There is a story told over and over in the half-hidden world of Washington's illegal aliens. It's about a village in El Salvador called Intipuca, where there perhaps were only 5,000 people to begin with.
"One man came to Washington in 1966," so the story goes. "He bought a car with the money he earned and sent home a picture of himself in it. The people in the village thought this looked like a good thing. Now there are more than 1,000 of them here."
Intipuca. "Everone there is rich," a reporter is told while seeking out the village. In this parched, volcanic region of Central America where there is little income and less promise-where people live in huts made of mud and sticks, along rutted roads and in small dusty villages-the town of Intipuca stands out as a bastion of prosperity, supported almost entirely by the men and women who have left it to work illegally in the restaurants and hotels, construction sites and parking lots of Washington, D.C.
In a country of 5.5 million people, where the average incocome is $400 a year, the difference between a tile floor and a dirt one, a stove versus an open fire.
Many of the children wear shoes and, what is even rarer in this part of the world, socks. Several, in new pants and dresses, play in makeshift sandpiles amid the debris of recent construction. At least every other home is made of concrete. Most have small flower gardens and many are freshly painted.
"All these nice houses," noted a young woman selling bottles of hot soda pop beside one of the few remaining mud hovels, "were built with Washington money." She squinted against the hot, stifling sun. "The only reason I don't have one is that I don't have any brothers to go there."
For years now, villagers say, the mails have been bringing Intipuca envelopes postmarked in Washington and full of money-up to $500 a month for some families-a steady stream of cash that has rebuilt the town and given it a vitality it never had before.
But it is a tenuous affluence. Most of Intipuca's people in Washington-and local residents confirm the number at about 1,000-are working without permits or visas. Statistically their chances of being caught are slight, but they are constantly aware that if their luck runs out they may be arrested, jailed or deported by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the vital flow of money cut off.
While nationally more than 90 percent of the million arrests made by the immigration service last year were Mexicans caught near the Mexican border, more than a quarter of those arrested in the District of Columbia and Virginia-426 out of 1,636-were from El Salvador. No other country even came close in local INS figures.
The immigration service does not keep statistics on what villages the illegal aliens came from, but INS investigators at the Washington district office say Intipuca is the one that sticks in their memories.
A Washington Post reporter who has written several articles about illegal aliens in the District of Columbia during the last year repeatedly encountered people from Intipuca.
Immigrants from other parts of El Salvador, when asked about Intipuca, often joked about his peculiar connections to the U.S. capital. "They are building a Washington monument in the square down there," laughed one woman, "and row houses like in Georgetown."
In January The Washington Post's Central American correspondent visited Intipuca and the villages around it to discover the facts about them. There were no Georgetown houses, no Washington monument held out by the cities-whether from Mexico to Los Angeles, Puerto Rico to New York, or from Ireland to Boston.
Intipuca's people in the United States and El Salvador talked at length about their experiences, but none wanted to be identified lest they or their relatives come to the attention of the immigration service. Their names have been changed in this article.
Pedro Aguilar, at 45, is a veteran of two extended stays in Washington. For more than four years altogether he worked day and night, living behind locked doors in a crowded, dingy little boarding house on U Street NW until he returned to Intipuca for good date last year.
On a hot day Sunday afternoon there two months after his most recent homecoming he sat contentedly in the little house he had built with money from the first trip and given a new roof with the income from his second. A bit heavier than when he left Intipuca, he is now considerably richer.
In one corner of the room, on a shiny tile room, on a shiny tile floor, stood a treadle sewing machine, in another corner a brand-new refrigerator. Along the wall Auuilar had built a row of neat new cabinets, and he now hopes to support himself working as a carpenter in Intipuca's burgeoning little construction industry.
Through the wide-open door of his house, Aguilar's four children scampered in and out. As he talked of his life in Washington, his wife Cataina stood with her arm around hime, sometimes pulling him a little closer when he spoke of the loneliness and fear during the time they spent apart.
"Our country," he said proudly, "has people all over the United States." But in Intipuca, he said, "Everbody, everybody loves Washington."
The affection, according to Aguilar and other villagers, is based partly on tradition and partly on economics. Some villagers do go to Los Angeles and other parts of California, a few to Texas but in Washington they believe, there are more jobs in restaurants and hotels, the pay is higher and the working conditions better.
Men like Aguilar are willing to risk more than everything they have to get there. The clandestine journey up through Mexico, over the border and across the United States with professional costs more than $1,000, sometimes paid at each stage of the trip, sometimes in advance.
"People sell their houses, everything they have to get money to go," Aguilar said. Often they are caught and deported before they can even make up expenses.
Once in Washington the remain in the background of the city's life, largely unnoticed in their niche at the bottom level of society, almost literally in the shadows.
The work they do-which their employers almost always say U.S. citizens will not do dor the minimum wage-is usually long, hard and dirty.
But it is found easily in a city where there is no law against hiring illegal aliens.
The impoverished where people from Intipuca live tend to be tough and dangerous, with illegal aliens particularly vulnerable to criminals who know their fear of police.
A few are able to adjust their immigration status with the help of sympathetic employers who recognize in them, or help teach them, special skills. Others disappear into the city and are never heard from again. But most, according to residents of Intipuca, spend months or years in Washington conscientiously sending back every penny they can.
"Some of them sacrifice too much," Aguilar said, "They don't eat well. They never buy any clothes. You do it for the love of the children. You work until you drop."
He pointed to the new refrigerator. "I was very cold in Washington last winter to save the money to buy that."
But for all the difficulties and dangers ther, Aguilar said, he had grown to like the life in the United States. The fear of being caught eventually subsided into an easy caution. In the Spanish-speaking sections of Washington he had learned to feel almost at home.
He knew his way around Adams-Morgan better than he knows the city of San Miguel only a few kilometers from Intipuca, and he drew a map to show a visitor his old neighborhood centering on the corner of 18th Street and Kalorama Road NW.
"I'd like to live there with my family," he said, and for most of the time he was in Washington it was a hope he clung to, but he could never discover how it might be possible. Because of the dangers of the trip, he wouldn't bring his wife and children up with smugglers, and because of stringent U.S. immigration restrictions,he couldn't bring them in legally.
He thought about going to a lawyer for help, he said, but he had seen so many of his friends swindled by unscrupulous and unlicensed "visa consultants" that he decided not to.
Eventually the tensions between Aguilar's hopes and fears grew so great, his anxious desire to stay in the United States legally so intense, he said, that he went to INS district headquarters in Washington to ask about getting a visa.
"I went to tell them I wanted to help my family." he said, putting his hand on his wife's. "I was resigned to the fact that they would probably deport me."
To his amazement the person he talked to simply told him that immigration couldn't help him or his family and let him walk back out again.
A few months later he flew home, seated among tourists and businessmen, on a commercial, jet.
"At night people sit around the fire and talk about it," said a priest outside Intipuca's freshly hwhitewashed church-"about those who got deported, those whose families are broken, the ones who live high in the United States, the faked documents and how to get them."
Intipuca, said the priest, is a "very solidified community." Its two parts, in El Salvador and Washington, are bound together by a tight network of communication.
Not only letters, but people constantly come and go between the two towns. Those already in Washington finance the trip for their relatives, then often return to Intipuca themselves.
Today there are jobs in the kitchenns of certain Washington restaurants that have been held-and traded back and forth for years-by the men of Intipuca. When one decides to leave, these restaurant's owners say, he usually produces a brother or cousin to take over for him. Houses and apartments are often turned over the same way.
Thus Intipuca's newcomers to Washington have significant advantages over many other aliens. A bed is waiting and they can often start work immediately.
But the web of talk and gossip sometimes carries troubles as well.
"If you wife takes up with another man in the village, of if you are playing around with other women while you are away," said one man from Intipuca who has lived in Washington for several years, "it is just a few days before everyone in both places knows about it."
The mass exodus-the fact that the village is usually without a high percentage of its men-has had significant social costs.
"A lot of families," said the local priest, "have been destroyed by this."
In some cases, he said, husbands who left planning to return find other "companeras" in the big city and never come home.
"They get vices," Pedro Aguilar said, "and they spend money buying houses and cars."
At home, the sudden surge in the family's income from near nothing to $400 or $500 a month sometimes "means that the wives get rich, pick up some other guy, and somebody starts walking around with a pistol."
Whatever problems the new rich of Intipuca may face, the overall prosperity of the village has left an indelible impression on people in towns that are close enough to envy its wealth, but toof ar away to share it.
"People are very poor in Centra America," said Aguilar, remembering the rough years before he went to Washington. "They have to look for a way to better themselves. Everybody has the same right to live in the world."
For the peasants of El Salvador, the right to live is not necessarily guaranteed, and for many the only path to upward mobility heads north.
In the midst of an agricultural society, most of the men must farm land that belongs to the few powerful families of El Salvador, rather than own their own.
They do not, and in most cases not, expect help from their government, a military dictatorship that has often interpreted efforts to organize the peasants-even on the part of the church-as communist-inspired subsversion. In recent years, according to people in the area, four priests have had to leave "for political reasons.
"The government has never given us any kind of protection," said one man from a village near Intipuca, "and there is nothing that they have ever done that helped me."
At twilight, when the sun begins to dip behind the high volcanic peaks, groups of peasants line the roads, walking the long miles home from the big cotton, coffee and cashew plantations that are the foundation of the country's economy.
Each wears the uniform of his profession-a patched and sweat-stained white shirt, sandals and a straw hat-and carries a gleaming, three-foot machete.
With the $1 to $2 they earn each a day in the fields, and whatever they can borrow from the agricultural bank, most of them rent a few acres and try to grow enough rice and corn to survive.
Except for San Miguel and the cashew processing factory in La Union, a nearby town on the Gulf of Fonseca that separates El Salvador from Nicaragua, there is no industry here. Even if they had the money to buy their own piece of the arid, cotton-sapped local land, the peasants say, there is virtually none is available.
Chirilagua, about 10 miles down the road from Intipuca, is typical of most of the villages still largely dependent on the local economy. Its thatched-roof homes are made of slim poles lashed together and slathered with mud. Water comes from communal wells shared by two or three families.
Its streets, where barefooted and often naked children mingle with an assortment of dogs, cows and chickens, run steeply up the igneous slopes and are roughly paved with rocks dug from the fields.
The few concrete buildings in the village, residents said, werre built with money sent from the United States. They were quick to add that Chirilagua's community abroad could not compare with Intipuca's. But, they said more of them heading for Washington every month. CAPTION:
Picture 1, Hut at left is typical of Intipuca area. Other houses were built with money sent home from D.C.; Picture 2, Children of four brothers who work in the District reflect the affluence their paychecks bring to Intipuca. The children have shoes and socks and the home is built of concrete; Picture 3, At right is house they lived in before their fathers left.; Picture 4, Children play around one of the communal wells of Chirilagua, a village about 10 miles from Intipuca that is still largely dependent on the local economy. Photos by Karen DeYoung-The Washington Post; Map, no caption, By Richard Furno-The Washington Post; Picture 5, Illegal alien from Central America washes dishes in an area restaurant. Usch jobs provide money to send home. By John McDonnell-The Washington Post