Second Generation Central Americans in Toronto Face Historic Trauma of Civil War and Migration

After seven years of community-based research with people who immigrated as children and adolescents (referred to as Generation 1.5 immigrants) and second-generation Central Americans in Canada, I see the impact of violence against people whose families have lived through civil war and migration. It is a historical trauma.

Historical trauma can be defined as cumulative emotional and psychological pain across generations resulting from immense collective trauma. This persists through institutionalized practices and unfair economic circumstances. Second-generation Central American experiences can be informed by an analysis of historical trauma.

In the 1980s, civil wars between military governments and left-wing guerrilla movements raged in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Millions of Central Americans have fled to the Global North as refugees.

Since the 1990s, studies have documented the lasting psychological impacts of civil war and migration on the people of Central America in North America. These wounds of civil war are passed on through the relationships, lessons and conversations shared between survivors and their offspring.

Experiences as a second generation Central American

I am the son of Salvadoran immigrants in Toronto. My parents emigrated as refugees first to Atlanta, Georgia, with Jubilee’s partners, and then to Toronto in 1991.

I was in high school when the Toronto District School Board released the “Grade 9 Cohort Study: A Five-Year Analysis, 2000-2005” in 2008, which reported that the dropout rate of Spanish-speaking students was 40%. Following the publication of the report, I participated in a study documenting the experiences of young Central American men with schooling and belonging in Toronto. These experiences made me want to do my own research.

Since then, I have participated in several research projects with the Central American community of Toronto. The first in 2014 was an oral history project on experiences of violence among young people (forthcoming). And in 2020, I was the lead facilitator of a project called “Painting Our Realities: Art-Based Reflections with Central American Youth in Canada,” which documented the perspectives of Central American youth through photography and writing.

A poster reads ‘Respeta mi existencia’ which means ‘Respect my existence’ from the Picturing Our Realities project.
(Juan Carlos Jiménez), Author provided

Stories of Second Generation Central Americans

These projects have given me the opportunity to meet many Central Americans in Toronto and hear their stories. Manuel (a pseudonym), emigrated to Canada with his family. His father had been a guerrilla warrior during the Civil War in the 1980s. Manuel spoke of his strained relationship with his father and of watching Saturday morning football together, interspersed with anecdotes from the war.

Xavier (also a pseudonym), shared a story from his freshman year in high school. He was bullied by a final year student, who once physically assaulted him. The school administration kicked out Xavier, a dark-skinned Salvadoran, instead of the eldest who was Caucasian. After being kicked out, Xavier joined a gang, which he eventually left.

Natalie (a pseudonym) recounted stories about her father’s severe PTSD after serving in the Salvadoran military in the 1980s. She shared this story with stories of struggles from her childhood in an immigrant family from the working class in Toronto.

Every second generation Central American I spoke to shared trauma from the civil war. They also all spoke about the pain and discrimination that comes with being a new immigrant to Canada.

The legacy of colonialism

Many of the traumas mentioned by second generation Central Americans are rooted in the legacy of colonialism. After Spanish colonization, Central America was subject to a military regime that favored elites and foreigners over the local population. Civil wars were in part a product of the Cold War, with the United States spending more than US $ 400 million in military aid to the region in the 1980s to fight leftist guerrillas.

These experiences left many immigrants to Central America dealing with historical trauma. We also bear the brunt of our own experiences of discrimination and marginalization. Stories of racial profiling by police, store owners, and teachers were stories shared in both oral history and photography projects.

People are standing with red flags holding photos of loved ones.
Guatemalan activists take part in a march in memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who died in decades of civil war as the country celebrates Army Day on June 30, 2021.
(AP Photo / Moises Castillo)

Healing from historical trauma

Despite this, I have seen many ways that young people, 1.5 and second generation, choose to heal and respond to this ongoing trauma with care.

In “Picturing Our Realities” it was uplifting to see how young people learned trauma, resistance and resilience and would share what they had learned with previous generations. Many participants engaged in volunteer work with community organizations, and some involved their families in intergenerational knowledge practices, such as making vegan pupusas or planting red beans in their garden to make Salvadoran red bean soup. Many participants also embarked on careers where they felt they could give back to their community, including law, social work and psychology.

While colonial legacies and historical trauma remain in the minds of 1.5 and second generation migrants, they also shed light on how younger generations understand social justice and what is needed for reconciliation and healing.

Reconciliation requires recognition of the harm for the trauma to begin to heal. Historical trauma is one way of naming colonial violence that was at the root of many painful experiences of belonging to 1.5 and second generation Central Americans in Canada.

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