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Residential Streets in San Salvador Closed

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador- “What makes this a middle class community is the guard,” my wife’s cousin spoke to me as we sat inside of his home in San Salvador. I had asked him about the gates that I have observed at the entrance way to most residential streets in his part of the city, [...]

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador- “What makes this a middle class community is the guard,” my wife’s cousin spoke to me as we sat inside of his home in San Salvador. I had asked him about the gates that I have observed at the entrance way to most residential streets in his part of the city, and I wondered if these gates were a sign of class, or if most of the residential areas of San Salvador had gates in front of them.

He answered that even poor communities will often put up gates across the access areas of their residential streets, the only difference is that they do not have official guards controlling who can enter. Rather, each person who lives inside will have a key to the gate — all others are kept out by community decree.

San Salvador is not a secure city by any means, the people there seek to protect themselves from theft or intrusion by not only securing their homes with cages and razor wire, but also safeguarding their entire community with gates put up at the entrance ways to major streets and every other access point into the community. It is my impression that these gates draw a clear distinction between who is allow inside and who should remain on the outside — they are the physical manifestations of where a community begins and where the common, public, commercial areas end. A person cannot just go for a stroll through the residential areas of this city — no, they need a reason for going into the communities where other people live.

Though many of the streets beyond the gates ARE public streets — they are maintained by municipal work crew, garbage collection, etc . . . — the only thing that private about these areas are the people who are allowed to be there: the residents who live inside the fences have claimed the streets around their homes for themselves, and have sought to keep them safe by controlling who may, or may not, enter.

These are not preplanned gated communities as are popular in India, the USA, or Europe, but they are just normal urban neighborhoods who decided to put up gates at the ends of their streets. The result is that the residential areas of San Salvador feel a lot safer than in many other Central American capitals. When out in the commercial areas of the city, you are of course a little on guard against being robbed. My cousin told me that a place right outside of his gate is a common place for robberies. He told be that right in front of a church there is a little courtyard where thieves like to hide and select their targets.

“People get robbed there all the time around 5 PM.”

I knew exactly where he was talking about, as the evening before I had actually stood in this little courtyard with Petra — perhaps right in the little hiding nook just inside the gate where the thieves are suppose to hide — and took a couple photos of the church. I did not feel as if I was doing anything particularly risky until I noticed a street vendor looking at me with the particular expression — eyebrows raised to their fullest height, eyes made real big — of someone trying to communicate a warning. I thought that he may have been telling me to get away. I got away, and thought little of the encounter until talking with my cousin. I was two blocks from the gate that lead into his community, and, apparently, in a place of relative danger.

Meanwhile, inside my cousin in law’s community — which is just a standard set of residential streets that someone slapped a gate and a guard in front of — people hang out until all hours of the night. People walk outside without fear, they drink beer in the streets with their friends, teenage boys hold hands with teenage girls on sidewalk curbs, old folks watch their dogs poop under the moon. There does not seem to be a sense of urgency, I could not detect a sense of fear — the community watches out for itself, the community is designated as such by the gate and the guard, and the simple fact that everybody seems to know who is suppose to be on the inside, and who is to remain outside.

I walked through the streets with my cousin in law, he introduced me to the gate guard, and his neighbors seemed to make the association that I was with him so I was therefore safe. I talked with an old lady in my cousin’s community while walking with Petra a few days after arrival. I mistakenly told her that I was staying with my wife’s prima (girl cousin). The lady corrected me, and I was informed that I was in fact staying with my wife’s primo (male cousin).

It is my impression that the gates at the entrance ways to residential areas in San Salvador are a somewhat recent development. I even watched a gate being built during my walks around the city, and my cousin says that the gate in front of his community is only a couple years old. He also stated that the reason for some of the gates in the middle class areas of San Salvador are more to prohibit outsiders from driving their cars in and taking up parking spaces than an attempt to build up palisades against intruders.

Though Latin American neighborhoods are often guarded with strict insider/ outsider regulations that are enforced with or without physical gates. “If I were to go walking in a poor community where I did not live that did not have a fence, the people there would come up to me and ask me what I was doing,” my cousin explained.

But a gate or a fence is a symbol that means something, it is a physical dividing line that says that you are entering another territory, it is a inarguable demarcations which tells you where you belong and where you don’t — it is a visible line that makes no questions about what side you stand on.

Chinatowns around the world often have large ornately carved and brightly painted gates at their main entrances. These are not restrictive gates — you can walk through them at will — but they are more mental gates: they tell you that you are entering into a new territory. These gates mean to some that they are home, and in a place that they can feel safe, while they are warnings to others that they are not where they are suppose to be, and should leave.

I once did a short study on the Chinatowns of India, and one line stuck with me:

“Chinatowns were built not to keep the Chinese people in, but to keep everybody else out.”

But gates always act in both directions.

Gates can both provide feelings of security concurrently with feelings of insecurity. The emotional response that a person feels in a place they feel is safe is often the same response that tells them that other places are dangerous. Safety is often a response to a feeling of danger. A gate may be a good way to keep intruders out, but they are also good ways to keep you in.

Gate in front of a residential street in San Salvador.

Residential street gated off to the general public in San Salvador.

Residential area in San Salvador with a gate to block off access.

Church in San Salvador.

Residential community in San Salvador with a gate at its entrance.

Behind the gate in a middle class neighborhood in San Salvador.


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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, Current Events, Danger, El Salvador

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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2 comments… add one

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  • Bob L April 16, 2010, 12:56 am

    WOW…. Uh WOW….. I was about to comment on how crazy, paranoid, dangerous etc these places are, then you continued your presentation. There are so many subtle things here about demarcation lines, about neighborhoods, about safety and paranoia that I don’t really know where to begin. Good and bad are mixed in here in a fairly short article. I love the part about China town and their demarcation lines.

    I am just glad I live in an area where everyone is friendly, and every one has a gun and a friend with a backhoe.

    I will relate 2 instances that come to mind, mainly because of the caffeine and alcohol that I have ingested today.

    One was a ways back when: This was when I was younger, there was a family that was thinking about moving into my rural neighborhood. The Father (adult male, whatever) was driving through the neighborhood to check it out. He stopped to ask me a question (grill me), as I was walking down the road. He was rather curt, but I asked more questions of him than he asked of me. (I was about 19 at the time). Frankly, I think my inquisition of him is why he decided to buy and stay for so long there. (over 25 years as of now)

    The other was recently. I live in a rural area of New Hampshire, it is rare to have cell phone access here. There was a car that appeared to be broken down, or something. The rule in very rural areas is…. You never pass a stranded motorist without checking. You don’t have to expose yourself, you can call the cops or whatever after asking if everything is fine, but you always ask. I stopped, with my bike (my earplugs were in, so my conversation was short, clipped and not necessarily friendly sounding) but I asked if everything was OK. The man was thankful and friendly looking and said all was fine. I immediately liked him after a ten second muffled conversation. The teenage son? ( they are the same everywhere ) had a look of hate and discontent. I got the feeling he did not speak english, but had the feeling that things were going on in his head as they do in every teenager’s head. The feeling of persecution. They were a black family, which may have added to the teenage angst considering where we were, the father spoke and had an accent that I would have to guess was African, sounded south African to my limited experience, but could have been from the Middle East or even Britain as far as my knowledge goes.

    The point in mentioning this being that, those that feel persecuted or targeted (teenagers, rich, poor, or whatever) will always find things to hate or to fear and will always assume the worst. Those fears often transform into fearful ways. If you create a community that is closed like that, those that want to take from others will see a concentrated target. A place to vent their frustrations. And they will always find a way in. Those that are afraid will cower and assume the worst will happen.

    I think, sometimes, that this kind of community security ends up isolating people from each other. Although, in some ways it creates a group, which will bring some people together (in small groups). This whole topic could be a thesis for a Psych grad student. There is good and bad, and bad things about good reactions, and good things about bad reactions etc. I visited a cousin in Florida in one of those expensive gated communities. Couldn’t stand it. Paying for a life without risk just seemed wrong. Of course, if I was trying to live a higher class existence in San Salvador, I would probably live in one of these communities. Not sure why I would want to, but I suppose my job could send me there against my wishes and I would be forced to live like that. Or quit, which is always an option.

    Security is a funny thing. As a quote attributed to Helen Keller says:

    *Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.
    –Helen Keller

    We all try to make our lives more comfortable & save, whatever that means. Sometimes by trying to make our lives safer and more comfortable, we destroy something of the life that we love.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 16, 2010, 10:17 am

      The most interesting part of the gates in front of San Salvador residential streets is that they are in both the poor and middle class areas — it is my impression that the truly rich live in virtual compounds — because the thieves tend to be somewhat indiscriminate about who they rob. Poor as well as rich are robbed there, and the poor seem to be nearly as much on guard as those who seemingly have a lot more to lose.

      You are right about fear just creating more fear and intensifying the problems, but, as you well know, it seems as if there is a reason for the culture of preparation in San Salvador. Imagine if the police in the USA were nearly completely insolvent in terms of defending the public and the criminals pretty much allowed to do what they please to anyone. The country would probably look a lot different.

      But as you said, everyone you know has a gun and a friend with a backhoe.

      This is also becoming the case in San Salvador, as defacto community militias are rising to fill the void that the police leave vacant.

      It is an interesting circumstance, and it is probably for the best that communities gate themselves off — regardless of the psychological impact that gates have. At least it may provide a physical sense of solidarity and makes the communities a little tighter. A gate also gives the impression that the people there ARE doing something to defend themselves, and I think that this helps curb fear a little. Behind the gates, there seems to be little reason to fear anything.

      But life IS a daring adventure, and people should not curb their vital experience by trying to make themselves feel too safe. I too have spent some time amongst the gated communities of Florida. I was always the on the outside, the one meant to be kept out — it sort of sucked — and it made me hate those people on the inside.

      At least in San Salvador the gates alone are not generally class demarcations.

      Thanks for this good comment and for getting the wheels of this discussion going.

      Walk Slow,


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