When my family moved to the East Bay in the 1990s, I had a tendency to overcompensate for my Salvadoran roots. As a kid, I’d proudly defend my heritage to anyone of my classmates who confused me for being Mexican. But growing up Salvadoran, at some point you learn about the Mara Salvatrucha. Their tattooed faces and viciousness made them the perfect boogiemen for Americans accustomed to Hollywood monsters. When the media began saturating the public with MS-related content in the early 2000s, all Salvadorans heard was some variant of, “Are you part of MS-13?”
After grad school, I was looking for housing in Oakland with my good friend, who is of Afro-Salvadoran descent. We attempted to sell our best qualities as tenants. “Yeah, we both just graduated from Berkeley. We are from El Salvador…”
“Oh, you shouldn’t tell people that,” the landlady replied. (She wasn’t referring to us being Berkeley graduates.) “You know, because of the gangs.” We didn’t get the apartment, and it was probably for the best, you know, because she was racist.
Longtime San Franciscans will remember the terrible murders of Anthony Bologna and his two sons in 2008, at the hands of an MS-13 member and undocumented Salvadoran immigrant, Edwin Ramos. My cousin had played on the same soccer team as one of the sons. His response to the murder of his teammate is burned into my memory: “I hate being Salvadoran.”
Their murders were used to attack the San Francisco’s sanctuary policy, a status held since 1985. Sound familiar? The most effective form of U.S. politics is the kind that operates with a short-term memory.
MS-13 is once again back in our national consciousness. The Trump administration has zeroed in on the string of murders that have taken place in the Long Island community, which authorities claim MS is responsible for. Twenty-five murders in the last two years, almost all the victims have been young Central Americans. The amount of immigrant youth the Long Island area has taken in since the child refugee crisis peaked in 2014 is often overlooked. According to the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1,791 youth were resettled in the last year. In comparison, the Bay Area received 1,665 youth. San Francisco took in only 229.
The elections on the East Coast earlier this month served as a primer for the direction of the country. Unknowingly, Central Americans played a substantial role. Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, ran on a platform right out of the Trump playbook, claiming his opponent was a champion of MS-13 because they supported sanctuary. In Nassau County, Long Island, Republican Jack Martins used full-color ads with tattooed gangsters that read “Meet Your New Neighbors!” The gangsters used in those ads couldn’t be farther from Long Island. Another ad, for example, featured a man locked in a max security prison in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador.
You’d think there were entire neighborhoods overrun by MS-13, but is this really the case? What are Salvadorans in Long Island saying? To get a better sense of everything, I reached out to Edwin Cruz, better known as Cruz Control, one half of the Salvadoran rap duo Reyes del Bajo Mundo out of New York.
“No es mucho,” Cruz said, referring to the Mara. “No tenemos tan grande problema especialmente para que venga Trump y Sessions.” I asked Cruz if this was classic Trump political opportunism being used at the expense of the Central American community. “To the 1000th degree!” he exclaimed. “Son chamaquitos, no tenemos pandilleros con caras tatuadas.” Cruz wasn’t denying that gangs exist Long Island, but that it isn’t anywhere near the scale that the media claims or even to extent that they are developed here in California, where MS-13 was born.
“Eso es otra cosa,” he said when I asked about the response from the community. “I thought people would come out against these racists attacks.” Cruz said that the Salvadoran community in Long Island either isn’t interested or believes that local politics isn’t for them, possibly
because a large number of them are undocumented. He’s quick to remind me that New York isn’t as progressive as everyone claims it is. This is especially true in Long Island where Republicans have dominated the political arena. Even Democrat Tim Sini, the recently elected District Attorney in Suffolk County, cited on the campaign trail his success against MS-13 that led to 300 arrests.
Furthermore, the Trump administration announced the ending of Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for various countries including Haiti and Nicaragua. The fate of nearly 57,000 Hondurans and 200,000 Salvadorans under the program has yet to be decided. Unlike DACA, which benefited mostly young and educated people who see themselves as Americans, there has been no unified outcry for the beneficiaries of TPS.
Imagine the social, economic and political consequences if a fraction of those 257,000 people were deported to the Northern Triangle. In September, El Salvador experienced 435 homicides. Most of them occurred over one week—an average of 27 homicides per day. The “revolving door,” which Fox News and the right wing claim that immigrants enjoy, applies equally to the United States and its policy towards migrants and the countries they come from. We can track the role the United States has played in each crisis that triggered a wave of migration from Central America, and its response to that crisis, which then triggers another crisis and another wave of migration.
I can’t help but wonder how we will cope with the renewed attacks on our community. I’ve had to resist with every fiber in my body to not internalize the toxic discourse on Salvadorans. Recently, my mother asked me if I had heard of the first Salvadoran-American astronaut for NASA. I hadn’t. In fact, I didn’t even express mild interest in what was positive news about my community. It was as if my subconscious was preventing me from imagining anything more than what has been depicted on TV. If I’m vulnerable to this, I can’t imagine what will be the consequences of these negative messages on our self-worth as a community.
Story by: Nestor Castillo