Traffic death hits Salvadoran community hard

Oscar and Lidia Marinero with daughters Barbara (center), 11, Vanessa, 9, and Valerie, 17, at Lidia's hair salon.
Oscar and Lidia Marinero with daughters Barbara (center), 11, Vanessa, 9, and Valerie, 17, at Lidia's hair salon.
Posted: January 20, 2014

The icy-road collision that killed 29-year-old Roxana Ortega in Pine Hill, Camden County, brought tears to her fellow immigrants from El Salvador last week.

A Funeral Mass in Spanish at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Shrine in Lindenwold on Tuesday was packed. "We seat 800," said the Rev. Joseph Capella, "and had close to a full house."

The priest estimated that half of the 5,100 families in the parish are Latino, with immigrants from the Central American nation of El Salvador, many of them undocumented, making up the largest group of Spanish speakers.

As one of the Philadelphia area's most diffuse immigrant populations, Salvadorans have quietly been growing - tripling, quadrupling, even quintupling - in parts of the region since 2000.

A 12-year civil war that began in 1980 drove their immigration in the late 20th century.

"The migratory flow was expected to decrease when the war ended," according to a recent report, "Profile of the Modern Salvadoran Immigrant," but "the statistics showed otherwise."

The national study, released last month by the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and the Universidad Technologica de El Salvador, surveyed more than 800 Salvadorans recently deported from the United States. It asked about their motives for migrating and the paths they took to enter the United States.

In a place where farm and factory jobs pay $105 to $225 a month - paltry wages even in a nation with a lower cost of living than the United States' - most came to this country for economic opportunity. Approximately half used smugglers, called coyotes.

El Salvador, the size of Massachusetts, with a population of six million, is the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America.

Of approximately 2.9 million Salvadorans living abroad, 2.5 million are in the United States.

An estimated 55,000 a year attempt unlawful entry, and about 26,000 a year are deported.

Locally, according to Census Bureau analyses, the Salvadoran population across the eight counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey more than tripled in the last decade, from 1,253 in 2000, to 4,725 by the end of 2012.

Because Hurricane Mitch, in 1998, and a 2001 earthquake devastated parts of El Salvador, many Salvadorans already in the United States, including Oscar Marinero, 42, and his wife, Lidia, 37, of Sicklerville, were granted "temporary protected status" by the U.S. secretary of homeland security.

Known as TPS, it permits them to live and work here legally. Oscar owns a seven-taxicab company; Lidia owns a hair salon. They have three U.S. citizen daughters, born here.

Their oldest, Valerie, 17, is sometimes teased in school by friends who ask, "When are you going to come cut my lawn?"

Her father tells her to ignore stereotyping.

"I tell her to use that as motivation," he said, "to work hard and be somebody."

Unlike the Marineros, many Salvadorans are without papers and tend to shun encounters with officials, including census takers.

That's why Ana Maria de Keene, Salvador's diplomatic representative for the Philadelphia area, estimates the region's Salvadoran population at "closer to 10,000."

Consul De Keene said Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in the Washington area 25 years ago have been settling near Norristown and Reading, where the cost of living is more affordable.

Telford Borough, the 4,700-resident municipality that straddles Montgomery and Bucks Counties, has witnessed an influx of Salvadoran and Vietnamese immigrants, lured by plentiful rental housing and factory jobs, said Borough Manager Mark D. Fournier.

"We are fairly close to a large meat-processing industry," he said. "I know they have a lot of Vietnamese and Latino workers in those plants."

The Salvadoran surge has meant good business for Dalia Soriano, who with her husband, William Alvarenga, owns and operates El Salvadoreno Restaurant Y Pupuseria, in Clementon.

Originally from Ahuachapan province on El Salvador's border with Guatemala, the couple came to Camden County 11 years ago.

At first, Soriano, 32, worked at the restaurant preparing the corn-meal-with-cheese-and-pork-stuffing pancakes called pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty.

Three years ago, with the Salvadoran community on the rise, the couple bought the restaurant from the previous owner.

Now it is both watering hole and social magnet for Salvadorans, who on weekends tune its wall-mounted TV to a Central American satellite channel for news from their homeland.

After Ortega, known by the nickname Chanita, died in the collision between her SUV and a New Jersey Transit bus Jan. 10, word of the tragedy spread quickly back to the restaurant.

The funeral was in the evening, and her husband and several of her siblings received mourners at the viewing until dawn.

"She came from my province," said Soriano, gently shaking her head.

Her remains are to be flown Sunday to El Salvador.



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