There's a Pollo Campero on the ground floor of the Curacao department store on the corner of Olympic and Union streets in Los Angeles, but that's not what makes this one of the centers of Central American culture in Southern California. Tucked away in a converted office on the fifth floor is the Casa de la Cultura de El Salvador. Sculptor Dagoberto Reyes founded it nearly 20 years ago and runs it along with an internet radio station that broadcasts Salvadoran cumbia, merengue and a public affairs talk show.
Reyes didn't expect to be in the trenches against El Salvador's left-leaning government--elected two years ago after a succession of conservative regimes that fed the country's bloody civil war--but that's where he finds himself now.
As he does every month, Reyes showed up at the Salvadoran consulate on Wilshire Boulevard a few weeks ago to pick up a $1,800 check--his monthly salary for running the Casa de la Cultura. But this time, Reyes says, consul general Walter Duran, who's held the job for just one year, handed Reyes a letter from El Salvador's foreign relations office.
It's written in bureaucratic prose that's vague at times and bookended by pro-forma greetings. The gist of it is that because of changes in "service," the government has initiated Reyes's transfer. He'll continue to receive his salary, with a $300 monthly raise, at his new "administrative assistant" post in El Salvador's embassy in Qatar.
"I thought it was a joke. Because the question is, what am I going to do in Qatar? I'm an artist, a sculptor, a cultural worker. If they had told me, 'You're going to go to Qatar because we want you to create a bust of the emir of Qatar.' That would make sense," Reyes said, holding the letter from El Salvador's foreign relations office.
Reyes has never belonged to El Salvador's diplomatic corps. He immigrated to the U.S. 30 years ago to escape El Salvador's bloody civil war. He's 67 years old and a U.S. citizen now. In January he suffered a heart attack. Reyes describes the directive that he move halfway around the world to continue receiving his salary as an effort to silence criticism of the Salvadoran government and pave the way for a pro-administration cultural center in LA.
Some of that criticism surfaces on Radio Pipiles, the internet radio station Reyes operates out of a converted room in the Casa De La Cultura. Carlos Aguilar, the producer of the station's public affairs talk show, says guests have praised the government's public education efforts and have criticized the Salvadoran government's neglect of its citizens beyond its borders.
"They don't pay the attention, they don't really concerned, they're not really concerned about the well being of this segment of the population living in Los Angeles or somewhere else out of the country. Because, it looks like they only are concerned about the money that these people send out of the country," Aguilar said.
That's a big deal in Southern California, home to the largest concentration of the one-million Salvadorans who live in the United States. Politics has affected the lives and deaths of Aguilar and expatriate Salvadorans. El Salvador's right-leaning government 30 years ago let death squads go after students, intellectuals and other perceived leftists. Two years ago, for the first time since the civil war, voters in El Salvador elected a left-leaning government that included former guerrilla leaders.
A spokesman said consul general Walter Duran would not comment on the matter. No one from El Salvador's foreign relations department was available for comment. Duran told Hoy newspaper that the decision to transfer Reyes didn't come from the consulate. The consul general also said Reyes refused to cooperate with a recent audit of the organization's finances. Reyes responded that the Salvadoran government doesn't provide an operating budget, so how could it carry out an audit. Reyes is paid by the Salvadoran government, he told Hoy, but doesn't work at the consulate and doesn't want to account for the running of the Casa de la Cultura. In El Salvador that's called a "ghost job," Duran said.
Salvadoran American activist Isabel Cardenas is a supporter of Duran.
"The man is wonderful, we really needed a consulate that would make people feel like, when they come there, that they can feel welcome, that they can talk to anyone there, get advice or whatever," Cardenas said.
The quarrel between Reyes and the consul general has been months in the making. In their first meeting, Reyes said, Duran was cold and aloof. The spat is taking on larger proportions because of Reyes's high visibility among Southland Salvadorans. In 1993 Reyes unveiled in MacArthur Park a 15 foot by 7 foot sculpture dedicated to Salvadorans. It's titled, "Why We Emigrate."
Salvador Sanabria, who heads the immigrants' rights non-profit El Rescate, said Reyes is an icon among Salvadorans in L.A. Sanabria is also unhappy with consul Duran and, as he puts it, the current administration's failure to help Salvadorans in the U.S. The quarrel with Reyes, he said, stands to inflict more damage to the consul general's reputation.
"By trying to silence critical but constructive voices what this government is doing is forcing the diaspora to disconnect from the country of origin," Sanabria said.
For now Dagoberto Reyes says he's not quitting his job, and he plans to call the Salvadoran government's bluff. He has a wife, two kids, a dog and a cat. He's told the government of El Salvador to send plane tickets to Qatar for the entire household.