Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2008
Rivera and thousands of other Central and South American immigrants have left their native countries only to arrive in an American city dominated by Mexicans, who comprise L.A.’s largest Latino group and have access to most of the jobs sought by immigrants. The metropolis drives many to Mexicanize, to degrees big and small, often before they start to Americanize.
Change comes gradually, particularly through speech, as different words take over, intonations fade and verbs are conjugated in new ways. Some immigrants begin to mimic mejicanos even before they leave their homeland. They toy with Mexican curse words and awkwardly bend their accents to blend in as they cross Mexico into the United States.
There are more than 350,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles County, most living in the dense neighborhoods surrounding MacArthur Park.
They try to carve out a distinct identity. Their pupuserias dot the area, and each summer thousands gather to celebrate Salvadoran Day. Last year, parents succeeded in opening Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, named after a Salvadoran martyr, to help young Salvadoran children learn about their heritage.
Salvadorans began pouring into Los Angeles in large numbers in the 1980s, many fleeing El Salvador’s brutal civil war. Many arrived disillusioned and powerless, and unlike Mexicans, their roots and networks did not date back centuries. Getting a job often meant getting the nod of a Mexican contractor, foreman or manager.
“It’s always Mexico, Mexico, Mexico,” said Jorge Mendoza, a 42-year-old painter, one of a group of Salvadoran men who gathered recently at MacArthur Park. “I turn on the radio and all I hear is Mexican music. If I want to watch a soccer game, I have to watch a Mexican team play.”
The same goes for Spanish newscasts, telenovelas, celebrity gossip — all dominated by Mexicans.
The greatest affront comes daily as most strangers assume Salvadorans are Mexican, said Julio Martinez Sarceño, 62, who moved to the United States 32 years ago. He carries his Salvadoran identification card in his wallet at all times, “just in case someone needs proof.”
Like him, most Salvadorans hold proudly to the distinctions of Central America’s smallest country: El Salvador’s independence day is September 15, the day before Mexico’s; the national menu is made up of pupusas and fried yuca, not enchiladas and menudo; Salvadorans flood the dance floor when a band sounds off a cumbia, not as a mariachi band belts out a ranchera.
But sounding Mexican sometimes is inevitable. The two communities have mingled at work, school and church for nearly three decades; they have intermarried, baptized each other’s children and cried at each other’s funerals.
Some have subconsciously picked up Mexican speech habits. They slip and use common Mexican expressions such as córrele (hurry.) Others deliberately Mexicanize their speech to avoid confusion. They ask the ice cream vendor for helado, not sorbete, and fly a papalote (kite) instead of a pizcucha.
Others refuse to budge.
“I’m never going to change the way I speak,” Mendoza said. English should be the first priority for an immigrant, so why “run around speaking Mexican?” he asked. “Out of need,” argued Martin Fernandez, who left El Salvador for the San Fernando Valley in 1989.