Global Policy Forum

Gaining Dollars, Town Is Losing Its Folkways


By David Gonnzalez

New York Times
January 1, 2001

Enrique Reyes, the local keeper of culture, says this area was first settled by Lenca Indians who were making their way through Central America. And for centuries after the Spaniards came, it was a thriving cattle and farming town blessed with fertile land and folklore. "Intipucá was a rich town," said Mr. Reyes, the director of the Casa de la Cultura, a cultural center he started two years ago to try to preserve the town's values and history. "The older people didn't worry, because the old ways were maintained."

Traditionalists like him now fret that the only indigenous rituals that survive are the Lencas' peripatetic ways. For every one of the 7,200 people who live here now, nearly two others have been lured to the United States to toil in restaurants, factories and construction sites. El Salvador has adopted the dollar as its official currency, beginning Jan. 1. But this town, which sends an especially large number of residents to the United States, has been driven by dollars for more than 20 years. The results of the migration and the many dollars sent back here are evident soon after a visitor passes the huge Western Union billboard that dwarfs the fading welcome sign that reads, in English and Spanish, "Welcome to Intipucá City."

The wood-and-tin houses outside the town limits give way to sturdy, freshly painted houses with elegant wrought-iron flourishes. Along pothole-free streets paved with stones — and named for one United States president, George Washington, and one former American ambassador — there are pay phones on nearly every block and about as many wire transfer businesses. Some men walk around with cellular phones, rather than the machetes of an earlier era, dangling from their belts. And the annual harvest has been long forgotten by many in favor of the monthly vigil for remittances. The streets have the lazy, empty feel of a permanent holiday. "It has lifted up consumerism," Mr. Reyes said. "The people are practically without anything to do, because they receive dollars." í‰migré dollars have helped prop up many poorer nations, like Haiti, where construction is booming in some areas despite a battered local economy.

In El Salvador the Central Bank estimates that remittances from the United States will reach $1.6 billion this year, compared with $850 million in 1992.The flow has helped the country amass significant dollar reserves. That will come in handy now that the dollar can freely circulate alongside the colon at a fixed rate of $1 for 8.75 colons, stabilizing interest rates and eliminating conversion fees. But some critics of the way this town has evolved said that while money-changers may lose out, the search for the dollar will continue to exact other costs from their society. Almost every day, a few people embark on their journey northward with a visit to the Canales International Travel Agency. The office is decorated with posters from Washington and Houston, while a sign that reads "Show Love for Your Country" is partly obscured by a poster for TACA Airlines that proclaims "More America in Less Time." "They go looking for the new horizon of paradise, even if it costs them being with their family," said Brí­gido Galea, the agency's manager. "An engineer here might make $1,000 a month, but he can go to Virginia and make $2,000 as a construction supervisor.

"They compare it and think it's better. That's what they say at the beginning. But it's also more expensive there. Face it, we want to earn dollars but spend colons." He has seen them return, years later, with televisions, cars and refrigerators, intent on revisiting their roots for a few months. Sometimes they stay only a week before going crazy with nothing to do at night except watch cable television in the houses their monthly checks helped build. They go to his agency to change their return tickets so they can leave sooner, thinking nothing of paying a fee of $75, nearly as much as a sugar worker earns in a month. Very few have come back for good or to go into business here. Some of those who left 25 years ago have retired here, living off their pensions and savings, sometimes turning a quick dollar making loans. "The qualities of the hard-working Salvadoran of the 1970's is being lost," said Mr. Galea, who had just finished selling a one-way ticket to Houston. "There are few people here who work in agriculture, business or construction."

José Hernández is one of the few locals who came back to open a business. In the shadow of the AT&T billboard that towers over the town plaza, he runs a general store, which was doing a brisk business in prepaid phone cards for the holidays. He spent 13 years cooking and washing dishes in restaurants in the Washington area before returning to Intipucá for good in 1997. "My wife didn't like it, especially on the cold days," he said. "So I decided to come here and put this up as a pastime." His three children were born in the United States. Two of them just returned to the Washington area: Xavier, 15, is in high school; José, 19, is a busboy. "It's worth it," Mr. Hernández said. "Thanks to that country, there is progress."

But Mr. Reyes sees the change in the town as more of a setback. As in other Salvadoran towns, Los Angeles-style street gangs have emerged. Entertainment has become something to watch, rather than something to do. "They are so used to getting dollars they do not produce," he said. "Last year, a newspaper published a survey that said the majority of the dollars that come here are spent on food, clothing and education. But education is last. It's one of the least significant areas." Some people see the changeover to the dollar as but one more step in the fading away of Salvadoran culture and sovereignty. Mr. Reyes is not so alarmed about that, but he is not taking any chances. Outside his center, a group of young people strummed guitars as part of a cultural workshop he has started with the help of a friend who works with young people in Washington.

In the last two years, he said, he has done some research on the Lencas who settled here. He wants to do more, especially involving the young people, whose schooling is cut short when they leave to work in the States. He is also worried about the lack of community spirit and the consumerism that overtake some of the émigrés. He admitted that some of them had been generous, especially the United for Itipucá Foundation, which donated new ambulances and other gifts to the town. But his center was still struggling while it waited for the government to approve its budget. Recently Mr. Reyes decided to contact some of the restaurants that employed his countrymen in exile, hoping they would send some money. "We wrote to the owners of restaurants over there and made a presentation to them about our work," he said. "Until now, we have not received any donations." It wouldn't be all that difficult to get the money to him. After all, on his block alone there are two wire transfer businesses. Both were closed for lunch.

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