On Sunday night, the scene inside a Mission Street storefront could have been 7,000 miles away in a village on the foot of a volcano. More than 100 Salvadorans wearing the red and black colors of the leftist FMLN party watched with glee as news projected onto a wall gradually revealed that their country was experiencing a momentous change. For the first time in history, El Salvador will be governed by the left.

In the small Central American nation of El Salvador, the conservative ARENA party, which governed for 20 years, suffered its first presidential defeat. And in a Mission District art gallery, a piñata with the likeness of an ARENA politician was battered to shreds on the floor.

As Salvadorans voted the left into office in Sunday’s historic election, the local immigrant community, many of whom fled the country during the civil war of the 1980s,  took part by watching, celebrating and monitoring the elections.

“My heart, with this victory, feels so proud to be Salvadoran,” said Mission resident Karen Amaya, 30, eyes beaming under her straw cowboy hat crowned by an FMLN ribbon on its brim.

Amaya was one of dozens of Salvadorans who came from across the Bay Area to the Sub Mission art gallery to watch and cheer as election results came in. The victory—by just two percentage points—of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes over ARENA’s nominee Rodrigo Ávila, signified not just a win for their party, but the culmination of decades of struggle, and a generation of waiting. “It’s been a fight for years,” reflected Nicolas Cuellar, 33, who came to Sub Mission from Richmond to celebrate.

The change in power is the first El Salvador has experienced since the 1992 peace accords ended a 12-year civil war. By then, the battle between the U.S.-backed government  and the leftist rebel army, Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), had left more than 70,000 dead, and precipitated a surge in Salvadoran immigration to places like Los Angeles and the Mission District, where one in 12 residents was born in El Salvador.

After the war, the FMLN rebels walked out of the mountains and became a democratic political party. But in the three presidential elections since it has not been able to win the presidency.  Memories of the war as well as the country’s substantial investment in maintaining good relations with the United States, where so many Salvadorans live on temporary visas, helped keep the conservative American ally, the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), in office.

Under ARENA’s governance in the nearly two decades since the war’s end, many Salvadorans say their country has not yet overcome its battle scars.

“I have seen changes,” said Elsy Alemán, 40, co-owner of Transportes El Salvador on Mission Street. “But I want to see better changes.” Alemán works in real estate and splits her time between San Francisco and Suchitoto, El Salvador. She pointed to high unemployment and violent crime as holding the country back socially and economically.

Despite current ARENA  president Antonio Saca’s embrace of a mano duro—or “heavy-handed”—approach to violent crime, the country’s murder rate is among the world’s highest. Alemán listed the litany of ways such crime impacts business: “You cannot open a shop, because the criminals come and they rob you or threaten you. Those who have family here they kidnap,” she said.

This year, observers and local Salvadorans said, frustrations with Saca combined with a leftist candidate unassociated with the war made for the FMLN’s winning campaign.

The political evolution of Richmond resident Nicolas Cuellar illustrates how such an electoral change happened. As a young witness to the killing of his brother and uncle in the 1980s, his personal war wounds used to inform his ballot. “The first time I voted, I voted for ARENA,” said Cuellar, “because the campaign said if FMLN won, it would be like Cuba.”

The ARENA party has used such fear tactics to win campaigns over the years, associating the FMLN with communism and violence. United States officials have also helped sway voters against the leftist party, issuing threats that an FMLN victory would result in a threat to cash remittances, which account for a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product.

(Tactics continued this year, with Republican congressmen sending statements to Salvadoran media associating the FMLN with Al-Qaeda. The House Foreign Affairs Committee and State Department responded with a declaration that remittances will not be affected, and the U.S. would be neutral in the elections.)

But Cuellar said he grew tired of watching ARENA leaders take office and the war-battered country remain the same. “Sixteen years after the war,” he said, “why believe them?”

“So last election, I voted for FMLN.” Since then, he left El Salvador for a job in California, and was unable to return to vote in Sunday’s election. But celebrating the victory in the Mission District, he expressed pride that more of his countrymen now feel the same way. As Funes’ victory speech was broadcast live behind him, Cuellar flashed victory signs to friends across the gallery and said, “It is necessary to have change in the country.”

Not all local Salvadorans, however, are embracing change. Around the corner at Panchita’s restaurant near the 16th Street BART, 35-year-old Marisa Vasquez sat at a table with her daughters, mother and grandpa, awaiting a large order of pupusas. “We have seen what has come to Venezuela,” Vasquez said. “We have seen what is happening in Cuba,” she continued, her relatives nodding in agreement. “Nicaragua.”

“If you look, these countries are in a very poor state of development compared to the development of El Salvador,” which Vasquez said she witnessed improve under ARENA when she lived in the country in the 1990s.

Cuellar, for his part, prefers to compare president-elect Funes, a former television journalist who won support in his campaign from centrists, not to Fidel Castro or provocative Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, but to another Latin American leader. “For me, Funes is along the lines of Lula,” he said, referring to president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, a progressive whose policies are moderate and business-friendly compared to those of Chávez.

After they watched Funes’ victory speech, at 8:30 p.m. the crowd in Sub Mission took to the streets with flags, red vests, and loud and proud voices to declare their triumph to the neighborhood. Eager to share her elation with her local Salvadoran community, Karen Amaya was careful to point out that struggle for political power is not over with this election. “A country that’s been dominated by the same party for 20 years is a disaster,” she said. “It’s going to take more than four years to recuperate.”

For more:

Blog of CARECEN Executive Director Ana Perez, in El Salvador as an election observer with the Salvadoran American National Network (SANN).

Contrapunto news website, which also reported on the election from San Francisco.

El Faro news website.

Music video on the election by local musician Mauricio Flores.

Hélène Goupil contributed reporting to this story.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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