His name is Serbelio. He abstains from revealing his last name in order to avoid attention. Sporting a sleek black vest over a shirt and tie, Serbelio stands behind the bar, wide-eyed and assured, telling the story of how he came to be a server in a French restaurant in Adams Morgan.
Seven years ago Serbelio worked 12 to 14 hours a day in a frutería, a home appliances store, in El Salvador. He only earned around six dollars each day, less than a dollar an hour. Decent jobs were hard to come by in such an unstable economic environment, and to make matters worse, the cost of living was near that of western industrialized countries.
“A pound of beans could be as much as $1.50,” he says in a small and humble voice. The wages at the frutería proved too meager, so he looked for new opportunities in the United States to resolve his family’s financial struggles.
Northwest Washington DC became his home. Upon arriving, he struggled to overcome the same barriers many Hispanic immigrants seeking to prosper in America confront: learning the language, finding a job and finding a place to live. These problems were interlaced, as businesses weren’t hiring those who didn’t speak English.
“Wherever you go, whatever you want to do, they ask you how much English you know,” he says frankly. To overcome the “obstáculo” of language, as he calls it, Serbelio studied English at a local church two days a week for a couple of years. Non-native English speakers are especially vulnerable to the whims of a sputtering economy, and lots of small businesses, including restaurants, are tightening their purse strings. Serbelio describes how to land a job: “You apply and apply and finally… you get lucky,” he said.
Petits Plats, the restaurant where he now works, is quiet. The lunch crowd has left and the bussers are breaking down the dining area. Outside, Connecticut Avenue bustles and the sun gleams down on the arched roof of the metro tunnel. He does not have any children or a partner, but his face turns solemn as he says his mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Every month for the better part of a decade, Serbelio has sent around 60 percent of his wages to his family back home. Until recently, this was more than adequate, but the medical bill for his mother’s cancer was over $4,000 dollars last month alone. He admits the dificultad in providing for a family so many miles away, but he’s still grateful for the work opportunities this country has provided him. Serbelio is conscious of the countless other Salvadoreans back home who didn’t have such an opportunity.
If Serbelio was not in the US, but still at home sweating away his days at the frutería “she would die because no one is going to pay for that,” he says quietly.
The community at Petit Plats is a tight one. The kitchen staff is very cordial and more than willing to offer insights into the life of immigrant workers. In the restaurant’s back entrance, a shy employee lingers alone, not confident enough in his English to participate in the conversation. Through the encouragement of his fellow workers, the man agrees to share a little bit about himself, for the sake of this article.
Adán is a dishwasher. This is his fifth month in the United States. And he insists on remaining anonymous. Adán, a 29-year-old Salvadorean, is still acclimating himself to the culture of Washington, DC. He is no stranger to restaurant work, as he’s had had several jobs in restaurants in his homeland of San Miguel. But the work here is different.
“In El Salvador, the waiters had to do everything,” he says. “They take the orders, bring the food out, and bus the tables.” He doesn’t see the need to divide the positions so narrowly between food runners, waiters, and dishwashers. It isn’t indignation in his voice, but frustration at being reduced to a menial laborer.
In El Salvador, Adán began working part-time at the age of 12, hoping to one day be able to afford an education. His family is from the campo, or the rural areas, an underrepresented population in modern El Salvador. An education is a luxury out of reach for Salvadoreans with Adán’s socio-economic background. However, Adán was fortunate, and at 18 years old, he matriculated to the Universidad del Salvador where he studied the Spanish language and literature. This lasted only a short while because his family needed him to return back to work.
He had a variety of occupations and worked steadily, applying for scholarships and grants to attend school again—then the 2007 global economic crisis hit. Adán’s father lost his job along with many of his assets because of weak consumer spending. When asked to explain what had happened, he puts it simply, “nobody was buying our products.” By products, he means maíz, or corn. It was time for Adán to begin a new life, and the United States provided that opportunity. With an understanding smile, he says, “Cuando vienen las personas de otros países, es debido de las obligaciónes que tienen que emprender.” (When people come here from other countries, it is because of greater obligations that need to be upheld.)
Five months separated from the only country he’s ever known and Adán is beginning to feel a profound distance from his old life, “When you leave, the years in the country you left tend to fall behind,” he says slowly.
Serbelio’s tale, as well as Adán’s, is unique. However, both represent something greater than just themselves: a generation of young men, toiling day after day in the hope that their families, living in distant worlds, will be able to prosper.
Despite the fact that Hispanics make up only nine percent of the District’s total population, according to the US Census Bureau, it is important to remember workers, more often than not, are commuting from residences and living quarters throughout the metropolitan area. In Montgomery County, Latin Americans comprise around 17 percent of the population, and the majority originate from Central American countries such as El Salvador. This is the result of the Salvadorean Civil War that began in 1980 and lasted over a decade. It was the second longest civil war in Latin America, after the Guatamalen Civil War.
During the war, thousands of civilians were killed at the hands of military death squads, the most notorious instance is the El Mozote Massacre, which took place in 1981. The violence drove wealthy landowners and agrarian workers alike to cities in the United States. Since then, a network of chain migration has continued to DC, either through familial ties or the awareness of a large Salvadorian population already based in the area. Whatever the exact reason, DC area hosts over 100,000 people from this small country wedged on the Pacific coast between Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The kitchen crew prepares for the next shift, and a few local foodies twirl their forks around the last few morsels of pan-seared salmon and wine sauce. Today, the civil war of El Salvador is decades removed. Adán speaks of his future, and what is in store for him. Serbelio, who at this point has been standing in his declared territory behind the bar, listening to our conversation, interjects, “Oh, he’ll go back after he’s saved a couple hundred thousand dollars… won’t you, Adán?”
Illustration by Hannah Karl.