On Long Island, Salvadoran Cultural Roots Run Deep
Later this week, we’ll have some coverage of the aftermath of Salvadoran Vice President Salvador Sanchez Cerén’s visit to Long Island, where he met with several Long Island legislators and local officials. Protesters in Freeport, in Nassau County, objected to their mayor’s meeting with Cerén, who reportedly participated in celebrations following the 9/11 terror attacks that included burning a United States flag.
In his visit to Long Island, Cerén, a possible presidential contender for 2014, was reaching out to a massive and growing Salvadoran community — the 2010 Census found almost 100,000 Salvadorans living in Nassau and Suffolk counties. To understand better the depth of Salvadoran culture on Long Island, we translated the article below, from El Diario La Prensa, on the community.
The Salvadoran flag flutters proudly in Hempstead and Brentwood, two villages on Long Island.
The Salvadoran businesses that fill the streets of these towns are proof of the community’s economic power and accelerated growth over the past 40 years.
Alex Martínez, 43 years old and the owner of the Tres Sabores restaurant in Hempstead, recalled that when he arrived 26 years ago, not many Central Americans could be seen in the streets.
“I remember abandoned buildings and a lifeless, stagnant town,” Martínez explained. “When the Salvadorans arrived, the economy revived. There isn’t a bodega or restaurant around that doesn’t serve pupusas or riguas de elote.”
The organization Entrepreneurs for Change estimates that Salvadorans own more than 50 percent of small businesses in Brentwood and Hempstead.
A History of Entrepreneurship
According to Long Island residents, the first [Salvadoran] immigrants arrived toward the end of the 1960s, but the immigration “boom” occurred during the 1980s due to the armed conflict in the country.
The growth of the community compelled local establishments to serve traditional food and to import products from El Salvador. One example is the Hempstead supermarket La Tienda del Pueblo; caramel popcorn known as “alboroto” and sweet breads like santaneca and peperecha are the most popular items at the store.
“I came here in 1982. Back then, you couldn’t find the tuza (corn husks) for tamales,” said Dalila Santoro, 51. “The majority of my community is from the eastern and western parts of El Salvador.” Santoro is from the Salvadoran city of Santa Ana.
Santoro said that many of her fellow Salvadorans came to Long Island thanks to Temporary Protected Status, which the United States granted to immigrants in 2001 after an environmental disaster caused by a series of earthquakes.
“Some of us were fleeing violence, others poverty or natural disasters, but we all found a new home and a new beginning here,” she said.
According to the Salvadoran consulate, about 15,000 Salvadorans have TPS on Long Island.
A Demographic Explosion
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Salvadorans are the fourth largest Latino minority in the nation. The 2010 Census showed that 1,649,000 Salvadorans live in the U.S. As for Long Island, 56,761 Salvadorans live in Nassau and Suffolk counties. [Editor's note: A Voices of NY search of the U.S. Census Bureau's website found that 47,180 Salvadorans live in Nassau County, and another 52,315 live in Suffolk County.]
The Salvadoran Consulate, which opened a branch in Brentwood in 2000, said that after Los Angeles, Long Island has the highest concentration of Salvadorans. In 2011, the consulate received 11,000 passport applications. El Salvador is the only country with a consulate general office in that part of New York State.
A Political Challenge
The demographic expansion and economic strength of the community still hasn’t resulted in political representation and power. The only Salvadoran elected official (and the first in the state) is Antonio Martínez, a councilman for the town of Babylon.
“It’s a priority of mine to help Salvadoran-Americans become elected officials,” said Martínez. “The community must gain more political power. Otherwise, the Salvadoran population will only be a number.”
Despite these circumstances, the community remains hopeful, given that more immigrants are ascending to government positions. Examples include Patricia Pérez, 36, Deputy Village Clerk of the Village of Hempstead, and Luís Montes, 31, who is the Assistant Deputy County Executive at the Suffolk County executive’s office and oversees outreach activities for the Latino community.