A Salvadoran town is emptied by the American dream.
An eerie quiet hangs over Intipuca, a Salvadoran town whose streets bear names like “Distant Brother” and are lined with empty houses that look lifted from a Hollywood movie.
“Welcome to Intipuca City, the place to be,” says an English-language sign at the edge of town – an ironic slogan for this place of so many goodbyes, a symbol of the Central American exodus to the United States.
Some 5.3 million Central American immigrants live in the United States, 2.9 million of them from El Salvador, a country of just 6.3 million people whose recent history has been blighted by civil war and economic struggles.
In a bid to address the influx, US President Barack Obama recently pledged to overhaul America’s “broken” immigration system in a controversial move that would protect millions of illegal arrivals from deportation.
Back in El Salvador, Intipuca epitomises the impact of that migratory trend.
Its central square, Emigrants Park, boasts a monument to local farmer Sigfredo Chavez, who slung his backpack over his shoulder in 1967 and headed for the United States, becoming the first Intipucan to make the journey.
Three months after leaving, Chavez sent his first letter home. He was living in Washington and working as a dishwasher.
News that he had already found a job spread like wildfire through the town.
He eventually brought his family to live with him – the first of around 5,000 Intipuca residents to migrate to the United States, settling mainly in Maryland, Virginia and the nation’s capital.
Of the 7,000 people who remain in Intipuca, it is nearly impossible to find one without family in the United States.
Sporting a Washington Redskins hat along with her green dress and apron, Matilde Argueta, 79, scrapes a living by selling fruits and vegetables in front of her house, where she reminisces about raising the four children who have all left for the United States.
“I was widowed when my kids were still young. I broke my back farming corn to raise them,” she said, clutching a picture of her children.
“You have to accept it when they leave to make their own lives. I couldn’t give them any more here. And they’re getting ahead there. All I can do is entrust them to God.”
She hasn’t heard from one of her children in one-and-a-half years, she said. The others send a couple of hundred dollars from time to time.
Intipuca was built around cotton farming, an industry that crashed when prices collapsed in the 1960s, prompting Chavez to make his pioneering trip north.
Hundreds more soon sold their land or took out loans to do the same – an outflow that only increased during El Salvador’s bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992.
Remittances sent from the United States changed the local economy.
In Dollar City, as Intipuca became known, US currency was used in parallel with the Salvadoran colon for decades, until El Salvador stopped printing its own money altogether in 2001.
Emigration has been “both good and bad” for Intipuca, says the town’s superintendent, Santos Portillo, who himself has two children living in the United States illegally.
“It helps the economy here, where there’s no work or the jobs pay hunger wages. But it has also caused families to disintegrate,” he said.
“A lot of kids drop out of school. And we have a lot of parasites who just waste the money their relatives are working double shifts to send.”
Remittances are a vital part of the local and national economy. The US$4bil (RM13.5bil) Salvadorans sent from the United States last year amounted to 16% of El Salvador’s economy.
But the money has slowed since the onset of the financial crisis in the United States.
“When they’re hurting there, we’re worse here,” said Portillo.
Yet, the exodus continues.
Many continue borrowing US$9,000 (RM30,468) which the “coyotes”, or people-smugglers, charge to bring migrants to the United States – a perilous trip during which thousands have died.
Money sent by emigrants helped build Intipuca’s stadium, church, schools and cultural centre.
It paved the town’s streets, and converted many homes from tin-roof huts to multi-storey houses decked out with columns and lattices.
Many of them sit empty except for a caretaker, opening only when their owners return on charter flights for the town’s annual festivities in March – the scene of the Miss Intipuca-USA pageant, contested by young Intipucans living in the United States.
“This town’s been put to sleep by migration. It has no development, no life of its own,” said Omar Blanco, who left in 1980, at the age of 15.
He spent 26 years as an illegal immigrant, washing dishes, wiping tables and painting houses until he was deported in 2006.
“Pretty much the only ones left here are old people and the ‘defeated’,” said Argueta, using the local term for those deported by US authorities.
She harbours the hope that someday her children will return to stay.
“Even if only for the last days of my life,” she said, gazing at their picture. – AFP
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