The largest proportion of this country’s two million Salvadoran and Salvadoran Americans live in Southern California. A growing number of young Salvadoran American writers are adding another immigrant chapter to the canon of American literature.
A small publisher accepted 37-year-old Randy Jurado Ertll’s nonfiction memoir, “Hope In Times of Darkness, A Salvadoran American Experience.” On his self-financed book tour, the author’s visiting more community centers than Barnes and Nobles.
On this day he’s reading from his book to a group of students at an East Hollywood middle school about how he left El Salvador at the beginning of its civil war in 1980 - and arrived as South L.A. was embroiled in a gang war.
"Escaping a civil war and landing in another one is not what a five year old child expects. Yet again nothing in life is easy. Especially while being deported to El Salvador as an eight month old baby with my mother. Immigration agents arrested my mother while she worked at a sweat shop in downtown Los Angeles," Ertll said.
He graduated from Occidental College and worked for former Congresswoman Hilda Solis. Now he heads a Pasadena-based social service agency. He tells students that his story is worth reading because 30 years later, life’s still a minefield for Central Americans in this neighborhood.
"What I wrote is real. And it took a lot of courage really, to talk about my own life and to expose myself, in a way to the world. But I felt it was important to share my life with students like yourselves," he said.
Ertll's memoir details how he and his mother barely escaped a fatal attack on protesters in a plaza in El Salvador, how they learned first-hand about drive-by shootings after they moved into a home in South L.A., and how abusive teachers were insensitive to the needs of refugee children like him.
He wrote about the dark chapters in his life, he says, to emphasize how educational opportunities opened doors to him. Ertll liberally sprinkled his memoir with commentary about social injustice and Central American pride.
"There really isn’t any literature that our students can identify with," Ertll said, noting that that dearth of literature motivated him to create his own. "There really isn’t much for the new generation of Salvadoran Americans who’ve been born here or raised here in the United States."
Many sons and daughters of Central America’s civil war refugees are doing well for themselves, Ertll says. But many others, especially in this hardscrabble working class neighborhood, are not. Scratch the surface here at LeConte Middle School and you’ll find truth in his observation.
"My mom’s from El Salvador, my dad’s from Guatemala. They’ve been here for at least 20 years," said eighth grader Hector Pinto. Wooden rosary beads dangle over his white undershirt as he talks about a turning point in his life three years ago.
"During fifth grade I was so alone that I decided I wanted to be one of those kids that joined in a gang because I wanted to be one of those kids that get respect because everyone used to bully me, like almost the whole school didn’t like me and I felt all alone every time eating," he said.
Sports turned him around, he says, and now he’s enrolled in honors classes.
Classmate Angela Ramirez’s parents migrated from El Salvador to escape the civil war. She was born and brought up in L.A. "I struggled when I was a little kid because my dad was really violent to my mom. He was in jail for a while and my mom went back with him but we still have the same problems; but he’s getting normal," she said.
Ertll’s writing is important, "Because it is something that talks very frank and openly about his experiences growing up in the inner city," says Kansas University literature professor Yajaira Padilla, "and especially as a Salvadoran American and related to that the fact that he places that label on it as Salvadoran American."
Padilla says Ertll’s memoir is one of a growing list of works by Americans of Central American descent that try to make sense of life experiences often lost when others file them under the larger Latino experience in the United States.
"How they stand in contrast, how they build an ethnic identity alongside or in dialogue or in contrast with not only Anglo Americans, African Americans, but other more prominent Latino groups such as Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, or even Cuban Americans," she said.