Musings from a Conflicted Reagan-Era Salvi Boy
by Víctor Interiano
I recently had the tremendous privilege of having been included in a Remezcla article on U.S.-based Salvadoran artists and how their work reflects mutable nature of national and cultural identities, written by two fabulous salvadoreñas who themselves are accomplished artists, Jessica Ofelia Alvarenga and Yeiry Guevara. Quite frankly, I am beside myself at the beautiful art and work we are creating as a community and I am humbled at being included in such an illustrious and inspiring group of Salvadoran artists.
Backtracking a bit, when Jessica proposed my inclusion in the Remezcla article back in late August – early September, she sent me a couple question prompts. I didn’t realize it then, but the prompts would force me to understand my childhood in a different way than I have before. In many ways, being able to verbalize some issues was, quite honestly, very cathartic and healing. After reading my full responses, Jessica informed that she could only portions of them, but encouraged me to publish them on my own. And so, here they are. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.
To read the article, please follow this link: 6 Creatives Carving Out a Space for the Salvadoran Diaspora
What does it mean to be Salvadoran in the U.S?
At the risk of sounding poetic, I wrote this a while ago about how I felt to be a U.S.-born Salvadoran:
El ser salvadoreñ@ a veces se siente como que si uno fuera una herida ambulante, sostenida solamente por el más mínimo de tejido cicatrizado, constantemente ansiosa que cualquier golpecito abrirá un flujo de llanto plasmático, glóbulos rabiosos, y coágulos hechos casi negros por todo el dolor que hemos aguantado como pueblo. Ambulamos en un estado de constante negación del hecho que somos sobrevivientes de una trauma profundo y colectivo, el cual apaciguamos con triste nostalgia, o guanaquismo exagerado, o con un absurdo amor por la patria de los gringos.
To be Salvadoran at times feels as if one were an ambulating wound, held up only by the most minimal of scarred tissue, constantly anxious that any small blow will open a discharge of plasmatic weeping, globules of rage, and blood clots blackened by all the pain we have sustained as a people. We ambulate in a state of constant denial that we are survivors of a profound and collective trauma, which we appease with sad nostalgia, or exaggerated Salvadoraness, or an absurd love for the gringo nation.
My feelings about being Salvadoran in the U.S. are very much marked by my experience growing up during Reagan’s America in the 1980s. Every morning at school meant being forced to do the Pledge of Allegiance while staring at the portrait of Reagan, almost as if praying to a saint, all the while his administration was training and arming the Salvadoran military to kill my own people. At the same time, through a sort of cultural osmosis, “America” as an idea was fomenting a civil war inside me as a young person, arming a burgeoning American patriot with a sense of superiority whose orders were to destroy the Salvadoran in me. All this conflict to become a “Salvadoran-American,” a creature with a brown face that spoke like a white man.
At the same time as I was trying to navigate through my identity crisis brought on by the hegemonic tidal wave of whiteness, growing up as a Salvi kid in 1980s Los Angeles meant I was also subjected to a secondary cultural force of nature: the Mexican hegemony. It was bad enough that the only Spanish-speaking station back then (KMEX) was just non-stop Mexican culture on parade, or that the only time we saw El Salvador represented was on 6 o’clock news report on how many lives the civil war had claimed. But what made conditions intolerable as a young Salvadoran were the passively xenophobic stares of puzzlement my parents would get from Mexicans in our neighborhoods. These microaggressions at the adult level then filtered down to their children and transform into the violence and bullying I endured from Mexican kids who would beat me up for saying the word “gaseosa.” I think that I have described the whole experience as drowning in a sea of competing hegemonies.
Even after 40 years of life, this conflicting and contradictory relationship with both what it means to be “American,” and trying to differentiate myself from what it means to be “Mexican” has not subsided–quite to the contrary, it’s become far more acute and complicated. Post civil wars, the U.S. never stopped intervening in the affairs of El Salvador and Central America at large, resulting in unstable republics incapable of sustaining their own citizenry, and necessarily, Central Americans have continued to migrate in waves seeking refuge from poverty and violence. Seemingly learning a lesson from its past interventions, the U.S. utilized its ample resources to hire the Mexican government to control the flow of migration stemming from Central America. These actions have resulted in the Central American refugee crisis, a humanitarian crisis that hardly anyone wants to recognize as such. Compounding the entire crisis is a construct of Latinidad in the United States that while it professes unity as Latinxs, in practice replicates the same old hierarchies present in Latin America, with Central America and the Caribbean nations at the bottom.
How do you use your art as a way of creating the Salvadoran diasporic identity and/or how do you use your art as a form of activism?
As complicated, angry, and pessimistic as my relationship with the U.S. may seem, there also exists the polar opposite in me, and that is my tremendous love for what it means to be Salvadoran and Central American–as problematic as those categories can be. And admittedly, having a nostalgic relationship with El Salvador is the result of having spent part my childhood there, but nonetheless, always as a visitor, never a resident. And I fully recognize the contradiction of my own privilege, to have been an American-born Salvadoran child in the 1980s, to have the power of documentation to travel back and forth between the U.S. and El Salvador, to live in the comforts of the first world while my own family had to stay put and endure a country that was blowing itself up. And yet, between the imposed process of assimilation and Americanization that I underwent just to be tolerable to white people, and the continued bullying and derision from Mexican kids because of how I spoke caliche, unless I was in the safe space between my parents, the United States simply never felt like a home to me growing up. No, the most at home and welcomed that I had ever felt as a child was being with my family in El Salvador. And that, is the baseline from which I create my art.
The art I tend to create is polarized almost to a ridiculous degree. My political art as it relates to existence in the U.S. is hypercritical of and wrathful toward all systems of power, institutions, ideologies. But the sentimental art I create about El Salvador, my parents, and Central America as a whole is imbued with almost a child-like reverence; it’s funny, compassionate, loving, deeply spiritual, and full of life. And so, the political and the spiritual are always at play inside of me, sometimes working on their own, sometimes collaborating, sometimes competing with each other.
But real talk though, living and working in the United States and having the privilege to comfortably create my anxiety-driven political art and happy nostalgic strolls down Salvi memory lane also means that I’m full of shit. I am a willing participant in the ideological contradiction of being critical of the U.S. while still reaping benefit from my own complicity with this capitalist, white supremacist, heteropatriarchal system. And so as you can see, I also have a complicated relationship with what it means to be an artist!
I have a hard time seeing myself as an artist, because I mostly see myself as a shit talker. And so my artwork, cartoons, memes, and infographics serve as shit talking, but with illustrations. But not shit talking in a toxic way that seeks to destroy people, but in a way that highlights ideological contradictions, or challenges privileges, or asks uncomfortable questions that may serve to shake established beliefs.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of my art looks like it was drawn by a child, and that’s because it was! There is a small Salvi brown boy inside of me, full of love, anger, anxiety, nerdiness, sincerity, black humor, and magic who spent over three decades working through his pain and trauma to finally find peace in self-love. And all he wants is help create a world where no one is harmed, and everyone is loved. And if my shit talking artwork can push that process a bit further, entonces para algo serví , as my mama would say.