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Book Recalls Troubles, Promise of Salvadoran Immigrant Life in US

Randy Jurado Ertll

At least one million people from the Central American nation of El Salvador have made the journey northward to the United States, where they often face hardship in places like inner-city Los Angeles.

Randy Jurado Ertll says the Salvadoran immigrant story is not often heard, "Because there's not much literature. If you really look at it, you go to the bookstores, the libraries, you rarely find any books that speak of the Salvadoran-American experience," he explained. "It's usually Mexican-American, Cuban-American, Puerto Rican; so I felt it was about time that we started telling our own story too."

El Salvador is a small Central American nation of six million people. It was torn by civil war in the 1980s and hundreds of thousands headed northward to escape the turmoil and poverty. Many entered the United States illegally, and few were granted political asylum.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2007, there were 1.5 million people of Salvadoran background in the United States. Two-thirds were foreign-born, and nearly 40 percent lived in California. Ertll wanted to write a book that tells their story through his own experience.

He runs a social agency called El Centro de Accion Social in the small city of Pasadena, which operates programs for low-income residents, including after-school tutoring and English classes.

Most who take part are Hispanic and some, like Ertll, are Salvadoran-American.

The writer is the product of three cultures. His father was born in France and his mother was Salvadoran. They met in the United States, where Ertll was born.

Because he is U.S.-born, he is an American citizen. But his mother, a Salvadoran who had overstayed her visa, was deported when he was two years old, and he went with her to El Salvador.

When Ertll was five, his mother was able to return to the United States. They settled in a minority neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles plagued by crime and violence. When he was just six-years-old, Ertll recalls a young man across the street being fatally shot. His mother tried in vain to stop the bleeding.

There were racial tensions between African-Americans and Latino immigrants. He says many friends joined gangs, and some would later be killed or wind up in prison. He says the pattern has continued with the younger generation.

"You don't get an education; you drop out, then you join a gang; and then you live by selling drugs, by hurting your own community," he said.

Ertll was lucky to get some help along the way, in one case, from a concerned Irish-American teacher who spoke fluent Spanish and helped him learn to read and write, first in Spanish, then in English.

When Ertll was a teenager, his life would change when he was chosen for a program that sends inner-city youngsters to small American cities to pursue their schooling. He left south central Los Angeles to live with a host family in the north-central U.S. city of Rochester, Minnesota. It was home to a large computer manufacturing plant and a world-renowned medical clinic.

"And I would say it was great there because [it was a] different city; it was beautiful; you have IBM, you have the Mayo Clinic, great schools there," he recalled. "And that was, I would say, a wonderful experience because I was able to focus on studying without all of the hassles of south-central [Los Angeles]; because, believe me, you're not safe there."

Returning to Los Angeles, Ertll focused on his studies at Occidental College, where a young Barack Obama had spent two years as a student a decade earlier.

Ertll studied political science and Spanish and then spent a year in Washington. He worked in the office of California Congresswoman Hilda Solis, who has since become the U.S. secretary of labor. Returning to Los Angeles, he worked with the Latino community.

He says inner-city Los Angeles remains a place of hardship with too few jobs. He fears violence that erupted in the city in the 1960s and the 1990s could happen again.

"Those areas can't continue to be neglected, because otherwise you're going to have the same problems. You had the Watts riots, you had the L.A. riots; and it's just a repetitive cycle of violence," he said.

Randy Jurado Ertll says that immigrant stories are complicated, and that life for new arrivals is difficult. He says for him and many others, the way to a better future is through education.

He believes that big cities should improve their schools. He also says Washington needs to tackle the difficult issue of immigration reform, and resolve the plight of millions of mixed-status families, composed of both American citizens and illegal immigrants.