Thursday, February 09, 2006

The (Central) American Dream


In “Finding American Dream, in El Salvador,” Héctor Tobar describes the psychological dislocation under way in El Salvador as it’s forced to import citizens of neighboring countries to work in its fields:

ACACOYO, El Salvador — The 170 laborers ensconced at the Hacienda San Clemente here consider themselves the champion sugar cane cutting team of El Salvador.

They work seven days a week. The youngest and strongest of them can cut 12 tons of cane stalks in one shift.

"One day, I'm going to tell my children what we did here," Adrian Sanchez Corrales, 53, said proudly.

Salvadorans take pride in calling themselves the hardest-working people in Central America. But Sanchez Corrales and his team aren't from El Salvador; they're migrants from Honduras.

Thousands of Salvadorans have immigrated to the United States, legally and illegally, sparking a labor shortage in their homeland. In addition to the sheer number of workers lost, the dollars those immigrants send home discourage those who remain behind from performing low-paying, backbreaking labor like that of the sugar cane harvest.

The Hondurans at the Hacienda San Clemente are more than eager to fill the labor gap.

Approximately one in nine people born in El Salvador can be expected to move to the United States. This absence of young labor, and the resulting need for Hondurans and Nicaraguans, is causing some denial and a burgeoning identity crisis in El Salvador, which has traditionally viewed itself as the hardest-working country in the Americas:

There is some concern here that Salvadorans are losing their industrious self-image, a vision celebrated by poets such as Roque Dalton, whose "Love Poem" recounted the exploits of Salvadoran laborers up and down the Americas.

In November, Interior Minister Rene Figueroa issued a plea for Salvadorans to work the harvests.

"Today some sectors are telling us that they have enough with their family remittances," he told a Salvadoran newspaper. "It's not possible that we are abandoning our own fields and that we have to bring in labor from abroad."

El Salvador is becoming an economic, and unavoidably a cultural, magnet for Central America. I wonder whether El Salvadoran emigration is generating a cascade of labor shortages in Nicaragua and Honduras, which are also largely agrarian, as those countries’ laborers find better compensation elsewhere. Many Central Americans will ultimately decide to stay in El Salvador, just as many Salvadorans settled elsewhere during the Salvadoran civil war. This may increase the ties among these usually fractious nations and over the long run change their political focus, perhaps even breathing new life into regional economic and political agreements such as CAFTA and the Organization of American States.

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