Salvadorans head back to a changed land


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Her friends in the Unite States thought Lilian Aguirre was crazy. There she was, earning a good salary and living in a home she owned in a New York suburb. Voted teacher of the year by the school district where she taught English. Rearing three children with her husband, a chef.

Why on earth, after all these years, would Ms. Aguirre give it up to return to her native El Salvador?

"I'd like to know the reason myself," she said with a laugh. "The truth is that it was always my dream to return to my country."

And so she did, joining a tentative but steady flow of Salvadoran expatriates who are coming home after years of civil war. Attracted by the formal end of their nation's 12-year conflict, repelled by the growing violence in U.S. cities and often cushioned by a nest egg that will go much further here than in the United States, more and more Salvadorans are making the move.

Their arrival is changing a society struggling to recover and rebuild after years of brutal fratricide. As they return, Salvadorans are bringing with them new skills, customs and ideas. Gradually, a hybrid subculture is forming, one in which children speak Spanish with heavy English accents and dance to hip-hop instead of the typical "cumbia"; one where men and women are challenging the tradition-dictated roles of gender and class.

They are opening businesses, building suburban subdivisions, reuniting long-divided families. And with them also come some of the ills of the society they left, including gangs and conspicuous consumption.

Some returning Salvadorans are uprooting lives constructed in foreign countries during a decade of exile; others, unable or unwilling to make a complete break, have become sort of binational commuters, one foot in each world.

At the same time, the return poses a dilemma for the government, which argues that El Salvador's still-fragile postwar economy cannot absorb a massive repatriation or stand to lose the estimated $800 million that Salvadorans living abroad send home annually. To that end, the government is working to encourage Salvadorans not to come back -- not yet. The government's ally in that mission is the perception among many Salvadoran exiles that peace and stability in their troubled homeland may not be permanent.

During this country's long conflict between U.S.-backed government forces and leftist guerrillas, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans departed for the United States, Mexico and Europe. One estimate put the exile community as high as 1 million, or almost one-fifth of the national population.

Most of those who fled ended up in Southern California, Washington, D.C., and New York. Many were political refugees. Many more were simply escaping generalized violence and hoping to make better lives for their families -- reasons some give now, ironically, for returning home.

Ms. Aguirre, who returned to El Salvador a year ago after more than 15 years in the United States, is a case in point. Her life in Yonkers, she said, was a rat race.

"I am a lot less stressed-out here," said Ms. Aguirre, 36.

Still, the return has not been totally easy. Nowhere was the culture clash more painful than with her conservative in-laws, who found her too independent and assertive. The family's attacks took their toll: Ms. Aguirre is getting a divorce, her 18-year marriage in certain ways a casualty of the return to El Salvador.

The peace accords were signed in January 1992, and in the 14 months that followed, 599,723 Salvadorans came home -- 62.4 percent of those coming from the United States, according to the Salvadoran government. While the majority probably returned to the United States, hundreds, if not thousands, chose to remain.

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