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Story Publication logo January 16, 2017

El Salvador: The Deportees Taking Our Calls


A view of San Salvador from the northern outskirts of the city. Image by Jonathan Blitzer. El Salvador, 2016.

Thousands of Salvadorans deported by the Obama Administration find a surprising new life in an...


Eddie Anzora was sitting in his cubicle at a call center in El Salvador one day a couple of years ago, making a hotel reservation for an impatient American customer, when he spotted someone he knew from a past life. The man, who was part of a group of new employees on a tour of the office, was tall, with a tattoo of a rose on the back of his neck. His loping stride caught Anzora's attention. Salvadorans didn't walk like that.

"Where you from?" Anzora asked, when the man reached his desk.

"Sunland Park," he replied. It was a neighborhood in Los Angeles, more than two thousand miles away, but Anzora knew it. A decade earlier, when the two men belonged to rival street crews, they had got into a fistfight there. Now they were both deportees, sizing each other up in a country they barely knew.

Anzora, who is thirty-nine, is thick-armed and barrel-chested; his hair is trimmed to a fade. He was born in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, but he lived in California between the ages of two and twenty-nine, when he was deported for drug possession. "I got real American-culturized from the beginning," he told me recently.

By the time Anzora returned to El Salvador, in 2007, it had become one of the most dangerous countries in the world, gripped by an intractable gang war. On the plane, Anzora had been handcuffed, his legs shackled. Once he stepped outside, police officers inspected him to see if he had any tattoos that suggested gang ties. Anzora's Spanish was "all beat up," he said, a second language that he spoke with a Chicano accent. A cousin he knew from L.A., who had been deported a year earlier, picked him up from the San Salvador airport and let him stay in his apartment while he figured out what to do. Over dinner that night, Anzora's cousin told him about a company called Sykes, which ran one of the two largest call centers in San Salvador. Sykes, which is based in Florida, has call centers in twenty countries and employs about three thousand Salvadorans, who provide customer service and technical support to American businesses. In El Salvador, Sykes came to be known, in English, as "homieland," because so many of its employees were deportees from the United States.

Drawn by low operating costs, generous tax incentives, and proximity to the U.S., more than ten major call-center firms now operate in El Salvador, employing some twenty thousand people. Deportations from the U.S. have fuelled the industry by bringing an influx of English-speaking job-seekers. Anzora was one of twenty thousand Salvadorans deported in 2007. Since President Obama took office, in 2009, the U.S. has deported 2.7 million people, more than during any previous Administration. A hundred and fifty-two thousand of them are Salvadoran, and roughly twenty per cent have spent at least five years in the U.S. They generally speak fluent and idiomatic English—the most crucial requirement for call-center work. Their next most important quality is their desperation. Deportees are "very loyal," a recruiter for a call center told the news service McClatchy. "They know they won't get another shot." At one call center I visited, more than half the employees had been deported from the U.S. Recruiters show up at an isolated hangar of the San Salvador airport to intercept deportees as they get off small jets flown in by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A month after Anzora arrived, he began working at Sykes. Instructors drilled him on the language of customer service: "sir" instead of "dude," "you're welcome" instead of "it's cool." Anzora is charismatic and smooth-talking, a natural salesman, and he was soon assigned to take calls. He handled the account for, "upselling" customers on more expensive rooms. He also performed technical support for Kodak: when callers complained about their printers, he read from a list of basic troubleshooting techniques.

Cliques formed at Sykes based on where employees had lived before returning to El Salvador—the West Coast, Texas, the tri-state area. They listened to the American accents that others used while answering calls, and introduced themselves during breaks. "Everybody meets each other at a call center," Anzora said. In Spanish, the word for "deportee" is deportado, but the call-center employees preferred to call themselves deportistas—"athletes." The deportistas' lives revolved around the groups that formed in the office.

At Sykes, Anzora made close to a hundred and fifty dollars a week, which amounted to three times the Salvadoran minimum wage, and within two months he was able to move into an apartment of his own, around the corner from the office. But San Salvador remained a foreign city to him. "I'm the only one here," Anzora told me. He has the animated manner of a raconteur who has long been starved of listeners. "All my family is in the United States. There's nobody to reminisce with." He and the man from Sunland Park started attending church on Sundays. At work, calls from familiar area codes were almost therapeutic. "It felt good speaking to Americans, especially when these guys live close to where you used to hang out," he said. The feeling lasted only as long as the phone calls. Then, he said, "you're back in El Salvador."

In 1981, after a protracted political crisis, a leftist guerrilla army attacked El Salvador's military, setting off eleven years of fighting, in which seventy-five thousand people were killed. Fearing a Communist contagion in Latin America, the U.S. backed the military, despite its abysmal human-rights record, providing some six billion dollars in aid and sending advisers to help Salvadoran troops. But the U.S. support served mainly to prolong the war. About a quarter of the country's population of five million fled to the U.S., where they sought asylum. All but two per cent of the applications were denied, so most people ended up staying illegally. Eventually, two million Salvadorans came to live in the U.S. The Salvadoran population in Los Angeles, the largest enclave, increased tenfold during the nineteen-eighties, to approximately three hundred thousand.

Anzora left El Salvador with his mother and younger brother just as the civil war began, and the family landed in Los Angeles. Like most Salvadoran immigrants there, they settled in South Central, an inner-city area that was controlled by the Bloods, a black street gang. At the time, black and Mexican gangs dominated the city, and they brutalized the Salvadorans who showed up in their neighborhoods.

Upstart Salvadoran gangs gradually began to appear, and attempted to take territory. When Anzora was nine years old, he was throwing a football with friends one day when a group of teen-agers spilled out of a car and cocked their guns. A few seconds later, another car pulled up, and a bunch of boys emerged carrying baseball bats and long knives. In the first car was a group of Mexicans, dressed in oversized khaki pants and flannel shirts; in the second were Salvadorans who resembled goth rockers, with black T-shirts and long, unwashed hair. A gunshot scattered most of the fighters, but a few of them stayed behind to play football.

"Everybody was jumping into a gang," Anzora told me. "You go to school, and you're hanging out with your friends, and, next thing you know, one of your friends is throwing a gang sign." He ran with a more low-key group of Mexican, Salvadoran, and Asian hustlers, who were known as taggers, for their graffiti, and mostly avoided violence.

The Salvadoran gangs, which began in a spirit of self-defense, soon became as brutal as their adversaries. The two dominant Salvadoran gangs in L.A. were Barrio 18, named for the intersection of Eighteenth Street and Union Avenue, and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a portmanteau of Salvadoran slang meant to convey scrappiness and savagery. The black and Mexican gangs used bats to rough people up; MS-13 started using machetes, and macabre stories of decapitations spread throughout the city. Soon, Barrio 18 and MS-13 began to feud, and the groups hunted each other down. Between 1989 and 1992, the height of the crack era, the number of gang-related deaths in L.A. rose by almost fifty per cent. California prisons filled up with Salvadoran gangsters, who weren't immediately deported, because the U.S. government was reluctant to send them back to a war zone.

The Anzoras eventually acquired green cards. Eddie's mother worked two jobs, as a cook and as a caterer, and the family moved from a house they shared with relatives to a small apartment in the San Fernando Valley. Anzora grew more rebellious as he got older. Once, he was caught spray-painting walls on Melrose Boulevard, and spent a night in jail. In 1992, when he was fifteen, his mother decided to send him and his brother to El Salvador for a year, to show them how easy they had it in America. They arrived in San Salvador just as the peace agreement that ended the civil war was signed, and lived with their mother's brother in Soyapango, on the eastern edge of the city. Anzora spent his afternoons tagging abandoned houses in the alleys where the leftist guerrillas had dug trenches. He looked and acted conspicuously foreign. "It was comedy," he said. "People used to make fun of me when I wore my baggy pants."

Within months, other Americans started arriving from Los Angeles. Now that the war was over, the imprisoned Salvadoran gang members were being deported. Most of them barely spoke Spanish, and Anzora fell in with them. "If you spoke English, you hung out," he told me. He remembers the year as a period of special clout for English speakers. "You could get any girl!" he said.

The privileged status of English stemmed from the novelty of the American-bred gangsters. At the time, Anzora said, the gangs in El Salvador were made up of "little fuckups, easy recruits for the new thing. The new thing had symbolism. It had music. It had clothing. It had money. These guys come here with the whole Mexican cholo"—thug—"look. You throw in a couple of movies, and it's just brainwashing. Then throw in a couple of songs from Cypress Hill. Cypress Hill fucked everybody up over here."

Throughout the nineties, the U.S. continued deporting gang members to El Salvador. They allied with former soldiers and guerrillas who, with the economy cratered by a decade of fighting, couldn't find jobs and turned to street crime. The deportees had social cachet and a sense of organizational structure, and the war veterans had experience in kidnapping and torture. Eventually, the grudges between Barrio 18 and MS-13 were outsourced to El Salvador. Clones of the Los Angeles gangs popped up in and around the capital, with names like the Hollywood Crazies and the Fulton Loco Salvatruchas. "What the U.S. has tried to flush away has rather multiplied," the journalist Óscar Martínez writes in his recent book, "A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America." The American deportation policy turned local street gangs from L.A. into a multifaceted, international criminal network. MS-13 fanned out across Honduras and Guatemala, bringing with it a surge in crime and an increasing number of refugees displaced by the violence.

The Salvadoran government didn't have the resources to deal with the nascent gangs. It had only recently reconstituted the national police force, which had been disbanded at the end of the war, and its prisons were vastly underequipped to handle an explosion of the inmate population. The U.S., meanwhile, was deporting people at such a rapid pace that often it didn't bother to send deportees' criminal records to the Salvadoran authorities. An L.A. police detective told PBS, "It was like a petri dish that you put an Ebola virus in."

In 1997, when Anzora was twenty, he was pulled over while driving in Los Angeles and arrested for possessing an ounce of marijuana and some meth, which he claimed wasn't his. It was his first criminal offense as an adult, and he was granted bail and released almost immediately. A few days later, he received a summons from an immigration court. When he responded, a judge told him that he would be deported.

Congress had just passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. One provision of the law turned petty crimes into grounds for deportation. Anzora's drug possession was now enough for him to be stripped of his green card and sent back to El Salvador.

Anzora, who was working at an animal hospital cleaning cages, put together enough money to have a lawyer represent him in his deportation proceedings. Every three months for the next four years, Anzora paid the lawyer four hundred dollars to file motions and postpone deadlines. One day, when he arrived for a hearing, a lawyer at the courthouse took him aside. "If you walk in there right now, they'll cuff you and put you on a plane," he said. He told Anzora to tear up his Social Security card. "From there, I went on the run," Anzora said.

For the next six years, he got rides to work and entered buildings through back doors. One day, he told me, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the animal hospital. He escaped by dodging the agents in the parking lot and hiding in a nearby building until they gave up the chase.

His arrest unleashed a new sense of urgency and ambition in him. Friends started calling him Fast Eddie. "Before, I was just a ghetto kid from around the way—just another kid from the hood, hanging out," he told me. Afterward, he said, "It was 'Do as much as you can, before you find yourself in El Salvador.' "

Anzora owned a house by then, having made the down payment with a credit card. He sold it, and, with the profit, he opened a small recording studio. Under someone else's name, he built a media-promotion business called Above Ground Entertainment. The rapper The Game used Anzora's studio, and 50 Cent once waited in the parking lot. ("That cabrón never did come inside," Anzora told me.)

The greater his success, the more he had to lose, and the thought of being deported haunted him constantly. He had a longtime girlfriend, and they wanted kids, but he was scared that he'd be separated from them. When the day finally came, in 2007, it was both an agony and a kind of relief. Unbeknownst to him, the brother of a business partner was involved with a Mexican gang that had killed a police officer. Anzora was caught in a dragnet that ice had set up for someone else.

When Anzora returned to El Salvador, he found that people still looked at him strangely when he talked. But this time he didn't feel appealingly exotic. "You speak English to somebody, and they say, 'Oh, you've been deported,' " he told me. Salvadorans now associated deportation with hard-core criminality. "The deportees are hugely stigmatized," Juan José Martínez, an anthropologist who studies the Salvadoran gangs, told me. "No one wants to hire gangsters—even though that's not what many of the deportees are."

Anzora had arrived in El Salvador wearing the clothes he had been arrested in: a pair of laceless Adidas sneakers, cargo shorts, and a tattered shirt. The next morning, before he left the apartment, his cousin made sure that he was dressed in a plain T-shirt and slim-fitting pants, so that he was not mistaken for an American gang member. "Someone coming from the States has that American hip-hop fashion," Anzora said. "Here they don't see it as hip-hop fashion. They see it as gang-member fashion."

The deportees in gangs wore baggy clothes and had tattoos on their arms, necks, and faces. These markers made them easy targets for the fiercely territorial Salvadoran gangs. Although some of the American and Salvadoran gangs shared the same names and allegiances, the Salvadorans were far more ruthless. "The gangsters strip deportees and torture them, looking for gang signs and tattoos," Martínez said. Any trace of Americanness—a barely perceptible gesture—was a potentially fatal liability. Anzora needed to be "low-pro," he told me, to call less attention to himself. He recalls looking in the mirror that first morning, staring at his spare new style, and thinking, This is my life? This is what I got to work with?

At the call center, each day brought a grim reminder of the situation. "Sykes used to put up a picture when somebody died. Everyone would feel bad," Anzora recalled. "But it started happening two times a week, three times a week, four times a week. And they stopped doing it. There were so many employees from Sykes getting killed that they didn't want to talk about it no more." (Sykes denies this.)

Every night, Anzora read newspapers and crime blogs, trying to figure out how the gangs operated. He asked around for tips and leads. How did they patrol their turf? What did they perceive as insults? How did they identify their enemies? When I visited Anzora last spring, we crossed streets at angles in order to skirt alleyways frequented by gangsters. He pointed out storefronts that seemed merely run-down but which, to him, showed signs of covert criminal enterprises.

One day, I drove to a dilapidated apartment building across the street from a strip mall to visit a forty-five-year-old call-center worker I'll call Tomás. He was deported from the U.S. in 2013, after being convicted of theft. Tomás was scared to leave his house to meet me. Unlike Anzora, he used to be a gangster, and has tattoos on his arms, chest, and neck that mark him as such. He waited until I was in front of the building before he came outside to fetch me. He is unimposing—about five feet six, with a youthful face and a light beard. I tried to scan him with "Salvadoran eyes," as Anzora likes to say. His jeans were loose, bunching up at the tops of his Nike sneakers, and he wore a polo shirt that seemed a size too large.

When we reached his apartment, on the fourth floor, he said, "This is my little piece of America." The place was cramped and undecorated; in a tiny living room, the original "Ghostbusters," dubbed in Spanish, played on a television. Tomás's family moved to Los Angeles in the late seventies, when he was six, to escape the escalating violence that preceded the civil war. He grew up in South Central, and joined Barrio 18. "You try living there!" he said, justifying his decision. "We were the first Hispanics. It was horrible." He renounced the gang when his children were born, and moved to Texas, where he opened an auto-repair shop. One day in 2013, it was raided by ice, because Tomás had a criminal conviction from 1998, when he and a friend had been arrested in Oklahoma for riding in a stolen car. The public defender representing him encouraged him to plead guilty and serve a short sentence. He agreed, without realizing that his green card would be revoked. "In your mind, you grow up thinking you're from there," he said, referring to the U.S. "Then the shocker comes that you're not." He still considers himself an American. "Give me five years in prison. Give me ten years," he said. "But don't kick me out of my house!"

After Tomás was deported, he tried to return to his three children in the United States by crossing from Mexico. "Not even an animal abandons its kids," he said. He was caught, served two years in a federal prison, and was sent back to San Salvador in 2015.

Tomás's daily routine is, by necessity, simple: he goes to the call center for his shift, then he returns home. Otherwise, he rarely leaves, except to go to church. Once, during his commute, a group of police officers pulled their guns on him, mistaking him for a gang member. "They were as scared as I was," he recalled. (One undercover police officer I spoke with told me that the gangs award points for killing cops.) Another time, while shopping for groceries, he was attacked by gangsters with guns, who tried to lift his shirt to inspect his tattoos. Tomás managed to break free. At the time, he assumed that his assailants belonged to MS-13, but he later learned that they were connected to Barrio 18; both groups terrified him. Deportees are no longer seen as the founders of the gangs but as threats to the new order. Tomás has begun to burn off his tattoos, and uses a knife, when necessary, to cut the surrounding skin and blur the symbols. What was once a teardrop below one eye now looks like a bruise or a birthmark, and scars mottle his hands.

By one measure, Tomás is lucky: he has work. Deportees who are older, speak unsteady English, or don't have computer skills can't get call-center jobs. I spoke to a group of them who had formed a small coalition called Renaceres, or the Reborn, through which they petitioned the government for protection against discrimination. Other employers won't hire them because of their age, and banks decline to extend credit. "We came and tried to insert ourselves into life here, but how do we do it in a country that is in a state of total crisis?" Juan Toledo, one of the group's leaders, said. After fleeing El Salvador during the war, he lived in Iowa for twenty-eight years and was then deported. Within months of the group's founding, a member who had started a small garage was gunned down for refusing to pay a local thug who was extorting him.

After Anzora had worked at call centers for three years, he had saved up enough money to start a family. He married a Salvadoran named Mayra, who had a young daughter from a previous marriage. The following year, the couple had a son. Anzora's long hours at the call centers were beginning to wear on him, and, by 2015, he wanted a change. He noticed that the demand for English speakers seemed to be outpacing the supply, and decided to start his own language school, English Cool, which will celebrate its second anniversary this spring. It is one of a handful that have cropped up to address the demands of call-center work. There's English4CallCenters, Got English?, Direct English, and English Coach. "English is coming back in style," Anzora told me. "People want to speak it, because it means you can get work." Deportees run and staff most of the schools, whose pitch is that of any other language school: study with a native speaker. "If you want to learn English, a deportee's a really good guy to learn from, because he actually dealt with people from Texas, from California," he said.

English Cool occupies part of a ramshackle town house, flanked by a cell-phone-repair shop and a garage. Anzora lives above the school with Mayra and their children, Angie and Christopher, who are fifteen and five. On the second floor are two classrooms, each outfitted with a whiteboard and a desktop computer linked to a TV. The bookshelves hold copies of "The Screenwriter's Bible," "Photoshop," and "Run Your Music Business," vestiges of Anzora's L.A. days.

Anzora's old moniker—Fast Eddie—still fits him. He records aspiring Salvadoran musicians, using his old equipment, which he arranged to have sent from California. A room at English Cool is appointed for the purpose. Strewn around the space are promotional materials for concerts he has organized. A few years ago, he started a clothing line, calling it ES 503, for El Salvador's telephone country code. Months later, gang members approached him at a bar and told him that the number was off limits: it had become a gang designation. (He abandoned the business.) Now he moonlights as a graphic designer and a wedding photographer.

At 10 a.m. one Monday, eight students arrived at English Cool for the intermediate-level class, and Anzora, who wore bluejeans and a black English Cool T-shirt, met them at the door of the classroom. Most of the students were between eighteen and twenty-five, and one man was in his late thirties. Some had low-paying or part-time jobs; others were still in school. The cost of Anzora's course—thirty-six dollars a month—is designed to undercut the competition. (The average for the other schools is sixty dollars.) Still, only about half of the forty students currently enrolled can pay regularly. The rest are on generous installment plans.

"How were your weekends?" Anzora called out. "Pair off and tell your partner what you did." He darted around the classroom, making jokes and goading the more tentative students. For a speaking exercise, he posed a question to the group: "When was the last time you were robbed? And what did they take?"

Then he led the class in a call-and-response reading of Yelp reviews. Anzora went first. "I tried the Oreo Rice Krispy Toffee cookie and peanut-butter gluten-free cookie," he said. He paused so that his students could repeat after him, as if they were reciting some madcap catechism. "I had my plus-one go back to get more on my behalf," they intoned. A student interrupted with a question—what was a Rice Krispy?

Anzora learned his teaching methods at English4CallCenters, where he worked part time while at a call center. The school, which was founded in 2014, by Rodrigo Galdámez, a twenty-seven-year-old Salvadoran, has ten locations all over the country, plus two in Guatemala, and a thousand students each term. Galdámez had never been to the United States, so he hired a deportee named David Robles, from Texas, and together they prepared a teaching plan. Galdámez and Robles realized that the biggest impediment to Salvadorans who wished to work in call centers was attitudinal, not linguistic. The key to preparing them for conversations with demanding American callers was teaching them to be assured and solicitous.

Direct English, a high-end competitor to English Cool, has a mock call center, with fifteen computers and headsets, so that students can practice taking phone calls. When its owner, a genial man named Marvin Carias, who used to live in Southern California, showed me around, he led me to two big classrooms on the first floor, called the Staples Center and the World Trade Center.

One morning, I toured Convergys, a call center that occupies a giant glass building, ringed by palm trees, downtown. Across the street, in the middle of a busy traffic roundabout, stood a sixty-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ. Arrayed around it, like spokes, were little shopping areas, and in one of them, opposite a McDonald's, was English4CallCenters.

Convergys, which is based in Cincinnati, has a hundred and fifty locations, including eleven in Latin America. In El Salvador, it employs three thousand people, more than at any of its other Latin-American operations. Before hiring someone, Convergys conducts an extensive criminal background check. Many of the deportees I spoke to were wary of the place, and sought work at more permissive alternatives, like Sykes.

In the lobby, a group of young and visibly nervous Salvadorans furiously paged through booklets of grammar practice tests. The décor was meant to resemble the interior of a spaceship, Convergys's preferred symbol of corporate uplift. Control panels and astronauts were painted on the walls, next to Convergys's slogan, which was stamped everywhere: #CoolestJobEver. Televisions hung from wall units on the calling-room floor; Adam Driver smiled rakishly on one, and the Pistons and the Cavaliers played basketball on another. Workers took calls from customers of Dell, Dish, and A.T. & T.

"American culture is more or less the same as ours," my guide, a senior operations manager named Lidia Carias, told me. This is also the position of the Salvadoran government, which is trying to lure investors away from traditional call-center locations such as India and the Philippines. A memo from the director of the state-run foreign-investment office stresses the fact that Salvadorans have "a neutral accent in English and Spanish."

We climbed a flight of stairs to an identical-looking floor, where workers were talking to callers in Spanish. I bumped into one of Anzora's students, who grinned but slunk off, intimidated by my escort. Salvadorans who speak shakier English often earn less than their counterparts, but they still have a place at the call centers. American Latinos who prefer to use Spanish are a rapidly growing customer base.

Eventually, we arrived at a small space on the top floor, at the back of a parking garage. Amplifiers and speakers were stacked on a makeshift bandstand, along with a drum set, microphones, and two electric guitars and a bass. Five twentysomethings in dark jeans and T-shirts were milling around—the Convergys band! Its members take calls for much of the day, but they also play at job fairs and events throughout the city. Carias and I, the lone audience members, sat on a couch while the band performed a rock-and-roll rendition of the Amy Winehouse hit "Back to Black."

In 2015, there were more than sixty-six hundred homicides in El Salvador, which now has a population of six million; it was the highest rate in Latin America, and higher than the annual average during the civil war. More than half the killings have been attributed to MS-13, Barrio 18, and their offshoots, which have balkanized the country's cities and provinces into gang-run enclaves. Last March, a group of gangsters who were chasing rivals just outside San Salvador came upon eight laborers putting up power lines. They tortured and killed them, just to show off. A former American gang member who now lives in San Salvador told me, "In the States, there's rules, but right here the rules are out. There are just excuses to do violence." The Salvadoran Congress recently passed a law that categorized the gangs as terrorist groups, which gave the police and the military license to fight back aggressively, compounding the bloodshed.

As a result, a fresh wave of migrants have headed for the U.S. Thousands of Salvadorans have sought asylum at American borders in recent years, including record numbers of unaccompanied children. When, at the start of 2016, the Department of Homeland Security launched a series of immigration raids, the government of El Salvador tweeted out legal advice for Salvadorans in the U.S., reminding them of the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. The move was billed as a show of solidarity, but it masked a sense of desperation.

Gang members have begun killing people who happen to live in neighborhoods controlled by rival groups, and so Anzora has stopped carrying his I.D. Last summer, two armed gangsters pulled him into an alleyway, demanding to see his I.D. and checking for tattoos. Without anything incriminating, he was able to persuade them to let him go. A lesser talker would have been killed for sport.

"Everyone here has to hustle to survive. Running around to make money, to escape the gangs," he told me. "But I always had this feeling that when people die around here it's almost like the country is telling them, 'All right. You're good. You can rest now.' " His view of this was almost mystical; he liked to remind me that, in Spanish, El Salvador means "the savior." He was materially worse off than he had been in the U.S., but life in El Salvador left him no choice but to move ceaselessly forward. Though Anzora seemed genuinely happy, I occasionally spotted fissures in his optimism. He'd be laughing and riffing, and then, without seeming to realize it, slip into the third person when he talked about his life in L.A., as though he were telling me the story of something that had happened to someone else.

One Saturday, Anzora's wife and kids were visiting her parents, who live in a gang-controlled neighborhood. Since Mayra grew up there, the gangsters allow her to move about freely. Anzora, though, was still seen as an interloper. "All it takes is for a jealous ex-boyfriend to say I was talking some shit," he said. "No one fights here—they grab a pistol. In the States, you get into a little fight, and you're cool. Over here, you gotta kill the guy."

He decided to do some shopping while he waited for his family to return, and we took a bus downtown to buy a gift for Christopher at a store that sold used toys and clothes. He paced around the shop, looking for a racetrack for Christopher's toy cars. He found a used one in a crushed box that had been sloppily taped up, for ten dollars. "It's a gamble—we'll only know when we get home and open it if all the pieces are in there," he said.

As we were leaving, another customer—middle-aged and bespectacled, with a considerable paunch—caught Anzora's attention. The man was holding a pair of Nike Cortez sneakers in his hand. "That's a gang shoe," Anzora told me. He walked over to the man and said, "I'm not so sure you want those." The man looked bewildered. I wondered if Anzora's accent scared him. Then Anzora turned to the saleswoman, who caught his drift and smirked, trying her best to stay neutral. He asked her how much they were. "Twenty dollars," she told him. "So that's what your life is worth to you?" Anzora said to the man. He clapped him on the back, and we left.

Later that night, Anzora and Mayra called Christopher into one of the classrooms to open his gift. Anzora looked nervous. "We'll see what's in there," he said, staring at the package. When Christopher tore the box open, the pieces spilled out in tidy plastic bags—the set was complete. Anzora beamed. "You see that, Papi," he said to Christopher. "Now you got everything you need."


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