Rossana Pérez in Flight to Freedom: The Story of Central American Refugees in California documents the stories of eight key Salvadorans who were integral to the formation of a political resistance movement in the United States whose primary purpose was to bring an end to the civil war raging in El Salvador. As a result of American policy designed to neutralize Communist influence in the Western hemisphere, a conservative estimate of over 80,000 Salvadorans were killed and 9,000 were “disappeared” as the United States engaged El Salvador in a low-intensity war of hegemony.
Thousands of Salvadorans were forced to flee their native country in a “Flight to Freedom” evoking memories of the Underground Railroad. Due to the unique political circumstances that befell Salvadoran refugees, they immediately began organizing sanctuary and solidarity movements to defend themselves in the United States as well as to nurture a powerful voice to the deafening silence that was occurring in El Salvador. It is in this context, then, that Pérez situates the Salvadoran experience.
The eight testimonios serve to inform a unique historical experience in oppositional resistance movements in the United States that previously had been undocumented. This new political struggle was aimed at not only improving the socio-political conditions refugee Salvadorans faced in the United States, but of transforming their country of origin. It seemingly appeared to be a break from the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which focused its struggle on conditions within the United Sates. More importantly, this new Salvadoran movement was a multi-ethnic effort that saw many EuroAmericans contribute to the international struggle to alter American policy vis-à-vis Central America.
The interviewees were deeply insightful about their experiences and provided a unique contribution to the overall understanding of social movements in the United States. It was interesting to note that despite the language barriers and political uncertainties the Salvadoran refugees faced in the United States upon their initial arrival, they were able to situate themselves within the U.S. political landscape since many of the leaders came from middle-class backgrounds, which facilitated their determination for social justice.
Their middle-class background helped to inform their natural inclination to fight for their dignity and rights in a foreign country. That many of the initial leaders of the sanctuary and solidarity movements came from middle-class backgrounds in El Salvador, but were only able to affect a social justice collective behavior after being forced to flee, was reminiscent of the revolutionary activities of Ricardo Flores Magón and the Partido Liberal Mexicano prior to the start of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
In the overall narrative, Flight to Freedom is a significant account to better understand the history and experiences of Salvadorans in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. As noted in the testimonios, the trials and tribulations faced by the Salvadoran community was substantially informed by American foreign policy. It is obvious that a further study is needed to address the issues that the sanctuary and solidarity movements faced as they challenged both American and Salvadoran policy. For the most part, the narratives chronicled the positive outcomes of their political work without referencing any of the challenges they faced under the political environment of the Reagan administration. However, the contribution by Pérez lays the foundation for further inquiry into this matter.
While probably not the scope of the interview process, it would have been instrumental to have focused attention on the impact American society has had on the children of Salvadoran refugees. Alicia Mendoza was the only one to substantially address the unhealthy influences American society had on the children, whom many have been tragically immersed into the U.S. gang culture (142). The fact that Salvadoran refugees struggled for equal access, dignity, and human rights both here in the United States and in El Salvador, one must ask the question about what role U.S. institutions and domestic policy played in the development of the destructive forces of gang-culture within the children of the Salvadoran refugees?
Rossana Pérez and Henry A.J. Ramos hoped to make this reading accessible to younger readers to inspire them to follow an activist path in law, education, or community organizing. This is one of the greatest contributions of this seminal undertaking for it situates the larger scope of the Central American Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. This is a history that is long overdue. It also a history of the role women played as equal partners in the struggle for human rights.
This narrative should serve to inform Chicana/o Studies as to the type of scholarly-activism it should be undertaking. As Pérez states about the general history of massacres and political crimes committed against Indigenous peoples, Americans can no longer “live much longer in denial of this history” (Preface xv). Flight to Freedom is merely one template to remediate the legacy of American historical amnesia.
About the Author: David is a third generation Chicano currently completing his Master’s degree in Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. Main areas of study: Chicana/o Movement, Chicana Feminist Thought, Chicana/o Studies History, Social Movement Theory, Chicana/o Oral History, Chicana/o History, and Chicana/o Intellectual History.