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Salvadorans Take Pride in No-Nonsense President, Distinctive Food

Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Guatemalan and Mexican officials next week to discuss how to stop Central Americans from leaving their homes for the U.S. Salvadorans say their president is already showing the way.

HOUSTON (CN) --- Every Saturday morning Manuel Giron can be found cooking pupusas outside his Houston church. The national food of his home country El Salvador, Giron and his congregation saved up $250,000 and bought a lot where they plan to build a church by selling — three for $5 --- the thick, stuffed tortillas.

Pupusas have helped Giron, 45, stay connected to the country he left as an 8-year-old in 1985 to reunite with his mother in the United States. For many Houstonians, they’ve been an introduction to the Central American nation.

“A lot of people walk by and say, 'Hey what are you selling?' 'We're selling pupusas.' 'What is that?' ‘It's Salvadoran cuisine.' 'Oh, OK I've never tried it.' 'Well, we'll give you one so you can try it,’” Giron said in an interview.

“And then you see them the next week and they're like, 'Oh I want a pupusa. I like that.' So I think it does identify us. And it doesn't let us lose our culture,” he added.

Over the last decade, thousands of residents of El Salvador and neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, a region notorious for government corruption, violence and poverty, known as the Northern Triangle, have come north in search of better lives.

Amid criticism from Republicans who claim his policies have encouraged large numbers of Central Americans to illegally enter the U.S., President Joe Biden has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with crafting solutions to stop people from leaving their home countries.

Harris will meet with leaders of Guatemala and Mexico next week to discuss these issues.

But residents of El Salvador say immigration from the country has already substantially diminished thanks to reforms implemented by its popular President Nayib Bukele.

Border Patrol agents encountered 27,222 single adult Salvadorans in fiscal year 2016 (Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016). The number dropped to 9,960 in FY 2020, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

Through the first seven months of this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents encountered 21,280 Salvadoran single adults, compared to 75,440 Guatemalan and 60,875 Honduran single adults.

The numbers for children entering the country alone also reflect this trend.

The five-year high for unaccompanied Salvadoran children encountered by the Border Patrol was 17,512 in FY 2016. It fell to 2,189 in FY 2020.

Through April this fiscal year, the Border Patrol has encountered 25,009 unaccompanied youths from Guatemala, 17,189 from Honduras and 5,586 from El Salvador.

So how have the lives of Salvadorans improved under Bukele?

Gangs are no longer extorting people with impunity, sniffing out any money-making venture and taking a cut.

Giron described how his relative caught the attention of gangsters.

“One of my aunts who lives over there, instead of using her stove to make her tortillas and her food, she goes 'I can save some money on electricity, I'm just going to get some wood and I'm going to make a fire outside,’” he said.

“She started on a Monday,” he continued. “On Wednesday she had a letter under her door saying, 'Now you are selling tortillas, so you need to pay us this much.' So she stopped. She goes, 'I either stop or they're going to kill me because they think I'm making money and not paying them.'”

But extortion victims who used to not report the crimes are now calling them in anonymously to police hotlines, encouraged by Bukele’s crackdown on gang members, according to Miguel Patricio, a North American expat with a long history in El Salvador.

“The National Police have arrested thousands of gang members since Bukele took office on June 1, 2019. In the first six months, over 9,000 gang members were arrested, most of them on charges of extortion. Penalties for extortion range from eight to 12 years imprisonment,” Patricio said.


The smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, El Salvador’s homicide rate has steadily fallen from a high of 104 per 100,000 residents in 2015, according to the U.S. State Department.

And with police now regularly raiding gang hideouts, residents say, there has been a dramatic reduction in murders, rapes and robberies.

Bukele is also lauded for his handling of the pandemic. In its early days, Patricio said, Bukele obtained funding for a state-of-the-art hospital that has become one of the region’s best Covid-treatment hospitals.

 El Salvador has the lowest numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Latin America, despite courts deeming unconstitutional a requirement to wear masks in public and quarantine measures that forced travelers to hole up in hotels for 30 days upon entering the country.

Emigration has also fallen sharply under Bukele, Patricio said in an email.

Bukele’s administration runs public service announcements on TV and radio warning would-be emigrants they could be kidnapped and imprisoned in Mexico and the United States.

The recruitment by smugglers to take Salvadorans through Mexico is a criminal offense punishable by a prison term. Persons leaving the country are carefully screened at the Guatemalan border. The Salvadoran government discourages the attempt to reach the U.S. without a proper visa,” Patricio said.

Numerous polls show Bukele enjoys a more than 90% job approval rating and his popularity extends to the Salvadoran diaspora.

“I think Bukele is a great president. He has a lot of new ideas,” Giron said, a nod to the Nuevas Ideas political party Bukele founded. “I've heard from people from Honduras, people from Guatemala, thinking, ‘You know what, we ought to write a constitution where Bukele will be president of Central America.’”

Giron was raised by his grandparents because his mother had moved to the U.S. His grandparents made him work in the fields at an early age, he said, cultivating rice, sesame seeds, corn and green beans.

But with a civil war raging in El Salvador at the time, Giron often ran into checkpoints while traveling with relatives.

“Either the military or the guerillas would make a bus stop, and would get everybody out,” Giron said. “And some of the youth would be left there to be taken, to join their forces. A few times it happened. And so my mom said, 'I don't want my son to be taken by force, so I'm not going to allow that to happen.'”

More than 35 years later, he vividly recalls scenes from his journey to the U.S.

“We used to see those antennas, big radio antennas,” he said. “And at night you can see the little light blinking. I remember the coyote used to tell us, 'You see where those blinking lights are?' 'Yeah.' 'Well, that's the United States. That's where we’re going.'

“And we'd swing by those freaking antennas and we were like, 'Wait a minute I thought that was the United States?' 'Oh no there's some more up there.'”

Hungry, thirsty and exhausted after more than month of traveling by foot, Giron said, he and his traveling companions had huddled under a bridge for the night when a Border Patrol agent heard them talking, arrested them and took them to a detention center for minors.

A Salvadoran youth coming to the country today has a slim chance of winning asylum. Former President Donald Trump’s administration tightened up the standards, so applicants must now prove the governments of their home countries had a role in persecuting them.

They cannot qualify, for instance, by providing evidence gangsters threatened to kill them.

And immigration courts, particularly on the U.S. southern border, have been notoriously stingy in granting asylum since former President Ronald Reagan’s tenure.

“During FY 2020, 73.7 percent of immigration judge decisions denied asylum, and asylum itself was granted just 26.3 percent of the time,” according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Giron was among an estimated 2.7 million immigrants who caught a break when Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986.

It granted lawful status to undocumented immigrants who had come to the country before Jan. 1, 1982, and immigrants who had done seasonal agricultural work for a minimum of 90 days in the year prior to May 1986.

Giron said his mother “fixed her papers through [this] amnesty,” and he became a lawful permanent resident after she sponsored his green card application.

Avoiding the word amnesty, President Biden aims to do what Reagan did on a larger scale. He wants to work with Congress to offer a roadmap to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

But experts say such sweeping legislation is virtually impossible, given that immigration has become perhaps the most contentious issue in Congress, with Republicans and Democrats rarely finding common ground.

Now a naturalized citizen, Giron leads a 50-member nondenominational church called Iglesia Cristiana Buenas Nuevas in a Houston strip mall unit.

He has a small office in front where he makes phone calls and meets with clients for his insurance business, and a large room in back where he holds services on Sundays and Tuesdays.

A Houston lot purchased by Iglesia Cristiana Nuevas Buenas for construction of a church. (Courthouse News photo / Cameron Langford)

Every Saturday morning, rain or shine, he and several of his parishioners set up white canopy tents and fire up gas griddles.

The women make the pupusas by patting out balls of corn flour dough, tucking in shredded pork, refried beans and cheese and working them back into the shape of pancakes.

The men cook the pupusas until they are golden brown.

Giron now sells them three for $6, including a soda or bottle of water, and two toppings: a bit of shredded cabbage marinated in pineapple vinegar and hot sauce, both bundled tight in plastic wrap.

He pointed to a grassy lot across the street.

“That's our lot. We bought it, selling pupusas. We are going to build a church out of pupusas.”

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