How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Salvadoran Americans vote in national election by mail for first time

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A government electoral website features instructional videos for Salvadoran expatriates casting ballots from abroad.

It took years for El Salvador's legislative system to give Salvadorans living abroad the right to vote by mail in national elections. The law was passed last year, and on Sunday, Feb. 2, the country's expats will participate for the first time in a presidential election.

But the process hasn’t been going as smoothly as some had hoped, with many frustrated by a process they say was rolled out too late, with poor planning and little time for hopeful voters to follow through.

Tito Rivera, a Los Angeles restaurant owner, said he registered to vote in the election months ago. But with the election just days away, he still hadn't received his voter packet.

“Most likely I’m not going to vote,” Rivera said. “That’s what going to happen. Because if I don’t send that in time…it’s not going to count. I’m disappointed, because we’ve been fighting for that a long time.”

He and other Salvadoran Americans complained of insufficient time for people to get a required national identification card through their local consulate and register to vote. Those who received ballots said they began arriving in December. And then there are those like Rivera – who said he hasn’t changed his address in 20 years – who haven’t received them yet.

The ability to participate in national elections is a big deal for Salvadoran Americans, said Salvador Sanabria, executive director of El Rescate, a non-profit that provides legal aid and other services to Central Americans in L.A.

Salvadoran immigrants invest heavily in their native country: According to the Pew Research Center, they sent home more than $4 billion in remittances last year.

“The political ruling class of that nation, they love these types of contributions.” Sanabria said. “However, when the diaspora is talking about directly participating in the political process, they fear that a Pandora’s box will be opened. The delays, the political will, the lack of funding for a better system are just the signs of the fears that the political ruling class have of a civic-engaged diaspora.”

Pew reported that in 2012, remittances accounted for nearly 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Salvadoran immigrants also invest in small businesses and real estate back home, while hometown associations raise money for costly infrastructure projects in areas like health care and public education.

Rivera is among those who sends money home each month. Last year, he also opened a restaurant in El Salvador, run by his relatives.

“We, the people who live here and send money every month to El Salvador, that is probably the only thing that is really keeping El Salvador now from going bankrupt or having so much crime,” Rivera said. "We don’t have oil, we don’t have anything to sell. So, you know, we should have the right, we should have a voice to be represented in El Salvador.”

The bulk of remittances to El Salvador come from the diaspora in the United States, which began settling here large numbers as people fled the country’s civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There are an estimated 2.5 million Salvadorans in the U.S., with the largest number concentrated in Los Angeles. There is also a smaller, but sizeable community in Canada. It’s from there that Ana Araniva was planning to fly to El Salvador - with her ballot in hand.

"I got my package January 10," said Arivana, who lives in Toronto. "It was late for me to go to the post office here in Canada and send it, so even when I asked the people in El Salvador, 'Do I have enough time?' they recommended that if I was going, to take it myself."

Luckily for Araniva, who works for an international aid organization, she was already planning the trip to visit family and volunteer as an observer on election day. She said others she knows in Canada received their ballot packages after she did and were rushing to send them by express mail, and others still who learned their packages had been returned to El Salvador undelivered.

Araniva is hoping things will go more smoothly the next time around.

"We have five years to change the way it is," she said.

The race between three leading presidential candidates – including an embattled ex-president who has faced corruption allegations – has so far been a tight one. A runoff election could be held if no clear winner is decided this month.

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