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EAST BOSTON

EL SALVADOR

by Kevin Ford

 

- Across the Harbor, a slice of El Salvador.

- Miguel Andrade: A real estate pioneer

- Benevides' treasure

- Achieving the American dream

Across the Harbor, a slice of El Salvador.

Immigrants from the Central American nation are finding economic success in East Boston

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.

Ride 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.

Perhaps more 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 landscape.

Little Salvador

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.

The increased 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.

Topacio restaurant, one of several Salvadoran businesses changing the face of Eastie.

Complicating 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.

The market 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 years.

Carlos Suarez 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."

History

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 downtown.

"We need to get together and show the big companies that we're here and there are many of us."
Ana 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 guerillas.

Dr. Francisco 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.

Navarro specializes 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 woes.

"The situation 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.

Wielding economic power

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.

"They are the major force of change in East Boston. They are the best buyers."
Carlos Suarez, Hacienda Realty

The Chamber 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."

Still, she 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."

Impact

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.

As property 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.

KEVIN FORD

GO...

HEAR IT

- cumbia

SEE IT

- Topacio restaurant

- Exotic El Salvador

- The El Salvador flag in storefronts

LINK IT

- The web site of East Boston

- East Boston demographics from the Mauricio Gaston Institute [in .pdf]

- Info on the Salvadorian civil war

- The Salvadorian consular offices in Boston

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