Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence

Exiled Home: Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence

by Susan Bibler Coutin

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In Exiled Home, Susan Bibler Coutin recounts the experiences of Salvadoran children who migrated with their families to the United States during the 1980-1992 civil war. Because of their youth and the violence they left behind, as well their uncertain legal status in the United States, many grew up with distant memories of El Salvador and a profound sense of disjuncture in their adopted homeland. Through interviews in both countries, Coutin examines how they sought to understand and overcome the trauma of war and displacement through such strategies as recording community histories; advocating for undocumented immigrants; forging new relationships with the Salvadoran state; and, for those deported from the U.S., reconstructing their lives in El Salvador. In focusing on the case of Salvadoran youth, Coutin’s nuanced analysis shows how the violence associated with emigration can be countered through practices that recuperate historical memory while also reclaiming national membership.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822361633
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Series: Global Insecurities Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 671,997
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Susan Bibler Coutin is Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Nations of Emigrants: Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship in El Salvador and the United StatesLegalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants’ Struggle for U.S. Residency; and The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement.

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Exiled Home

Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence

By Susan Bibler Coutin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7417-6



JUNE 29, 2007. In her apartment in Pico Union, Milda Escobar, a recent college graduate and youth organizer, nursed a recently injured ankle and told me of the multiple forms of violence that, at the age of twenty-seven, she had already experienced. In 1985, as a five-year-old, Milda had traveled from El Salvador to the United States with the help of a coyote. She described this departure as akin to an abduction, saying, "As children, we were taken out." In the United States, she reunited with her parents who had immigrated earlier and whom she scarcely remembered: "And I had to go to an apartment to live, with five other people, and I was supposed to call these two people my parents? When I didn't know them?" Milda did not leave behind violence, however. At her new home in Los Angeles, one of her cousins shot and killed another cousin, and, as an eight-year-old, in approximately 1988, she had to translate when the police arrived to investigate this incident. The same year, her family gained the opportunity to become legal citizens through the amnesty program that had been created through the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), and Milda, her mother, and her U.S.-born sister returned to El Salvador to pick up her mother's green card at the U.S. embassy. Although the country was at war, Milda experienced this trip as a vacation. Her family traveled around, visiting relatives and participating in hometown festivals. When it came time to return to the United States, however, Milda discovered that her mother had made a serious error. Though Milda was not eligible for a green card, her mother had assumed that she could reenter the United States by showing her elementary school records. Milda recalled,

We went to the airport to go back to the United States. And my mother had brought her green card, and for my sister she brought her U.S. passport, and for me, she brought my report card! The guy at the airport just laughed at us. He said, "You're not going back into the U.S. with this!" ... And she had to go back [to the United States] right then, because of the dates on the visa that she had. So she said, "You're going to go back home with Grandma, and your father is going to come and get you!"

In 1988 or 1989, while she waited for her parents to bring her back to the United States, Milda experienced the Salvadoran civil war firsthand. Once, when she was away, her grandmother and a cousin were beaten and their door was macheted. Her family had to flee. Milda also had direct contact with the combatants: "We would be called to meetings with the Frente [Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN), the guerrilla forces]. And I know they weren't going to hurt us or anything, but it was scary seeing people with weapons. I developed a defense mechanism. I used to cross my eyes, so then they would think that I couldn't see very well, and they wouldn't take me."

Eventually, Milda's parents arranged for her aunt to bring her to the United States, again with the services of a coyote. Milda had harrowing experiences during this trip. In Mexico, immigration agents chased and shot at her and her fellow travelers. She was held in a safe house with sixty other migrants, without food, for several days. There, a male smuggler came after one of his female colleagues with a gun. Later, on a bus en route to Mexico City, a girl began to cry and a woman slapped her to make her be quiet. The driver — also affiliated with the smugglers — "grabbed [this woman] by the hair, and threw her off the truck. And she was just left there. The truck drove off and left her there." Milda and other migrants were captured by the Mexican Federal police, but the smugglers paid a bribe in exchange for the group's release. Then, when Milda and her aunt finally arrived in Mexico City, the smuggler demanded additional money from her family. Alerted by phone, Milda's father arrived and arranged for Milda and her aunt to enter the United States. Holding a Mickey Mouse doll as though she were a tourist who had gone to Tijuana for the day, Milda entered the country.

These experiences, Milda related, left psychological scars on both her and others. Milda had nightmares and got into fights at school. To escape such conflicts, Milda returned to El Salvador in 1994, which turned out to be a transformative experience: "That was when I became Salvadoran again. Prior to that time, I didn't want to be Salvadoran; I was embarrassed. But when I went back to live there, I made peace with the country."

After again returning to the United States, Milda sought to overcome what she described as a silence about the impact of the Salvadoran civil war on her generation. She explained, "The older generation denies our existence. They are in denial. To them, we don't seem Salvadoran. 'We were in the war,' they say. And the implication is, 'How Salvadoran are you, really?'" In college, Milda had the opportunity to ask a guest speaker from El Salvador, "How do young people there deal with the war?" Incredulously, she related, "And do you know what he said? He said, 'They don't deal with it, I think. Because they don't remember it.' Can you believe it? An academic stated, 'They don't remember it.'"

What permits experiences such as Milda's to be described as not memorable? How is the violence of civil war and emigration ignored or defined as something other than violence? What accounts for such silences? To address these questions, this chapter analyzes 1.5-generation Salvadorans' accounts of the violence of civil war, emigration, and living in the United States as an undocumented person. To do so, I draw on understandings of violence developed by scholars and activists who have documented the not-always-visible violence of structural racism, entrenched poverty, and institutional policies. Philippe Bourgois (2003), for example, strives to recount the racism and class subjugation that have produced those whom he calls "social structural victim[s]" who deal crack in New York, while Farmer (2004) stresses that structural violence is systemic, indirect, and sometimes hard to discern, given that the victims often attribute their injuries to accident, their own behavior, or bad luck. In U.S. legal contexts, mental suffering carries less weight as evidence of harm than physical injuries do, a perspective that makes it hard for some forms of violence to be legally recognized (Jenkins 1996). Additionally, the state is deemed to possess a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, so apprehension, detention, incarceration, deportation, and even the death penalty tend to be distinguished from rather than construed as violence. Asylum law is designed to protect individuals who are singled out for persecution rather than those who are indirect targets of generalized violence or who are victims of common crime (Anker 1992; Coutin 2001; Godoy 2005). Violent occurrences that are nonagentive, such as enforcement policies that push border crossers into terrains where they perish (Magaña forthcoming; Nevins 2002), or the injuries and worse caused by microbus crashes where traffic laws are not enforced (Moodie 2006), tend to be seen as mere accidents. Similarly, social suffering that has become normalized may appear to be disconnected from the broader economic, political, and historical structures that produce it (Menjívar 2011a; Pine 2008). When such suffering is ignored or unacknowledged, then, individuals' experiences of violence are denied, making it difficult for them to pursue justice (see also Hume 2008).

Alongside the widespread public silence about the violence behind Salvadoran migration to the United States has been a corresponding silence in U.S. schools and reportedly even within many Salvadoran immigrant families about the Salvadoran civil war. Perhaps familial silence is not altogether surprising, given that, during the war years, admitting to political involvement or speaking of abuses placed one at risk (Hume 2008; see also Lauria-Santiago and Binford 2004). Additionally, for Salvadoran parents, who may have viewed childhood "as a special stage of life to be protected and cherished" (Horton 2008:929), it may have seemed inappropriate to speak of such traumatic experiences. For immigrant youths, such silence has nonetheless given rise to a project of recuperating historical memory by locating their own early memories within broader historical processes. Youths seek to discover, as one interviewee stated, "What are we? We're Salvadoran, but why? Why are we here?" In Salvadoran youths' project of historical recuperation, memory is larger than the individual, as events associated with war and emigration take on "extraordinary salience" (Halbwachs 1992:223), producing in some cases a desire to visit, study, or serve El Salvador, while also staking justice claims that reconnect youths as deserving members of the U.S. polity. Such an effort to recuperate memory is evident in Milda's question, "How do young people there [in El Salvador] deal with the war?"

It is particularly important to analyze the forms of violence and silence experienced by children such as Milda, because dichotomies between politics and crime, structure and agency, and direct violence and indirect violence are particularly pronounced in their cases and contribute to silencing their experiences (J. Bhabha 2014). As the social psychologist and Jesuit Ignacio Martín-Baró, who was murdered in El Salvador in 1989 by Salvadoran security forces, noted, instead of protecting children, silence can exacerbate trauma by failing to provide children with constructive and creative ways to confront painful experiences (1990:244–245). Although some children were combatants in the civil war (Dickson-Gómez 2003, 2009) and some noncombatant children were directly targeted or abducted during the conflict (Amnesty International 2008; Binford 1996), many (but not all) interviewees described experiencing the war as part of the environment in which they grew up rather than as an event in which they were directly involved. They saw bodies, heard battles, hid from soldiers or guerrillas, and knew family and community members who were killed. As Milda described, such encounters left scars, disrupted lives, and shaped migration experiences, while children, due to their youth, were shielded from receiving explanations about what they had seen.

The violence of the war then was transformed into the violence of emigrating without authorization (Zúñiga Núñez 2010), given that the United States was reluctant to grant travel visas to Salvadorans or to award them asylum. The violence of emigration is hard to discern in that family separations, trips through dangerous terrain, and exposure to smugglers and others who profit from the undocumented appear to result from choices made by migrants rather than from structural forces or from policy makers' decisions. The experiences of children, who, in the scholarly literature, are defined "in effect, as luggage, as in phrases like 'the immigrant sent for his wife and children'" (Orellana, Thorne, Chee, and Lam 2001:578), are obscured in such accounts. Furthermore, in immigration cases in the United States, children are frequently included as dependents or derivatives, rather than as the primary applicants for a particular status, and therefore were rarely fully informed about the legal processes within which they participated. Nonetheless, children, like other migrants, are affected by the immigration laws that award status to some while denying it to others, as well as by criminal justice policies that target youths, especially those from low-income and minority communities (Farrell 1995). These policies, in turn, rechannel the violence of the emigration of the 1980s and 1990s into the deportations of the 2000s (Coutin 2011), and they potentially reproduce trauma across generations (Cho 2008; Dickson-Gómez 2002; Schwab 2006).

By retracing these interconnections, this chapter recounts how violence produced dismemberment through war, emigration, and immigration laws that prohibited movement and presence. Collectively, these forms of violence dismembered in multiple senses: (1) part of the population of El Salvador was dispersed and driven out of national territory, thus "dismembering" the nation of El Salvador; (2) individuals' ability to cross international borders in search of safety was not recognized and unauthorized migrants were not able to enjoy state protection, so the Salvadoran citizenry was broken apart; (3) families were dismembered as relatives were geographically separated; (4) some suffered physical injury on their journeys and were dismembered literally; and (5), in the United States, immigration law dismembered by distinguishing between residents based on their legal status, thus also defining many as outside of the U.S. nation. In recounting and reconnecting these forms of dismemberment, I also seek to overcome silences, in short, to re/member.


The separation between persons and history that I take up in this book can be traced to the Salvadoran civil war, which dismembered physically, in that some were injured or killed, their bodies discarded as refuse or as warnings to others. It also dismembered civically in that those who were targeted for state violence were defined as outside of the nation, as the enemy, and as unworthy of human rights. The 1.5-generation youths who eventually migrated to the United States were caught up in both of these processes. Some lost family members or were injured during the war. Others saw bodies and body parts or knew that they and their own relatives were at risk. A few actually became combatants or were at risk of forced recruitment. Collectively, these children experienced an insecurity that made their own status in El Salvador unclear (Silber 2011). For many interviewees, insecurity made their family's circumstances unstable, leading some or all family members to move, either within or outside of the country (Menjívar 2000). The sources of this instability, its grounding in wartime violence, and its linkages to family separations or economic difficulties were not always made clear to youths themselves, perhaps out of the desire to shield youths from painful knowledge (Ostrow 2002). In contrast to the suffering inflicted by combat or by death-squad activity, youths' experiences of wartime violence often seemingly appeared either insignificant or better forgotten.

The Salvadoran civil war that provoked these experiences erupted in 1980 due to a history of stark social inequality, a shrinking space for political opposition, and a rise in repression (Wood 2003). Elsewhere, Hector Perla and I (2010:9) summarized this history as follows:

From 1932 until the late 1970s El Salvador was ruled by a series of military dictators who came into office either through uncompetitive elections or coups. Starting in the late 1960s this system of governance began to be challenged by a growing collection of social movements. By 1972 this challenge had evolved to include a coalition of political parties of the centre and left (National Opposition Union, or UNO) with the support of many important civil society actors, which fielded a strong presidential candidate, José Napoleón Duarte. While it is widely believed that the UNO coalition won these elections, its candidates were not allowed to take office. In fact its presidential candidate was arrested and tortured, and had to go into exile. This electoral challenge was repeated in 1977 with similar results, anointing another high-ranking military officer, Carlos Romero, winner of the presidential race.

As a result of government intransigence, these institutional political challenges were accompanied by an upswing in social movement mobilization among unions and student, peasant, and religious organizations. The Salvadoran government responded to this contentious political challenge in much the same way that it met the formal political challenges to its authority — with violence; but it went after the social movement with even greater and ever-increasing levels of brutality. This brutality fed support for the incipient but rapidly growing armed revolutionary organizations that began forming in the early 1970s and would come together in 1980 to form the FMLN.

The civil war lasted from 1980 to 1992 and was characterized by surveillance, roadblocks, forced recruitment, bombings, battles, abductions, torture, and massacres. Among the most notorious government assassinations during this period were those of the liberationist priest Father Rutilio Grande in 1977; the Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, a critic of the military repression, in 1980; and four Maryknoll sisters in the same year. From 1981 to 1984, the guerrilla forces sought an immediate military victory and fought accordingly. When a victory was not forthcoming, the insurgents devised an alternative strategy of wearing away at the Salvadoran armed forces through prolonged war. To counter this effort, the Salvadoran military strafed areas that were deemed zones of guerrilla support, causing high levels of civilian casualties (Byrne 1996; Montgomery 1995). The U.S. government viewed the civil war as a battle between Western democracy and international Communism. Discounting the indigenous causes of the conflict, the Reagan administration insisted that if the guerrillas gained power in El Salvador, then Communism could spread throughout the region, thus threatening the security of the United States. During the 1980s, the U.S. government sent $6 billion in military and other aid to El Salvador (Schwarz 1991). By the end of the 1980s, it became clear that a military stalemate had been reached, and in 1989, as efforts to negotiate a peace agreement faltered (Aguilera Peralta, Macías, and Rodríguez, 1988; Córdova Macías 1993), the guerrilla forces launched a final offensive designed to demonstrate their military strength. During this offensive, an armed forces unit assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, provoking international condemnation. In 1992, peace accords officially ended the Salvadoran civil war. Key elements of the accords included a cessation of hostilities; the reconstitution of the FMLN as a political party; a purging of officers responsible for human rights violations; the replacement of existing security forces with the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civilian Police), 20 percent of whom were to be former guerrilla combatants; the establishment of a Human Rights Ombudsry to guard against future abuses; the formation of a truth commission; and a plan for national reconstruction (Popkin 2000). Seventeen years later, in 2009, the FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes won the Salvadoran presidential elections and became the first FMLN president in Salvadoran history.


Excerpted from Exiled Home by Susan Bibler Coutin. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction  1

1. Violence and Silence  21

2. Living in the Gap  55

3. Dreams  95

4. Exiled Home through Deportation  129

5. Biographies and Nations  165

Conclusion. Re/membering Exiled Homes  205

Appendix  227

Notes  231

References  241

Index  265

What People are Saying About This

Cecilia Menjívar

"In Exiled Home, Susan Bibler Coutin provides an invaluable conceptual map of how the contemporary U.S. legal regime reshapes immigrants' lives across contexts and geographies. The analytic lens of violence allows her to excavate the ripple effects of living in tenuous legality, weaving analysis and narrative and moving deftly between personal biography and structures to bring out the perspective of immigrant youth that often goes unregistered. This superb account contributes immensely to scholarship by adding insight, voices, visibility, and humanity. A must-read!"

The Paradox of Relevance: Ethnography and Citizenship in the United States - Carol J. Greenhouse

"Exiled Home breaks your heart, then reassembles the pieces with insights, understandings, outrage, and determination. Anthropologist Susan Bibler Coutin has worked with Salvadoran refugees and their children for over thirty years. Here, she dwells with the 1.5 and 2 generations, in the United States and as deportees. Their voices are eloquent, some stories shocking. No one crosses the border in either direction once and for all, but there is no going back from what we learn here."

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