American Value: Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States

American Value: Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States

by David Pedersen


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Over the past half-century, El Salvador has transformed dramatically. Historically reliant on primary exports like coffee and cotton, the country emerged from a brutal civil war in 1992 to find much of its national income now coming from a massive emigrant workforce—over a quarter of its population—that earns money in the United States and sends it home. In American Value, David Pedersen examines this new way of life as it extends across two places: Intipucá, a Salvadoran town infamous for its remittance wealth, and the Washington, DC, metro area, home to the second largest population of Salvadorans in the United States.


Pedersen charts El Salvador’s change alongside American deindustrialization, viewing the Salvadoran migrant work abilities used in new lowwage American service jobs as a kind of primary export, and shows how the latest social conditions linking both countries are part of a longer history of disparity across the Americas. Drawing on the work of Charles S. Peirce, he demonstrates how the defining value forms—migrant work capacity, services, and remittances—act as signs, building a moral world by communicating their exchangeability while hiding the violence and exploitation on which this story rests. Theoretically sophisticated, ethnographically rich, and compellingly written, American Value offers critical insights into practices that are increasingly common throughout the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226653396
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/16/2013
Series: Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning Series
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

David Pedersen is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego.

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American Value

Migrants, Money, and Meaning in El Salvador and the United States


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-65340-2

Chapter One

A Roadmap for Remittances

Dip the pitcher into the water enough and it finally breaks.—Popular saying in El Salvador

The common expression chosen as the epigraph for this chapter may be heard in Spanish with slight variation throughout the hemisphere of the Americas. I took note of it in El Salvador and in the Washington, DC, area and have come to understand it to be as much a warning about overuse as an expression about how, as something grows in quantity, it may at some point undergo a qualitative transformation. In the case of the pitcher and water, there is a dipping tipping-point, so to speak. On the basis of cumulative repetition, what once was a container becomes something fundamentally different, a smattering of fragments contained within what used to be the object of its transport. The pitcher parable achieves its rhetorical resonance because it brings together two different temporal moments or states of being within a single continuous process. This is not quite the same logic as distinguishing between either one condition or another and setting apart cause from effect.

Just such a process of quantity-to-quality transformation occurred between the late 1970s and early 1990s in El Salvador as the country became increasingly oriented around remittances, the quotient of US dollars circulating in the country sent mostly by Salvadorans living and working in the United States. Starting as a barely recognized trickle near the onset of the war, migrant remittances became the centerpiece of a completely reorganized society and productive system by the middle 1990s. Quite literally, remittances had changed from small wads of well-worn US dollars used to store and exchange wealth in El Salvador into something more sublime: interest-bearing capital, that is, money that appeared to make more money. By following this quantity-to-quality transformation as a kind of 15-year road trip, it is possible to grasp a key transformative moment in the larger jointly asymmetrical development of El Salvador and the United States over the past fifty years.

It is beyond the scope of this chapter to arrive at the full capital-m "Measure" of the transformation of remittance money from means of exchange and wealth storage into interest-bearing capital in El Salvador—the absolute and complete before, after, and infinitesimally small point of transition. Instead, this chapter covers just a few key points in the transformation, figuratively as if following a road, but with a concern for some rest stops. In this sense, the chapter is a specific and necessarily limited roadmap, not the fullness of the complete route and journey. Despite the partiality of its account—shaped by the particular perspective, level of acuity, and scalar reach that it assumes—the four stopping-off points on the map do complement and overlap each other in a way that yield a rough composite or amalgam of the overall transformation or, more figuratively, the whole road trip. The subsequent eight chapters of this book may be read as other kinds of maps that enrich and expand the rendering offered in this chapter.

The first and second stop-overs in this chapter are two photographs taken in 1989 by a journalist visiting El Salvador. The second photograph, in particular, introduces the way that the town called Intipucá began to be socially pulled out as a kind of representative model of and player in the overall transformation, internal to it, yet also congealing out of it in particular ways. This is perhaps the closest that this roadmap gets to marking a point of transition in the journey, where remittances appear to shift from a minor side effect to the defining feature of El Salvador's future. The next stop is a set of important numerical measures of money derived mostly from official Salvadoran government reports and presented in the form of two charts, compiled in 1995. The last layover in this journey is a document published by the World Bank a year later in 1996. As the chapter unfolds, these four sojourns on the route put Intipucá on the map, so to speak, and illustrate the larger, ongoing process of transformation in which it is embedded.

First Stop: Pictures at an Election

In spring 1989, a British photojournalist named Robin Lubbock traveled to El Salvador to chronicle developments in the conflict between a coalition of popular revolutionary organizations called the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN; Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and the heavily US-backed government of José Napoleon Duarte of the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC; Democratic Christian Party). "I went to cover the [Salvadoran Presidential and municipal] elections. A lot was happening. I ended up staying for three years," Robin recalled slightly more than a decade later.

Among the happenings of early 1989 was that the FMLN offered—for the first time in the history of the conflict—to support and participate in government-held elections if they would be slightly delayed. The Frente followed this gesture with the announcement that they would suspend all direct attacks on US personnel and installations in El Salvador because of the "positive response" to their election proposal that they had received from members of the new George H. W. Bush presidential administration in the United States. In turn, the Bush administration sent an important message back in the form of Vice President Dan Quayle, who made a highly publicized visit to El Salvador and requested that the military high command investigate the September 1988 "San Sebastian massacre" where soldiers of the Fifth Brigade's Batallón Jiboa had murdered ten civilian farmers. The new US administration appeared to be testing the Salvadoran military's capacity to curb forms of wartime violence and also signaling that future aid and support could be conditioned in part by the outcome of the investigation.

Alfredo Cristiani, the Salvadoran presidential candidate of the rightist Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party bested Duarte in the national election (March 19), receiving just over 53 percent of the popular vote. In the end, the FMLN did not participate. Despite the conservative roots of ARENA, the new Salvadoran leader rhetorically carved out a fresh position on the war. At his June inauguration Cristiani announced that his new administration would consider beginning peace talks with the FMLN without a prior cessation of hostilities. "We will dedicate all our efforts to the conquest of a permanent peace that does not exclude any Salvadoran," Cristiani said. "We are ready to initiate dialogue with the guerrilla immediately." Though critics decried this offer as empty talk, the words themselves were both real and new. The previous Duarte government, as well as its main patron, the US presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–89), had desired complete evisceration of the FMLN.

Cristiani's use of the word "we" at his inauguration presented himself, the elected government, and the party that dominated it (ARENA) in a particularly unified way for his audience. Indeed, this momentary triangulation granted the whole gesture its authority. Yet Cristiani would not have been in the position to make this exact statement were it not for a more complex history that lay somewhat submerged in the utterance. Lubbock captured a moment in this larger history when he photographed Cristiani campaigning before the 1989 election.

Cristiani had been active in ARENA since 1984, working especially to broaden its base of support among poorer and middle classes and to reduce the party's public identification with its founder Robert D'Aubuisson, a US-trained military officer, widely believed to have organized right-wing paramilitary "death squads" in El Salvador. Cristiani had received a degree in business administration from Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and publicly admired the neoliberal economic policies of Chile implemented throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He represented a faction of elite business interests in El Salvador, whose members not only were connected to the agro-export sector, but also maintained holdings in industry and commerce. In contrast to oligarchic land-owning families more narrowly tied to the agro-export sector, especially coffee, this group of more diversified capitalists had profited during the war through their ties to the remittance-driven commercial sector. Though the war was hardly resolved by 1989, the gesture toward meeting with the FMLN signaled a desire to end the conflict via a political solution rather than continue what already was recognized as a three-year military stalemate. Arguably, part of the motivation came from business concerns.

This understanding that negotiating the right kind of end to the war would auger well for the Cristiani-led faction came in part from their experience of being courted and supported directly by officials in the US State Department to the tune of $100 million. A primary vehicle for this bolstering was the organization known as FUSADES, founded and funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1983 to generate proscriptive policy research and also to directly fund financial liberalization and the privatization of state sectors in El Salvador. From the perspective of the last two stopping points in this chapter's narrative journey, the charts and the World Bank Report, it will become more clear how the Cristiani government followed this agenda almost to the letter. In 1998, the ascendance of the FUSADES-backed Cristiani faction to political office in El Salvador nevertheless signaled an important realignment of social forces in El Salvador. It also represented a shift in the United States as the State Department appeared to have wrested control of United States–El Salvador policy from hard-liners in the Pentagon and in the previous Reagan presidency. Lubbock's photograph of Cristiani's campaigning, as much as the new president's utterance of "we," figuratively was the tip of a wave amidst an incipient sea-change in El Salvador.

Second Stop: The Wealth of Pueblos

Along with covering events that revolved around the national elections and unfolded in the capital city of San Salvador, Robin Lubbock ventured to other locales around the country. Among his stops was the pueblo (small town) of Intipucá in the Department of La Unión, located about eighteen miles south of the large eastern city of San Miguel. Like many pueblos in the region, it had lost a significant part of its population because of wartime migration to the United States. However, the first Intipuqueños (natives of Intipucá) who traveled to live and work in the United States actually had begun to do so in the late 1960s. Building on initial patterns and contacts established by these residents who had settled in the Washington, DC, metropolitan region, almost all of the town's expatriates went to the DC area over the ensuing decades.

At the time of Robin's visit, Intipucá had concluded its annual festival to celebrate the patron saint of the town, San Nicolas Tolentíno. In the later years of the 1980s, the region around Intipucá was relatively free of military conflict and Intipuqueños residing in DC and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs were able to return for the celebration. Coinciding with the national elections, the pueblo's municipal elections followed on the heels of the festival. This sequence tended to favor the incumbent mayor since he usually could link himself and his administration with both the celebration and the return en masse of DC-based Intipuqueños, whose visit yielded a brief but substantial influx of US dollars.

Amidst the postcelebratory climate in the pueblo, Robin took pictures and casually spoke with many long-time residents as well as the recent visitors from DC. One of his many black-and-white photographs, the second image considered by this chapter, features a smiling young man straddling his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle outside of the town pool hall. "He was a great guy. I really enjoyed meeting him. He showed me around and told me all about the pueblo," recalled Robin, referring to the subject on the motorcycle. "It was an interesting place. All the houses looked nice and people seemed reasonably well off. I shot at least a whole roll [of film]," Robin told me years later.

On July 18, 1989, the New York Times printed one of Lubbock's compelling snapshots as part of a short article about Intipucá. The text highlighted the relative wealth of the pueblo in comparison with nearby areas and attributed this to the significant amount of money sent back by residents who had settled in the Washington, DC, area. According to the article, more than 15,000 people in the DC area claimed ties to Intipucá and they remitted over $150,000 each month to family and friends in the town. A brief description beneath Robin's photograph identified the motorcycle rider by name and implied that he stood for this more general feature of the pueblo: "Marvin Chávez on his motorcycle in Intipucá, El Salvador, a rural town made wealthy by millions of dollars sent home by residents who emigrated to Washington, DC. Mr. Chávez's father was among the first emigrants." The picture, its caption, and the accompanying essay by staff writer Lindsey Gruson appeared under the title "Emigrants Feather Their Old Nests with Dollars" in the international section of the paper, comprising one the newspaper's periodic "Journal" features—in this instance, Intipucá Journal.

As the Cristiani photograph reflected via both the FUSADES support and the class fraction he represented, US government money formed one unheralded source of Salvadoran national wealth throughout the 1980s. Nearly $1 billion annually sent back to the country by Salvadorans who were living and working in major cities like Washington, DC, in the United States provided another. This second and equally unprecedented font stimulated steady levels of commercial and financial activity, including in rural areas like Intipucá. Lubbock's photographic image of the town and its reproduction in Gruson's article caught a portion of this whole, illuminating some meaningful features of it. Though not definite, the promising political events during the first half of 1989 coupled with the Times article about the relative wealth and tranquility in one small Salvadoran town did seem to hint at a new future for El Salvador different from the years of violent conflict.

Like other Journal features in the New York Times, Gruson's piece gained its significance by seeming to discover the unexpected. The expression on Marvin's face, his expensive new motorcycle, and the admiring and perhaps desirous looks of his colleagues coupled with the story of the town and the relative wealth of its residents living in DC and in Intipucá starkly contrasted with reports of the violence of the Salvadoran conflict and the experiences of people both in the country and as migrant workers scattered across the United States. In 1989, this visual and textual composition was both product and protagonist in the transfiguration of value across both countries. It gets as near to a formal marker of the tipping point as anything in its here-and-now actuality. In its manner of expression, it serves as the crux of the overall transformation covered in this book.

Yet, as a marker, it is hardly a discrete or original entity. Only two months before the Times appeared, a similar but much more detailed account of Intipucá appeared in the Washington, DC, magazine Regardie's, written by Charles Lane, the Central America correspondent for the US magazine Newsweek. Lane and Gruson had been in El Salvador at the same time, sharing informal membership in the pool of reporters covering the war for foreign publications. US reporters regularly received by fax a news digest produced by staff at the US embassy in El Salvador. It usually contained copies of all recent news publications on the war. I believe it is likely that Gruson read Lane's article and from it derived his idea for a story, built around a meeting he had with Sigfredo Chávez in the pueblo.

* * *

During the summer of 1989, I read and clipped the Times article about Intipucá with its picture of the fellow on the motorcycle when I was living in the northwest DC neighborhood called Mount Pleasant and working several miles away in Dupont Circle. With its reference to the ample income earned by hard-working Intipuqueños in DC, the article ran against my own sense of the challenges faced by thousands of Salvadorans, especially young adults from the eastern part of the country, who had fled the war and come to live without any legal documentation in Mount Pleasant and other adjacent neighborhoods, taking low-wage service and construction jobs throughout the DC area. The story also stood apart from numerous reckonings of DC's urban poverty, contemporary studies of its so-called underclass, and its complex history of racial and class division. Beyond the specificity of the Salvadoran war, the apparent resources and serenity of Intipucá also contrasted with much reporting and popular debate about the devastating effects of the public debt crisis that had rippled across Latin America and the Caribbean during "the lost decade" of the 1980s. At the time it seemed anomalous and hardly representative of life in El Salvador or Washington, DC.

When I read the article, I did not know that my basement room in a rented house was less than a mile from where Marvin lived in the neighborhood and only two blocks away from his father's house. Although I had not met either Marvin or Sigfredo at the time, I was familiar with Intipucá, as were many people in the neighborhood. I also knew one former resident, whom I shall call Manuel. He had arrived in DC in 1984, traveling clandestinely through Mexico and the US Southwest. We occasionally played billiards together in the basement of a nearby church that served as an after-school recreation center for Salvadoran youths. At this time, Manuel was working without legal papers as a house painter, and he lived with his sister and several other Salvadorans in a small apartment in the neighborhood. He told me of his hometown and encouraged me to visit, despite the ongoing war and—unlike the example of Marvin displayed in the newspaper story—his despondent judgment that he could never return. From Manuel's perspective in DC, the Times article was similarly aberrant.


Excerpted from American Value by DAVID PEDERSEN Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Characters



ONE A Roadmap for Remittances


TWO Brushing against the Golden Grain
THREE Melting Fields of Snow
FOUR The Intrusion of Uncomfortable Wars, Illegals, and Remittances


FIVE The Wealth of Pueblos
SIX Immigrant Entrepreneurship


SEVEN Welcome to Intipucá City
EIGHT The World in a Park

NINE Options and Models for the Future


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