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There is no one immigrant from El Salvador to the Bay

Tulio+Serrano+with+children+in+El+Salvador+during+his+annual+supply+trip+where+he+brings+school+supplies%2C+clothes%2C+etc.+to+communities+in+El+Salvador.+
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There is no one immigrant from El Salvador to the Bay

Tulio Serrano with children in El Salvador during his annual supply trip where he brings school supplies, clothes, etc. to communities in El Salvador.

Tulio Serrano with children in El Salvador during his annual supply trip where he brings school supplies, clothes, etc. to communities in El Salvador.

Tulio Serrano with children in El Salvador during his annual supply trip where he brings school supplies, clothes, etc. to communities in El Salvador.

Tulio Serrano with children in El Salvador during his annual supply trip where he brings school supplies, clothes, etc. to communities in El Salvador.

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“I cried that entire year. I remember every minute and I hated it,” Alicia says laughing. She talks about the year she spent in the US when she was four. It was “too cold”, the people were “too mean”, and Alicia just wanted to go home. Home, back to El Salvador, where her friends, family, and everyone important to her were: “I didn’t really have a choice, my dad was here and it was hard for my mom to be a single mother especially in such a traditional place.” However, after a year in the United States, Alicia moved back with her family to El Salvador while her mother, father, and two sisters stayed in the Bay.  “I had Tia (aunt) Juanita, and my uncles and my friends.” Alicia may have been without her mom and dad but she was with family and she was home.

Alicia Perez with her husband, Carlos, enjoying a night out in Berkeley, CA for their 21st wedding anniversary.

“I was 14 the last time we moved and we had to stay in the US.” Alicia was a teenager during the 1980’s, a teenager in El Salvador, a country that would soon become engulfed in a civil war: “My teachers and friends started disappearing. The streets used to be filled with street vendors and then within weeks it was completely silent.” Alicia did not want to leave; she was even less inclined to flee the country than when she was four. However, at this point, it was a matter of their families safety. Alicia’s mother could not take care of herself and four little girls in such a climate: “We moved to Daly City; I hated it. It was too cold and I had to walk to school in the cold… My legs would turn all red. I hated it.”

“The walk is brutal, but we still do it because we do not have another option.” Maria says holding back tears. “It was hard after gangs took my fathers land we moved around a lot, trying to survive.” Maria was in her 20’s when she came to the Bay Area. I asked why Maria chose to come to the Bay Area; this is when I learned that their was not much of a choice. “I didn’t know any places here, I was told that they could take me to San Francisco so that is where I went.”

Maria, like Alicia, was forced to flee El Salvador as a matter of safety. Gang violence had taken over many aspects of her life and as the civil war further exacerbated the danger in El Salvador, it became unsafe to stay.  Maria had to do what was best for her safety: “I live well here, and I get to support my family in El Salvador when they need it, but I do miss them. It is hard with me here and I never get to see them… but I am going back to visit next year.”

She often worries about her family as she’s lost brothers, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews — all to gang violence. This constant fear for the ones left at home is not uncommon for many El Salvadoran immigrants. It is often accompanied by guilt which Alicia feels as well, “ I didn’t really have a choice in leaving because of the war and my dad and mom but I still feel like I left family behind. And then I have to remind myself that I did not choose to do this, I had to.”

Maria celebrating Christmas in San Francisco in 2018. Photo taken by her son.

Tulio Serrano feels this same type of duty to his people in El Salvador, unfortunately, it is not for his parents and siblings. Like Maria, Tulio has lost much of his family to the violence in El Salvador: “I had to leave [because] the president at the time was a dictator and [his administration] would torture and arrest anyone they wanted. I had to leave as a matter of safety.” Tulio was forced to flee El Salvador around the same time as fourteen year old Alicia. However, Tulio did not have his family with him. His family was killed by El Salvadoran officials as his small village was raided- the mission of this coup was to find Tulio.

Tulio did not love the Bay Area, he loved his country and felt like that was where he belonged. “For me, I would rather live there than here, the [rural] villages need people advocating for them. I would rather live there if I could.” While both are grateful for the chance to build a life with more opportunities in this country, they miss their home.

Tulio Serrano at a primary school in El Salvador working to ensure the academic success for impoverished students.

“It’s was so different here. I remember seeing those little birds on the street for the first time, the cute small ones and I freaked out and my friends were thinking I was so weird but that was the first thing that reminded me of home.  We had parakeets and parrots flying everywhere, wild birds but here is were just small birds.”

All three of the bay area residents frequently visit El Salvador and stay in contact with many family and friends. However, they long for the culture and atmosphere that they lived with in El Salvador. They did not choose this journey to America, it chose them. All three of these extremely unique lives have been amazing parts of our community here.

Alicia Perez is now a professor at the Haas Business school at UC Berkeley and works for Safe Passages which is a successful non profit whose mission is to support low income students succeed with their education. Tulio Serrano is the founder and CEO of the non-profit, The Central American Refugee Center (CRECE). With this non-profit, he has helped hundreds of families and immigrants in the Bay Area with everything from beds and living arrangements to extra curricular activities for children. Maria is now happily living in San Francisco with a thriving business of house cleaning services and is planning to visit her family in El Salvador next year.

All three of these lives left out of necessity, not want and all three have been valuable members of our greater Bay Area community. Immigrants in America have to face racial discrimination almost daily and with the current political climate, it has only further exacerbated racism towards the immigrant community. This is mostly due to misconceptions and falsehoods which only results in polarization of communities.

There is not one type of immigrant; there are as many different stories as there are immigrants in this country. However, there is always stigmas and stereotypes surrounding the immigrant population. Tulio, Alicia, and Maria have all had to deal with these false stigmas surrounding them which was only an obstacle on their road to success. They now are using their voice to advocate for others who are in a similar position. This is a country built and run by immigrants; as a community, we must shift how we think of the immigrant story to include all backgrounds and history in order to create a more inclusive community.

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