- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

INTIPUCA, El Salvador Sandra Dubon never sleeps well the last night of February.

The excitement of the following day's trip to the town of her birth keeps her awake. She busies herself with her suitcase, always including the face cream she brings her 99-year-old grandmother each year and the large, red grapes she packs for her grandfather.

On the March 1 flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to San Salvador, she is surrounded by other native Salvadorans from the Washington area, all going to Intipuca, the place many of them still call home.

"I'm always waiting for March to come and see my town and my people," said Mrs. Dubon. "I feel like I have two lives. In the U.S., I have more amenities than I ever had here, but what I feel here is more love and more happiness."

Mrs. Dubon is one of thousands of Intipuca natives who have emigrated to the United States since 1967, almost all to the Washington area. She and hundreds of others come back each year in March to celebrate the holy day of St. Nicolas, the town's patron saint.

A small town tucked in sun-baked, rural, eastern El Salvador, Intipuca has one of the country's oldest and most strongly entrenched traditions of emigration to the United States. As many people from Intipuca are believed to be living in the United States as currently live here.

Intipuca not only survives on the family remittances sent home by those working in the United States, but also lives for the day its far-flung sons and daughters come home to visit.

For the first week of March, this otherwise sleepy town comes alive with music, parades and rodeos as townspeople celebrate the Feast of St. Nicolas with their relatives from North America.

The visiting relatives don Tommy Hilfiger and Polo sportswear and stroll across the park each evening in their spotless, top-of-the-line sneakers or latest black sandals that reveal their recently painted toes.

As a Ferris wheel spins in the night sky, they stop and greet men in straw cowboy hats and women in long skirts who they haven't seen in a year.

Sifredo Chavez is Sandra Dubon's uncle. He is best known here as the pioneer Intipuca's first emigrant. His wife calls him "the Christopher Columbus of Intipuca, the man who discovered the north."

In 1967, he obtained a tourist visa and went to work in the United States for 11 months. He came back to Intipuca for a visit and told all his friends there was work well-paid work to be had near the District of Columbia. Over the next years, townspeople flocked to Washington.

"I'd pick them up at the airport and find them a place to live and a place to work in Washington," said Mr. Chavez, 64. "The people from this town are so united that they didn't let anyone fail in the States."

He and other Intipuca residents were some of the first Salvadorans to start migrating to the United States, but in the past two decades going north to work has come to dominate life and culture all over El Salvador.

When civil war raged through the countryside in the 1980s, Salvadorans escaped the violence by emigrating to the United States.

Since the 1992 peace accords between rebels and the government, the northward flow of migrants has continued, spurred by the country's economic woes.

Today, about 20 percent of El Salvador's population lives in the United States. Family remittances of greenbacks totaled $1.9 billion in 2001 14 percent of this small Central American nation's gross domestic product, far surpassing the income generated from its leading exports.

Intipuca's economy relies almost entirely on remittances. Once a farming town, agriculture has declined over the years and jobs here, as in much of El Salvador, are scarce. Intipuca and its outlying areas have an estimated 15,000 residents. Roughly $2.5 million per year reaches townsfolk in family remittances.

The signs of these remittances are all over Intipuca, making a stark contrast with otherwise similar rural towns.

There are five money-transfer agencies in the town, a travel agency booking U.S.-bound flights and an Internet cafe. Intipuca is full of large, sturdy homes with brick facades and wrought-iron grille work, instead of dilapidated, wooden houses with tiled roofs. The streets are full of cars.

A sign at the town's entrance reads in English "Welcome to Intipuca City."

A Washington, D.C.-based association of Intipuca natives, called United for Intipuca, has raised about $1 million over the past decade, donating their hometown a soccer stadium and computers for classrooms.

The foundation works closely with the municipality and central government, pushing for and contributing to government projects benefiting the town.

This year, in the first days of the Feast of St. Nicolas, the vice president of El Salvador visited Intipuca and officially declared it a city, for fulfilling the highest level of infrastructure requirements.

"We owe it all to those who migrated to the north to work," said Intipuca Mayor Enrique Mendez. "This is a town that has always been poor, with few jobs. It is a rare family here that has no relatives living in the United States, sending money home."

But not all aspects of the massive migration have been positive. Along with better economic conditions comes the separation of families.

Since Intipuca has decades of experience with migration, many migrants were able to bring their families to the United States after legalizing their status. Still, some families are separated, and others lose touch permanently because of the distances involved.

Oscar Andrade has been living and working in the Washington area for nearly three years. He comes back once a year at the Feast of St. Nicolas to see his wife and 5-year-old son.

"I never liked the idea of Oscar's going," said his wife, Zulema. "But there is no work here, so we do this to be able to get ahead in life. All of my relatives have gone to the United States and have done really well."

Mr. Andrade hopes to move back to Intipuca with his savings and start a business in a few more years, and his wife says she trusts him wholly.

Yet in some cases, men have left Intipuca for the United States, promising to send checks and eventually send for their wives and children, only to start new lives and abandon their old ones.

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