Sometimes Carolina shuts her eyes and drifts into memories of her native El Salvador -- before the war. She remembers the countryside and the grandparents who raised her. In Washington, she's thousands of miles from war's harm, but also from the comfort of the familiar.

At 18, Carolina has a child, no job, no husband. She lives in a cramped studio apartment on the roughest edge of Adams-Morgan, the Northwest Washington neighborhood that serves as the unofficial capital of the local Latin community.

Carolina and her teen-age boyfriend, also Salvadoran, and their month-old son share the bare, one-room apartment with four other people -- her 23-year-old aunt, who has a 3-month-old baby; and her teen-age sister, with her 2-year-old daughter.

At night, the sister and the 2-year-old sleep without complaint in a closet behind a curtain.

Since the beginning of El Salvador's civil war in 1979, thousands have fled to the United States. Among them, authorities say, are a large number of teen-agers, many of whom emigrated without their parents.

Often undereducated, barely employable and unprepared for life in urban America, Salvadoran teens are finding that they must grapple with the pangs of adolescence against a backdrop of abject poverty, disintegrating family ties, cultural isolation and a foreign society they have great difficulty understanding. There are no reliable figures on how many such youths are living in Washington, but experts agree the number is large and growing.

In a recent report by the Latin American Youth Center, the District is said to have had "enormous growth" in its Hispanic population over the past five years. During that period, the center estimates, 50,000 to 70,000 Hispanics have arrived in Washington; the majority are believed to be Salvadorans, many between the ages of 15 and 20.

Hugo Galinvo, the District public school system's executive assistant for bilingual education, said that in the past five years Salvadoran youths have almost tripled the system's Hispanic population, which is growing at a rate of 30 to 35 students a week.

From Sept. 1 of last year through March 30, Galinvo said, 443 of the 518 newly enrolled students from Central America were from El Salvador.

Furthermore, Galinvo said, he believes that many Salvadorans, particularly teen-agers, are not entering D.C. schools because they are working to support themselves.

At the Multicultural Career Intern Program, a special city-operated program for newly arrived students from around the world, Salvadorans have become the largest group seeking academic and job placement help.

The worst of living conditions in Washington are materially many times better than conditions in parts of El Salvador where many live without running water, electricity or indoor plumbing, social workers say.

Nonetheless, many young Salvadorans -- a group District police say tends to stay to themselves and out of trouble -- say they long for the culture they left behind.

"For anyone who is not from here, there is a homesickness," said Quique Aviles, a 19-year-old Salvadoran who came to Washington five years ago.

Coco Bueno, an Adams-Morgan merchant from El Salvador, said she sees the strain in the faces of her country's displaced youth.

"It is loneliness, it's pressure," she said at her Zodiac Disco Centro record and variety store, a popular stop for Hispanic teen-agers. "It is difficult for them to try to see the system and how it works . . . . You see the expression on their faces, sadness."

For Carolina, whose household depends on the $77.52 a week her boyfriend, an illegal alien, brings home from his job at a downtown fast food restaurant, existence is on a day-to-day basis, but is tolerable. She asked that her last name not be used in this article.

"It's hard. But this place, for me, is a lot better than where we lived last year," she said in halting English, her soft voice punctuated by her infant's brassy wail.

"We had to share the kitchen and the bathroom" with other occupants of a 14th Street rooming house, she said. "Here we have more space, more room."

Carolina's mother, whom Carolina came to Washington to join in 1982, lives below her teen-age daughters in another apartment and helps when she can. But the family has drifted apart.

Dr. Ricardo Galbis, a psychiatrist at the Washington Hospital Center and director of the Andromeda Hispanic Health Center, said it is difficult to determine whether many Salvadoran teen-agers are living alone because they came here alone or because their families, once reassembled here, disband under the burden of new social, economic and emotional pressures.

"One of the big problems with teens here is that many of them have come after long years of separation with the families," Galbis explained. "Sometimes the mother comes first, then the father, and then the children."

Gablis said that often teen-agers come here and join "reconstituted families" that they hardly know, meeting for the first time new stepfathers, brothers and sisters.

"They react somewhat hostilely," he said. "They have the usual problems of teen-agers, plus more. They live in very cramped quarters and make little money . . . . A lot of friction results."

A Salvadoran volunteer with the Central American Refugee Committee in Adams-Morgan said loneliness is a key factor of life for Salvadoran teen-agers.

"I talk to many young people -- 16 and 15 years old," she said, asking that her name not be used. "They usually have problems with nerves. They cry without any reason. They are fearful of being deported. They have headaches."

A 21-year-old Salvadoran who calls himself Nelson said he spent some of the hardest years of his life after he came to the District illegally four years ago.

"I was the first one in my family, in my house, to come here," Nelson recalled. "I was by myself. I had family here two cousins in their early twenties , but they were indifferent to me."

After living with his cousins for six months and saving some money from a dishwasher's job he got with a Social Security number he made up, Nelson said, he found a basement apartment. For the first time in his life, he was responsible for himself.

Six months later, he lost the job and found himself sleeping in a Mount Pleasant park for two weeks until he could find new work and new shelter. He said the lesson was hard-won.

"In my country, if someone doesn't have it and someone has it, they share," Nelson said. "Here, if you don't have any, nobody cares about you."

And yet the Salvadorans continue to come. Many are undocumented and pay smugglers as much as $2,500 to bring them across the border. Some, such as an 18-year-old Salvadoran kitchen helper here, have been so desperate that they have tried to walk from El Salvador to the United States.

In recent weeks a broad-based coalition that includes religious and Hispanic groups is lobbying Congress to pass a bill introduced by Rep. John Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) that would halt deportations of Salvadorans temporarily while their plight is studied for two years.

Unlike nationals from Ethiopia, Poland, Afghanistan and Uganda, for example, Salvadorans have not been granted refugee status. But despite that, they come in ever-increasing numbers. The Salvadorans say their reasons are compelling.

Aviles, who is a staff member of the Latin American Youth Center's quarterly magazine, said his fellow Salvadoran teen-agers come simply because it is a matter of life and death.

"If you were a teen-ager in El Salvador between 1979 and now, I'd say there is a chance you didn't have a 'normal' youth," Aviles said. "Because you go out on the street and there's a body with machete cuts, bullets.

"You see death, horrible things, and your friends get killed, your mother, your uncle . . . . I think it is very normal that if you have somebody you love, you want them out of there."

Aviles came to the District as a legal resident, rejoining his mother, who left him in El Salvador with his grandparents when he was a child. He has lived here on his own for several years.

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic self-help group, said that to be a teen-ager, especially male, in El Salvador is "a dangerous situation because you either are going to get kidnaped by the guerrillas or drafted and pressed into service by the government."

"There is no middle ground," he said. "No place to hide."

Brother Mark Poletunow, a Capuchin Franciscan friar who for the past three years has worked with local Hispanic youths at the Spanish Catholic Center in Mount Pleasant, said a "significant number" of Salvadoran youths are living here on their own.

"It is hard for me to give a percentage," Poletunow said, "but I think it is a significant issue . . . . It's something that needs more exposure."

Marco Y. Vasquez, counseling and career development supervisor for the program that operates out of Lincoln Junior High School at 16th and Irving streets NW, said Salvadorans have proven to be extremely industrious and hard-working. But he said he is troubled by the effects economic needs are having on the development of these young people cut off from their own.

"In our culture the young adult depends very much on the family structure," Vasquez said. "Here, they get a job, start to make money and leave."

He said the new-found independence of Salvadoran youths has, in many cases, worked to erode the old-country customs that Salvadoran parents seem desperate to preserve.

"I was happy in my country," said Aracely Clara, a 17-year-old Columbia Road cashier whose family forced her to leave El Salvador and rejoin them here three years ago. "Everything here changes, myself and the ways of life.

" In El Salvador I would not miss a mass on Sunday," she said. "Here, no one bothers. And I work seven days a week. I don't have time for myself, no time for church."

Soon, Clara said, she will leave home.

"I have to learn how to support myself."