History 208 the Oddessey North
Submitted By wehmar
Salvadoran Migration to the US
El Salvador was ravaged by a nasty civil war. During this time, several hundred thousand Salvadorans escaped to the United States, settling primarily around the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. areas. Many of them entered the country illegally via Mexico. Odyssey to the North portrays the Salvadoran-American experience using collective reminiscence and a series of flashbacks to illustrate the impact of immigration on the psyche of Salvadorans who embarked on a journey outside their homeland to the US during the 1970s-1980s. Emphasis is placed on the reasons immigrants ran away from their home country rather than their desire to go to the United States, lending a better understanding of the new comers’ outlook on the American dream. Salvadoran identity and the inevitability of maintaining ties between immigrants in the US and their country of origin is characterized by the protagonist, Calixto. Although he was physically away from his land, he firmly believed that he would always hold it in his heart (50). His situation exposes the suffering of tens of thousands of Salvadorans caught up in Civil War violence. Calixto reflects on the devastating violence of El Salvador, stating, “I picture my country as one enormous cemetery” (152).
Government forces sought after Calixto, a construction worker, falsely accusing him of being a rebel sympathizer. Despite his lack of political involvement, he was denounced as a revolutionary and forced to flee his country or face death at the hands of paramilitary death squads. He borrowed money to pay for being smuggled into the US. Upon arrival, he made his way to Washington, DC. After saving some money, Calixto planned to send for his wife and child, showing the level of devotion to the family he was forced to leave behind in El Salvador. The trip was dreadful, with untrustworthy "coyotes" milking the migrants for money, raping and abducting the women, and abandoning the refugees in times of danger.
There are many correlations between Calixto’s attempts at integration in the US, his present experiences as a dishwasher in Washington D.C., past experiences with “coyotes” (immigrant smugglers) and immigration detention centers, and the subjective political persecution that forced him from his home country.
During his first days in the United States, Calixto didn’t even go out of the apartment. “It took about a week for me to get up the courage to go out and walk around the building (121),” he explained to his immigrant Salvadoran comrades. Though he escaped to a foreign country in search of better living conditions, and an ultimately improved quality of life, Calixto (like so many other Salvadoran refugees) was met by the same conditions of poverty, unemployment, cramped living spaces, and vulnerability to apprehension by the authorities that could result in deportation. Assimilating into American culture proved to be difficult as Calixto struggled to hold on to his national identity while his refugee counterparts tried to shed theirs. “Every day I am more Salvadoran. Because it’s one thing to make progress, have a job, live better, but your home is always in your heart. I could live away from my country for a hundred years, but I’ll never renounce it (138),” Calixto tried to explain to his friend Juancho. Juancho made an attempt at assimilation to United States culture by changing his name to Johnny, purchasing new shoes, and spending all of his money on a Trans-Am… all to impress an American woman.
It took Calixto about two months before he found his first job. He never before imagined he would be washing dishes in a foreign land, a job usually reserved for women in his country (62), but it was a better option than being subject to unemployment, misery, and persecution. Calixto’s memories of life in the countryside were those of hard work from sunrise to sunset (only for a few colones), and a couple of tortillas with salt every day, and cruel crew leaders as bosses (63). Coyotes very popular because they were the safest way to arrive in the United States, and migrants were dependent on the coyote system to accomplish their goal of attaining a better life. Border crossings by way of do-it-yourself methods were atypical, and practically everyone was paying a coyote. Migrant Salvadorans caught illegally crossing the border were charged with committing a crime, but many were willing to commit a crime to avoid a perceived greater harm: political persecution. There were alternatives to deportation, such as political asylum. Once an immigrant requested political asylum (a special process in which one must prove the threat to their lives if they return to their country of origin), a bond amount was set. If incapable of meeting the bond requirement, they were to remain imprisoned until the political asylum case was won. If released on bond, they are given time to find gainful employment or find some other means of obtaining legal residency (134). Teresa, a young Salvadoran woman in a United States court for immigration underwent hearings concerning the process of her application for asylum to avoid being deported to El Salvador. She feared her life was in danger due to the oppositional political involvement of her husband. She attempted to convince the court that if she returned to her country the forces of government oppression would surely target and kill her. The judge eventually denied her application for political asylum and ordered her deportation. Following the judge’s decision, a newspaper article from El Salvador near the end of the novel announced the “remains of a woman were found... identified her as twenty-one-year-old Teresa de Jesús Delgado... recently deported from the United States... [whose] death was due to political retaliation” (188). This is yet another example of the continued possibility of return, or at least the certain destructive consequences of such a decision.
The lives of illegal immigrants in Washington, D.C. are mostly portrayed through interactions between Calixto and fellow dishwashers as well as immigrants in holding facilities in the U.S. occupied by Mexican gangs and other international border-crossers. Their collective longing for the homeland is paralleled by images of hopelessness, ruin, and annihilation. In remembering the historical and political conditions under which the massive Salvadoran immigration of the 1970s and 1980s took place, their quandary should not be forgotten. The forces of civil war and poverty inspired Salvadorans to escape the lack of food, inadequate education, and government oppression in search of an improved livelihood. Migration across the Americas made them susceptible to rape, assault, and even capture. Attempts at integration in the US forced them to deal with national identities, exposure to impoverished conditions, the alternative of political asylum, and ultimately culture shock. Calixto’s journey from his home country to life in the US successfully illustrates the troubles of Salvadorans in the 1970’-1980s.