman called "dollar fever," by an unemployment rate the embassy admits is about 40 percent and by the violence of the war.
The 29-year-old immigrant who called the elections a fraud said he was a student until the authorities closed his university. Then the commercial real estate firm he worked for closed down because "only the rich can afford to buy buildings these days" and due to the war "these people have all sent their money here to the U.S. ."
A woman who works as a bank secretary said she left El Salvador two years ago because of the random violence that had forced her to evacuate her office more than once when shooting broke out.
Many Salvadorans choose Washington because they have relatives or friends here. A new survey by the D.C. Community Humanities Council reports that many Salvadorans also select Washington because "as the capital, it is considered the ultimate destination for persons who are used to perceiving living in the metropolitan area as the fulfillment of their aspirations." It helps too, the survey found, that there has been a demand for hotel and restaurant workers in this area--jobs traditionally filled by Salvadorans.
Generally the illegal Salvadorans have traveled first to Guatemala, then to Mexico, where with the help of a 'coyote' (a person paid to guide illegal immigrants across the Mexico-U.S. border), they are driven usually to Texas or California. According to people who work with Salvadorans, they then call relatives who send them money for a bus or plane ticket to their final destination. But some are driven directly to Washington and let off right on Columbia Road, in the heart of Washington's Latino neighborhood, according to one source.
This steady stream of mostly illegal immigrants is one of the primary ways Salvadorans keep informed about the war at home. They also receive letters from relatives and read the Salvadoran newspapers that are delivered twice a week in bundles to newsstands on Columbia Road. The news from all these sources often is bad.
Almost every week at the Capilla Latina a few doors down from the El Salvador embassy on California Street, "people come to have masses said for relatives slaughtered senselessly (in the war). Most are horrified and emotionally exhausted by the violence," said Father Sean O'Malley, unofficial parish priest for the Hispanic community in this area.
There are other frustrations as well. One woman working here saved for two years to send her husband the money to buy a second-hand pick-up truck to take his farm produce to market, O'Malley recounted. "But one week after he got it, the only bridge to town was blown up by the guerrillas and he had to sell the truck and buy a mule."
Being caught in the middle is a common complaint. As Molina put it, "I love my country. I miss it. But I don't know what happened there. If you go to the left, the right kills you. If you go to the right, the left kills you." A 25-year-old dishwasher who has worked here illegally for 14 months lamented, "I am a man from the countryside. Whoever wins, it will be the same for me. Both sides have blood on their hands."
Most Salvadorans living here eschew politics and concentrate on making a living. But there are groups and individuals on both sides of the issue who try to influence American opinion. The Salvadoran Committee, the Oscar Romero Coalition and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador are some of the loosely organized groups that support Salvador's leftist party and by extension, the insurgents allied to them. They are planning a demonstration March 27 to protest the election.
El Salvador's ambassador, Ernesto Rivas-Gallont, an affable man who is not a career diplomat, pleads the other side. "For the first time in the history of El Salvador, it has a truly revolutionary government." The elections are "one big step forward," he said in a recent interview. But he cautioned that "the government does not see the elections as a panacea, as 'The Solution' . . .we will have continued violence even after the elections."
Another reason why Salvadorans living here seem aloof is the government's own track record. As one Salvadoran woman stopped on the street put it, "It's always the same. The person who wins the election has a party to celebrate the next morning. But in the afternoon the military takes power from him." There is widespread skepticism among Salvadorans here that this time it will be any different.
Even if the election is fraud-free and its results respected, many Salvadorans say its credibility still suffers because it does not offer a real change. The leftist party allied to the insurgents has refused to participate in the elections, creating a situation in some ways analoguous to that in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1979 when guerrillas there shunned elections held by the government.
"The thing is, there is no candidate that is not already working for the government. They're all already there," said a businessman. "The people would like a real election, one in which there are three or four candidates, one from the right, one from the left and maybe two neutral. But such a thing will never happen."
"People want a change. They don't want the military and they don't want the Communists, but they want a change," said Maria Bueno, 26, who first came to this country 10 years ago as a student. She and her husband now run the Zodiac Bookstore on Columbia Road.
Napo Lopez, 35, works as a meat cutter in Virginia and lives in Bladensburg. He questions the elections on several scores, one of which comes across in accusatory tones. "In the U.S. you don't go to elections when there is shooting in the streets and fifty people are being killed every day for political reasons. Those are not the conditions in which you go to elections here," he said.
But those will be the conditions in El Salvador on Sunday when the relatives and friends of Washington's Salvadoran community, warned not to vote by the leftist insurgents and commanded to vote by the civilian-military junta, again will be in the middle. As one Salvadoran businessman here put it, "It will be a hard day, a bad day for the people."