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Census shows Salvadorans influx into Texas

HOUSTON (AP) – The nation’s fourth-largest city is dotted with pupuserias, restaurants that offer Salvadoran treats such as fried plantains, yuca with beef patties and traditional pupusas – made from corn or rice flour which is filled with pumpkin, cheese or diced bacon.

But before the food came the people, who according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures are coming to Texas along with other Central Americans in numbers almost rivaling those of Mexican descent, a radical departure from previous counts.

About half the increase of 2.3 million Hispanics in Texas during the past decade were not of Mexican descent. There are 6.6 million Hispanics living in Texas, of which 5 million are of Mexican descent.
Census figures released this week show that 146,723 Texas residents identified themselves as having Central American heritage on the census short form. The majority of those, 79,204, claimed Salvadoran heritage.

Since a series of earthquakes earlier this year, 200,000 Salvadorans are estimated to have moved to the United States, according to El Salvador’s embassy.

Ceodoro Aguiluz, director of the Central American Resource Center in Houston, said there are at least 150,000 Salvadorans living in Houston alone.
“There are whole villages that have moved,” said Steve Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor. “They are coming here because they have come here (previously). Immigration is network driven. Once you get a certain number of Salvadorans you will get more Salvadorans.”

According to the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, D.C., along with Houston, cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Dallas, Miami, Boston and Chicago have the largest Salvadoran populations.

“Everybody lost everything over there,” 35-year-old Alonso Portillo said of his home country, where he says earthquakes, a hurricane and a civil war have left people without work, food or much hope.

“Because everybody lost everything, they are coming to the United States looking for an opportunity.”
That opportunity translates to work, said Portillo, a member of the Salvadoran army who left his war-torn country in 1989 for Houston.

During the 1980s, thousands fled El Salvador, which was in the middle of a civil war. Things have since calmed on the political front, but Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and a series of earthquakes in the past year have left people looking north for answers.
“People are not coming here for the help of the government of the United States,” Portillo said. “They are coming here for the work.”
With work comes money gathered in what is almost a monthly ritual at wire offices, where cash is sent to relatives back home, he said.

An estimated $1.6 billion is sent to El Salvador each year by immigrants working in the United States. The money is the largest source of income for the agrarian country, where earnings from coffee, the nation’s largest export, are less than $1 billion a year.

“In my country, it’s a different history,” said Portillo, who leases and operates a tractor-trailer. “You need somebody protecting you if you look like you are making money or have a nice car because too many people have nothing.

“Right here, we got money. Across the border we have nothing. One penny is all I might have in my pocket.”

But the money doesn’t come easily in America, Portillo said.

Mayra Figueora, assistant director of the Central American Resource Center, said immigrants from El Salvador, like other undocumented workers, are often cheated or abused as they work menial jobs many U.S. citizens wouldn’t consider accepting.

“Some of them have to have two or three jobs,” she said. “It’s hard for them to be supporting their family here and also having to send $200 or $300 monthly back to El Salvador.”

But they continue to do it because those who make it to this country know they are practically the only hope for those left behind.

“We have children in our country who are only 5 years old who are selling things on the street,” Figueora said. “Here, they have a chance to go to school and the parents can afford a better living compared to what we have in our country.”

Those who come to cities such as Houston rely on other Hispanics, churches and resource centers to help them wade through the new world they find in America.

People like Portillo find comfort in chats at local pupuserias about his home country. After coming to America, Portillo quickly realized learning English would be a key to his success. He watched hours of television and forced friends who spoke English to refrain from using Spanish around him.

He bought a condo a year ago and says he is living out his dreams. He admits, however, that he is the exception. Political asylum allowed Portillo to get a work permit within a year of arriving in Houston. Others have to wait 10 years to get such a permit, Figueora said.

Klineberg says Salvadorans are benefitting Texas’ economy by offering inexpensive construction labor, yard work and housekeeping. Despite their hard work, however, they come with larger education deficits than other immigrants, he said.

“These are people coming with no resources,” he said. “The great question is what happens to their children … Will the community ensure that these kids have a chance for success and not end up with the kind of jobs that their parents have?”
But even a chance is better than what currently is available in El Salvador, Figueora said.

“To have something is much better than to have nothing,” she said.