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Central America is a diverse and complex region, and Central Americans living in the United States reflect this heterogeneity. Unlike Mexican immigrants, who have dominated U.S.-bound Latin American migration, Central Americans are socioculturally and economically diverse, and they have been received by the U.S. government in different ways. As Nestor Rodriguez and Jacqueline Hagan (1999) observe, the Latin American population in the United States includes both well-educated and unskilled immigrants, political refugees, wealthy landowners, and peasants. Central Americans also have diverse linguistic traditions. For example, Guatemalans who are of Mayan descent may speak one or more Mayan languages (and not Spanish). Hondurans who come from the Caribbean coast of their country (and some Belizeans) may speak Garifuna. Garifuna and Nicaraguans who come from the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua may speak English or Mesquito at home instead of Spanish.


There has been a noticeable presence of Central Americans in the United States since the early twentieth century. In the early 1900s, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan coffee growers traveled to and from the United States for business and pleasure. The commercial ships that transported bananas from Honduras to the United States brought news of new opportunities, and Hondurans traveled north in the search of them. But the growth of the largest Central American groups in the United States (Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans) began in the late 1970s, when a political and economic crisis destabilized several countries in the region and forced many of their citizens to abandon their homes. Many (mostly Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans) relocated to adjacent Central American countries, while others (mostly Guatemalan Maya) settled in refugee camps in southern Mexico. Many of these refugees have since returned to their homeland, but others have made their way further north to the United States and Canada, where they have established vibrant communities. Central Americans, as a whole, now constitute one of the fastest-growing Latino groups in the United States. For instance, the number of Salvadorans (the largest group of Central Americans) in the United States stood at 34,000 in 1970. This number increased to 94,447 in 1980; to 565,081 in 1990; and to 823,832 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Thus, whereas in 1980 El Salvador was not among the top 25 immigrant sending countries to the United States, by 1990 it was in eleventh place and by 2000 it had moved to eighth place.


Despite a long immigration history and the strong influence of the United States in the Central American countries, Central Americans were relatively unknown to the U.S. public before the 1980s. Up until then, they had remained relatively invisible, often “passing” for white or being mistaken for Mexicans. This changed around 1980, when the media began portraying Central Americans in a negative fashion—sometimes as renegade army men murdering Catholic nuns, and sometimes as guerrillas confiscating homes and businesses. The notion of Central Americans as thugs (perhaps even as terrorists) began to be implanted in the minds of the U.S. public. These negative stereotypical portrayals have been sustained both on the big screen and in the media. For instance, in A Beautiful Mind , the film biography of the mathematician John Nash, the Salvadoran nationality of Nash’s highly intelligent wife is not mentioned. Housekeepers and nannies, however, are often portrayed as Salvadorans or Guatemalans in films. Furthermore, when media portrayals of Salvadoran and other Central American gang members appear in the media, their nationalities are almost always noted in these media accounts. Thus, racialized negative images of Central Americans did not stop with the images of war in the 1980s. On the contrary, they have continued to define this group.


Two major, interrelated events occurred in 1979 that helped focus attention on Central American immigrants. The first was the beginning of a long and tumultuous civil conflict in El Salvador and Nicaragua, in which the United States was deeply involved. The second was the resultant flow of U.S.-bound refugees from both countries. A similar conflict had been raging in Guatemala since 1970, and this struggle also began to attract attention. Images of suffering Mayan women, men, and children began to appear in the U.S. media.

Although the migratory flows that the political upheaval in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua generated might fit the classic profile of refugees, the U.S. administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton refused to grant blanket refugee status to Salvadorans and Guatemalans. The reception given to Nicaraguans varied depending on the political climate in Central America (particularly the dynamics of the Contra war) and the level of support they received from the Cuban community in Miami, where many settled. The major problem with Central Americans was that the U.S. government could not legally recognize refugees generated by a conflict the U.S. government itself was financially and militarily supporting.

As a result, many of these refugees were considered undocumented or illegal immigrants, even though their situation mirrored the profile of people from other countries who were formally designated as refugees. This meant that Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans (to a certain extent) were ineligible for government assistance for their resettlement. They were denied the “structure of refuge,” as Rubén Rumbaut calls the government resettlement aid available to officially recognized refugees. They were left on their own to cope with the economic, social, and cultural consequences of their flight. Many Central Americans crossed several international borders to reach their families and friends already in the United States. These ties had been forged throughout the course of U.S. political, military, economic, and cultural involvement in Central America. Thus, when the conditions in that region deteriorated to the point where many sought refuge elsewhere, the United States emerged as the preferred choice of destination (Menjívar 2000).

Cerha, Friedrich [next] [back] Centennial (NBC, 2/4/1979, 3 hours)

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almost 7 years ago

I see the citation at the end of the last paragraph on this page(Menjívar 2000) but where is the full citation for this source?

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about 3 years ago

For Reference, this is the citation for Menjivar, 1999.. Referred to p. 602..

Menjivar, C. (1999). The intersection of work and gender: Central American immigrant women and employment in California. American Behavioral Scientist, 42(4), 601-627. doi: 10.1177/00027649921954381