the Harbor, a slice of El Salvador.
from the Central American nation are finding economic success in
Step out of the subway
car and onto the platform of the Maverick Square T station, and
the surroundings look altogether familiar to any Boston visitor.
The grimy tunnels, hard wooden benches, turnstiles and escalators
make this Blue Line stop almost indistinguishable from Downtown
Crossing or Government Center.
the escalator to the top, however, and step out onto the street.
Suddenly, and quite pointedly, you realize this isn't the Boston
they showed you on the walking map.
The aroma of
pupusas and sopa de mariscos wafts through the air. Young men in
souped-up Hondas and Toyotas blare salsa and cumbia
from their cars' stereos. The flags of their ancestral homelands
hang prominently from the rear-view mirrors. Crowds of men and women
gather around the cement benches, chatting animatedly in Spanish.
than any other neighborhood in the city, Eastie
has become the home away from home for thousands of Latin Americans.
And among that group, Salvadorans are playing an integral role in
shaping the future of the neighborhood. Whereas once they were relegated
to low-paying jobs in restaurants and factories, Salvadoran immigrants
are now opening their own businesses, investing in real estate,
and becoming an economic force in the ever-changing East Boston
A walk around
Maverick Square tells the story. The blue-and-white flag of El Salvador
hangs prominently in countless storefronts. Several food markets,
like Tesoro on Chelsea Street and Karin on Bennington Street, are
owned by Salvadorans. Restaurants like Topacio and Mi Pueblito specialize
in Salvadoran dishes. At El Poder Musical, one can buy the latest
CD from Salvadoran acts like Los Hermanos Flores or Miguel Angel.
At a press
conference in February, Salvadoran Consul General Roberto Escobar
estimated there were about 15 businesses he knew of in the neighborhood
that were run by Salvadorans. Those were just the ones that had
registered with the consulate, however. In all likelihood, the number
may be close to double that.
commercial presence in the neighborhood mirrors a growing influx
of Salvadoran immigrants to the city. According to the Mauricio
Gaston Institute [pdf file]
, a public policy group, there were 5,333 documented Salvadorans
living in Boston in 2000. That's a 67.8 percent jump from the numbers
in 1990. Unfortunately, the census doesn't break down nationalities
by neighborhood. Even the consulate couldn't venture a guess as
to how many Salvadorans were living specifically in East Boston.
restaurant, one of several Salvadoran businesses changing
the face of Eastie.
any effort to come up with hard numbers, according to Escobar, is
the fact that many Salvadorans are reluctant to fill out the United
States Census for fear of deportation. Nonetheless, it's fair to
say that as an economic force, Salvadorans living in Boston have
had their greatest impact in Eastie. Perhaps the best example is
in real estate.
had hit a slump in East Boston just over 10 years ago. Several bank
failures, combined with the area's image as a crime-ridden dump,
led to dramatically low property values. Many Salvadorans took advantage
of that by purchasing properties no one else wanted. With the end
of rent control and a rising economy that drove prices up all over
the city, suddenly several Salvadorans found themselves sitting
on a gold mine.
At first they
started with stores. Then the more successful ones bought their
own houses. By the mid-90's, many had bought up several houses,
rehabilitated them and rented them out. The results have contributed
to a 65 to 90 percent increase in property values in the past 5
of Hacienda Realty says he has definitely noticed the trend. "(Salvadorans)
are the major force of change in East Boston," Suarez says.
"They are the best buyers."
The first wave
of Salvadoran immigrants arrived in Massachusetts about 20 years
ago. They came seeking the same thing past immigrants sought - a
better life with better economic opportunities. Many of them were
drawn to East Boston by low rents and easy transportation to jobs
need to get together and show the big companies that
we're here and there are many of us."
Benevides, owner of Tesoro Market
The new immigrants
did not wield much economic power. Most could not speak English
and none knew anything about the law. They took low-paying jobs
as cooks, busboys, and janitors - whatever they could find, usually
through other Salvadoran contacts. The hours were long and privacy
was at a minimum, as many immigrants would move into one apartment
together to save on rent.
It wasn't strictly
economics that led many Salvadorans to the Boston area in the early
'80s though. On Jan. 10, 1981, leftist rebel groups in El Salvador
launched an offensive against the right-wing government. The resulting
civil war lasted 11 years, ending with a United
Nations-brokered agreement in 1992. Almost 80,000 lives were lost
during the conflict. Throughout the war, government-backed death
squads terrorized anyone they suspected of collaborating with leftist
Navarro, 50, Milton, was teaching law in El Salvador 22 years ago.
The death squads came after him, so he left his job and his family
to move to Jamaica Plain. He graduated from Harvard Law School and
worked out of an office in Milton for 20 years. He moved his office
to East Boston two years ago, when a client offered him a great
deal on rent.
in international law, helping mainly Salvadoran clients with civil
contracts such as wills, divorces and land purchases. He says that
while the civil war was in fact a catalyst for the mass emigration
of the 1980s, the war's end in 1992 did not cease the country's
is worse now that during the war," says Navarro. What about
the money so many immigrants in America send back to El Salvador?
Navarro calls it a "Band-Aid" that helps the country survive,
but it doesn't initiate any real development.
In an effort
to initiate development at home and links between merchants in Boston
and those in El Salvador, the Salvadoran Consulate combined forces
with several area merchants in March to form the Salvadoran Chamber
of Commerce of New England. East Boston merchants saw an opportunity
to purchase more Salvadoran products at a lower cost. The consulate
saw a way for Salvadorans to support the economy back home in a
real and productive fashion.
are the major force of change in East Boston. They are
the best buyers."
Suarez, Hacienda Realty
operates out of the consular
offices on Meridian Street. Ana Benevides, owner of
Tesoro Market and an organizer of the chamber, says reaction from
merchants has been tepid thus far. She blames the slow economy,
saying business owners are too busy working to take the time off
to meet. "I know for the past three months, I've had to be
here (at Tesoro) more."
hopes the Chamber will eventually be a success. "We need to
get together and show the big companies that we're here and there
are many of us," says Benevides. "It will benefit us (merchants)
economically, but it will also benefit the community."
So, will East
Boston one day be the Salvadoran answer to Chinatown or Little Italy?
Miguel Andrade, owner of the Jaquelin Grocery store, doesn't think
so. "There will never be that many people in one spot,"
he says. Indeed, Salvadorans may soon find themselves victims of
their own success.
values rise, newer immigrants will likely spread out to cheaper
suburbs. Roberto Escobar says he thinks more Salvadorans are moving
to smaller cities and towns - like Haverhill, Lawrence and Lowell.
Ana Benevides lives in Medford. She says even that's getting too
expensive now, and she doesn't see herself moving to East Boston.
Yet many remain,
and they continue to plant their roots deep within the neighborhood.
There may never be a Little Salvador in East Boston, but any renaissance
of the neighborhood as a whole will certainly have a Salvadoran
flavor to it for years to come.