Since 1980, approximately 2 million Salvadorans have become residents of foreign countries, principally the United States. While the 2000 U.S. Census recorded California’s Salvadoran population at about 273,000, the University of Albany’s Mumford Institute, using other survey methods, found it closer to 500,000. Scholars and community leaders say persistent waves of immigration since 2000 may have significantly increased that figure. In modern development terms, these immigrants are referred to as the Diaspora, defined by Peggy Levitt in her 2001 Global Networks article “Transnational Migration: Taking Stock and Future Directions, as “individuals who have been exiled or displaced to nation states by a variety of economic, political, and social forces.”

The displacement of many Salvadorans has been attributed to the armed conflict lasting from 1980 to 1992, but Salvadoran immigration began before the war and continues to this day. The U.S.-based Salvadoran immigrant network represents all levels of Salvadoran and U.S. society, including elected officials ― for example, Ana Sol Gutierrez and Victor Ramirez Maryland Assembly members, and Walter Tejada, Arlington County (Va.) Board Member. Pre-war U.S. residence is common to the most successful Salvadoran immigrants, while many post-war arrivals are still trying to gain a foothold. The core of the Salvadoran Diaspora network, the community organizers and volunteers, however, arrived in the U.S. during the war with a common desire to change conditions for themselves and for those they left behind. Some work here as teachers, lawyers, doctors, civil rights, community and labor organizers and entrepreneurs; most are the blue-collar workers who do the grunt work that allows cities like Los Angeles to run smoothly. Driven by family obligations, interest in cultural preservation, a philanthropic spirit and nostalgia, many, even those struggling to survive, maintain an active connection with home. In economic terms, this translates into more than $3 billion in remittances to El Salvador almost every year, a contribution whose sheer volume drives El Salvador’s economy and development.

Coincidentally with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992, the Salvadoran Diaspora of Southern California launched a transnational movement that has since spread to Metropolitan Area of Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Las Vegas, Houston, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Gainesville, Memphis, Miami, and Long Island, among other cities. The launching pad was the Salvadoran community’s hometown associations (HTAs) that have been a feature of the Salvadoran Diaspora since 1980 when the first one, Asociación Migueleña Siglo XXI, was founded in November of 1986 by immigrants from San Miguel, a department located in eastern El Salvador’s.

The focus of most HTAs in the 1980s was preserving cultural identity, but eventually the membership began to contribute relief and humanitarian aid to their communities of origin with funds raised through dances, tours, dinners, picnics, beauty pageants, raffles and canvassing corporations. On average each event nets $2,000, meaning the effort required of the determined community volunteers who do the hard work has been relentless.

Yet the momentum of this Salvadoran transnational assistance movement has only grown. In 1994, nine California-based Salvadoran hometown associations founded Communities United for Direct Aid to El Salvador (COMUNIDADES); within three years its membership more than quadrupled to 37 associations. This HTA’s organized group, received support, including technical and financial assistance, from El Rescate. El Rescate’s records reflect the existence of 62 hometown associations in Southern California, 12 in the San Francisco area, four in Las Vegas, nine in Houston and more than 20 associations in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, of which 12 are members of United Salvadoran Communities (CUS).

In June 2001, Salvadoran hometown associations and El Rescate joined forces with the Central American Foundation for Sustainable Human Development (FUCAD) to seek support from municipal governments in El Salvador for the HTAs’ initiative toward collectively funding economic and social development projects. As a result of their lobbying, the Corporation of Municipalities of the Republic of El Salvador (COMURES), representing the country’s 262 mayors, invited a delegation of HTA leaders from Los Angeles to participate in the XVII National Congress of Municipalities held in October 2001. During that historical event, a resolution was passed that led to the mayors’ unanimous approval of The Program for Permanent Support to Municipalities of Origin, an agreement signed by both COMURES and HTA’s leaders.

Reacting to the HTAs’ success with the mayors, in February 2002 the Salvadoran government, through the Office of the Vice President and the Social Investment for Local Development Fund (FISDL), created a framework for cooperation with citizens abroad. The idea was to facilitate selected social development projects with matching funds. El Rescate and HTA’s responded immediately by inviting (as a petition by the Salvadoran Ambassador in the United States Mr. Rene Leon) Vice President Carlos Quintanilla and Miguel Siman, FISDL’s president, to El Rescate’s Los Angeles office, where the government’s delegation officially presented the program’s vision and objectives to leaders of 18 Salvadoran hometown associations and announced the opportunity to compete for $114,000 in the pilot program.

The California HTAs received $51,000 from the government and raised $24,999 in matching contributions for several local development projects in the communities of origin.

Since that initial bid for government funds in March 2002, three more solicitations for bids have generated $3,704,611 in direct matching funds for investment in development projects involving Salvadoran associations in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Houston. Of this amount, the associations have contributed $825,869, the municipal governments $931,587 and the FISDL $1,905,955.00. The Salvadoran government finances its program with funds from an Inter-American Development Bank loan — not from the national treasury into which pour taxes generated by family remittances and services in El Salvador that emigrants use.

Currently, El Rescate, hometown associations, the counterpart organizations in El Salvador, FUCAD and the United Nation’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) are working together to promote social and productive projects. The participating Southern California HTAs represent 11 Salvadoran towns: Cacaopera, Suchitoto, San Isidro, Cojutepeque, La Laguna, Nueva Concepcion, Sesori, Chalchuapa, Cara Sucia, Ilobasco and Juayua. The relationship forged with IFAD demonstrates the potential of Salvadoran HTAs to contribute to international and transnational development policies. In May 2002, Salvadoran HTA leaders from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and New York, along with representatives of COMUNIDADES and El Rescate, discussed possible cooperation on projects promoted by IFAD. Some 35 associations from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Houston participated in follow-up workshops organized in California by El Rescate and IFAD with the cooperation of hometowns associations from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Houston and FUCAD. The resulting agreements have already been applied in communities in the Salvadoran departments of San Vicente and Morazán.

Past Reports:

• El Rescate and LA Water and Power Community Credit Union Project
• El Rescate and the Rockefeller Foundation Community Remittance Productive Project Grant
• Desarrollo de Base: Revista de la Fundacion Interamericana
• Salvadorian Hometown Associations and IFAD Project
• IDA program Report