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July 27, 2004 :: No. 17

Assistant Professor Studies Meaning of August’s ‘La Bajada’
Among Salvadorans in Los Angeles

Southern California and, particularly, Los Angeles are home to an ever-growing population of Salvadoran immigrants. While most are happy to be in America, there is still a longing for their country and the loved ones they left behind.

“For Salvadorans — many who are here because of political turmoil and unrest in their native country, -celebrating traditions from El Salvador means a great deal,” said Jeanette Reedy Solano, assistant professor of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

“Today, almost one-fifth of Salvadorans live outside El Salvador — most in America — and of those, 58 percent live in Los Angeles County.”

Solano studies how religion is incorporated into the cultural lives of Latin Americans. Her interest began when she was introduced to the concepts of liberation theology while pursuing her doctoral studies at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. For the past three years, she has been working on a film, “Transnational Savior,” that traces the development of the La Bajada festival in Los Angeles, the creation of Salvadoran American National Association (S.A.N.A.) and the ritual itself.

The film will screen at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 11, at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, 840 Echo Park in Los Angeles.

“For people from countries where there is a great deal of political unrest, religion and politics often go hand-in-hand,” she explained, “and particularly in countries such as El Salvador — where martyrs are frequently religious figures, such as Oscar Romero or the Maryknoll nuns who were killed by members of the militia — people have great reverence for religious traditions. This is based not only on great faith but because the people believe that Jesus and the saints understand their suffering.”

Not only do Salvadorans revere their patron saint, El Divino Salvador, many who arrived in this country many years ago are concerned that their children do not understand or appreciate their heritage and traditions.

For that reason, when S.A.N.A. commissioned an exact model of El Divino Salvador to be brought to Los Angeles, there was cause for great celebration among the local Salvadoran community. (The original is housed in the national cathedral in San Salvador.)

“Each year on Aug. 6, in El Salvador, they celebrate ‘La Bajada,’” said Solano. “It’s almost on the same level as Christmas. The holiday features the statue of El Divino Salvador, dressed in purple robes, being lowered into a globe. On the globe itself, no borders are indicated — only continents.

After a few minutes El Salvador re-emerges — this time dressed in white to represent the transfiguration. As the statue emerges, the crowd cries out, ‘Viva El Salvador!’ which has two meanings — praise for both the savior and for their country of origin.”

Solano became interested in the La Bajada ceremony as an offshoot of her research on Latino popular religion, including devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Mexico) and other Latino religious traditions.

“To see the La Bajada ceremony attract more attention each year is quite gratifying,” she said. “I see how traditions change as they move across the border and how they affect the lives of those immigrants who live here. The aura of meaning for most Salvadorans is one of struggle, migration and rootlessness.”

After the statue of El Divino Salvador was made, it became a pilgrim too — traversing the same path that thousands of Salvadoran immigrants took in search of peace and a better life. As it traveled through El Salvador in the back of a red pickup truck, residents gathered to touch the image, hopeful that their loved ones in America would be able to do the same.

“The statue became a symbol of love and hope between family members and loved ones, despite the fact that they are separated by thousands of miles,” Solano said. “When the statue arrived at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights — a thoroughly Mexican area — it was greeted by mariachis and a crowd of 2,000. Each year, the daylong religious/cultural celebration grows. For instance, over 20,000 people attended last summer’s La Bajada ceremony, the fifth annual celebration in Los Angeles.

“The symbol of El Divino Salvador is especially powerful for displaced Salvadorans, migrants and those whose families are split between two countries,” Solano said. “To have the opportunity to study and celebrate with these brave people is truly a privilege.”

Additional information about the premiere of “Transnational Savior” is available at (213) 385-7262. The cost for the evening is $25 and includes viewing of the documentary, a reception with the brothers of Monsignor Oscar Romero and native Salvadoran food.

Media Contacts: Jeanette Solano at 657-278-7554 or
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, at 657-278-4540 or