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Jose Saca: From Salvador, Robbed by Coyotes, Amnestied by Reagan

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks: "How did you -- or your family before you -- wind up living in Los Angeles.

Today we hear from Jose Saca, owner of Downtown Framing Outlet.

"Telling L.A." premieres December 5, 2017.


"I jumped the border from Tijuana on December 24, 1981 -- Christmas Day for us.

"The reason why I left my country, El Salvador, is because we had a civil war. Life was very dangerous. You didn't know if you were going to live the next day.

"I'm originally from the city of Chalatenango, in the north of El Salvador. Chalatenango is a small town near the mountains. Crime there was very low. You knew everybody. It was more like country life than city life.

"Life back home was nice. I had a good job. My wife, Regina, and I had a young son, Moises. Then, during the civil war, things got really bad.

"Chalatenango was hard hit; my mother moved me and my two brothers and herself to the capital city. My mother is a teacher and my father died when he was very young, at 26-years-old, so pretty much my mother raised me and my two brothers.

"I made the decision to leave Salvador without even thinking. I just knew that this was not a good environment for my kid. War is very hard.

"Our trip to the United States was a bad experience. We took the bus to Guatemala, where we got assaulted by our coyote. He took almost everything from us. As we moved through Guatemala, we had nothing to eat except for oranges.

"From Guatemala we crossed into Tapachula, Mexico. We had to pay fees to the Federales -- there was a lot of corruption, you pay morditas everywhere. We had barely started our trip and we had twenty bucks remaining to feed me, my wife and my son.

"From Tapachula, we took a bus to the Mexican capital. From the capital we took another bus -- this one, to Guadalajara. In Guadalajara, the guy who was taking us, the coyote, he asked us for everything we owned. So everybody gave him everything, even their clothes. We kept only what we were wearing.

"We made it to Tijuana. We stayed for a couple of nights waiting to jump the border to the other side. It was scary. At that moment, what passed through my mind was: 'What am I doing over here? I should be in El Salvador. I really want to go back!' But it was too late; I was much closer to the United States than to El Salvador.

"After we crossed, it was kind of like a kidnapping. The guy who brought us took us to a house, I don't know where. They put the group -- we were like seven or eight people at this point -- and they locked us in the garage. We didn't see nothing.

"We each gave them a phone number to call a family member. At that time, my mother-in-law was already here -- she's the reason why we decided to come. She had to come find us and pay for us.


"The first place I lived in Los Angeles was over on Seventh and Vermont. I was surprised to find such a big Salvadoran community -- but 1981 and 1982 were the years when a lot of Salvadorans moved to this country. War displaced many people.

"I was also surprised to find out that about half of the people in Los Angeles spoke Spanish. I really had no idea. I didn't speak any English when I arrived and it was hard to find work. But I had a family to feed.

"My first job in Los Angeles was doing cleaning. During that time, I kind of felt sad because I missed my country a lot. It took me about two or three years to recognize that I'm here in a different country and I should act more like an American.

"I found another cleaning job, this time at a framing factory. Then I started to do some framing. Years passed and I was going a little higher. I went to college to study English. I got a different job, in a picture store in Boyle Heights, framing pictures.

"My kids grew up; my baby, my daughter Emily, was born in 1982, a year after I came to this country. I was very happy and I said, 'Now I have an American girl, too.' I had always been thinking that one day I'd return to my country, but I didn't know when.

"I received my residence during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan -- he gave an amnesty for everybody. I think that was 1986. And a few years after that, I got my citizenship.

"I really started to establish myself. Finally, in about 2004, after twenty-something years working for that same framing company in Boyle Heights, the company went out of business.

"I didn't know what to do. The only thing I know how to do is frame pictures, so I opened my own picture frame store, Downtown Frame Outlet.**

"I'm so grateful to God because he helped me a lot. After thirty-two years in this country, I have my own business. My kids went to college. I have a beautiful granddaughter, Trinity Penelope Saca. I feed my family. And I feed another three families, through the people who work for me.

"I'm a very happy man now. I have my own house, too. That's the American Dream. My wife and I live in Palmdale with our dogs; it takes me an hour or an hour-and-a-half to drive each way, but it's a nice environment there and the houses are affordable.

"One of my brothers still lives in Salvador. My mom still lives there, too, in the capital city. After I became a U.S. citizen, I brought my mom here -- but she didn't like it. She went back over there. I tried a second time -- nope. Her roots are there.

"El Salvador is a very nice country. But suddenly, lately, we have a different war over there, with the gangs. This is a really bad situation because the crime is so high right now. That kind of stops me from going back. I don't want to go to a country where the rates of death is fifteen, sixteen people every day because of the crime.

"I know the violence won't be permanent. Things change. Here in Los Angeles, I've seen many changes since that Christmas Day, 1981. I'm very grateful for everything. I'm a happy person. Life in Los Angeles has been hard, it's not that easy. But if you want to make it here, you can."

-- Jose Saca
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Top photo: Jose Saca, with his daughter and wife. Photo courtesy Jose Saca

**Jeremy Rosenberg is a longtime customer.

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

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