As a young child I lived in a big adobe house with a red tiled roof on a hillock where streets were paved with cobblestones. 3ra Calle Oriente in the small town of Atiquizaya was where my father and grandmother were born and where my great-grandmother and almost all of my father’s relatives lived. Home, family, and community life were seamlessly intertwined.
When my family left El Salvador in 1981, at the beginning of the civil war that lasted 12 years, I lost a profound sense of place and belonging. Few things are more disorienting than the physical, psychological, and emotional rupture that individuals endure when they emigrate. Leaving behind the familiar, navigating a new place, trying to get by in an unknown language, and living in an area not yet inscribed with positive emotional experiences is to exist in a kind of geographic limbo. Without a physical location that reflects your language, your culture, without the food that gives you comfort, and in the absence of loved ones, the home left behind quickly becomes an intangible construct, a place found only in memory.
For an immigrant, even the most tenuous connection to one’s home country, a remote acquaintance, for instance, can provide a tendril of belonging. Immigrants create social webs that underscore mutual aid. What may begin as a loose network of family and friends may end up powering a neighborhood’s economic engine or providing color and architectural definition to a place. Established immigrant neighborhoods such as Korea Town in Palisades Park, New Jersey, and Little Saigon in Orange County, California, are examples of this phenomenon.
Pico-Union in Los Angeles and Adams Morgan in Washington, DC, are vibrant enclaves for Salvadorans and Central Americans. In these places, the agglomeration of services, language, food, and cultural opportunities conspires to ease the sense of dislocation and loss. Yet for Salvadoran immigrants living in the Puget Sound area, the weather and landscape alone offer a steep challenge: snowcapped mountains, ferns and cedar, cold rain, and an insistent gray palette stand in stark contrast to tropical vegetation and sun drenched days. More challenging still is that the Central American community around Puget Sound is small and scattered among many cities across a large urban area.
Luckily, there are a few places in Seattle and its environs where Salvadoran immigrants can recover a sense of the familiar: Salvadoran restaurants quietly claiming space in nondescript mini malls and the Mexican/Salvadoran taco trucks occupying vacant lots or parked next to gas stations. These landmarks of roadside immigrant architecture, with their humble and often undistinguished facades, combine the essential elements of home—language, memory, community—and a few of its sensual pleasures. For newly arrived immigrants, restaurants like these offer nourishment and hope versus the way in which the larger city can engender limitations and fears. They are organic architectural configurations that restore and sustain a sense of self in a sea of dislocating experiences. They are much more than eateries; they are sui generis cultural centers.
But what really anchors immigrants is their native language. It is through language that we define our identities and access personal memories of home. Actually, for immigrants, language becomes a place in and of itself: a dwelling and a refuge. When my family arrived in the US we went from Florida to New Jersey to California. Then as a young adult I lived in Germany, France, and Costa Rica. By the time I was 30 years old I could no longer point to a map and say, “There, that’s home.” My original home was by then irretrievable, thousands of miles away, decades in the past. Yet after more than three decades living in the US, whenever I hear others speaking Caliche, a Salvadoran slang, I plunge down a tunnel, like Alice down the rabbit hole, that zooms me to the cobblestone streets of my childhood and to uncontested belonging.
International and East 14th Tacos Mi Rancho.
International and 22nd Tacos Sinaloa. International
and 24th Tacos Mi Gloria. International Boulevard
asphalt corrido of carnitas and pupusas de chicharrón.
I.C.E. cuotas and remittance receipts. International
and 54th Tacos Los Amigos. Boa de carne asada.
Boca de lengua frita. Census projections. Future vote
tally. And heart, corazón de rábano, red and crunchy
and pulsing with the energy of all of Guadalupe’s
children who are many, muchos, son muchos, muchos
somos. International and 80th Flor de Jalisco. On each
corner, a four wheeled sentinel guarding the memory
of home. Stand in line, home comes wrapped up,
calientito, inside a tortilla. International and 90th Tacos
Union. And though warm, the bitter seeps in.