Every time I go back to El Salvador, there is further evidence of efforts at catching up to Western countries. This is certainly true for the ARENA years, when economic development and prosperity guided foreign and internal policies in the post-war reconstruction era. This is also the case during the FMLN years, as the billboards remind us, “the FMLN has given you modern roads.” Simply put, modernization is at the core of the discourses and practices of Salvadorans.

One of the first things I noticed in my last visit is the contrast between life and the images through which modernity is sold (literally). San Salvador is filled with billboards advertising luxurious beauty products, the latest technological gadgets, and the latest clothing trends. As you will see in the picture in this post, below the billboards stands the reality of a great deal of Salvadorans. Makeshift houses that reflect a major part of the country’s landscape.

Indeed, the billboards represent how Salvadorans see progress. However, more than the aspirations it produces among Salvadorans, the images tend to hide another facet of the way in which Salvadorans see progress. It is not simply about desiring the life that the billboards showcase, it is about the economy that they support and to which they are subservient.  The images reflect their livelihoods because of the jobs that they desire in the service industry, often despite poor working conditions and poor salaries. Yet, the contrast between those who benefit from these companies and those who have to accept poor working conditions is indeed very stark.

At the same time, there are many consumers who pour into malls to buy what these billboards advertise: tourists and a growing economic elite (often migrants and foreign investors). A growing urban middle class is also present at the luxurious malls, but this is not the case for most of the people in the country. The reason most Salvadorans go to these places is to have a shot at making a living and perhaps save enough money to buy a car to drive around to admire these billboards.


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