SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—It’s a few minutes after 10 a.m. and Frank Ticas has just finished teaching his first English class of the day, on the perfect progressive tense. As a dozen young Salvadorans, most in their early- to mid-20s, file out of the classroom towards the institute’s front door, Ticas wishes them well.
The 41-year-old sports a shaved head, goatee and jeans. On his right upper-arm, a scorpion tattoo peeks out from beneath the short-sleeve of his blue FC Barcelona soccer jersey. “Hey, see you tomorrow, man,” he says. “Have a good day. Be safe.”
Ticas speaks fluent English, owing to his childhood in Los Angeles. He was deported to El Salvador when he was 24, in 2000. Now he teaches English to young Salvadorans who are trying to figure out how to get ahead in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, where most young people are either drawn into gangs or touched by their violence. At the school, “English Cool,” all the English teachers are deportees. They don’t just want their students to learn English; they want them to dream of a better future.
Ticas has been teaching at English Cool since April. He was recruited by the school’s founder, Eddie Anzora, a fellow deportee and old friend. The two of them grew up playing basketball against each other in the 90s, in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
They’re among the hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans who have been deported from the U.S. since the 80s. This year alone, the Salvadoran government expects to receive 30,000 deportees from the U.S. and Mexico, down from a record 50,000 last year. The decrease is attributed to fewer border crossings overall and a backlog of immigration cases in U.S. courts.
The numbers present a huge challenge for the Salvadoran government, which doesn’t have the capacity or resources to find deportees decent livelihoods amidst a lawless gang war. Stigma only makes things worse; though the overwhelming majority of deportees are not criminals, they’re often linked to crime and delinquency.
Now, many say the government of El Salvador is ill-prepared to absorb what could be a new generation of Trump-era deportees. Though deportations fell in 2017 under President Trump, detentions rose sharply, perhaps as a sign of what's to come. An estimated 700,000 Salvadorans live undocumented in the United States.
Ticas says many deportees have a lot to offer a country in turmoil—and that he’s proof.
“They know where we come from, we let them see our battle scars,” he says about his students. “We want them to see us and think, ‘If these guys can do it, why can’t I?’ To understand we’re not just here to teach them English, that we know a little bit about everything.”
In the school's lobby, a nervous student lingers to tell Ticas and the other teachers about his recent job interview. “I was afraid,” says Elías, a 23-year-old who lives in the volatile Apopa neighborhood. “I don’t know if I will get it.”
Ticas is calm and eloquent, conveying a distinctly positive air. He often quotes his own personal heroes, like Tupac Shakur and Bruce Lee, as he encourages his students to imagine a life outside the bounds of their neighborhoods. “Keep your head up,” he says to Elías. “If they don’t want you it’s their loss. You’ve got a great attitude. I like the way you put yourself out there. You will do great things.”
Seventeen years after leaving California a troubled youth, Ticas says his deportation was actually a reinvention. After a childhood spent messing around and skipping school, he is now a proud dad and a passionate mentor.
“Maybe we didn’t wanna come back but we’re here, trying to construct something for other people,” Ticas says. “We’re trying to make El Salvador great again.”
A dark history of deportation
The challenge of reintegrating deportees back into Salvadoran society isn’t a new one; the country’s been grappling with it for three decades.
Salvadorans began migrating en masse in the 80s, fueled by economic woes and a war between leftist rebels and a U.S.-backed military government. Between 1981 and 1990 an estimated one million Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled and journeyed across Mexico to the United States. By the time the war ended in El Salvador in 1992, a quarter of the population had migrated. Many settled in Los Angeles.
In the 80s, Congress began urging the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to deport more illegal “aliens.” After the Rodney King riots in the early 90s, California passed tough anti-gang laws. And in 1996, Congress passed legislation that made it far easier to deport legal immigrants with criminal records. That led to a program of mass deportation.
Some of the criminals deported back to El Salvador included members of Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, Latino gangs that began in Los Angeles. Many arrived to a country they barely knew, far from U.S. culture. They had no family or support, and were unable to find work in a society recovering from war. To avoid feeling like outcasts, they formed the same cliques they ran with on the streets of L.A.
Within a short time, U.S. immigration policy led to the growth of a fierce gang culture in Central America. Violence between the two rival gangs, plus a heavy-handed police presence, has led to a staggering murder rate.
In 2015, El Salvador was the most deadly country in the world, with 6,657 annual murders, equal to around 103 per 100,000 inhabitants. That was almost 20 times the 2014 global average, which was 5.3 murders per 100,000 people. Though levels fell since, the country had a record 679 homicides in 47 days between Sept. 1 until Oct. 17 of 2017.
In circular fashion, that violence has sent people right back into the United States: many of the Salvadorans hoping to enter the U.S. now come fearing for their lives.
According to the Multidisciplinary Migration Team, 75 percent of Salvadoran adults deported in 2014 expressed economic causes as the main reason for migration, mostly linked to poverty and lack of employment. Insecurity and violence was reported by 13 percent of deportees; 10 percent of adults sought family reunification.
“Every migrant is different—they come with different needs, different skills,” says Ana Solórzano, an immigration official who tends to deportees at the government-run Migrant Attention Center, a bright yellow building in La Chacra, a notoriously dangerous part of El Salvador’s capital.
“Some have just had their dreams crushed. Others are sad to be ripped apart from family. Others are in debt from the journey or recovering from violence or assault.”
Today, the overwhelming majority of deported Salvadorans are not criminals. Last year, less than four percent of those who returned had criminal backgrounds. Most were not serious crimes, such as running a red light or driving without a license, Solórzano says.
But a history of exported violence and gang culture means that the general public doesn’t discriminate: in El Salvador, all deportees are linked to crime and delinquency, especially if they look and talk in an unfamiliar way. That makes reintegration exponentially harder.
On a recent Wednesday, over a hundred people are being processed in the center’s clean, white reception area, where they sit in rows of orange plastic chairs. Some cover their faces. Just a few hours earlier, they’d left Houston, Texas, in a packed charter flight.
They are given water and snacks, a phone call and shower. A doctor and psychologist offer services. And the Department of Foreign Affairs takes information from those interested in government reinsertion programs, such as training.
Hector Rodríguez, the Director of Migration, stands at the front of the room and speaks into a microphone. “We’re not here to yell at you for going to the United States,” he says. “We’re all Salvadorans, and we’re here to make you feel good in your country.”
But authorities know the harsh reality: the country does not have the means to ensure the safety of many of these deportees, or to find them decent-paying jobs. Government resources are scarce. Some of the people being processed will turn right back around—perhaps even tomorrow—to try again, certain they won’t be able to make a life in El Salvador.
For deportees who grew up knowing little else than the United States, deportation can be a destabilizing, even traumatic experience. Salvadoran officials describe this as desarraigo, or being “rootless,” in El Salvador.
“How do we create roots for someone who doesn’t know this country and whose family is in the United States?” Solórzano says. “It’s a real challenge.”
Ticas had to lay down roots for himself. He was just four-years-old when he left San Salvador in 1981 with his sister and an aunt and uncle and crossed Mexico by bus and train, reuniting with his mom in Hollywood, California, in time to start kindergarten. When his dad joined a year later the family moved to a working class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley with a huge Salvadoran population.
From a young age, he felt insecure about his identity. Even though he and his family became legal residents, with green cards, he still felt like he didn’t belong.
“There was a separation of who my parents were and who I was,” he says. “They had fled one country because of poverty and landed in another that saw them as criminals, so a lot of their fears were instilled in us. At school I felt similar to my peers, but then I would go home and it was like going to El Salvador—you know the food the language, the culture. It was confusing.”
He was gifted, especially in art, and took magnet classes. But that wasn’t enough to distract him from his anxieties. He never ran with gangs, but he fell into a crew that liked to get in trouble. When his parents stopped giving him money, he had to find a way to make his own.
“You start getting into activity that you know is wrong, but everyone else is doing it,” Ticas says. “It was about getting drunk, getting high and chasing the girls, trying to get fast money. Just being out on the street.”
In high school, his teachers tried to encourage him to focus. But it was too late. When he was 18, he blew off a scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts.
In the end, it was just one night of partying that led to a jail sentence and eventual deportation. In February 1997, when he was 20, he and his friends got drunk and high, and drove off in a car that had been parked with the motor running. They got caught 45 minutes later, armed. “I knew when they put the handcuffs on that the party was over,” Ticas says. “I was too smart for this.”
He spent almost four years in jail, where he decided he wanted a fresh start, no matter where he landed next.
Back in El Salvador, far from his immediate family, he lived with a distant relative. He began selling hot dogs and hamburgers and conducting door-to-door surveys. In 2004 he got a job working in the nascent call center industry, providing customer service for clients like MSN Messenger Tech Support. Most of his colleagues were fellow deportees.
And quickly, they began to realize that crime looked quite different in El Salvador then back on the streets of L.A. In El Salvador, it was more high stakes, and life seemed to have less value.
“At work, people would send out emails expressing condolences when someone died, but then it just got out of hand, like 10 a month,” Ticas said. “It was guys at the bus stop, coming to work. Guys just walking in the wrong neighborhood. I saw so many people came from the states and lose to the system, lose to the country.”
Ticas had met his wife soon after returning, and they had two kids. So he focused on work and family. He moved up the ladder in the call center industry, eventually serving in management and training roles. He became a man of routine; there was no more partying.
“I knew I could not be a victim of my circumstances,” he says. “I had to take the bull by the horns and decide what will be the most productive step. How do I evolve in this environment?”
“I feel like an alien”
But Ticas didn’t really feel like he belonged in El Salvador either. “We’re looked upon differently because we didn’t grow up here,” he says about deportees. “Even now, 17 years after I got back, I know I’m still different.”
A 2016 report from El Salvador’s Association of Research and Social Studies confirms that the stigma around deportation is the leading factor working against the effective reintegration of this population. The simple act of deportation “links [them] to delinquent groups at the margins of the law,” it says.
Former U.S. Marine Rafael Villacorta, who leads conversation classes at English Cool, was deported after a bar fight in 2010. His ex-wife and four daughters live in Southern California. He says he felt like an “alien” when he arrived.
“Literally you walk with eyes all over you just by the way you talk, by the way you look, the facial expressions you make, you’re just totally different.”
Villacorta returned with a shaved head and tattoos, and with lackluster Spanish. He soon learned that was unacceptable. So he grew out his hair and now wears long-sleeves to cover his tattoos.
“The bus would be full but no one would want to sit next to me. Mentally you're like ‘damn that's how messed up I am. That's how I look?’ They think that everybody that gets deported is evil.”
In an attempt to destigmatize deportation, the governments of Central America now use the term retornado, or “returnee,” instead of “deportee,” to refer to this population.
At English Cool, teachers are encouraged to be open about their deportations.
“If they wanna talk about it, cool,” says Anzora, the school’s founder. “There’s no problem with that. We’re not sugarcoating anything. We touch topics that are tough, that’s our reality.”
Anzora was deported in 2007 on drug possession charges. In late 2014 he started teaching English out of his home. The school grew so popular that he opened a second location eight months ago.
In El Salvador, English is increasingly seen by young people as a pathway to a better job, such as in a multinational company or a call center. Anzora says students who can speak English feel they have more opportunities to make money or learn a new skill set, even if it’s just through YouTube videos. Many also see language as an eventual way out of the country.
Anzora says the teachers at English Cool—who he prefers to call “coaches”—are walking examples of why the stigma around deportees is overwhelmingly misplaced.
“Growing up in the United States is actually what has allowed me to excel in El Salvador,” Anzora says.
After spending half his life in the U.S., he says he has two personas: “Salvadoran Eddie” and “American Eddie.” His drive, vision and ambition is “American Eddie,” he says.
“I grew up with my teachers telling me ‘you could be the president you could be a police officer you could be a doctor,’” he says. “Over here they tell you, ‘just be lucky you have a job.’ Many kids have the [mindset] of settle for less, that being ambitious is something bad. So we try to change that mindset.”
The Salvadoran Dream
Anzora and Ticas are not alone in their faith in the contribution deportees can make. Cesar Rios, the executive director of the nonprofit Salvadoran Migrant Institute (INSAMI), says the country has a great opportunity.
"The people arriving from the United States have accumulated skills, they’re multicultural, they’re experienced,” he says. “This is a historical opportunity for the country, to take deportees who lived abroad and transform them into agents of change.”
But, he says, the government doesn’t have a strategy for that yet. And most private companies are still behind, too. For instance, most require job applicants to show a work history in the country, which many deportees can’t.
Since May 2016, a government pilot program has encouraged representatives of call centers to recruit in the reception areas where deportees return. Call centers pay well over the minimum wage and require customer service skills that are easy to train. In the first six months of the pilot, the representatives provided information to 9,142 deportees from 14 departments, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But Rios says those jobs are not a viable solution for many returnees, such as those who are older and less adept in technology.
The majority of Salvadorans returning from the U.S., some 70 percent, worked in construction in the States, he says.
“These are people who dedicated their lives to working a trade,” he says. “Many worked in agriculture, in kitchens, they’re experts as electricians and in carpentry. For this population call centers are a waste of skills and knowledge.”
Last year, INSAMI, with the support of the Swiss Embassy, helped found the first-ever certification program for construction workers who have ample experience in the United States. Rios also founded a network for deportees who have entrepreneurial goals, to link them to financial and other types of support.
But the reality is that most deportees are on their own.
“Whatever you know that you can do, [you have to] start doing it as soon as you get off the plane,” Ticas says. “Because there are many more coming behind you. There's always an opportunity, there's always someone that can benefit from you doing good.”
For him, that’s been working with the country’s youth, many who feel they have no other option than to join a gang or migrate themselves. In 2015, nearly 60 percent of those deported to El Salvador were between the ages of 15 and 29.
Just the other day, a student called English Cool to report that she wouldn’t be able to make it to class for a while, after being threatened by gang members for walking by their territory on her way to class.
That’s a common story at the school, where most students come from challenging family and home situations, many marked by violence. That’s why English Cool has transformed into more than just a place for learning English. It’s a safe space to seek advice, vent about problems and find a mentor figure. Though coaches don’t dissuade students from leaving the country, they encourage them to excel locally, whether through working, studying, creativity and hobbies.
For Elías, the young man who was worried about his job interview, the school has been a refuge. “It’s like they’re my friends, my brothers, I really appreciate that,” he says about his coaches. “I learn a lot from them.” (He got the job.)
Anzora sets up regular on-site interviews, so that companies come to the school to recruit for jobs that require English skills. Many of their students have been hired.
Sometimes it’s as simple as giving students encouragement, Ticas says. During a recent advanced level class at English Cool, he invited a dozen students to discuss their ideas for “changing the country.” In small groups, they conversed about and debated El Salvador’s problems, namely the gangs terrorizing entire neighborhoods.
The students had a range of ideas: programs to rescue kids and young people, better communication between parents and children, more high schools, foreign investment, stronger values and morals, opportunities to play sports.
Ticas then asked the students if they think it’s too late for El Salvador, or if the country can improve: “Do you still believe El Salvador has an opportunity to change?”
The students agreed: change is possible. Ticas beamed. “We deserve a good country,” said one young woman. “We’re good people.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.
Text: Jessica Weiss
Video: Andrea Patiño