I’ve always had exceptional pride in my Salvadoran heritage. My mother would occasionally tell me stories about her country and show me photos of my aunts, uncles and cousins in El Salvador. Although I felt a sense of closeness to the country and my family in it, nothing compared to when I experienced them firsthand during my trip there.
I never realized that growing up in the United States would affect my perspective during my visit to my family. Everything felt more welcoming there — even my arrival had someone immediately offering to help me with my bags. The air felt fresh from the trees that surrounded the airport, and I immediately felt alleviated. It was as if my body knew this place was another form of home.
My family lives in a small hub in Santa Ana, where each house is readily beside each other and connected by paths that lead to every front door. Everyone knows one another, either from buying goods at each others’ porches or greeting one another on daily strolls. The community felt intimate and safe like an extended family. Growing up in the cities of California, it felt foreign to me, and this sense of closeness was routine during my time in Santa Ana.
What El Salvador also revealed to me was my own ignorance. I’m ashamed to say that I was shocked to find an abundance of Starbucks, Pizza Hut and other chains at every corner. I somehow believed these restaurants didn’t exist there. The mall was also bigger than some of the ones I’ve seen in the United States, and it was something I hadn’t expected. This experience made me realize I had fallen victim to the American-centric ignorance and perception of “third world countries.”
This cultural shock even pervaded my routine. I had to adapt to certain things if I were to leave my family’s house. I had to cover my tattoo and avoid specific clothing so as not to be associated with any local gangs — my Adidas clothing never saw the light of day. I thought my mother was exaggerating when she explained these key physical characteristics of members and affiliates, until I saw them for myself — an additional instance of my ignorance.
But what surprised me the most was just how much my American identity meant to my family. I was their English tutor and showed them exclusive movies and TV shows. To them, I was practically their insight on everything considered the “American lifestyle.” What I taught them mattered just as much as what they taught me — a full-circle moment after learning more about their culture.
El Salvador is exceedingly dear to me in ways far beyond being a part of my identity. It taught me many things about my mother’s country, the people and myself. My departure left a small ache in my heart, though I constantly reminisce about my experience there and look excitedly forward to my next visit.