A New Life: Salvadoran Women In D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio


A New Life: Salvadoran Women in D.C.


Sometimes you come to a place to visit, but you wind up coming to stay. And many of the people we'll hear from next, well, they did just that. Over the years, the D.C. region has attracted quite a few nationalities and cultures, including Salvadorans. In fact, we have the second largest Salvadoran population in the country. For the past 30 years, primarily men have been coming over and sending money to family members back home.


And that money has helped pay for the education of a number of young women. But here's the thing, even with an education, these women often have great difficulty finding a job in a country whose economy is struggling and whose culture -- well, whose culture pretty much traditionally favors men. So increasingly, these women are heading north. Many plan on just sticking around long enough to save some money then return home. But Kate Sheehy introduces us to some women who have come to the area and stayed here in hopes of improving their lives and their communities.


Sonia Umanzor says she remembers the civil war in El Salvador like it was yesterday. The year was 1980. She was a nurse traveling around, helping the injured.


When we head into the city, we saw many bodies. Oh, my God, that was terrible thing.


Umanzor fled the war and illegally crossed the U.S. border in 1981. Now, she works with young Salvadoran women as a patient advocate at the Mary's Center in Northwest D.C., a clinic providing maternal and childcare for immigrant women from Central America. When you walk through the front door, Umanzor is the first person you see, greeting everyone with a warm smile at the front desk.


Umanzor says, only two other women traveled with her to the U.S. 30 years ago. But today she says, young women in El Salvador are restless.


They don't know what to do because there's so many people getting education now. They economy is not able to take them and put them to work.


Which might be why roughly 17 percent of women, compared with 11 percent of men, are coming to America from El Salvador with some college education. That's according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a not for profit think tank in D.C. focusing on U.S. relations with Latin America. Umanzor is a leader in the local Salvadoran community and seeks to get other women involved. She directs D.C.'s chapter of the Salvador and political party, FMLN. Although she says, she is the only woman to lead a committee in the party, she's proud to report that a number of companeras or women attend her meetings.


One of these companeras is Norma. She does not want to use her last name because of her illegal status. I meet her one evening at Umanzor's apartment in Takoma Park, Md. The two women discuss the immigrant rights and political campaign posters laying in the hallway while Norma's 3-year-old son, Nelson, hangs on her legs. Norma came to the U.S. in 2005. She tells me how she stopped in Monterrey, Mexico on the way. Umanzor translates for her.


They think that because I was a woman, I was a Latina, I am somebody who do not speak English and who do not have right, they can decide whatever they want, even the salary, even everything and how they treat me.


Norma washed dishes for a catering company for five years until she quit when her employer brushed aside her request for a regular lunch break. But many Salvadorans say women find more respect in the U.S., such as 28-year-old Edgar Villalobos who's working on a brand new Honda civic at the mechanic shop he owns with his father and uncle in Northeast D.C. He migrated from El Salvador in September 2001 and says before he came to the U.S., he thought of women only as mothers and caretakers.


Then when I came here, there's a lot of women working. They're, you know, supervising or they have their own companies.


Next door, Efrain Merino runs a body shop. Merino works with Sonia Umanzor in a non-profit called, FOSSALEX or Fondo Solidario Para Los Salvadorenos En El Exterior. The organization raises money for people in need in the local Salvadorian community. He says once in the U.S., some men learn to see women differently.


We learn a lot of things about this culture. The respect that you got to have to the women, you know, they equal.


But sitting inside Sonia Umanzor's apartment, Norma says women struggle for the opportunity to have their voices heard even in America.


I really think that the woman rights are not respected yet and they continue struggling.


She says she will go back to college here after she learns English. She's taking a class four nights a week. Both Umanzor and Norma say they hope to see the day when El Salvador changes, enough to encourage people to stay and leave. That is if they want to not because they feel they have no other choice. I'm Kate Sheehy.
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