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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Social Networks Dynamics: Implications for Salvadoreans in San Francisco


The 1990 U.S. Census estimates that there are over half a million Salvadoreans in the U.S., which means that approximately one of every six Salvadoreans may now reside in the United States. The experience of Salvadoreans differs from that of Mexican immigrants, the largest Latino immigrant group, in that Salvadoreans left a war-torn country and their large-scale migration to the U.S. is relatively recent. In this paper, I analyze the centrality of social networks in Salvadorean migration to the United States. In contrast to most studies of immigrant social networks that emphasize the supportive and generally cohesive side of these social ties, I focus on instances where networks may weaken and even break down, and consequences of this situation for the lives of Salvadorean newcomers.

This study is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in San Francisco, from late 1989 to 1992. Fifty Salvadorean men and women who had arrived in the U.S. within the previous five years were interviewed. In addition, important information was obtained through informal observations with the respondents and their families, as well as through interviews with community leaders and social services providers.

The central findings of this study point out that the broader contexts of reception, such as policies of the receiving state with respect to the immigrant group in question, the local labor marker, and the organizations in the community of reception, together with a legacy of a war-ravaged country of origin manifested in traumatic disorders, affect kinship networks in important ways. In the case I analyzed here, the absence of an official reception by the government and a recessionary economic cycle have exacerbated the impoverished condition of Salvadorean newcomers. The scarcity of resources undermines the reciprocity inherent in social networks, often leading to a weakening and even a breakdown of kingship support networks.

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