Story by TIM VANDENACK • Photos by TIM VANDENACK and BENJAMIN ZACK
OGDEN — Salvadoran food isn’t as spicy as Mexican fare.
Central Americans aren’t Mexicans.
Salvadoran gangs are ruthless and violent, not wannabes with spray paint who tag buildings.
Being around so many Latinos with roots in Mexico, you can lose your Honduran accent.
Those are a few takeaways from Utah’s Central American community on the region and its people.
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Francisco Roman, Ogden immigration attorney
Some of his clients come from Central America, fleeing gangs there, hardened and violent groups like MS-13 and Calle 18.
“These aren’t just gangs that run around and tag buildings... We’re not just talking about a street gang here. We’re talking about a huge business,” he said. “I hate to call it a gang problem, because it’s so far from that.”
In some zones, the gangs actually amount to a parallel government, of sorts, using the threat of violence to extort money, akin to taxes, and maintaining authority. They also recruit aggressively, particularly among teens, which prompts many to leave their countries.
“'We can get you nice shoes. We can get you this and that. Come work for us,'” gang members will say, according to Roman, born in the United States to Nicaraguan and Puerto Rican parents. “If they start resisting the gang recruitment, that makes them a target. Then they get threatened. That has spurred a lot of kids to come.”
Luis Pineda, owner/operator of La Cabañita Salvadoreña in Ogden
His eatery offers traditional Salvadoran fare like pupusas, a thick corn tortilla stuffed with varied fillings and topped with curtido, similar to coleslaw. The restaurant also offers Salvadoran tamales.
“Sometimes the customers ask, ‘Can’t you make tacos, burritos?’ We say, ‘No, sorry,’” he said. “They ask us if we’re Mexican. We say, ‘No, we’re Salvadoran. We’re from El Salvador.’”
It doesn’t bother him, the geographical confusion. But there are differences — Salvadoran food isn’t as spicy as Mexican fare.
The restaurant has been around for a little less than two years, but Pinedo only took over as new owner last April. He had been living in Van Nuys, Calif., working in construction and woodworking when a daughter told him the restaurant was for sale.
“We were also thinking of coming to live in Utah and there was this opportunity,” he said. Growing up in Usulutan, El Salvador, he would spend a lot of time in a local market, which made him want to own a business.
Marcos Candray, pastor at Shalom Christian Church in Ogden
Marcos Candray, now a U.S. citizen, left his native El Salvador when he was three.
He visited the nation later, during its 1980-1992 Civil War, and says it reminded him of television footage of the Vietnam War — gritty, war-torn, decimated.
On one occasion, he was out visiting friends, past a 10 p.m. curfew, when the lights in the whole town suddenly went out. Sporadic gunfire followed, apparent fighting between government and guerrilla forces, and he sought shelter in a friend’s home. “I remember a lot of my family leaving,” he said.
Now, as pastor at a church with a sizable share of Latino newcomers, including many from El Salvador, he does what he can to help them. The church encourages those without high school diplomas to get equivalency degrees and helps, when possible, with immigration issues.
“Most of the people that I know, they’re in the shadows,” he said.
Being so far from tropical El Salvador, in a climate so dry and distinct, the transition to life here can be tough for Salvadorans. He sees it as part of his job to encourage newcomers to adjust to their surroundings, to take responsibility for their fate in their new home.
“That’s my challenge. That’s my job,” he said. “One of my tasks is to make people understand that everything that happens is because of your decision.”
Sergio Garcia, originally from Guatemala, now living in Clinton
Sergio Garcia came to the United States from Amatitlan, Guatemala, in 1988 when he was 6-years-old, brought by his parents. His dad was a trucker who hauled sugar cane from fields.
“What I remember is happiness because I was small,” he said from Light and Truth Pentecostal Christian Church in southern Ogden. “I guess for my parents it was difficult... For me, it was playing out in the patio with my cousins and brother.”
Guatemala was still in the midst of a civil war then — which prompted many to leave — but Garcia doesn’t remember much about that. He just recalls there were certain sectors that were off limits “and you tried not to go to those places.”
Here in the United States, he grew up in the Los Angeles area, but he and his family came to Utah about 10 years ago, drawn by jobs, the relative tranquilty and lower cost of living. In a way, he feels stronger roots in Los Angeles than Guatemala.
“I kind of miss LA more than anything,” he said.
Rufino Bocel, originally from Guatemala, now living in Centerville
Rufino Bocel grew up on Solola, Guatemala, and his brothers fled to the United States to escape the Civil War there between leftist guerrillas and government forces. He followed in 1991, when he was a teenager, living with them in Los Angeles.
Back in Guatemala, his parents were forced by threat to cooperate with guerrillas at times, making food for fighters, but they also caught flak from the government for those efforts. “We suffered from both sides because we didn’t join either one,” he said from Light and Truth Pentecostal Christian Church in southern Ogden.
The Civil War ended in 1996 and Bocel maintains that economics are, perhaps, a bigger factor prodding Guatemalans to migrate to the United States. “One of the reasons people come here is because there’s no way of progressing in Guatemala. If you want to earn a living, you have to go out of your country,” he said.
He misses the mountains and forests of his native country, but in the Wasatch Front, another mountainous zone, he has forged a home. Bocel came to Utah about 15 years ago.
“I’m close to the mountain, maybe two minutes away That’s probably one of the best things,” he said.
Iris Mencia, originally from Honduras, now a stay-at-home grandma in Riverdale
Iris Mencia, originally from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, came to the United States in 1981, in part wanting to learn English. She had been a stewardess, but lined up a position as a nanny in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which, as it turns out, fell through when she fnally arrived.
Things eventually righted themselves. She married a man from Chiapas, Mexico, and now lives in Riverdale, spending her days caring for granchildren. “I fell in love ... and I never returned,” she said.
She’s sympathetic to those mired in poverty in Honduras. “For the poor, it’s getting worse and worse,” she said. And she likes hearing a Honduran accent on the rare occasion she encounters someone else from the Central American country.
Little by little, though, the more dominant Mexican culture has had an influence. She speaks Spanish with a Mexican accent and cooks mainly Mexican food — the effect of her husband and many Mexican friends. "Everyone thinks I'm from Mexico. No one thinks I'm from Honduras. They say, 'You seem Mexican,’” she said from The People’s Church in Ogden.
Alberto Rodriguez, originally from El Salvador, now in Ogden
Gangs in El Salvador have influence.
Alberto Rodriguez, originally from San Rafael Obrajuelo, El Salvador, remembers occasions when gangs would get word out that no one was to be out in the streets, meant as a show of their power. At the appointed time, even if it were the middle of the day, stores would close, schools would send kids home early and public transport would screech to a halt.
Only military forces would be out.
Such displays of force notwithstanding, it could be difficult to figure out who was involved in the gangs. “You don’t know how to distinuish them,” he said.
For a time, he had to make monthly payments to gangs so they’d leave the family business, a gym, alone. But they’d send a kid to pick the money up, helping shield who was further up the chain of comment.
Rodriguez came last year to the United States, joining his wife and other family members here, and works for a propane gas company.
“They tell me I’m Mexican because most Americans think Latinos are all Mexican. They don’t differentiate,” he said. “I say I’m Salvadoran. Some say, ‘Where’s that?’ Some ask what’s the weather like.”