This is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Latino Heritage," where we are profiling a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.
Those of us with family in other lands know that while memories can be jogged with photos or videos, there’s nothing quite like internalizing the smell of a place – a smell goes right to the heart.
That smell of “home” is something Will Martinez’ parents ensured he got during his upbringing. And the U.S.-born Martinez knows that someday he’ll take his future children back to El Salvador for the same experience.
“Oh yeah, as soon as I can, I’ll take the kids so they can start learning those smells and see where their grandparents came from,” said Martinez, a facility manager based in Houston, Texas.
Martinez’ parents settled in Houston to join other family members who had arrived and gotten the lay of the land. They comprise what is a fairly robust Salvadoran community there – the Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America estimates that about 15 percent of all Salvadorans living in the U.S. currently reside in Texas, with the largest concentration (35 percent) living in California. Smaller communities are concentrated in New York and Maryland.
Like so many children of immigrants, Martinez remembers vividly the sacrifices his parents made to help their kids thrive as Americans, while also maintaining the heart of what was left back in their native country.
“Both my parents, they worked hard – backbreaking work,” Martinez recalls, “my mom cleaned houses for hours, they both just worked their butts off for me, but they both got what they wanted out of being here. They learned the language and both speak fluent English today. They got educated – my mom’s a realtor now - we have a good life.”
Martinez recalls his mother’s insistence that he and his two half-brothers and half-sisters speak Spanish at home.
“My mom was strict about it, too, she made sure us kids spoke both languages – English at school and Spanish at home,” Martinez said.
Life in Houston was pretty smooth for Martinez, who, growing up, felt that no one made a big deal either way about his heritage.
“I’d hear about how other people had their differences and issues but I grew up around very friendly people and never had any issues, it was pretty uneventful for me,” Martinez said. “I mean, sure, people would often think I was Mexican but I would say, ‘No, I’m Salvadoran’ and most people would just be like, ‘Oh, OK,’ and it never bothered me one bit.”
A veteran of the U.S. Army, Martinez is fiercely bi-cultural – he enlisted as a “small way to give back to the country my parents chose for us and that has given us the opportunities to get ahead” – and makes an annual pilgrimage to El Salvador to get his fix.
“I’m very proud of my culture, I go every year for at least a week,” Martinez says noting that on each visit he sees things differently. “When you’re young, you’re not paying attention. Now when I go I see what people are going through over there – and why they want to come here. It really makes me appreciate who I am.”
“I grew up in the 80’s, in Houston, in a melting pot of Asians, blacks, whites, Hispanics," said the facility manager and U.S. Army veteran. "It would be beautiful for people to stop fighting over labels … right now it feels a little dark, all that’s been going on."
Salvadoran immigration to the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon and has changed the face of foreign affairs in the United States. The flood of refugees from a U.S.-supported government forced a national rethinking of foreign policy priorities, which, in turn, transformed the nature of American support for the Salvadoran government and may have helped to end the war in El Salvador. To this day, Salvadoran Americans are at the center of an ongoing national debate about U.S. responsibility toward the world's refugees and the future of immigration in general.
Martinez sees maintaining his cultural connection to his parents’ country while also thinking of himself as “American” as a natural outgrowth of what the United States promises all its immigrants.
“I’m hopeful about the melting pot," says Martinez. "It would be beautiful for people to stop fighting over labels … right now it feels a little dark, all that’s been going on,” said Martinez, referring to a recent uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“I grew up in the 80’s, in Houston, in a melting pot of Asians, blacks, whites, Hispanics. My school had every race and group you can think of, that’s how I was raised, but now I’m seeing increasing segregation. Enough with that already.”
Single, but planning on a family someday, Martinez plans on being part of the solution to the problem of disunity between the races.
“I want to continue doing my part here and being a good citizen,” Martinez said. “I hope one day to have my kids, show them my side and definitely wherever my wife’s from, her culture and language. Hopefully this country can continue to evolve and grow in such a way that we will get rid of all that other negativity.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.