Culture & History

Read about the culture and history of El Salvador below! This information has been provided by the Habitat El Salvador staff:

El Salvador has a population of about 6.2 million. About half of the people live in rural areas. Major cities include greater San Salvador (1.56 mil), La Libertad (660.652), Santa Ana (523.655), and San Miguel (238.217). The majority of Salvadorans are mestizos (mixed Spanish and Native Americans). The United Nations Human Development Index (2001) ranks El Salvador 95 out of 162 nations. Due to the effects of war and natural disasters as well as the current government policy on health-care, education and economic systems, only a small portion of the population has the opportunity to advance and prosper.

Salvadorans are proud of their country and its accomplishments. The 12-year civil war left over 80,000 people dead or missing and nearly one million in exile. However, past feelings of hatred and revenge are gradually being replaced with hope and cooperation. Some are discouraged by the slow pace of reconstruction and reconciliation, but most are patient and willing to help rebuild their nation. Salvadorans are very hard-working and all family members contribute to the family’s well being. Salvadorans value personal relationships.

Time is flexible. People are more important than schedules, and the group is more important than the individual. Most events begin later than planned and may go on longer than planned.

Family is the basis of Salvadoran society. It is a macho culture, and the father is typically the head of the household, but single-parent families are common, especially after the war and now due to current emigration. Most young adults remain at home until they marry, and unmarried adults with children usually continue to live with their parents. Children are expected to care for their aging parents. Women care for the children and the household, but they often farm, clean homes, sew, tend a small store in their own home, or work as skilled laborers or as professionals.

Sports and leisure
The national sport in El Salvador is soccer (fútbol). Basketball (baloncesto) is also popular. Soccer fields and parks with basketball nets are common. In their leisure time, people like to visit each other, listen to music (the louder, the better), go to the movies or just hang out. Salvadorans like any excuse for a party. They love to laugh.

The most common greetings are: ¡Buenos días! (Good morning), ¡Buenas tardes! (Good afternoon) and ¡Buenas noches! (Good evening). Adios or Hasta luego are used when saying
goodbye. When addressing people older than oneself, a Salvadoran will show friendly respect by saying Don (for men) or Doña (for women) with the person’s first name (Doña Rosalia, for example). It is important to address a formally educated person by his or her professional title: Doctor(a), Ingeniero(a), Arquitecto(a), or Licenciado(a), for an individual with a university degree.

Friends and relatives visit one another frequently as a way to maintain their relationships. Most people drop by without notice. When eating together, anyone joining the group or leaving the table says Buen provecho, which is the equivalent of the French phrase Bon appetit. Salvadoran food is not particularly spicy. Most people eat red beans (frijoles), thick corn tortillas, rice, eggs, and fruit. One popular dish is a pupusa, which is a (corn or rice) tortilla stuffed with meat, beans and/or cheese. People who can afford beef and chicken eat meat regularly.

Because of the tropical climate, summer clothing is appropriate all year long. Women wear dresses often, but pants are very popular. Women who work in offices and factories usually wear
identical lightweight suits. Young people wear jeans and American-style clothing. Although the poor do not have many clothes, they keep themselves and their clothing neat and clean. Daily showers are considered a must, even if one has no running water!

El Salvador is predominantly Roman Catholic, but about 25 percent of the population practices other Christian faiths. A small percentage of the population practices other world religions,
including Islam, Judaism, and the Bahá’í Faith. Religion is a major force in the everyday lives of people.

El Salvador’s adult literacy rate is 71%, but only 35% of adults in the countryside are literate. Elementary school (for youth ages 7-12) is compulsory. It is followed by three years of
Educación Básica, which is optional, after which students may choose between three years of technical school or three years of Bachillerato (high school)—the college track. The school year begins in mid-January and runs through October. As a result of the war and the lack of governmental investment in education, public schools have a very low quality. Many parents insist that their children stop attending school so that they can begin to work and contribute to the family’s income. (Even public education costs money that many people do not have, as students have to buy uniforms, shoes, books, binders, etc.) Wealthy and upper middle-class families opt for private education.

Medical attention (examinations, consultations, etc.) in El Salvador is free at state health facilities, but all medication must be purchased, thus making it very difficult for most people to
receive proper medical care. Rural areas lack clinics, while urban clinics and hospitals are in poor condition, having been damaged during the war and subsequently by the earthquakes of 2001. A large, higher-quality private health-care system is available in cities for those who can afford it.

Annual economic growth since 1990 has averaged 5% with an inflation rate of 7%. Current problems include: large income inequality, unemployment and underemployment (which
affect more than half of the population), land reform, and pollution. Many Salvadorans rely heavily on remittances from family abroad—totaling approximately US$2 billion annually, compared to US$500 million/yr of external aid. The minimum wage is US$160/mo., while the cost of basic necessities for a family of 4 is US$600/mo. Most families thus cannot afford the basics of food, shelter, clothing, health, and education, even if more than one family member works full-time. Coffee has been and remains the most important export, bringing in nearly half of all export earnings. A drastic decrease in world coffee prices has resulted in a crisis in El Salvador’s coffee industry. Other exports include sugar, cotton, shrimp, and textiles. The current government sees the country’s most important economic resource as its people and markets them for low wages and long hours, the majority of these workers being women employed in the clothing and textile industries. Over 65 percent of those currently employed work in the service area.

Transportation and Communication
Rural people travel long distances on foot, often with heavy loads. Most urban people travel by bus. Salvadoran buses are frequent, cheap and usually uncomfortable. You can go just about anywhere in the cities or between cities by bus. It just takes time. Taxis are available in cities, but are expensive, and many people drive cars. The road system is the best in Central America, but still some places in the city and in the countryside may be impassable except by truck or ox-cart.
The phone system is acceptable, but many people use cell phones because it is so difficult to get a phone installed.


El Salvador’s government is a democratic republic whose power is contested by two permanent parties and a few other temporary ones. Legislative power is vested in a one-chamber legislative assembly, which has 85 seats and is elected for a three-year term. The voting age is 18. The head of state and government is the president, who holds office for five years. The country is divided into 14 departments (states or provinces) and 262 municipalities. Each municipality has a mayor who has a significant amount of political power and who can greatly change the lives of people in his/her district for better or for worse.

In pre-Columbian history, a number of Mesoamerican cultures dominated the Salvadoran society: Olmec, Mayan, Chorti, Lenca, and Pok’omame peoples. When the Spanish arrived in
the 16th Century, the country was dominated by the Pipiles, descendants of Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs and Aztecs, both Mexican tribes. Their culture was similar to that of the Aztecs, with heavy Maya influences and a maize-based agricultural economy that supported several cities and a complex culture including hieroglyphic writing, astronomy, and mathematics.

In 1525, Spanish conquistadors led by Pedro Alvarado invaded the country. The colonial period that followed was characterized by large landholdings (latifundios, which later evolved into haciendas) belonging to a relatively small number of Spaniards and agriculture dominated by cotton, balsam, and indigo. Most indigenous people became virtually enslaved workers on the plantations. El Salvador became independent from Spain in 1821 after a period of struggle by the wealthy class in El Salvador. For a short period, the country was part of the Central American Federation, which disintegrated in 1841. Independence from Spain did very little for the plantation workers. When coffee replaced indigo as the main export, laws were passed
that turned over control of land held in common by indigenous peoples to the coffee plantation owners for coffee production. The wealth resulting from coffee export was controlled by
2% of the population.

Over the years there were attempts by the poor, mostly indigenous, population to have their concerns addressed, but these popular movements were quickly suppressed. In 1933, a socialist movement led by Farabundo Marti resulted in a particularly brutal response by the military, which effectively decimated the indigenous population of the country. By the 1960’s and 1970’s, landlessness, extreme poverty and the increasing repression of popular movements, trade unions and the like increased the conflict between the military-backed governments and the majority of the people. Election fraud and the killing of popular leaders, including priests and other church leaders during the late 1970’s escalated the situation to a crisis. The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 was one of the events that sparked the civil war. This 12-year conflict pitted the popular movements, banded together under the banner of the Faribundo Marti Liberación Nacional (FMLN) against the military. This bloody conflict led to the disappearance or deaths of some 80,000 Salvadorans and the emigration of more than one million Salvadorans to the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and other countries.

The civil war was finally brought to an end by a UN-negotiated peace accord in 1992, after it became apparent that there would be no clear winner of the conflict (in spite of US- backing of the military to the tune of some US$6 billion). The signing of the Peace Accords brought a period of high expectations of significant change. There were some positive achievements in terms of land distribution and the establishment of a more open political process in which the FMLN became a legitimate political force. Since the signing of the Peace Accords, however, there has been no appreciable improvement in the economic and social conditions of the majority. The result has been increasing violent crime, partially fueled by street gangs initially formed by gang members deported from North America. High unemployment rates and other detrimental social changes brought about by the evolution of an agricultural society to one based on the use of cheap labor for the manufacture of exportable goods in increasing numbers of free trade zones have affected many. Frequent natural disasters—namely Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the 2001 earthquake—have worsened the living conditions of much of the population.


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