Employment of Salvadorans

Before the war in El Salvador even began, opportunities for women were limited. Many of Salvadoran women in the 1960s and in to the 1970s were working in jobs they viewed as stagnant. These women wanted positions that would allow them access to higher social spheres and the ultimate dream was to go to the United States where they believed they could create better lives for themselves and, in the future, better lives for their children. Many Salvadoran women were working in domestic service positions for American families in El Salvador or were pursuing their education in the hope to pursue a career. In most cases of female migrants pre-Civil War, the women were recruited to follow their employing family to the United States and were promised sponsorship should they continue to work as nannies or maids for the family in America.[1] The approximately 131 embassies or other diplomatic institutions brings thousands of families and other staff members to the Washington D.C. region with many of those families who were returning to the region bringing their Salvadoran staff with them or sending representatives to El Salvador to recruit women.[2] The women came to the United States in the 1960s and 1970s because of the jobs and potential jobs that they know where available or even reserved for them.

These women worked in childcare and other domestic services jobs for the wealthy families of D.C. and its surrounding area which attracted them to settle in the Arlandria area as it was the more affordable option if they were not living with their employers. The numerous floods of Four Mile Run in the 1960s caused hundreds of residents to leave the area, forcing landlords to lower rents.[3] Yet, most of the initial wave of Salvadoran women were considered ‘live-in’ childcare providers as they could not afford to have their own place or it was a stipulation of their employer. The working conditions of ‘live-in’ domestic workers were dreadful as the employee was in the home this created an ‘on-call’ type of attitude by the families. The families often called on the woman after hours or on weekend and paid her whatever amount they saw fit as there was no childcare agency that was overseeing the work.[4] These types of conditions left the women without a steadfast argument to try to improve conditions as they would risk the family revoking sponsoring their citizenship.

Domestic service continued to the largest employer of Salvadoran women in the later waves of migrants and presented greater issues when the women now had to provide for their own families. As the networks for jobs and housing grew with the Salvadoran Civil War, ‘live-in’ domestic workers caused community identity issues as it separated the women from the Salvadoran community that was establishing itself in Arlandria.[5] ‘Live-in’ workers also caused issues within the family as it forced women to be away from their own children to raise the children of DC’s wealthiest residents which could cause dysfunctional relationship between parent and child or between spouses.[6]

As chain migration brought more men to the region in the 1980s with the Salvadoran Civil War showing no signs of slowing down, men utilized the contacts their mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, cousins crafted from being established employees. The men, like other immigrant groups, flocked to unskilled labor positions in the metropolitan region. The construction boom in Washington during that time as well as the reputation built by the women as dependable, hardworking employees allowed unprecedented access to construction jobs for Salvadoran men.[7] The construction jobs of male migrants offered them higher wages and more mobility in the field compared to the women’s domestic positions yet it was also an unstable position with men losing their jobs as soon as the construction project was complete. Unless a woman was employed by a childcare agencies which offered a more stable income and job benefits, women in domestic work also faced unstable employment. One Salvadoran woman, Victoria O., recites:

“Yes, one can get jobs, but it’s temporary. Sometimes I work every day, but other times I only work one day a week. Now, for instance, I’m doing well, but if we talked a year ago, you’d have had a different impression. Can you imagine that I moved three times in five months because I didn’t have money to pay for rent? It was awful. So, yes, I have work now, but I have to find more hours. Who knows what will happen next.”[8]

Employment in Washington, D.C. and the draw of living amongst peers in Arlandria initially drew Salvadorans to the region, but they were not immune to unstable or stagnant jobs or raids by INS due to Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Salvadoran women were able to retain similar jobs in the U.S. as they held in El Salvador, but under great cost to their mobility in the job force and to their character. Salvadoran men, in most cases did not migrate to the U.S. for the purpose of better employment opportunities like the women. They were fleeing the Civil War and the almost certain death they faced should they stay in El Salvador. Many did not have the citizenship sponsorship opportunities the women had arranged and as such were commonly illegal in the country. This status limited their employment opportunities in the more advanced fields they held positions in back home. The passage of IRCA furthered complicated employment and thus life in the DC region for Salvadoran men more often than woman. One commonility that followed Salvadorans from their home country to Alexandria is that women remained the wage earners due in part to their greater stable positions and legal citizenship.[9] As the years passed, Salvadorans in Arlandria developed their skills in the restaurant business and other fields to open several businesses in the neighborhood. These businesses not only serve as symbols of Salvadorans long history as employees in the Washington D.C. area, but also operate to serve the Salvadoran community and provide jobs for Salvadoran immigrants at greater ease then those that were open to them in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Next: Refugee Status

[1] Terry A. Repak, Waiting on Washington: Central American Workers in the Nation’s Capital (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 77.

[2] Ibid, 77-8.

[3] Meurine McLaughlin, “Arlandria’s Dilemma: Floods, Buck-Passing: Arlandria: Raging Over Floods,” The Washington Post, August 21, 1969.

[4] Repak, Waiting on Washington, 103.

[5] Cecilia Menjívar, Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant Networks in America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 164.

[6] Mary Romero, The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 29.

[7] Repak, Waiting on Washington, 124.

[8] Menjívar, Fragmented Ties: Salvadoran Immigrant, 165.

[9] Ibid, 165.