INTIPUCA, El Salvador—In a little town in eastern El Salvador a statue has been built in honor of the first resident to make it to Washington, D.C., way back in 1968. Since then, thousands have followed, both legally and illegally, forging a bond so close and so extensive that many of the folks here think what the North Americans call “the nation’s capital” could hardly function without workers from this sleepy, coastal town in El Salvador.
The streets are lined with houses in pristine condition, painted bright colors and built with remittances sent by workers in the United States, and long before El Salvador ditched its colón for the U.S. dollar in 2001, that was the common currency here.
While walking around town, residents commonly greet each other saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” rather than, “Hola, que tal?’ Many of the migrants who have returned, either by choice or deportation, are eager to speak the language that became familiar to their tongues during their years or even decades in D.C. and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
The exchange between Intipuca and the U.S. is a two-way street. In and around the nation’s capital, where the majority of the estimated 5,000 immigrants from Intipuca have settled, the service industry is fueled in part by the years of hard work of these native “Intipuqueños.” Intipuca may run on dollars, but D.C. would indeed be hard pressed without the labor of these immigrants.
“The service industry would be chaos without us, because we’ve done the work that no one else wants to do,” said José Elenilson Leonzo, the current mayor of Intipuca. Leonzo lived in the D.C. area for 36 years, working in restaurants and as a parking valet before moving back to his home country permanently this year. As a dual citizen, he still frequently travels back to visit his six adult children who live in the U.S.
President Donald Trump has terrorized and criminalized immigrant communities since taking office, and the administration’s policies have been particularly harsh toward Salvadorans. The separation of some 2,000 children from their parents at the U.S. southern border between April 19 to May 31 of this year was just the latest move in Trump’s crackdown against immigrants. In May, the White House issued a warning about the “violent animals” of MS-13, a phrase used by Trump in a roundtable discussion which has been criticized for its dehumanizing effect.
For years now, in fact, Trump has used MS-13 anecdotes to stigmatize a supposed wave of migrants “bringing death and destruction” across the southern border of the United State. He claimed recently they will “pour in and infest” the U.S, and has blamed El Salvador for sending gang members north. But MS-13 was actually born on the streets of Los Angeles and exported to El Salvador through deportations. And more recently, as reported by Lawfare, in the fiscal year 2017 MS-13 members numbered 228—that is, 0.075 percent—of the total 303,916 migrants that the Border Patrol detected entering the United States.
MS-13 does have a presence in Maryland and Virginia, but residents of Intipuca insist there is no gang involvement from their number, and because of the development spurred by remittances, the town has been spared the gang violence experienced in other parts of the country.
While administration officials justify their “zero tolerance” policy with hyperbole and lies, an immigrant from Intipuca could be cooking their food at a restaurant, doing landscaping work in their yards, or parking their cars.
Catering the CIA
Residents of Intipuca have done these jobs since at least the 1960s, when the first migrants left the town. The community of Intipuqueños in the U.S. rapidly multiplied during the country’s civil war, fought from 1980 to 1992 between leftist rebels and a U.S.-backed Salvadoran military, leaving 75,000 dead. Residents still regularly leave, but mainly for economic reasons or to reunite with family.
Elmer Efrain Hernandez, a 50-year-old resident of Intipuca, migrated to the D.C. area in 1983 when he was 15 years old. Here in El Salvador, as the civil war raged around him, he had to sneak through his neighbors’ backyards to go to school unnoticed. Boys of his age were expected to join either of two sides—the Salvadoran military or the leftist guerilla insurgency—so it was dangerous for him to be seen heading to class. He didn’t want to fight for either side, so his mom sent him to the U.S.
“I didn’t want to leave. I was just starting to be a teenager. I loved school and I loved everything, but because of the war, I left,” Hernandez said.
The people who fled the fighting often arrived at the political center of the U.S., where politicians and made decisions that would affect their own country’s future.
Over the span of more than three decades, Hernandez worked various jobs in the D.C-area service industry, first in restaurants and later installing cable and internet. At one point, he was even hired through a subcontractor to provide catering for the CIA.
The hypocrisy of this dynamic between Salvadoran service workers and politicians is not lost on Hernandez. “They say they don’t want immigrants, but there’s some politicians who have immigrants doing work on their house, cleaning their house or watching after their pets,” Hernandez said.
“It would be tough to not have those immigrants there doing those jobs,” he added.
Mayor Leonzo’s job as a parking valet in the U.S. also brought him face-to-face with Washington power players over the years, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Newt Gingrich.
Even though some politicians lash out against immigrants like Leonzo during the day, he says he’s never had a bad experience with a politician face-to-face. “What I’m interested in is doing my job and providing quality service,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he agrees with the people he’s paid to attend. “You have to respect the feelings of others, of children, and of our people. As long as you don’t hurt another human being, you are doing good politics,” he said. The separation of parents and children is guided by an “erroneous” way of thinking, because “no one has the right to separate a parent from a child,” he added.
Now, as mayor, Leonzo represents a population where almost everyone has family in the U.S. and the idea of leaving is planted at a young age. Leonzo wants to focus on giving people a reason to stay in El Salvador by investing in education and turning the coastal town into a “pearl” to attract both national and international tourists. “Going to the U.S as a kid and having to suffer as I did, I now want a better El Salvador and a better town for our kids today,” he said.
But even with more economic development to convince residents to stay, Intipuca and Washington, D.C., are still inextricably linked.
Xiomara and Kimberly
Five-year-old Kimberly, dressed in a yellow Minnie Mouse T-shirt and jean shorts, plays with her stuffed animals outside her home in Intipuca. Her dad migrated to Maryland two years ago. “She was always so attached to him, so in the first days, I told her he was coming back,” her mother Xiomara said.
Her dad calls almost every day after getting off work at an auto-body shop. Some days Kimberly talks to him. Other days, she says she would rather talk when he comes home in his truck, as he did every day before he left.
Xiomara and Kimberly recently applied for U.S. visas, but were denied. Xiomara believes it’s because she told the official at the embassy that her husband lives in the U.S. and they suspected that he is undocumented since she didn’t want to provide more information. It was a long shot anyway since none of her family in the U.S. has legal status. It has become easier for some Intipuqueños to migrate legally, but usually only with the help of a family member who is a resident or citizen.
The father declined to be interviewed given that he is undocumented in the U.S. and is nervous about talking to the press. Xiomara did not want hers or her daughter’s full name published for fear that it could affect her chances of getting a visa in the future, although that’s a slim prospect.
Now, the 25-year-old mother is deciding whether she should pay a human smuggler, a coyote, to take her and her daughter to the U.S. to reunite with her husband. Her sister took her son, Xiomara’s nephew, about two years ago. After being apprehended by border patrol, both mother and son were released, but the mother was given an ankle monitor. They are still waiting for their asylum case to be resolved.
Xiomara recently read about the news of family separation at the border in her Facebook news feed. “It’s an injustice,” she said. “Because there’s people who just go there to give a better life to their kids.”
Xiomara fears how separation would affect Kimberly, who’ll be starting kindergarten next year.
“Because of the problem of taking kids away, I think it’s better I don’t risk it,” she said. Plus, it’s a huge expense to pay a smuggler, with fees usually ranging from $7,000 to $10,000 per person. “If you risk it, whether or not you make it, that’s money that you lose,” Xiomara said.
But she still has hope her family will be together again soon. “I want to give my daughter a better future so that she can study, graduate and become a professional, and do what I couldn’t do,” the mother said.
While Xiomara contemplates how to reunite her family, her husband fixes cars in the D.C. area, likely for some of the same people who are making decisions that affect the fate of his family.
The Human Factor
In this Salvadoran town 2,000 miles from Washington, D.C., what’s happening up north is never far from their minds.
Luis Ernesto Rodas Cruz, a 43-year-old resident of Intipuca, has been following Trump’s policies since he took office. The father of three lived in the D.C. area where he worked painting houses for five years before deciding to come back in 2011 to be closer to his family. “With all due respect” to the Trump administration, he urges that they consider the conditions in El Salvador, where “there’s no work and no employment.”
“We all deserve an opportunity,” he said. “The person who leaves El Salvador, he goes to work hard.”
The U.S. has undoubtedly shaped the Intipuca of today—there’s that statue in the middle of town, for instance. But as much as these residents have been marked by the U.S., they’ve also left their mark on the nation’s capital.
Intipuqueños wash the plates politicians eat off, hand them their keys as they leave the parking garage, and paint and repair the cars cruising around D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
That’s how it’s been long before Trump took office. Most likely that’s how it will remain long after he leaves.
If mayor Leonzo could have the chance to park one more politician’s car in Washington, it would be Trump’s, he says, so that he could give him some advice from one politician to another: “Think like a human being.”