When Melvi Alvarado first immigrated to Canada from El Salvador in 2010, he struggled. Speaking a language and practicing a culture different from the people he was suddenly surrounded by made it difficult for Alvarado to feel at home. But this inspired him to create the community he longed to be a part of, leading to the formation of the Calgary Salvadorian Folklore Association.
The association celebrated El Salvador’s 198th Independence Day on Sunday, Sept. 15 in an effort to bring Salvadorians together and show Calgary a culture full of colour, music and dance.
Alvarado first started the association as a cultural dance group of the same name. Last May, they broadened their reach by hosting a variety of events including displays, speeches and cultural celebrations like the El Salvador Independence Day celebration that occurred at City Hall.
“Hosting this activity shows Salvadorians that we are actually doing something to identify ourselves here in Calgary, and [letting people know] they can be a part of it as well,” said Alvarado.
El Salvador Independence Day: Then and now
The event pays tribute to the elimination of the Kingdom of Guatemala, a division of the Spanish Empire, which included the present-day nations of El Salvador and others, in favour of independence under the Federal Republic of Central America. El Salvador played a leading role in the transition and was the site of the first cry of independence in 1811. As a result, the occasion has great significance in Salvadorian culture.
“It’s a celebration where the government gets involved,” Alvarado said. “They host a huge parade like Calgary’s stampede parade. Every little town, every single city in the country has a little parade as well.”
Here in Calgary, the event featured a flag raising ceremony, poster displays of elements of Salvadorian culture and performances by traditional folk dancers. Many attendees appeared in traditional clothing and proudly wore the blue and white colours of the Salvadorian flag.
Elizabeth Pichinte, a member of the folklore association, said these elements help make the event fun, but also show the strength of El Salvador through all it has faced in its history.
“Even though we were colonized and under Spaniard dominion for so many years, we kept our identity — you can see that our history has been kept alive when you listen to the music and see the dresses and costumes,” she said.
Pichinte added that events like this one are important to Calgary because they help build a sense of community.
“[The Calgary Salvadorian Folklore Association] has members from Mexico, Peru, Trinidad, Tobago — anyone is welcome to join us. It’s just about feeling pride over our heritage and sharing that with one another.”
Finding a home away from home
Cultural pride stood at the centre of the event.
“I feel so excited,” said attendee Flora Melendez. “I don’t know many people from El Salvador [here in Calgary], but these kinds of events bring everyone together and make me feel at home.”
According to a 2016 census, 2,335 Salvadorians reside in Calgary making up nearly 0.2 per cent of the city’s population. This includes attendee Ruby Salguero, who felt a similar sense of belonging at the event.
“I love my country, and seeing other Salvadorians is awesome…It’s wonderful to be part of our own country even though we’re somewhere else,” she said. “I have my family here, but not my friends — it’s time for me to make new friends.”
This is precisely the effect that event performer Sandra Rivera hoped to have through her Salvadorian folk dance performances.
“When [Salvadorian people immigrate to Canada], they can get really sad or depressed because of the sudden changes that occur. But when we get together in this event, I hope they will realize they are not alone, that there are others from El Salvador here too and we can support each other,” said Rivera.
This connection is something Rivera found through her membership in the association, which has helped her after emigrating from El Salvador.
“It was really hard in the beginning — everything was so different, starting from the weather because [my family] arrived in November,” said Rivera. “We didn’t speak English at all — I couldn’t even go buy a cup of coffee because I didn’t know how to ask for it…I couldn’t express myself or defend myself.”
One thing Rivera could do was dance — she’d been performing cultural dances with her classmates at the El Salvador community parades since age seven. This skill facilitated her connection with Alvarado and led her to join the group.
“[The Folklore Association] has helped me feel reconnected to my roots. When we are doing these events related to El Salvador, we create a little El Salvador here with all the music, the food and the people,” she said. “It makes me feel so proud.”